Memorial Day Weekend: English Muffins

Memorial Day Weekend English Muffins

May 24, 2015

EnglishMuffins5-2015Inspired by Peter Reinhart’s marvelous “Artisan Breads Every Day,” I woke up two days ago thinking about making English Muffins. You’ll need some crumpet rings (canning jar lids will do in a pinch, but they are smaller in both dimensions). You’ll also want a fairly heavy pan or griddle. Mine is well-seasoned cast iron and covers two burners.

The actual distinctions between crumpets and English Muffins are rather fuzzy. Having a wetter batter, this recipe falls somewhere closer to the crumpet line, but it does depend on yeast and is cooked on both sides – characteristics of English Muffins. (I depend on someone else for expertise in this, as in so many things…but, both are done on top of the stove, rather than in the oven.)

There is virtue in slow rising breads. And there is real depth of flavor in sourdoughs (I have a forty year old sourdough that I started on the Upper West Side in New York City in 1975).

Consider this a multi-day project with a little mixing time on Day One, and then the griddle baking on Day Two (or three, or four…).

I let the dough rise for about 18 hours, mixing it up in the early afternoon of day one and finishing them on day two. But, the temptation of letting the dough sour a little is high. I just didn’t want to wait, which translates into not planning quite far enough ahead.

DAY ONE: For 8 – 10 English Muffins

Mix wet ingredients:

2 tsp. Honey
1 T.     Vegetable Oil
1 ½ c. Luke Warm Milk (whole or 2% at up to 95° F)

Mix dry ingredients:

2-2/3 c. Bread Flour
¾ tsp.   Salt (or 1-1/4 tsp. Coarse Kosher Salt)
2 tsp.     Instant Yeast

Add wet to dry.

Mix to incorporate and then whisk for a minute or so. Scrape down the bowl. Whisk another minute (you should see strands of gluten developing in the dough as you are whisking it). Scrape down the bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest overnight (or several days in a cool place or the refrigerator). It will rise, so use an adequately sized bowl.


If refrigerated, allow dough to move toward room temperature for two hours before proceeding.

Mix together:

¼ tsp. Baking Soda
3 T. Warm Water

Fold this into the risen dough gently, like you were folding in egg whites. Let it rest covered for a half hour or so, if you have the time.

[Consulting other recipes:  you can add more flour, or a mixture of flour and cornmeal to the batter now to get a wet, very tacky dough you can just barely handle with heavily dusted hands. Working quickly, you can portion it out  into 1/3 c. balls of dough and press them down into the cornmeal dusted rings to rise a bit before heating them. My dough was a little on the drier side and the last few I made this way.]

Prepare the crumpet rings by oiling the inside of each and dipping them in corn meal to coat them. Lay them on the cold or preheated griddle you plan to cook on. (Cold is fine. Slow and low heat is key to not burning the outside before the inside is done.)

You can crowd the griddle with rings and cook as many as you can fit at one time.

Brush the griddle inside each ring with oil and then dust the oiled surface with cornmeal. (I used a little bacon fat, but any neutral oil or fat will do) Next time, instead of using my fingers to distribute the cornmeal on the griddle, I’ll put some in a small sieve and tap it into place, the way one applies powdered sugar to finished baked goods.)

Spray a 1/3 cup measuring cup with oil inside and out and fill it with dough. (It may be glutenous enough to want to pull itself out of the cup, so I used a stiff off-set spatula to press and cut the excess off.)

Turn 1/3 c. of the dough/batter into each ring. (Encourage the dough out toward the edges of the ring on all sides, if it’s on the dry side and won’t spread out on its own.)

Once all the rings are filled, dust the tops with cornmeal and turn the griddle on low. (Cover any remaining batter-dough tightly.)

Now, the only tricky part of this is that you are baking these with heat from one side at a time. There is a very real chance that you will burn the bottom before the middle is done.

You’ll be able to smell the cornmeal toasting. Or burning. Try to avoid the latter by letting the griddle and muffins slowly warm up together on low.

When you smell that lovely toasted cornmeal smell, turn the griddle off for a few minutes and let the residual heat cook out some of the moisture.

I dodged my griddle off and on two or three times on each side. Cooking time was around 15 minutes per side. I then transferred the muffins to a baking sheet and put them in a 300° F oven for about another ten minutes and let them cool leaning up on their edges on a baking rack before trying one.

They should cool for a good while before you split them. The inside will predictably be a little doughy while they are still warm. Use a fork to poke all around their circumference and then split them, hoping to preserve the little nooks and crannies these are treasured for.

