Break out this tomato pie a la vodka

If red-ripe tomatoes and a humble pie recipe succeed in their temptation, be prepared to reach for bottles of the good stuff, a fine bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a reputable bottle of vodka.

A few key ingredients ...

A few key ingredients …

You’ll want both of a decent quality to make tomato pie a la vodka.

A Southern-ish tomato pie sampled on an evening cruise up and down the Hudson and a not-so-light (but dripping with flavor) penne a la vodka side dish shared at a summer reunion inspired this hybrid conception. The pie served on the boat ride was made by a Southern gentleman who knows his way around the kitchen. When he shared the origins of his tomato pie discovery, he gave a good deal of credit to his father-in-law who had introduced him to the dish. What he discovered along the way when doing a little Google research of his own was that the family recipe looked remarkably similar to a variation by the celebrity Southerner Paula Deen. With his kitchen and relationship wisdom, he elected not to take the findings back to the family — his wife’s or Deen’s.

To preserve the traditional tomato pie for the Southern cooks who know how to put the right amount of flake in a recipe, an adaptation of my own credits all who’ve created a variation of some sort, whether with mayonnaise, a mild Gouda or creamed butter. Anyone can layer tomatoes and smother them with an assortment of cheeses and herbs, which makes a hybrid pie a good choice for putting the best of summer’s tomatoes to use.

A serving of creamy vodka sauce adds an extra-heavy layer of calories to anything it sits on, and that’s probably why it tastes great over everything from piecrust to pasta. To experiment with my own vodka sauce, I couldn’t find a drop of basic vodka on hand, as in a bargain brand. The limited release Ultra Luxury Stoli vodka (not readily available for sale in the U.S.) — elegantly bottled and recently hand carried by a friend returning from Latvia — was off limits. The pie prep called for a shopping trip. Without help from Russia or even Poland, the recipe needed something all-American. But before I could even make it in the house with a full bottle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, produced in Austin, Texas, one tap of the Tito’s bottle resulted in a shattering crash of glass and spirits all over the stairway. For the record, no sampling of the distilled product had yet occurred. It’s certain that the scene actually looked pretty funny, then it didn’t — when my hand (still gripping the neck of a broken glass bottle) started bleeding … in three places. My lack of coordination often presents itself at inopportune times.

With a replacement bottle of vodka firmly in hand (while cautiously keeping my balance), I eventually set out to experiment with the sauce. I did end up substituting the splashed-away Tito’s Vodka with an even choicer option (Grey Goose) and didn’t risk touching the Stoli reserve bottle. My first batch needed to be cooled down for the mix of preferences in the family, so I eliminated hot red pepper flakes and dipped in to a supply of roasted Spanish paprika, which added the ideal blend of mildly smooth and smoky flavor to the sauce.

Jet Stars on the vine

Jet Stars on the vine

From my modest garden, Jet Star tomatoes produced the best-tasting crop at home this year. They matured earlier than expected but were able to vine-ripen before the squirrels and woodchucks moved in covertly to harvest them. The meaty fruit of the Jet Stars holds up firmly when sliced for a pie. If you’re buying tomatoes to slice for a similar pie, search for a large plump variety. A selection of enormous juicy tomatoes that I picked up in the Catskills worked well for firm slices and one hefty tomato filled a pie dish.

Without the expense of an entire bottle of distilled beverage, tomato pie a la vodka makes an affordable and simple meal. The pie combines ripened garden treasures with a sweet and tangy cream sauce that brings on even more tomato flavor. Served sliced on a plate, layered on a pizza or tucked into a flaky pie crust, there’s no better time to appreciate tomatoes.

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published: Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

The Paper/Philipstown.info

Wedge of tomato pie a la vodka

Wedge of tomato pie a la vodka

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomato Pie a La Vodka

Yield: 8 servings

For a single layer crust

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup lard or shortening

3 tablespoons icy cold water

Mix dry ingredients and gradually cut in lard with two table knives. Add water by the tablespoon to mold together, handling as little as possible. Work dough into a ball and roll thinly on lightly floured surface with rolling pin. Carefully roll your dough back onto rolling pin and lay dough over pie pan or deep dish. Bake crust for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove from oven and set aside.

