Homemade Mincemeat

The annual Mincemeat making has happened and I am very happy with the 2013 iteration. Cindy Cuomo came and helped guide the process this year and document the recipe because I am a hopeless improviser when it comes to cooking and especially making mincemeat. There are not many in the younger generation that will choose a slice of mincemeat pie when offered an alternative. I am convinced part of it is the name, and even as I’ve promised and issued a written statement to the youngsters many times at the holiday gatherings that there is absolutely no meat in the mincemeat pie, they still opt for the Pecan or Pumpkin Pumpkin Pie.


The original mincemeat “post” and recipe


Mise en place for mincemeat 2013


Ingredients in the pot …


… with Tart Cherry juice


after simmering for 45 minutes


and finally cooled the next day and ready for tasting – yum!

Mincemeat 2013 Recipe

Cindy’s documented recipe for Mincemeat 2013


Escarole – an underdog vegetable

I was shopping the other day and two things happened: I saw an old friend and I bought a head of escarole.

I’d like to tell the story of my relationship to the second encounter, escarole, an underdog vegetable. The story begins in West Chester County, New York, where I had my first job after college. I was working at the historic Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY. I arrived in March of 1974, and met a man named Joseph Dellaporta who worked in the shop. His nickname was Moe, and I asked him how he got the nickname. I couldn’t understand a word he said and he couldn’t understand a word I said, he would say, “Damn boy, you got a southern accent! I can’t understand a word you say.” I asked another guy who was working in the shop, whom I could understand, how a man named Joseph could come to be called Moe. It turns out that there was an Irish Club President who had decided that there were too many Italians working at the Club. When he inquired about what the guy’s name was who worked in the back of the shop, my boss quickly declared that he was called Moe Mahoney, and the name stuck. He was forever Moe from then on.

Don’t worry I’m going to get to the escarole soon.

Moe asked me if I had a place to live yet, and when I told him I did not, he sent me down to the Village to an Italian deli where the owner might know of Italian families who had rooms to rent, as they had in the past. I ended up moving into the Delitto home on the Hill, and one of the first meals they served me was Italian Sausage in White Beans and Escarole. I became a fan.

Ten years later when I was buying produce for Wellspring Grocery, I would often return from the farmer’s market with a case of escarole. I’d always take a head home, which would leave me with 11 left to sell, but I could never sell a single head, even when I posted a recipe for how to use it. I even created an ad campaign that we ran in the Independent, called Take a Stranger Home to Dinner, and escarole was featured in one of the ads. I still couldn’t sell any!

Escarole is a member of the Chicory family, and it has a hint of bitterness, which is partly what I love about it. It adds a complexity to a dish that can’t be replicated with something else. But Americans shun anything bitter. Although radicchio, maybe because it is purple and supposedly “Gourmet” (read my last post for my disdain about the word ‘gourmet’), seems to have taken a shaky hold. Maybe it’s the color, or the gourmet moniker, I don’t know which, but radicchio seems to have had some minor success here in the US.

I’ll list the ingredients down below, but I’ll tell you here what I did with the head of escarole the other day. I had some sausages from Chapel Hill Creamery I’d bought at the farmer’s market. I poked the sausages with a sharp knife to make numerous holes in both sides, and browned the sausages in some olive oil. This yielded some good pork fat, and while the sausages were browning, a couple minutes on each side, medium heat, I diced up one medium sized onion, and minced 3 cloves of garlic. I removed the sausages to a plate and added the onions and a pinch of crushed red chile flakes, and cooked for 5-10 minutes until they were golden and soft. I then added the garlic, constantly stirring, turning down the heat, so as not to burn. Meanwhile I thoroughly washed the escarole and cut it up across the rib. I tossed the cut up escarole (that still had a little water on the leaves) in with the onion and garlic, already in the pan. I added a little white wine and some chicken stock, put on the top and allowed the escarole to braise for 45-60 minutes, long enough for it to wilt nicely but not lose its integrity. It yielded additional liquids so I didn’t have to add any more. I then placed the sausages on top of the escarole and replaced the lid, and allowed the sausage to continue cooking through for twenty minutes.

In California, you can buy baby escarole, which is almost like a bib lettuce, very tender. And cutting-edge restaurants often serve baby escarole salads, usually with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. The head of escarole I bought the other day definitely needed cooking. Yet, one of the more dynamic attributes of the vegetable is that the different layers of the head can be used for different purposes. As you peel into the head, the leaves go from dark green to light white, bitter to subtle, chewy to tender.

