Roasted Chestnuts

Who doesn’t remember on icy cold days in the city stopping for a small paper sack of chestnuts roasted by a vendor on a charcoal brazier? The roasted chestnuts would be just a little too hot to handle and perfumed with the smoky fire.

At home we prepare roasted chestnuts in the oven. We did have one of those steel chestnut pans with holes in the bottom. It went unused; somehow making a glowing charcoal fire just for a handful of chestnuts always seemed like too much of a to-do.

Howsoever you will be wanting to roast your chestnuts, here are a few tips.

After some research and personal experience, we recommend boiling the chestnuts for 15 to 20 minutes first. Then to roasting; in the oven, over coals in the fireplace, or the trusty Weber or other grill.

You have to score the chestnuts first, but that is a topic by itself. Later.
Fresh chestnuts have a high water content. The operative here is “fresh”. If you have it on faithor from the tree out in the yardthat the chestnuts are fresh then they can go right to the embers. But store bought you don’t really know how long they have been off the tree, so we recommend the preliminary boiling. We have been told that the vendors on the city streets boil their chestnuts first, then finish over the fire. Sounds right.
In the fireplace you will need a box like contraption like the one below or a chestnut pan as pictured. The pans come with short and long handles. Protective gloves with direct heat, please. In the oven, a baking sheet or any suitable pan will do the trick.
Now for the scoring of that infernal nut. First rule, be very careful.

The deal is that the chestnut as it heats releases steam, and you must score the shell to prevent them from exploding.

We have always been full of fear and trepidation around scoring chestnuts.  Some suggest scoring an X on the round side, some say one long score line across the top width. You choose. The problematic thing is making the score(s) without also scoring a point with the knife on a finger. Any knife, small or large is just too precarious on that smooth hard slippery shell.

The additional problematic in scoring the shell is that you don’t want to score the flesh of the chestnut. This will probably happen to some extent, but the goal is to only score the shell and leave the flesh intact.

Our next attempt at scoring chestnuts will be with a box cutter set to the minimal blade exposure. We are tempted to buy a special chestnut knife, but it is a one use kind of tool and we eschew too many speciality tools in our kitchen. And, how many times a year do we really prepare roasted chestnuts to justify a single purpose knife? But, if the box cutter doesn’t do it, we will get the knife. We justify the purchase on grounds that it is that much easier and safer than any conventional knife; chestnuts once or twice a year, notwithstanding.

For those acolytes of one Martha Stewart there is the de rigueur chestnut cross cut tool. But, come on!
If you are preparing chestnuts as ingredients in other recipes (e.g., stuffing, or chestnuts and Brussels sprouts) cut the dern things right in half and boil. A good pair of pinchy pliers will take the shells and skins right off, likity split.

And, speaking of chestnuts for other recipes, we recommend one of our top tier desserts, Coupe aux marrons. Ah, after a delicious lunch of Tête de veau à la vinaigrette brought to table folded under a pure white napkin at Café Des Sport in New York City . . . always on the dessert menu, Coupe aux marrons. Vanilla ice cream topped with candied chestnuts in syrup. This kitty would lick up every bit. Meow!


Rudolf's Nose

Here is a little Holiday shooter that is guaranteed to get 'em off the sofa and around the piano for some spirited caroling.

Caution: one per customer. One at a time, anyway.


Coat the rim of a shot glass or a pony glass with cane sugar crystals.

Cut half way into an maraschino cherry, then coat cherry with sugar.

Combine and chill Eggnog and your choice of "flavoring"* 50/50 

Pour in the chilled Eggnog shooter mixture.

Arrange sugared cherry on edge of glass.

Grate nutmeg on top, and serve.

* Optionals:

* Float the "flavoring" over the Eggnog, but still keep the 50/50 proportion. (It is a shooter after all.)

* Try a fresh cranberry instead of the maraschino cherry.

* Peppermint Schnapps will really seal the deal.

* Bourbon ... if you go for a brown nose.

* Make it a slightly larger drink: In a 4 oz. pony glass pour 2 oz. Eggnog (2 jiggers) and 1/2 oz. "flavoring" (1 jigger).


Drink your Rudolf's Nose "nose first".
Culinary Togetherness

Some things go together like nature just intended it to be that way. Or that classic apple pie and vanilla ice cream, or with a nice slice of sharp cheddar (by “nice” we mean you’re gonna have to spend a few bucks). “Apple pie without a slice of cheese is like a kiss, without a squeeze.” Andand, at the risk of blowing all credibilityVelveeta. Don't knock it. (Also, definitive for the cheese hamberger and the Philly Cheese Sub.)