For the vodka sauce and filling

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, sliced

2 medium tomatoes, diced

2 cloves garlic, diced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon smoked paprika

¼ cup vodka

½ cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons flat parsley, chopped

2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese

  1. In heavy pan, sauté garlic in extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add diced tomatoes, sea salt and smoked paprika. Mix in vodka and allow mixture to cook for 5 to 10 minutes while continuing to stir. Stir in heavy cream, lower heat and cook while stirring an additional 5 minutes.
  2. Layer tomato slices into half-baked piecrust. Pour sauce over tomatoes. Add layer of chopped parsley and top with shredded Parmesan cheese.
  3. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool and serve.

Fresh and Floral

With a hint of its natural aroma, lavender brings a fragrant goodness to foods and drinks. The dreamy ingredient in many varieties shows off a purplish flower with greenish-gray foliage and, in even the smallest quantities, stretches a long way in the kitchen. The versatile plant adds a unique flavor to everything from hot herbal teas to salad vinaigrettes and waffles.

Culinary lavender

Culinary lavender

Though baked goods flavored with lavender have long accompanied my morning cup of coffee, I hadn’t seriously considered the herb’s refreshing qualities as a cold beverage enhancer. But basic lemonade makes the case. While I was away in Colorado this summer, I sampled a splashy lunch-time variation with friends. The serving of lemonade dressed up with lavender, lavandula angustifolia, quenched a table full of tired hikers with its soothing properties. The herb’s distinction gave the drink a little edge without overwhelming the lemony base.

Discovering a source close to home means there’s more lavender to be shared in the warm weeks ahead. Ellen Duffy-Taylor, owner of North Winds Lavender Farm in Pawling, New York, carries the scent of lavender with her from farm to market. During the outdoor market season, she offers her lavender products — craft and culinary — every other weekend at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market (her upcoming market participation dates include Aug. 8 and Aug 22). Local consumers are turning to her culinary lavender not only for cooking and baking but to mix up flowery cocktails from martinis to cosmos.

“People are actually using my lavender to make lavender lemonade and a lot of bartenders are using the syrup for cocktails,” Duffy-Taylor said. “Culinary lavender is very popular. We have one whole culinary field producing lavender that is edible and it’s naturally grown. We’re not certified organic, but we don’t use pesticides or herbicides.”

In addition to a selection of craft lavender and aromatherapy products, North Winds Lavender Farm sells its lavender syrup, lavender shortbread cookies, culinary lavender buds and jellies at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market. The rich jellies pair well with cheese and transform toast into a breakfast feast while the syrup complements pan-seared meats, fish and steamed vegetables. The culinary buds include a mix of English and French lavender.

“We sell (culinary lavender) by the cup, half cup or quarter cup,” Duffy-Taylor said. “Selling by the pound at the market is just crazy. For people who are cooking, a cup is usually adequate.”

Lavender lemon cookies

Lavender lemon cookies

My favorite lavender lemon cookie recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of crushed buds and the measurement adds plenty of presence — introducing a subtle fragrance before the first bite. The lemon and lavender work together and the end result is a rich but-not-too-sweet confection. High-grade culinary lavender is traditionally strong, and too much in any recipe, whether in sauces or baked goods, may overpower food with an overly perfumed accent. Using the fragrant flowers sparingly saves a cook from having to start over and will, in the end, reduce costs. Considering that little is needed in any creation, the harvested lavender flowers are affordable. One cup is priced by North Winds Lavender Farm at $12 and is sold in several increments. For any savory or sweet dish, use lavender moderately to experiment with the herb.

Duffy-Taylor has been farming for 18 years and 2015 marks her 10th year in the lavender business. She’s been making the same lavender shortbread cookie recipe with all natural ingredients for years, and the fragrant baked goods will soon be available beyond the farmers’ market.

“I’m opening a store in September,” she said, “on Charles Colman Boulevard (in Pawling) right on the main drag. It will include everything we sell at the farmers’ market.”