We had a little lemon curd lying about. We have less now. These muffins chill and freeze perfectly well. I made a double batch.


Cajun Country Gumbo: Murky Food

The first gumbo I watched being made was in the kitchen of my dear friends Todd & Jen Mouton near Bayou Teche in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

My second gumbo was made in the Hurst Street, New Orleans kitchen of my dear friends Hans Andersson and Whitney Stewart.

Mindful of these introductions, Gumbo is as sacred to me. My attention rests on the value and beauty of these friends whenever I begin this dish and when I serve Gumbo, our table is always full of friends. There is no need to show off. No one to impress. This is honest, beautiful – and as my friend Susan Hessey would say – murky food.

Gumby, Gumbo & The Holy Trinity

Last spring, we decided to have a gumbo making party where I taught a bunch of friends the technique I’d learned in Breaux Bridge and New Orleans. Do you feel the richness of this friend-to-friend transfer? You are about to take part in it. Thanks for that.


The word ‘gumbo’ comes from a west African word for okra, a common element in stews there.*

The filé comes from the Native American thickener: dried and powdered sassafras leaves.

The roux comes from the French.

The chiles, from the Spanish.

The dish is rich with the history of the land and cultures from which it came.

*I actually don’t use either okra (or tomatoes in my gumbo). For some folks, this automatically disqualifies it. But gumbo is more a technique than a recipe. And you’ll find that Louisianans themselves will scrap about this right to the edge of the table, and then open a beer for each other and happily dig in.

“First, You Make A Roux…”

…Most distinctive Louisiana dishes begin with this phrase.

A roux is essentially equal parts fat and flour cooked together as the base for the dish. In classic French cooking there are 3 roux designated:  light, blond and dark.

In Louisiana, I’ve heard of 17: When you couldn’t vary the ingredients of your diet, you could vary how long and how hot you cooked the roux.

I like the roux as dark as I am brave enough to get it: coffee, dark chocolate brown.

But first: The Holy Trinity: Onion, Celery, Green/Red Peppers

Playing of the sacredness of Gumbo and friendship, we have what Louisianans call ‘the holy trinity’: green peppers, celery and onion.

Before you start a roux, these need to be chopped and at hand. They are the brakes you will apply when you think the roux is about to get away from you. (A burnt roux signals the Monopoly rules: Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Give up or start again.)

The proportions of these three are negotiable, though in my gumbos there are often a scosh more onion and pepper in the mix than celery. You’ll want a nice pile of each ready before you heat the pan.

Making The Roux

For a gumbo large enough to justify the time, I usually use 3/4 – 1 c of fat and the same or a little bit more all-purpose flour. [Don’t be tempted to use whole wheat: the germ will burn.]

I heat the oil in a heavy, enameled cast iron pot and then whisk the flour in all at once when the oil is hot.

There are brave chefs out there who get a skillet smoking hot, add the oil and then the flour and whisk like crazy.

The advantage of this boldness is it’s really fast. The danger is you’ll burn the roux and have to throw it out. I consider this technique interesting and exciting, and for a practiced hand. If you are making gumbo three or four times a year as the seasons and ingredients change, what’s the rush? Easy does it.

Once the oil and flour are combined, then the stirring begins. Set the whisk aside and choose a heat-proof spatula or a wooden spoon or spatula. While the surface of the roux looks fine, the bottom of the roux can burn if you take a phone call, get distracted, or are dicing up ‘the holy trinity’ (a subversive phrase, I suppose), so pay attention.

The roux will begin soupy. It will often then get lumpy as it darkens and the glutens are cooked up, then it may relax again into a darker soup as it progresses toward the point where I chicken out and add vegetables to slow it down.

Here’s a progression of photos of our roux in progress:

Onions First!

From books of the wonderful New Orleans chef John Besh, I learned to selectively add just the onions when the roux is frighteningly dark and close to burning. This allows the carmelization of the roux to progress a little further. Once the moisture from the celery and peppers gets in the roux, it’s darkening days are over.

Now, if you like a dark roux like this, you may have broken down all the gluten in the original flour. If the gumbo doesn’t thicken up the way you’d like at the other end of cooking, you can either add some beurre manié (equal parts butter and flour blended at room temperature) to thicken it at the last minute, or make a second lighter roux just for thickening.

For me, getting the flavor in that dark roux at the beginning sets the dish. There have been times when I’ve added the onions to a roux and let them begin to sweat that the whole mixture looks like a brownie mix of melted dark chocolate. This is a thrilling thing to see in a pan on your own stove. Take it from me.