As you might imagine, the outer leaves harbor more flavor and can be used in cooked recipes, while the inner leaves may be served raw.

I would have liked to add a glass jar of White Beans, one of my favorite products that I developed at Whole Foods and imported from Spain, but sadly, they no longer are on the shelves.

photo 2

Braised Escarole with Sausage


-a few of your favorite sausages

-olive oil

-1 head of escarole

-1 medium onion

-3 cloves garlic

-pinch of chile flakes

-1/2 cup chicken stock

-splash of white wine

Why the word gourmet is a fraud

It means absolutely nothing, but the people who use it infer that some secret group has endorsed their product or food establishment with this special designation. I first began hearing this word in the ’80s when sales people came to see me at Wellspring Grocery. And it was the kiss of the death for them when they started the sales call with, “I have some gourmet products, I’d like you to take a look at.” I’d always challenge them, “What does that mean?” to which they would reply, “You know, gourmet” to which I’d say, “No I don’t know!” And invariably, out of their bag would come some spoofilated flavored vinegar or flavored mustard, to which I’d usually say, I’m really not interested. And they’d say, “But it’s gourmet!”

Here’s the story I’ve made up about how the word came to be used so prevalently. The word “gourmand” is quite a good word and it means someone who takes great pleasure in the food they eat, and are specific about what they like. And out of this word came the traveling food magazine called Gourmet, which was a pretty good mag. But out of this magazine about food and travel, sprung this bullshit word of gourmet, calling forth gourmet sandwiches or gourmet mustard or gourmet whatever, and it’s been downhill ever since. The magazine no longer exists, and now we are bombarded by signs around airports about gourmet items that, as far as I can tell, should be avoided at all costs.

There are a lot of people who say that they don’t cook gourmet or don’t eat gourmet, they are NOT gourmet. I’m not sure what that means either, but it seems like that this word has made them feel less about themselves or has intimidated and separated them from the pleasures of really good food.

Perhaps many people are trying to avoid coming across as nerdy, being super knowledgeable about their food, but what could be better than knowing all about mustard or vinegar? Yet there are many people who know nothing about their product so they throw on this blanket definition, which means nothing, but implies the former grandiose details. Now if someone calling on me at Wellspring had begun by saying that they had some Orleans Method traditional vinegar they wanted me to look at, I’d be all smiles, because that actually means something special.

Yesterday, the word hit a new nerve in me. There was an orange juice in a small 8 fl. oz. container from Florida and the label said “Gourmet Pasteurized” – pasteurization is a scientific process involving temperature to extend shelf life, so when I got home I googled the company, found the phone number and called the product information person. I asked him “what the hell does that mean – gourmet pasteurized” to which they replied that they pasteurized at low temperatures, so I asked why they don’t say that “low-temperature pasteurized”. He didn’t answer that question, but I’m sure that it is because some Americans would be afraid of that and think that there might be some bacteria that they didn’t get. In fact, low temperature pasteurization could preserve the flavor and integrity of the juice.

There is a parallel issue with milk. They used to pasteurize milk in a method called vat-pasteurization that used a lower temperature but it took a longer time, so the scientists invented a cheaper and faster way to do it, which makes the milk not taste as good but the public doesn’t seem to care. I had fun in the early days of Wellspring with the Milk that we carried in glass bottles and got from a family farm in VA because that’s where I saw a vat-pasteurizer and learned the story myself.

Maybe one of the reasons the word gourmet is so prevalent in America and has been I guess “successful” – people keep using it – is because Americans don’t have time to hear the real story and this sound bite seems to work – but its bullshit I am here to tell you, and you should be suspicious of anything that is labeled this way because it is usually just a way to charge a little bit more for something that is often not better at all or to get you to consider buying something that is horrific – like the stuff in the airport.

When You Lose Focus, Just Begin Again

(I’ve just read this over, and it feels unfinished, but that’s just where I am. I’m just trying to love and live the questions.)

I’ve been on this journey of rehab and recovery since the summer of 2011. There are times when I feel terribly discouraged as if I can’t go on, but what choice do I have? Those times usually come when I can’t sense any improvement, and my anxiety sort of hijacks my life; I’m so anxious I can barely put one foot in front of the other. But sometimes I get to a place in the road where I feel I’ve gained some insight about what has happened to me and begin to understand the challenges that lie ahead. In the last two weeks I have come to one of those times.