To make something softly scented — out of your ordinary repertoire — pick up a little lavender. The lavender lemon cookie recipe shared here produces a delicate floral flavor. If you haven’t used lavender, incorporate a pinch in a familiar recipe. If you like the result, move on to a slightly more generous amount to adjust the taste for your preference. For further adventure, try lavender syrup (North Winds offers syrup in 8-ounce bottles for $7) mixed up with your favorite gin or infuse vinegar with lavender stalks and flower heads.

By Mary Ann Ebner, Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

First published by The Paper/Philipstown dot info

Lavender Lemon Cookies

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1 stick softened butter, unsalted

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1 tablespoon crushed lavender buds

1 ½ cups flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup course or decorative sugar

  1. Grind lavender buds with a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, cream together butter, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla extract. Mix in egg. Add ground lavender and mix until smooth.
  3. Combine flour, baking soda and salt. Fold into butter mixture. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes.
  4. Drop dough by the spoonful onto ungreased baking sheet. Flatten dough balls lightly with the bottom of a small glass. Sprinkle with course or decorative sugar.
  5. Bake 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees until cookie edges are slightly golden.

Summer’s top cucumber dish: cold soup

From a medley of berries to creamy cucumber, chilled soups can be made with just about any of summer’s fruits and vegetables.

And when temperatures rise, warm weather conditions call for a kitchen break and cool options. Seasonal cooking — with minimal time spent at the stove or grill — should reflect that break from the routine. Colorful food selections that refresh with a nutritious but light result can be easily mixed and matched to create the ideal spread without even reaching for a heat source.

Though grilling outdoors may be slightly more bearable than cooking in a steamy kitchen, hot and humid conditions often rouse us to step away from the flame. A picnic of peaches, bread, cheese, wine or chilled green tea will prompt most of us to welcome the opportunity to eat lightly.

Cucumber avocado soup

Cucumber avocado soup

A simple cold lunch at a riverside picnic spot turned out to be what may possibly be summer’s most relaxing family meal. The preparations were minimal — hearty sandwiches and sliced apples — and we enjoyed the retreat from a labor-intensive meal with little left to wash aside from a cutting board and knife. Temperatures dipped for the day, the Hudson lapped peacefully along the banks and nobody did any dishes.

In an effort to extend easy living for a few more weeks, it’s all about family-style salads, heaps of vegetables and fruit desserts — all fresh and uncooked. And it’s more reason to shop the farmers’ market. In looking beyond my own meager garden of herbs, peppers and tomatoes, the inspiration for July and August menus rests with whatever the farmers are picking and selling. And when you can’t grow your own cucumbers (easy for most but I’ve given up), find your favorite farmer. I’ve failed repeatedly in trying to produce cucumbers since moving back from scorching Central Texas to the Hudson Valley and didn’t even try to grow them this year. But cucumbers beat the heat when dining indoors or out, and they can round out a meal or fill in as the foundation. An unattended farm stand peddling cucumbers motivated me to blend up a batch of summer soup. This particular Hudson Valley producer runs a small-scale retail operation — a roadside table stocked with a variety of fruits and vegetables alongside a donation jar. Customers take their pick and drop a cash payment through the jar’s lid.

The few cucumbers I selected could have ended up in a salad, spring rolls or served alone dressed with a vinaigrette, but the vegetable crop made the perfect base for cucumber avocado soup. The recipe takes minutes to put together and can be eaten immediately or chilled for a day and packed for a picnic or even placed in a sealable bottle for a Hudson Highlands hike.

Farm stand cucumbers

Farm stand cucumbers

My latest variations turn out silky smooth and mild, but my early efforts to prepare cucumber soup suffered from a few garlic cloves too many. The initial batch ended up not so much as a simple supper but as simply a good lesson.

It doesn’t take much to ruin a dish by smothering the mild cucumber and avocado with too much garlic. That was my big mistake. At the time I lived in California, not too far from Gilroy, which according to the City of Gilroy, is best known as the “Garlic Capital of the World.” The community is easy to find once you’re in the vicinity of this locale. The scent of garlic travels for a good distance. (Those who appreciate the Hudson Valley’s garlic festival in Saugerties would undoubtedly go for the garlic ice cream in Gilroy.) The garlicky aroma in and around the city cannot be mistaken, and Gilroy influences everything from old-fashioned garlic toast to garlic-themed weddings. Given my location at the time, the excess garlic can be understood.