Peppers, Celery, Garlic, Cayenne/Seasonings and then a Flavorful Stock

When you’ve judged either that 1) you’re weary of the stirring, 2) you’ve run out of time for this part of the dish, or my favorite 3) you’re in danger of burning the roux even with the onions in it – add the diced celery, peppers, garlic, cayenne pepper and some salt and pepper.

Many ‘cajun’ spice mixes consist of salt, cayenne, onion and garlic powder in various proportions. If I grab one of these, I get it without the salt. The rule of thumb advanced by some manufacturers for their product is ‘when it’s salty enough the spice is just right.’

Maybe for someone.

I prefer to control the salt and spice separately.

That said, I do like having a little “Slap Ya Mama” in the cupboard. It always gives me occasion to say, “It’s so good it’ll make you wanna slap ya mama, and you KNOW you’re not supposed to do that!”

Available at:

I am often using a few of my favorite dried Mexican chilés in my gumbo. Know who you’re cooking for and follow your nose.

The Stock

The roux and the stock are critical to the distinctive flavor of a gumbo.

When I make seafood gumbo, I make a roasted shrimp shells & fish racks, bay leaf, celery, carrot infused stock.

When I make smoked sausage and smoked turkey gumbo, I’ll use the bones and shards of my home-smoked Thanksgiving turkey and make a stock with onions, celery, bay leaves, parsley, carrot and parsnip trimmings. You get the idea. Same with duck.

The marvelous thing about gumbo is that what actually goes into the gumbo depends on what’s available and what you want.

I’ve made vegan gumbo with vegetarian sausage, fried tofu and tempeh. It’s vegan food that is off the chain. The diet may be restrictive, but that shouldn’t stop any cook from making remarkable food.

When making stock, take care to begin with the ingredients in cold water and only add cold water to replenish the stock as it evaporates, as needed. Skim it regularly and try to keep it from boiling: a simmer is what you want. Boiling stocks cause them to be really cloudy. For gumbo they don’t need to be clarified, but a nice stock is a nice stock. You might use some of it for something else….

Oh, and a beer or some portion of one usually also winds up in the gumbo. A little red wine in a dark roux is also not a bad thing, but I lean toward an amber beer or a lager.

Strategies for Different Gumbos

With a seafood gumbo, like the one we were making in these photos, you have to make a flavorful seafood stock. The seafood itself goes in minutes before it is served to keep it from overcooking and becoming tough and lifeless: shrimp, oysters, portioned fish fillets (deboned)…any seafood will do, including crab, lobster, etc. There is no way to get the flavor into the pot early without a nice stock.

With sausage or meat gumbo, you can brown the sausage and the meats to get a flavorful fat with which to make the roux. Once browned, remove the meat from the pan, take a sight measurement of the fat there and add what you need to bring it up to the amount you want, add the flour and proceed with your roux.

I always make or adjust a store-bought stock. I’m nourishing my friends and family. That’s sacred to me. I only cut a corner when I don’t have time. If I have time, I spend it on my friends and family.

Simmering and Serving The Gumbo

Some simmering is in order once all the vegetables have been added and sweat out, and the roux has been thinned with stock, a little beer, etc. At this point, it can be consigned to a medium over, covered. (There are those who darken the roux in the oven, too, but I prefer being with it. If I’m too busy for that, I’m probably too busy to make gumbo.)

The fully cooked meats and sausage,  or the uncooked seafood and shellfish are added in the last few minutes of cooking and just heated or cooked through.

Gumbo is served over rice.

There are those who put a scoop of chunky cold potato salad with dill pickles in it right in the middle of a serving. I don’t, but I understand the urge.

I always put some filé powder in the gumbo just before serving and have some on the table for people to add to thicken up and flavor their own servings as they like.

A nice, crusty French-style or sourdough bread is nice to have at the table to mop up the last little bits of the gumbo in the bottom of the bowls.

And if your guests make the mistake of serving themselves gumbo by fishing out all the meaty parts and leaving the broth, take over the serving:  this is a poor people’s dish, more like a soup with a few ingredients in it.

It’s not a beef stew and shouldn’t be treated as such.

It’s more civilized: a dish of at least four cultures coming to a table of friends near you.




October garden survivors: Leeks meet Allan Benton’s Bacon

Potato & Leek Soup
October 30, 2012
Brattleboro, Vermont

With a stand of leeks in our little organic garden patch out back, my wife Barb and I decided that we should make some Potato & Leek soup for a combination Hallowe’en potluck/Celtic music class gathering she was cooking up.

The soup essentially includes the two star ingredients, potatoes and leeks, a little bacon, and some stock, salt and pepper to taste. Simple.

But, for the leeks: only the white and very palest of the pale green parts are favored, and there’s a lot more leek above those highly prized bits that seemed like it was destined to go directly to the compost pile.

My Scottish nature bridled at that.

Augmenting the Stock

So, to augment the chicken stock I was going to use, I washed and cut the best of the leek greens into a pot and diced up a diced carrot, a couple ribs of celery, adding a bay leaf and some garlic. I sweat these for a few minutes in a little olive oil, then deglazed the pan with a little dry Vermouth and added the stock.

A guy could skip this step, but it only takes a few minutes to set up and makes a huge difference in the finished soup.

Simmer below a boil, at least until the carrots and celery are tender, longer if you get a head start.

The Bacon

It is here that the vegetarians squirm and omnivores begin to drool: Bacon.

Even ordinary bacon is a powerful flavor enhancer. But, not by chance, I had some of Allan Benton’s Hickory Smoked Country Bacon on hand.

Allan Benton’s small smokehouse in Madisonville TN, his slow cure, and personal care have catapulted his bacon and dry-cured country hams into the culinary stratosphere.

Benton’s cured pork products have become the darlings of the current generation of fine chefs from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. His country ham has been compared to Prosciutto and Serrano ham from Europe, products he didn’t know about until his hams caught on.

“What I’m doing, any hillbilly can do in their backyard,” Benton says. “It just takes a tiny bit of knowledge, a little bit of salt and sugar – and a lot of time.”

You can – and I recommend you do – purchase four, roughly one pound packages of this bacon for $24 plush S/H at (According to their website, the wait time can be as long as three weeks, but my order arrived more quickly.)


I used roughly a quarter pound of bacon, nearly four pounds of potatoes, six leeks from the garden (of varying diameters), two cups of amended chicken stock and a splash of milk, though I would have preferred cream.

Cutting and Building the Soup

With the warm stock ready on the back of the stove (stock vegetables softened and strained out), I cut the bacon into a 1/4” dice, the potatoes into a similar dice (if one added carrots, they would be diced similarly: I did not), the whites of the leeks were halved lengthwise and then cut into 1/2” pieces. And we’re ready to go.

Render the bacon over low heat until it’s released most of its fat, but not gotten crispy.

Add chopped leeks, stir for a minute or two to warm.

Add diced potatoes. Add some salt and fresh ground pepper.

Stir and turn the mixture over as it warms through and begins to soften.

Adding the Stock

Add the warmed stock 1/2 c. at a time, like you were making risotto, stirring it in and allowing it to warm through before adding more.

Once all the stock is added, turn the heat to the lowest setting and let it cook until the potatoes are softened.

At that point, you may add milk or cream, but do not boil the soup after adding dairy.

Correcting the Seasonings

As the soup simmers, you can check the salt and pepper balance. Additional seasonings might include a little thyme, another bay leaf, a dash of cayenne or other chile pepper.

You will find that the smokiness of Allan Benton’s bacon carries this dish far above any other Potato Leek Soup you’ve ever had. This is why Benton’s products are so prized. A small amount of Benton’s hickory cured bacon provides more flavor than a large amount of the bland supermarket bacon we were raised on (and loved).

My eyes (well, nose and tastebuds) have been opened.

And I still have three pounds of Benton’s bacon in the freezer and a quarter pound defrosted in the fridge.

This is how rural, poor people get to feel rich. It has ever been thus.


Kitchen Hygiene & Food Safety Temperatures

Kitchen Hygiene

You should learn and practice good kitchen hygiene:  separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, cleaning cutting boards which have touched raw meats with boiling water or a weak bleach and water solution, and taking care to clean your knives and hands after working with raw meat and before turning right to the salad. E. coli or Salmonella can be unpleasant in the young and healthy, and deadly with the elderly, the very young, and people with compromised immune systems. You should establish habits in the kitchen that will minimize accidental contamination and prevent the movement of bacteria from meats and eggs to vegetables.

Food Safety Temperatures and Times

Years ago, a doctor friend told me that there was basically no such thing as what we commonly call the ‘stomach’ flu:  it’s food poisoning.

To prevent this, many cookbooks and cooking authorities encourage the overcooking of food: sacrificing texture and flavor to err on the side of safety. If you take care with your food and your kitchen safety habits are in place, overcooking food in this way is unnecessary.

The old rule of thumb is that cooking food until the core temperature is 167 °F / 75 °C (or above) will ensure that harmful bacteria are destroyed.

But, the temperature at which harmful bacteria are destroyed can be lower, provided the core temperature is maintained for a specified period of time. Read the rest of this entry »

A Smoking Thanksgiving Feast

Smoked Turkey.Duck.Kielbasa

Smoking Ducks, Turkey & Fresh Kielbasa

Thanksgiving this year was quite temperate here in southern Vermont. I took advantage of the milder than usual temperatures to fire up the smoker and prepare meats for our Thanksgiving table, as well as for a gumbo we were planning for later in the fall.

Smoking takes much of a day, so if I’m going to spend six or seven hours tending a small fire every twenty minutes or so, I’ve taken to filling the smoker with meats. I also tend to keep a guitar and a good book close by.

In the time it would take to smoke just 18 lb. turkey, I prepared two ducks and a couple pounds of fresh kielbasa, knowing I’d freeze most of what came off the smoker for future meals. Read the rest of this entry »

Pistachio & Wasabi Encrusted Tuna

June 13, 2010:  A dinner for two

Seared Pistachio & Wasabi Encrusted Tuna

Garlic Scapes, Snow Peas and Baby Spinach

Pan fried Ziti with Feta and Kalamata Olives

This meal began as I was making room in our freezer for nearly twenty pounds of fresh pick-you-own strawberries. Something had to go.

Pulling out a couple of flash frozen tuna steaks, eyeing the bowl of pistachios on the counter, and knowing that, if we’re going to get garlic out of the garden, we’ll have to keep it from going to seed, and that we had snow peas ready for picking…these thing all conspired to determine the menu. With the pan fried ziti (a planned leftover from the fridge), the easiest and final piece of the puzzle fell into place. Read the rest of this entry »

Shrimp & Grits

shrimp and grits

Scott’s Smoked Jalapeno Shrimp & Grits

Many of my meals begin with an ingredient.

This Christmas a 24 oz. jar of “Smokin’ Dave’s All Natural Smoked Jalapenos” turned up under the tree. The thought of opening a 24 oz. jar of these babies and having them sit around in the fridge for months gave me pause. But, seizing the, um – jalapeno – by the horns, I opened the jar this week.

Amazingly rich and smoky, these jalapenos packed in vinegar were really HOT.

So, having returned from Charleston and the low country of South Carolina with a bag of stone ground yellow corn grits and a couple of cases of Blenheim’s Hot Ginger Ale, I decided to work up a version of the classic southern Shrimp and Grits. Read the rest of this entry »


The process of ‘cooking’ fish or shrimp in a citrus marinade is ancient and still common in Central and South American coastal communities. Lime, lemon, grapefruit and bitter orange juices are employed to denature the proteins in fresh halibut, mahi mahi, sea bass, flounder, shrimp, octopus, squid, tuna and mackerel.

Traditional flavorings vary by region and can include salt, onion, chiles, avocado, coriander, parsley, cilantro, hot and sweet peppers.

This citrus pickling of fresh seafood can take from a few minutes to several hours, depending on the fish chosen and the thickness of the cut. More delicate fish like flounder or other white fish may be served after a brief period of marinating, while octopus and squid may take as long as 3-8 hours, depending on how they are cut and prepared. Read the rest of this entry »

Bert’s Coffee Cake

Finished coffee cakes

Every year Barb makes these coffee cakes from a recipe she got from her sister-in-law, Sally Boscaljon.   Every year people ask her for the recipe, which she gladly shares.   The thing is,  it’s hard to explain in just words how to put this together, so here’s an illustrated recipe!  (The extra set of hands belong to Barb’s son Jesse who was part of the first-ever Bert’s Coffee Cake Ring! Read the rest of this entry »

Gabe’s Cooking Audition

This comes from my youngest son, Gabriel….

Gabe’s Cooking Audition

On Tuesday August 19, 2008, I was scheduled for a cooking audition between 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm at Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, a local establishment in Chapel Hill, NC. I had no idea what ingredients I might face when I walked through the door.

My instructions were as follows: prepare two servings of one appetizer, one salad, and one entree. And in the three dishes I had to use the ingredients I was given at least once throughout the courses. My ingredients were:

  1. Salmon
  2. Bratwurst
  3. Strip loin (the vein-y end that no one wants to work with)
  4. Shrimp
  5. Red Onion
  6. Poblano Peppers
  7. Artichokes
  8. Chopped Precooked Bacon
  9. Butternut Squash

I played with several ideas for each of the dishes. The salad was the first one that was set in stone, while the other two flipped around a bit. I settled down and set to work. Read the rest of this entry »