[Even as this is being written, mama is baking some apple dumplings. Local orchard apples individually wrapped (“cloaked” is her effete term) with a crust made with her own rendered lard. Mama cat is a “scratch” cook. (But don't cross her, she can also scratch.)]

Rice and lentils, Middle Eastern style ("Mujadara") 

This is one of those combinations that on the fork seem to be in the divine order of things. Click this for a recipe for Mujadara, a pilaf of rice and lentils and caramelized onions that is on our short dessert island list.

More go-togethers . . .

Grated beets and horseradish (with ham or hard boiled eggs) 

Asparagus and hollandaise 

Gin and tonic (generous lime wedge, of course) 

Buffalo/bison grass and vodka

(FYI: The Zubrowka brand bison grass vodka can only be produced in Poland at the Bialystok distillery. On our way back from Europe recently we brought back a bottle of Grasovka bison grass vodka. Our bottle is distinctive in that it has a furry “bison hair” wrapper. How cool it that! You've heard the expression, "The Hair of the Dog"? This dog got some hair!)

Vodka and caviar

For the hoi poloi, make that a dill pickle. Take a short break and click this to enjoy some vodka shooters.


Tomatoes and basil 

Strawberries and whipped cream; clotted cream (if you are from Old Jollie)

Bagels and lox

We have an ongoing debate with a certain Sweet Paprika website over what is exactly a good bagel. The considerable culinary (and other) charms of that lady writer notwithstanding, we insist on dense, chewy high crust to crumb ratio bagels. Water boiled first, is there any other kind?

Beer and tomato juice 

Bacon and just about anything

Yes, we know by now that is a cliché.

Pepperoni and pizza

Potato chips and onion dip

Slim Jims and beer

Cretons (gorton) and cornichons

Lobster and butter

Escargot and butter (and lots of parsley, garlic and ground pepper)

Fresh pears with Roquefort and Brie (but, make that a good brie)

Cucumbers and sour cream

You will no doubt have your own personal preferences; we merely list the absolutely 100% everybody-agrees pairings.

Yet, the list is not exhaustive; and, if you would, please leave a recommendation in the comments section.


Where Do You Find the Perfect Omelette?

(Madame Romaine is Spinning in Her Grave)

We are just about to give it up for getting a decent Omelette at a diner. Really! Just who do you have to "you know what to" to get a proper Omelette around town. Make that, any town.

Let's jump the shark on this. If you want a good Omelette ... make it at home. There are doubtless many restaurants which do a great job. But, you'll have to search. Best suggestion: Go to a pricey joint. But, why would you go to a swell spot for an Omelette? Unless, of course, it's Madame Romaine de Lyon. But, you can't, since it's shuttered after 65 years in La Grande Pomme (the Big Apple).

In fact, we assert that a decent Omelette, or even a "good" one, is not nearly enough. Our tastes and expectations have been lowered too far and too long. It is time to expect our Omelette to be nothing short of perfect. Every time.

Despite years of plotting and scheming for new ways to tell all those wait staffers how we like our Omelette — “lightly done”, “under done”, “soft”, “moist”, or the rather crude “wet” — it always comes out overdone, folded like a thin dry Crepe. (Maybe some Wall Street wise guy could come up with some derivative instrument for Omelette futures. If your broker calls, here’s a tip: sell short.)

By “diner” we’re talking about the kind of place that is open almost around the clock, originally set up in that iconic old train passenger car; or looking like that, or like that but on steroids with enough chrome on the outside to be visible from outer space. Of course there are store front operations. Think, two, three, four, even five “Guys” or “Brothers”. Always Greek owned. Father Wronski used to always remark that the Greeks were the best cooks. Omelets, sorry pop.

If it is a “diner”, by default expect a lousy Omelette. No matter how we parse it, the thing always comes out of the diner kitchen looking like a folded napkin. And just about as dry.

We are not content to let the matter rest. The solution for next time will be to order our Omelette “like you would be making soft scrambled eggs.” Maybe that will get it right. And, also, maybe it will inadvertently cause some diner cook to reconsider the Omelette. If we all went out and ordered our diner Omelette that way, maybe there would be a sea change and then all you would have to do from then on is just say as in times of yore, “I'll have an Omelette”. Maybe this is the beginning of our own Occupy the Omelette movement? ARE YOU WITH ME?