Cutting back on the garlic brought the cucumber back to center, and allowed the mint — added last — to finish the blend with a refreshing satisfaction expected from a cold soup.

To make this chilled soup, toss all the ingredients into a standard blender or use an immersion blender. (Reserve a few cucumber slices for crunchy dipping, but otherwise, blend until smooth and creamy.) Transfer blended soup into a pitcher to replenish bowls at the table or pour this cool cucumber mixture directly into serving bowls from the blender. The recipe shared here produces a soup with a fairly thick consistency, but for cold soup lovers who prefer a lighter chilled serving, thin with more broth, water or even a splash of white wine.

Cool Cucumber Avocado Soup

4 servings

1 large or 2 medium cucumbers, peeled and diced

½ of 1 medium avocado, sliced

1 clove garlic, diced

2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced

1 ½ cups vegetable broth

1 cup plain yogurt

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

twist of fresh ground pepper

2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

small ice cubes (optional)

  1. Combine cucumber, avocado, garlic and chives in mixing bowl. Set aside.
  1. Mix broth, yogurt, and sesame oil in blender or food processor. Gradually add cucumber mixture to liquid and blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper.
  1. Chill soup 1 hour or blend in 2 ice cubes and serve immediately topped with fresh mint.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published by The Paper/Philipstown.info

Keep Calm and Add Coconut

Occasionally we all have an unpleasant experience with a meal. Not full-on food poisoning, serious and often triggered by eating contaminated items, but mild cases of digestive distress and just enough of a nuisance to carve out a place in our memories for a painful recall each time the substance presents itself.

Coconut citrus flan

Coconut citrus flan

For a time, it seems as if my family avoided coconut in any of its forms. The continuing ingredient aversion was all linked to a childhood fascination with a big brown coconut. During a visit to Florida to see their grandparents and numerous other extended family members, our sons managed to find a backyard coconut that they claimed with curiosity. It looked harmless enough but we had no idea when the fiber-filled fruit may have fallen from its palm tree. It wasn’t stamped with an expiration date, but didn’t seem to have an odor, so we let the kids hang on to it. Soon enough, after tossing it around for the day, they wanted to crack it open for a tropical taste of their newly acquired exotic food. With help from Poppy, their grandfather, who gave it two good whacks with his ax, the coconut cracked open and the boys were the first with their hands in the air to try the white flesh and the sweet clear liquid found inside. A couple of aunts and uncles joined them in the sampling, making the experience a true family affair. Later that evening, those who fell for the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) weren’t feeling too well, some necessitating emergency stops on the Florida Turnpike. Thankfully, the reaction was mild, but we took a break, even if unintentional, from coconut. No cream pies, no coconut-coated shrimp, not even a creamy tropical summer cocktail.

But that’s all changed and coconut is back on the menu, though we’re no longer collecting random coconuts that are just lying around going rancid. In the form of liquid to sweetened shreds, coconut continues to surface in restaurants and in recipes from friends. My friend and grad school mentor Jane introduced a tofu-coconut milk soup to our family last month and its sweet-smelling base makes a great starter for a number of summer vegetable soups. Out and about, the key lime truffles with coconut sauce at Blu Pointe in Newburgh (the newish restaurant in the space formerly operated by Torches on the Hudson) should help to sway diners into dessert after every meal. And I’ve recently adapted a flan recipe from a friend from Puerto Rico who carries on a tradition of doubling her recipe whenever making flan. The second flan finds its way to a friend’s table. It’s unthinkable to turn away one of Rosie’s beautiful caramel-coated baked custards that are made for sharing. She creates a rich and silky-soft flan coated, but not smothered, with golden caramel sauce.

Coconut layer

Coconut layer

This flan variation takes on a hint of summer with the addition of lime or orange zest as well as shredded coconut and coconut milk. For those who want to keep their ingredients the freshest with this precious egg dish, crack your own coconut and consider shredding chunks of the fresh mature flesh or extracting liquid by grating the small pieces of the fruit. The process of cutting the white fleshy meat away from the shell and blending it with a little warm water doesn’t take too much time, but you’ll also need to strain the liquid to remove any remaining pieces of fiber from the pressed coconut. Canned unsweetened coconut milk works well and minimizes prep time to create this delicate dish that can be served any time of day. If home cooks can make time to whack or drill a coconut, it’s probably wisest not to select those that may be found under a palm tree in someone’s back yard.