Here’s the insight that I feel like I have gained:

Since we all basically operate our lives using our brain as Command Central, anyone who suffers a brain injury, (and there are some injuries that are a whole lot worse than the one I suffered,) is challenged with a sense of their life feeling somewhat disoriented and unmanageable. “Life is harder than it was before,” is one way of saying that, and this creates anxiety. The mixture of disorientation and anxiety can lead to depression, and as my neurologist has said to me more than once – “Lex, everyone who suffers the kind of brain injury you suffered from your stroke has to deal with lots of anxiety and depression, and it is often the last thing they get past in their recovery. You have to be patient.” – but I’m not really the patient sort… Ann recently brought home Anne Lamont’s new book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” and I have enjoyed and benefited from reading certain passages in it. The most helpful one is where she told a class of children that when really horrible things happen in people’s lives, often the only thing you can do is sit with them and help them pass the time, suffering with them instead of trying to fix them. I realized that this would indeed be the most compassionate thing I could do for myself – to sit with and be with myself instead of racing ahead trying to find a way to get away from myself, either by thinking of some future fix or some past memory when I was better.

Abandoning myself when I’m feeling anxious and alone is not a compassionate thing to do, so I keep trying to remind myself that acceptance of exactly where I am and who I am, and being with that person, is the best strategy for me moving forward. There was also the following passage on the first page of the book – I am not sure what it means or how it applies to me but I am curious about it and it made me feel hopeful in some way – again I can’t explain why.

“I don’t know Who – or what – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

Lastly, I was recently talking with a friend about my attempt to cultivate a meditation practice – he asked me what type of meditation I was practicing and I told him I had no idea, but that I spent much of my time sitting and worrying that I was doing it wrong. He passed along this meditation teaching – he said, “the best meditation teacher I ever had told me this – when you lose focus, just begin again”. I like this, because it feels non-judgmental. I tell this to myself when I begin to race away from myself into the future, I tell myself to begin again, to sit with myself.

There is a golf parallel to this that is really uncanny, but I will save that for another post…

Peter Roy’s Turkey Gumbo

Peter Roy’s Turkey Gumbo

By far my favorite holiday food tradition is the Turkey Gumbo that was passed onto our family from the Roy family … and maybe that is one of the reasons I love it so much. Peter is a 5th generation New Orleans-ean and this tradition comes via the Crescent city. I’m going to chat about it a little bit, but I am not going to give a recipe … you can get any Gumbo recipe and adapt it to a Turkey Gumbo. I am going to include a video on how to make a deep chocolate-brown roux, which is the secret to the depth of flavor Annie achieved this year with our Turkey Gumbo. A couple of shout-outs before I start: first to Annie for being willing to do all the work to continue our tradition this year and to neighbor and friend, Seth Kingsbury, who brined and smoked the heritage turkey which we used to make the gumbo. Okay … here’s a little riff on the whole tradition … it takes things that used to end up in the trash and turns them into a magnificent gumbo.

If you cook a turkey so that the breast (white) meat doesn’t get overcooked, then the little pieces of dark meat on the underside of the carcass don’t really get cooked enough – this turkey gumbo solves that. Here’s the way it works …

After Thanksgiving you take as much of the breast meat as you can get off the carcass for Turkey sandwiches, and you return the carcass, breast up, into the roasting pan where I would have made the gravy. Add all the vegetable trimmings from a day’s worth of cooking, and enough water to get just below the top of the roasting pan. I usually throw in a few cloves of garlic, bay leaves, and black peppercorns, and return the pan to the oven to slow-cook all night at about 210-220 degrees – you want the liquid to just barely simmer.

The next morning the house smells fantastic, and gets you in a gumbo-makin’ mood. You take the carcass and put it on a platter to let it cool down to where you can pick all the dark meat off of the bottom, and you’ll end up with a bowl full of beautiful turkey tid-bits. Strain off the turkey stock you have in the pan – you’ll use that for your stock – and throw away the vegetable trimmings. If you’re really industrious – and I used to be – after picking the carcass, return the stock and bones into a stockpot and simmer for a few more hours for an even richer turkey flavor.

Then you make the chocolate-brown roux from the turkey fat and flour. This year, since we didn’t cook the turkey we didn’t have any turkey fat, so we used a high-smoke point oil (we used grape seed oil) instead. Here is a video that shows you exactly how to pull this off:  Frank Brigsten demonstrating how to make a perfect roux.

We used to use the low-and-slow method, but after two hours of stirring the roux was always too light for my taste – Annie used this video to perfection and calling to me from the kitchen to come see how brown it is! You can see from the photographs she really did get a dark roux.

Annie patiently whisking the roux

Annie patiently whisking the roux