THIS JUST IN: We tried a new, so-called up market type restaurant in town for breakfast recently instead of the default in-town diner. Noticing the Omelette ($7.95) on the menu I asked the critical (so I thought) question: are the Omelettes done in a pan or on a flat top grill. I was assured they were done in a pan. Sounds good. 

The problem with most omelets, especially in diners, is that they are prepared on a flat top and spread out all thin. A pan is de regueur. What could go wrong? Additionally, I spotted the "Chorizo Scramble" ($8.95) and asked for that, but cooked as an omelet. Now, an omelet is mainly a fast scramble let to settle a bit (Classic French) or longer (Country French Style) to form a bit of a seal, then folded over a few times with or without a filling. First, the waitress informed me it would be extra for the Chorizo Scramble to be done in an omelet. She pulled out $2.00, from you know where. Really! But I saw her raise, and called. Let's do it. $10.95 for an omelet, you would expect something special. 

Out came a thin crepe-like egg thingy folded over 3-4 times with micro bits of chorizo sausage which were done to a hard dry dense chewiness. It did look like a flat top treatment. [It's probably because of heath safety concerns that most places overcook their eggs.] We called the waitress to protest. But, as she unsmilingly hovered near me, I unwrapped the joint and lo and behold, yes it was done in a pan. But, flat top style. A full ten inch circle of tough-done egg you could unfold and hold up to the light; which I did. Well done, and you could have played Frisby. Never mind that I asked for the thing to be not too well done. The straight faced waitress stressed it was a classic French omelet. Yah, and I'm the Queen of Romania! As my dining partner observed, that was the kind of place you have to adapt to, not the other way around. Even in a search, images of their omelets look exactly like the one I was proffered.  Was assured when I left without taking another bite that everybody liked their food. We kindly assured her that we were content to let everyone continue that way. You can't fight ignorance. To screw with her, we left a 20% tip.

In case you get the idea that we don’t know from Omelets, for some of a certain age and a certain place, let us recall the eponymous Madame Romaine de Lyon restaurant in Manhattan. The menu was something like 6 or more pages offering reportedly 500 omelet variations. The top of the line, with caviar. Also, to mention the nonpareil salad served there in simple thin French clear glass bowls. And, those lovely French waitresses . . . Woof! We could not help but to flirt with them every time.

Alas, Madame Romaine de Lyon has left this world. Adieu, ma chérie. Here's a nice blog article with more coverage.

The other definitive place for a Classic Omelette in our opinion was the Brasserie (since 1959) on 53rd Street and Park Avenue in New York City in the Seagram Building. Our buddy David Wronski when he was arriviste to NYC used to order the Gruyere Omelette, or the Fines Herbes version many a time for his solo bachelor dinners.

The Brasserie was such a great spot. When you arrived and entered you had an unobstructed view of the large high ceiling room. Then, to descend a short flight of wide comfortable stairs. See and be seen. An experience in itself. Back in the day it used to open 24 hours with all sorts of folks from around town and around the world. Très Chic. The food had always been tops; it’s kitchen rubbed shoulders with the Four Seasons’ after all.

( I had always recommended to visitors to Manhattan an early morning walk from Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge, cab up to the Brasserie. Definitely a top tier NYC experience.)

By now you are either calling a taxi to go to the Brasserie [Don't. Alas, it's no more.], or you are thinking of whipping up an Omelette yourself. Don’t hesitate to tackle this seemingly impossible task at home..

Here is Jacques Pepin on the proper (definitive) Omelette, in both the Country and the Classic styles. Truly awesome.

(As you watch the Master at work, notice the glass bowl. It's the French one Madame used for serving her salads.)


Make a Hullaballoo . . . Babka Brulee

The other day we brought home a Polish Babka with sweet poppy seed filling.

Babka is a yeasted sweet bread, with a dough rich with eggs and sugar, then with kneaded-in raisins, cinnamon, nuts, chocolate, or prune lekvar. And, in combinations.

Eat it plain, or with some butter and a nice cup of coffee. You’re set. Babka, like its cousin Challah, is best fresh from the bakery. After a few days it will begin to stale and then you have to figure out something creative in the kitchen. The obvious choice, French toast.