Coconut Citrus Flan

Serves 8

¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 ¾ cup sugar

¾ cup unsweetened coconut milk

1 ¼ cups whole milk

1 teaspoon orange zest

¾ cup sweetened shredded coconut

3 medium egg yolks

3 medium eggs

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Dissolve 1 cup sugar and orange juice in heavy sauce pan over medium heat without boiling. Raise heat to medium-high and stir until sugar mixture turns amber in color. Heat 9-inch glass pie dish with hot water and dry completely before coating dish with syrup. Remove sauce from heat and pour syrup into dish, covering bottom completely. Set aside.
  2. Heat coconut milk, milk and salt. Bring to a boil and remove from heat immediately.
  3. Sprinkle shredded coconut and orange zest over caramel sauce layer.
  4. In mixing bowl (electric mixer for best results), beat remaining sugar, egg yolks, eggs and vanilla. Stir milk mixture gradually into egg mixture.
  5. Pour over coconut layer in pie dish. Set pie dish in shallow pan filled with water to cover bottom half of pie dish.
  6. Bake on center rack in preheated 350-degree oven approximately 50 minutes until flan is set. Remove pan from oven and carefully lift pie dish from water.
  7. Run a thin knife around the edge of the dish to loosen the flan while still warm. After flan cools for at least 1 hour, invert onto a larger platter or rimmed plate to keep sauce contained. Serve at room temperature, chill for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight and serve next day.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published: The Paper, July 10, 2015

 

 

 

The Classic Cuban Chip

A new day may be arriving for Cuban cuisine, and the unassuming plantain carries enough prestige as a simple snack and sweet side dish to emerge as a cultural symbol of edible sorts. Without wading into the Cuban government, its legacy or the U.S. embargo, one doesn’t have to look far to see the effects of easing travel restrictions to the neighboring nation. As passage to the island continues to open, with efforts prevailing to thaw icy U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, the home kitchen offers inspiration to explore Cuba’s cultural heritage and cooking customs.

Plantain chips

Plantain chips

The Castro family may still have a hand in ruling the country, but generous helpings of tropical flavors, rich spices, love and hospitality rule the Cuban kitchen.

A work assignment as a press attaché for the U.S. Olympic Committee landed me in Cuba years ago when Fidel Castro was still tossing out ceremonial first pitches at baseball games. Many Cuban people working as staffers made immeasurable sacrifices to orchestrate a Pan American Games from Havana to Santiago de Cuba as the country hosted thousands of visitors, some of us for up to a month.

Late evenings we found ourselves sampling home-cooked street food at neighborhood parties buzzing with Latin rhythms and a contagious energy from live music and dance stoked by local non-labeled beer and rum-flavored pastries. Breakfast wasn’t quite as festive, but the morning menu was hearty, and drinking Cuba’s bold sweetened coffee became our daily ritual before strolling along residential sidewalks to reach event venues. The host nation extended daily meals to the delegations from the participating Pan American countries, and athletes, coaches and support staff dined together in a breezy cafeteria. This wasn’t a Cuban sandwich-type-of-place, dishing up gourmet pork loin on light and crusty Cuban bread dripping with butter and cheese, but a modest effort to feed the masses. Little meat was served and a couple of times each week, the special of the day was hígado, a beef liver dish served with onions. Rice, black beans, potatoes, fish and juicy mango slices made repeat appearances in the serving line, but it was the crispy salted plantain chips, chicharritas, that became a favorite food in the Pan Am village.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though it boasts vegetable-like qualities, the plantain belongs in the banana family, and it’s often available at local markets where it usually ripens naturally. The fruit looks like a banana but it’s much starchier and is sold in varying degrees of ripeness. When making variations of the Cuban chips chicharritas (or mariquitas when sliced Nicaraguan style), as well as the twice-fried tostones (plantain chips served with sauce), look for plantains that are green to yellow in color. If you come across any with blackened skin in the produce section, however, make a timely purchase and if blackened plantains are ripening on your own kitchen counter, prepare to peel. This degree of ripeness is perfect for preparing fried sweet plantains, platanos maduros, the dish made from the ripest fruit.

Green plantains

Green plantains

Whether in search of the perfect plantain dish or a chilled mojito, open travel to Cuba for tourist activities is still prohibited and U.S. citizens are not authorized to hit the beaches. The U.S. Department of Treasury (Office of Foreign Assets Control) outlines 12 categories for authorized travel with general licenses ranging from family visits to educational activities and humanitarian projects. James Caroll, co-owner of Cold Spring’s Old Souls outdoor equipment store, recently made his first visit to Cuba on a research fly fishing trip. Caroll said he obtained a research visa that allowed his party to collect scale samples and fin clips of the fish that they caught and released.

Caroll’s photographs from his May 2015 trip illustrate the beauty of the turquoise-blue waters, people, architecture, and even fruit carts spilling over with fresh produce. His fishing experience exceeded his expectations.

“It was incredible,” Caroll said. “We drove 12 hours across the island — and that was only half way across — before boarding a large live-aboard boat. Smaller skiffs picked us up from that boat every day, and we made runs out to our fishing grounds with the guides. Bonefish, tarpon, permit, jacks, and barracuda were all daily targets for our fly rods.”

Caroll found the fishing research rewarding and the food of Cuba amazing as well, from simple grilled meats and rice to spiny lobster. His collection of photographs from Cuba may be viewed on Flickr (search user name OldSoulsNY on Flickr), and are also on exhibit at the Old Souls store at 63 Main St.

Discover Cuba’s cuisine in your own kitchen and explore a complex country rich in culture and influenced by Spanish, African and Caribbean food traditions.

Plantain chips — Chicharritas

6 to 8 servings

Fried version

2 cups canola oil

6 large green plantains

Salt

Cut off the ends of plantains and slit the skin. Pull skin away from the plantains and slice thinly into rounds. For best results, use a slicer on its thinnest setting. Heat oil to medium-high heat in deep fryer or Dutch oven. Fry plantain chips in small batches, removing them from oil with stainless steel frying skimmer or steel slotted spoon. After removing from oil, drain on paper towels. Add salt to your liking and serve. For best results, keep warm and share them at the table immediately. Chips keep a crunch if tightly sealed.

Oven-baked version

Peel and slice the plantain as noted above. Coat a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Spread plantain chips in a single layer. Bake 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove baking sheet from oven and turn plantain chips with spatula. Bake an additional 10 minutes. Remove from oven and add salt. This version is chewier than the fried plantain chips and is best served immediately.

First published July 10, 2015: Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm — The Paper — By Mary Ann Ebner

 

Bread Winner

Garden bread

Garden bread

When it comes to bread, not all of us can resist home-baked varieties, the puffy pillowy kind or the crusty-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside loaves baked to eat as soon as they cool. Check out this easy-to-bake garden bread infused with herbs.

 

 

 

 

St. Louis romantics, please pass the pork butt

Firing up the grill for graduation season and summer suppers takes me back to my youth and brings on a yearning for grilled pork. Dinners growing up along the Mississippi River centered on preparing food influenced by early European settlers, but the most memorable meals in warm weather were often anchored with St. Louis barbecued pork steaks.

Barbecued pork steaks

Barbecued pork steaks

My family rarely ate high off the hog, as the top choice was typically priciest. But in place of fine ham and luscious loin, we splurged on pork steaks — not year round — but for summer grilling. If there was a sure thing for a meal around our family picnic table, this was it. And it was nearly impossible to keep the grilling a secret. Neighbors and passers-by on the sidewalk would slow down to wave when they sniffed that blend of fiery sweet sauce and sizzling pork drippings in the air.