The ultimate French toast is made right at our house by the lovely Michele. Super soaking Babka or Challah in the eggy milk batter with lots of cinnamon. On the road, the go-to place is the B&H Restaurant at 127 Second Avenue, just south of St. Marks Place in Manhattan. They make their own Challah. It is the best.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Whoever was the one to have that bright idea to put powdered sugar on French toast . . . we want to have a word or two with you! For this fussy pusser, read my whiskered lips: “No powdered sugar!”

So let’s get back on track here. You bought that Babka (if you got a Challah, same deal) some days ago, and what’s left is starting to stale a bit.

Here’s something great to do: Babka Brulee.

Cut as thick a slice as you like. Melt some sweet butter in a shallow pan. When the butter is bubbling add some cane or brown sugar in the spot where you will place the slice (that's "footprint" for the technical, but less elegantly inclined types), let it melt down a bit, then cover with the Babka slice. Take a peek after a few minutes to see if that side is beginning to caramelize, then remove from the pan and repeat the same procedure for the other side.

Nothing more to do. Maybe a nice cup of coffee. Enjoy.

Alternatively, you might want to try this idea under the broiler, turning to the second side when the first is starting to caramelize.

And, this just fresh from the kitchen. Instead of sugar use a fruit jam or jelly.


Julia Child, TV Cooking Shows, Nutmeg

And . . .

Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, Daisy Martinez

And . . .


Around here we are getting into the holiday spirit lately with occasional quaffs of eggnog. If you like (as we most certainly do) a little “add in” then, of course, the go-to default would be a good full bodied cane sugar rum. Or, perhaps, brandy (but we don’t advise using the really good stuff for that) or bourbon. More creative, Grand Marnier, Benedictine, or Drambuie. That is definitely not the whole of it; you can put any tasty cordial or liqueur that you please. 

We are quite satisfied with a good store-bought eggnog. Naturally, homemade is superior. The question will no doubt arise over whether using raw eggs in your own eggnog recipe is an egg-not. We will not make a recommendation here, suffice to say that there is enough information about the subject online to help you decide if this is an issue for you. (The evidence seems to suggest that there should be no worry.) Issue or not, if you do use raw eggs, select fresh, healthy eggs.

The last shoe to drop on the eggnog question (if you do drop a shoe in your eggnog [Don’t laugh, some of our parties have gotten a little out of hand and, let’s just say, things have been found in the punch bowl.] do what Dear Julia would do: don’t tell kitchen secrets. What goes on in the kitchen, let it stay in the kitchen. Don’t confess to your guests all the mistakes and missteps that may have occurred. “No one the wiser,” as dear mama used to say.)

The last item is the grating of fresh nutmeg. Please use fresh whole nutmeg. No need to get a special Martha Stewart approved nutmeg grater contraption. Just a scraping with a serrated knife or microplane will do it. But, please make that a good scraping of nutmeg. At least for the Cooky Cat. And, at least for eggnog. Other things, maybe not so much.

Speaking of Julia Child, our favorite memory from her peerless educational television show was her admonition on how much nutmeg to add in the recipe for Quiche Lorraine. That dishwhich in these days even real men can enjoycalls for a grating of fresh nutmeg. Dear Julia advised not to put in so much nutmeg that when your guests take one bite, they exclaim, “Nutmeg!” We don’t grate nutmeg but that every time we remember her succinct instruction.

If you are interested in cooking no doubt you are familiar with the profusion of television shows of all stripes on the subject. Nowadays, we have moved from the pioneering Ms. Child and her peerless educational approach to all manner of entertainments. It seems we like to watch people cooking; maybe to learn something, but mainly for entertainment. So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut would say. Nevertheless, good culinary instruction is not the staple on the tube.

Julia Child is in our opinion unequalled, the gold standard for how to present the preparation of food. Mr. Jacques Pepin is also up there, in a class by himself. We never prep vegetables without him coming to mind and his scrupulous and adept methods. Also not to be overlooked as top tier presenters, authoritative and maternal Lidia Bastianich, that ubiquitron Mario Batali of the eponymous Molto Maria shows, and the always warm and welcoming Daisy Martinez. Pardon if we left out others, just that that list is our top picks. We do like to gaze at the preternaturally smiley Giada De Laurentiis with her obvious feminine charms, and the equally preternaturally endowed Nigella Lawson. But, that’s another story.

Cheers. Here’s looking at you.

Here's grandma and her eggnog recipe. She's no Julia Child, but she's a contender. 

Finally, Feliz Navidad with the wonderful and spirited Ms. Daisy Martinez and her recipe for "Puerto Rican Eggnog" Coquito . . .