Now with my own family, as we’ve moved across the country, we’ve explored many regional foods. There’s always room in the repertoire to add new discoveries but we also rotate deeply rooted recipes from the past. Not too many years ago, it seemed appropriate to prepare St. Louis-style pork steaks for my son’s kindergarten graduation. After all, his godmother, Jenny, and her daughter, Sam, traveled to New York from St. Louis to visit for a few days. Until then, I’d never purchased pork steaks in my adult life. Once out of college, I moved out west and as a newly minted young adult, I sampled a world of food choices. Now that I’ve matured into adulthood (wrinkles and all), childhood memories of a pony-tailed girl devouring an enormous pork steak, licking sauce from her fingers without fear of reprimand, comes clearly back to me.

For our festive meal, I made a special order at the meat counter and brought a choice cut home to my husband, Greg, for grilling. He grew up in Michigan and until preparing them himself, he didn’t think much of pork steaks. Hand him his favorite Coney (a hot dog with natural skin casing, onions and brown chili) and he’s back home again. But he agreed to slow-grill the pork steaks, even brushing them precisely with tomato purée.

Steaks on the grill

Steaks on the grill

I told Greg that every backyard chef in my memory added beer to the sauce. He had a few bottles of his favorite on hand, which appeared to work fine — one bottle for the recipe, two bottles for the chef, according to legend. Greg slowly grilled the meat and then placed it in a pan of sauce to simmer.

When we sat down at the patio table to enjoy the graduation feast, Jenny smiled with delight when Greg presented the platter of pork steaks.

“Fabulous!” she exclaimed with genuine appreciation. “You made pork butt.”

Well, our young sons, who had been pre-conditioned by their preschool head mistress to use bottom in place of butt at all times, jumped in their surprise. If a godmother could say pork butt, why couldn’t they give it a shout? “Pork butt! Pork butt! Pork butt!” They shook up the conversation, and we tried to camouflage our own laughing outburst. At that shining moment, bottom took a back seat and butt emerged from backyard barbecue chatter to the kindergarten playground.

I could just imagine the look on the headmistress’s face at the chanting. “You are role models for your children,” she always reminded parents. “We’d like to leave the four-letter words out of our environment.”

The pork steaks, though commonly regarded as pork butt, are cut from the upper shoulder blade, nowhere near the … bottom. But young boys are hardly fooled when it comes to table etiquette. “Would you care for barbecued pork shoulder?” or “Please pass the pork butt.” It tastes the same but sounds entirely different.

Grilling rights in the family were turned over to me a while back, and sunny skies recently inspired a pork butt dinner. Cold Spring’s Marbled Meat Shop was the only stop needed to pick up a few pounds of pork. Shop owner Lisa Hall confirmed over the phone that she had pork shoulder in the meat case. I made my way there directly and found Hall and her husband, shop co-owner Chris Pascarella, taking care of customers buying everything from pickles to pastured beef cuts. Pascarella presented a selection of pork shoulder before slicing my choice into ¼-inch thick steaks.

“This is pork shoulder from a Berkshire pork whole hog,” Pascarella said. “It’s actually a cut from the Boston Butt.”

The local purveyors sent me away with pork ready to prepare and confirmed the origin of the meat: Autumn’s Harvest in Romulus, New York.

For every kind of meal from reunions to graduations, from peppers to pineapple, the season calls for grilling. There’s a menu in the making for my eighth grader’s June graduation and in keeping with tradition, we’ll mark the occasion with another backyard barbecue. Bottoms up!

Barbecued Pork Steaks

Serves 8

Kosher salt and pepper for seasoning steaks and sauce

4 to 5 pounds pork shoulder sliced into ¼- to ½”-thick steaks

2 tablespoons bacon grease (substitute with canola oil)

2 medium yellow onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, diced

4 cups tomato-based barbecue purée

12 ounces bottled beer

2 tablespoons sugar

  1. Rinse pork steaks with a cold, lightly salted water wash. Pat dry. Generously salt and pepper steaks on both sides. Set aside.
  2. To prepare sauce, cook chopped onions and diced garlic over high heat in bacon grease until browned. Add tomato purée, beer, sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Stir thoroughly and keep warm on lowest heat.
  3. Slowly grill steaks on low to medium heat, browning on both sides until fully cooked. Brush steaks with sauce and grill an additional 2 minutes.
  4. Place grilled steaks in pan of sauce and simmer 2 hours until tender.

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published at Philipstown.info: Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm