Saturday, January 19, 2008

Meat: Teriaki [sic] Flank Steak

During the somewhat prolonged hiatus I’ve been on here (caused by moving, holidays, and whatnot) I came to a realization about this site. I browsed back over my entries and thought, “Other than as contributions at a 1970s themed potluck, what use are these recipes?” and I came to the conclusion that really, they hadn’t any beyond a certain amount of humor value. So in an effort to balance humor with usefulness I’m implementing a slight change.

I’m still going to be picking recipes from my mother’s recipe file, but instead of making them exactly as written and disparaging the results (since so many of them are just downright…disparagble), I’ll give the original scary creation, with all the peculiarities of ingredient and method that that implies, and then provide an updated version (which is the one I will prepare myself) in an effort to salvage these gems and bring them back to the fold, and give them the chance to be functioning elements within the recipe macrocosm. In some cases there may be little hope (Shrimp Casserole springs to mind), but in other cases, there may be hope. Let us endeavor to give them hope and a fair chance at success.

So with that goal defined, we begin today with the Meat section, and a recipe that came to my mother from my grandmother, Teriaki Flank Steak. Yes, she actually spelled it Teriaki. And as to why it was called Teriaki (or Teriyaki if you prefer the correct spelling) Flank Steak, I am unsure, as it contains no teriyaki sauce at all. It uses soy sauce, which gives it a faintly Asian flavor, along with some ginger, but otherwise it’s a fairly basic steak marinade. I actually recall having eaten this as a child at some point or other. Most of the recipes in this file seem to have served no other purpose than to hasten the splitting of the recipe file’s bellows, but this one saw the light of day on at least one or two occasions.

Flank steak, as food writers seem determined to remind us tirelessly (and tiresomely) is a very quick cooking cut of meat, therefore perfect for weeknights or other times when a fast meal is desired. And as we’ve been told time and again, it can be cooked under a broiler, or on a grill, or even on a grill pan on the stove. Its shape allows those who prefer rare meat and those who prefer more well-done meat to both be satisfied. There, I’ve run through all the required blahbety blah on flank steak.

Here’s the recipe as written:

In a jar mix or shake: ¼C soy sauce
¼C wine vinegar
1/4C honey
3/4C oil
1 1/2 tsp ginger
½ tsp garlic powder
1 Tbs. dehydrated onion

Sprinkle 2 lb (get 2 flanks which run around 3lbs) with meat tenderizer. Then pour marinade over meat. Refrig. Over night. Barbeque (broil) 7 minutes on each side, Cut on diagnol [sic].

The layout is a bit strange, probably attributable to its having been typed with a manual typewriter onto a recipe card. The ingredients are far over to the right and kind of blend in with the instructions, which start about halfway down the card on the left. In fact, it’s sort of hard to tell where the ingredients end and the recipe starts up.

Originally the instructions say to sprinkle the meat with MSG. Since MSG is not a product I have in my kitchen, I was sadly forced to omit this step. Also, the quantities specified for meat are a little peculiar. If two flank steaks run around 3 lbs total, is there some sort of division or separation that should be performed? I went with a single flank steak at a little over a pound, and it fed two with leftovers. Originally this recipe was to serve four. This is otherwise a pretty simple mix-up-the-marinade-and-drop-the-meat-in kind of a recipe.

In considering how to update this recipe, there were a few obvious choices. Instead of using powdered anything, I used fresh. I grated a thumb-sized piece of ginger into the marinade, and then did the same with two cloves of garlic, and a quarter of a yellow onion. I did also add about 6 cloves of garlic cut into slices. Rather than the simple “salad oil” (canola, safflower, corn) oil that my mother and grandmother would most likely have used, I used olive oil. I used the white wine vinegar and honey as originally dictated, quantities as written.

I used my microplane grater for grating the ginger, garlic and onions. The result is a very fine pulp, which adds more of the flavor to the dish immediately. When I use the microplane to grate onion into things like chicken salad, I only use about ¼ of what I would have actually chopped up, so pungent is the resultant pulp. The benefit in chicken salad is no little chunks of onion, which can be quite sharp; in a marinade it allows the flavors to be available more readily than if the ingredients are in larger pieces.

In the future I might consider a couple of additional modifications. To further emphasize the Asian flavors of the marinade, I’d add a tablespoon or so of toasted sesame oil, and use unflavored rice vinegar instead of white wine vinegar.

Although originally instructed to marinate the meat overnight, I chose to marinate it all day instead, having first scored the meat to increase penetration of the marinade. I think the all day option, combined with the scoring, and the fine grating of the solid marinade ingredients made a reasonable amount of flavor, but without being overwhelming. Besides, I suspect that if this were marinated for the 22 hours suggested (assuming the meat was put to marinate at 9 p.m. the previous night, and dinner was cooked at 7 p.m.), the end result would be practically inedible. It is, after all, possible to marinate meat too much.

I served this as a winter meal with oven roasted potatoes, sautéed mushrooms (given a complementary Asian twist by using sesame oil as the cooking oil, and adding a splash of sake to deglaze the pan), and a red onion jam.

The only “complaint” I received was that next time I shouldn’t score the meat quite so enthusiastically, because the hatch marks were so deep that they caused the meat to deteriorate into quite small bits as it was sliced. I countered with the complaint that I carve a flank steak with more of an angle than was used in this case, thus canceling out the counter-complaint.

The flavor was delicate and subtle, not overpowering, and I think the use of the fresh ingredients over things like dehydrated onion and powdered ginger improved the recipe significantly. Powdered ginger is fine in baking, but not in marinades. And I don’t even own dehydrated onion, nor would I ever use it. To me dehydrated onion is an ingredient found only in Hidden Valley Ranch Salad Dressing Mix and similar products.

Here's the updated recipe, including the modifications I would include in the future.

Asian Flavored Flank Steak
1 approx. 1 lb flank steak
1/4 cup soy sauce (I always use reduced sodium)
1/4 cup white wine vinegar (or unseasoned rice wine vinegar)
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup olive oil
(1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil)
1" piece fresh ginger, finely grated
2 cloves garlic, finely grated
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 of a medium onion, finely grated
Salt & pepper to taste
Combine marinade ingredients in a zip top plastic bag, or a shallow pan. Add flank steak and make sure it's completely coated with the marinade ingredients. Refrigerate and marinate about 12 hours. Preheat broiler and cook about 5 minutes on each side for medium-well.

Serves 2 with some leftovers.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Meat Section

Coming up next is the Meat section. Most of these are my mother's recipes, as opposed to ones I clipped. There are some real dandies in there--recipes that start out with introductions like: "Planning meals for your family is one of your most important duties. If you're like most homemakers, you purchase meat first, then build around this most important and expensive menu item." This was from a newspaper clipping at the end of January for an unspecified year. All I have to go on is the advertisement on the back of the clipping--sliced bacon at 49 cents a pound, hot dogs (or "franks" as the ad refers to them) at 49 cents a pound, and the declaration that whatever store it was had "plenty of free parking" at all of its seven locations in the DC metro area. That would have been when "plenty of free parking" was a sufficient draw for shoppers (no doubt homemakers in search of that most important and expensive menu item).

You'll have to forgive me if this post is a little slow in coming. We're moving on Friday the 14th to our brand new house, and I have almost no cooking utensils that haven't been packed. But I'll get something posted as soon as I can.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fish & Seafood: Shrimp Casserole

“I’m really not looking forward to this, you know.”

That’s what my husband said to me when we were at the grocery store buying the ingredients for the shrimp casserole this week. Yeah, I told him, well, neither am I, but it’s all in the name of scientific research, so buck up. As I mentioned, we don’t have much to choose from in the Fish & Seafood section. This was really the best of the bunch. Here’s the original recipe as written (I say that because I’m not going to indicate every single place there’s a misspelled a word like casserole or tomato—you’re going to have to trust me that these typos are in the original and are not mine).

SHRIMP CASEROLE (Helen Deines Johnson)

2 ½ pounds large shrimp (reserve half a dozen for garnish)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon salad oil

¾ cup Uncle Ben’s rice
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup minced green pepper
¼ cup minced onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon mace
Dash cayenne pepper
1 can tomatoe soup
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup sherry
¾ cup slivered almonds

Cook shrimp. Marinate in lemon juice and oil overnight. Cook rice as directed. Melt butter, sauté onion and pepper. Put all together. Add to rice and remaining ingredients and toss well. Bake uncovered 55 minutes in 350 degree oven. Garnish with remaining shrimp and bake twenty minutes more. Serves 6 to 8. (Caserole improves if refrigerated about 4 hours before baking.)

This recipe came from my grandmother (I recognize the typeface of the typewriter she used for so many years before she bought herself a computer), who got it from her sister-in-law (my grandfather’s sister). I can’t decide about this particular recipe—is it supposed to be a party dish, or an every day kind of thing? Most of the characteristics of it point to the former—it’s made with shrimp, heavy cream, a half a cup of sherry, and it takes over an hour to cook. However, it also uses Uncle Ben’s rice, and a can of tomato soup, which sort of says “short cut” to me, but considering that the recipe is probably from the late 1960s, I guess it’s possible that it could still be intended for “an occasion.” Using canned and convenience foods back then was considered clever. Today they’re so mainstream that we look down on the can-of-mushroom-soup type casserole as being commonplace almost to the point of vulgarity.

I actually made this recipe over the course of three days and, as far as I can tell, the finished product didn’t suffer in any way from this delay in preparation. You’re supposed to marinate the shrimp overnight anyway, and the instructions clearly say that sitting in the fridge for four hours improves the final result. I cooked the shrimp on Sunday, marinated them over Sunday night, made the sauce on Monday and poured the whole thing into a pan, and then baked it off on Tuesday evening.

Let’s start with the ingredient list. The shrimp in my grocery store came in two pound bags, so I cut the recipe down to that amount, and let me say that it’s probably still enough for 6 to 8 people. I cooked and marinated them as the recipe instructs, using canola oil for “salad oil.” That amount of liquid seemed kind of stingy for the huge number of shrimp, but I used what it said. I’m not honestly sure that the marinating did any good at all. I couldn’t tell that they were in any way enhanced by spending all that time languishing in a plastic bag with a splash of lemon juice and oil.

I did use Uncle Ben’s rice, as specified, although I can’t say I think it made a ton of difference. The correct amount of any brand of rice would probably be fine. The only thing I can think of is that this recipe was originally developed by Uncle Ben’s, so that’s why it specified the brand. I also just diced up a whole green pepper and a whole onion, instead of measuring out a quarter of a cup of each.

When we came to the mace, I dug out my little jar of it, and sniffed. It still had some flavor, so I figured it was OK to use. But I did take it over to Alex and ask him to smell it and see if he could guess what it was. He said it smelled weird, and more like poultry seasoning than anything else. When I told him it was mace, I could see that look of trepidation cross his face, and you could tell he was thinking, “What am I in for?”

I sauteed the peppers and onions as instructed.

Then we get into kind of a vague area about what to do with the stuff. The original recipe says “Put all together. Add to rice and remaining ingredients and toss well.” It doesn’t really give any clear direction as to what’s getting put all together, and once you add the rice, which ingredients are then remaining. So for my part, when the peppers and onions were done enough, I added the shrimp with its marinade and let that cook down for a few minutes, then added the seasonings, then added the liquid and let it reduce for a few minutes more.

This particular set of instructions is also a bit coy about just what size dish is best. I used a 9”x13” casserole, because it’s what I had handy, but I wonder if a smaller, deeper one wouldn’t have been better. At this point I covered it with foil and put it in the refrigerator until the next night.

I baked it for the specified time, but it was pretty obvious to me from the results that that was a bit long. It got a little brown. I think it could have cooked for half the time and been fine, considering that the shrimp were already cooked when it went into the oven. I ended up toasting the almonds under the broiler because I was afraid the rest of it would be done to death by the time they were toasted in a regular oven. I also skipped keeping back some shrimp for garnish. I just couldn’t see any way that they were going to add anything of an aesthetic nature to the finished product.

And the big questions—how did it taste, and what did my husband think of it? To be honest, it wasn’t bad. It had decent flavor (doubtless a result of all that heavy cream, and the sherry). The one thing I would say against it is that the shrimp had exactly the texture you’d expect shrimp to have when they get the living snot cooked out of them. I mean, really, they were cooked to begin with in boiling water, then they got baked for an hour and fifteen minutes. They were a little on the flabby side. My husband agreed with me on all these points, but admitted that it wasn’t half as bad as he expected it to be. I think we were both expecting a rice casserole studded with shrimp, and what we got was a casserole of shrimp that had a little rice in the sauce as a binder. I served it with green beans sautéed in butter.

I seriously doubt I’d ever make this again, primarily because of the expense of two (or two and a half) pounds of shrimp. However, it wasn’t such a ghastly mess that I won’t even eat the remaining shrimp. And this could be brought into the modern age with a few changes. For starters I wouldn’t bother cooking or marinating the shrimp at all, but would just add some lemon juice to the pan when I put the raw shrimp in with the peppers and onions. The sauce could probably be made using half and half, whole milk, or even a mixture of whole milk and reduced fat milk, to cut the fat from that source. It might not be quite as rich as the heavy cream version, but it would be healthier.

However, if I wanted something to take to a “Retro potluck” this would be it. It’s impressive (who ever gets to eat that much shrimp anyplace but at a restaurant?), it’s reasonably tasty, and it can be eaten with just a fork so it’s perfect for a buffet.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Preview of Coming Attractions: The Fish Section

The next section in the recipe file is the Fish & Seafood. My family has never been much of a fan of either fish or seafood (my mother was allergic to scallops--or so she claimed. Of course, this "allergy" was discovered on a night when she consumed the scallops with the better part of a bottle of red wine, so I think it's safe to say that her allergy was somewhat suspect), so finding a recipe has been difficult. All the recipes are either for shrimp or crab, and the crab ones all intend for one to use blue crab, which I don't have access to these days. So something shrimpy will be coming shortly. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My Mother's Recipe File/The Modern Apron at Sweetnicks

The blog Sweetnicks has a weekly feature in which Cate O'Malley posts links to recipes that are high in antioxidants, and/or have lots of fruits and vegetables (to help as all eat 5 or more servings of vegetables a day). This week my Penne wtih Chicken and Brussels Sprouts recipe is one of the featured recipes. Head over to Sweetnicks and take a look!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Penne with Chicken and Brussels Sprouts

Since the first recipe from the file wasn’t exactly what I would consider a winner (although it was certainly a good representation of some of the kinds of things that are in the file as a whole), I thought I’d flash forward to a recipe that I clipped and tucked into it. It couldn’t be any worse, and it contains no process cheese spread.

This recipe is from Gourmet’s October 1995 issue, and was one I cut out. I’m a little puzzled as to just what made me cut it out, and also to file it where I did. I think it’s telling of the age of the file itself that it has no “Pasta” section. Because it’s from at least the early 60s, and possibly the late 50s, there isn’t a separate folder section dedicated to pasta recipes. Thus this one, which is for penne with Brussels sprouts and chicken, got tucked into the Salads & Salad Dressings section, but I’m not sure why. One would think that I would have put it in with the other chicken recipes, in “Poultry” but I didn’t.

The reason I’m kind of surprised to find it in here at all is because I don’t think I even liked Brussels sprouts in 1995. I’m not quite sure when I overcame my fear of what is a much-maligned vegetable, but I didn’t think it was this early; perhaps it was. Either way, I’m grateful that I had enough foresight to cut the recipe out and save it, because now I can make it. Because it's credited to a reader, I suspect this was from the reader recipes column (whatever they called it--I forget now, but it used to be one of the best parts of the magazine; that and the column where you could write in about a great restaurant dish you'd had, and they'd track down the recipe for you. Bon Appetit still has both of these, to a greater or lesser degree; perhaps not surprising, since they're sister publications).

I often find myself wishing I’d saved recipes, specifically from magazines, from my earlier life. Oh, it’s true that I have so many recipes in cookbooks and magazines that if I started today and made a new recipe for every breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks a day for the rest of my life (and added no more cookbooks or magazines to my collection) that I might get through everything I have by the time I die (assuming a normal female human lifespan). Lord knows (and so does my husband) that I don’t really need any more recipes. But I’m a little sad, because I like so many more things now than I did then—Brussels sprouts, of course, but also mushrooms, shellfish, squashes, various beans, cabbage, endive, and many other things that don’t occur to me right now. If I still had all those recipes I disregarded because they had mushrooms in them, who knows what hidden gems I might find?

The upshot of this is that I now save all my cooking magazines intact. I have no idea where they’re all going to go. Sooner or later we’re going to run out of storage, and I’m going to have to bite the bullet and weed out some of them, but right now I’m enjoying the idea of having them all as resources, choices, a source for new discoveries.

But back to the pasta with Brussels sprouts and chicken. This recipe serves 4 to 6, but since I was making it for lunch for two, I halved the recipe. The only thing I didn’t halve was the Brussels sprouts, for two reasons. First, the more vegetables the merrier, and second, I knew that by the time I got done trimming and peeling off bruised leaves, I’d take them down a good quarter of a pound anyway.

Here are the primary raw ingredients (work with me here; it’s hard to make raw chicken breasts look good, no matter how good a photographer you are. And I am not a particularly good one, as it happens).

The premise of this recipe is that the chicken gets coated in flour and cornmeal, sautéed a little, and finished in the oven. The Brussels sprouts get blanched and sautéed in butter. The pasta gets tossed with the Brussels sprouts and a healthy dose of grated Parmesan cheese, and then the chicken gets sliced and stirred in. This seemed like a good lunch dish, because we often don’t eat much for dinner. With four kids who need to eat and go to bed before 7:30 p.m. it’s very hard to get them all fed, pajamaed, brushed, washed, and tucked in, and still do any kind of serious cooking for ourselves. Having a more substantial lunch, and then relying on more of a snack dinner, seems to be a better strategy.

I started by trimming the Brussels sprouts and, as predicted, they were reduced to a reasonable amount for two people. I blanched them as directed. A word of advice, don’t discard the leaves that come loose during cooking. Since these get sautéed in butter, they’ll be delicious. One of the best Brussels sprouts dishes I ever had was at a restaurant called the Four Swallows, where my aunt took me for my birthday last year. They served duck breast in a cherry-port sauce, with a side of sautéed Brussels sprouts, but they had peeled them into individual leaves and sautéed them in butter so each one got a little bit of caramelized crispiness on it, and was gently bathed in buttery flavor. I’ve since made them at home and I can recommend them highly. Deconstructing them like that makes them less threatening to those who are timid about Brussels sprouts.

I dredged and sautéed the chicken, and I must say, I thought it turned out beautifully.

I tucked it in the oven for the final baking, and it was perfect after 8 minutes. So often I find that recipe recommendations don’t live up to real life, and it always takes about 30% longer for anything to cook than the recipe says it should. But this was spot on, and they were perfectly done. I set the chicken aside and deglazed the pan with the chicken broth. A word of warning, something which I almost learned the hard way, but managed to avoid just in time: remember that this skillet you’re using has been in a 400 degree oven for the last almost ten minutes. From this point forward in the recipe, you shouldn’t touch the handle unless you have asbestos hands.

The butter melted quickly and the garlic almost got too brown. Rather than leave it in, I scooped it out and tossed it. I love garlic, but sliced garlic in big pieces is too much if you happen to bite into it while eating the finished product. There was a subtle garlic flavor that was sufficient. I let the Brussels sprouts sauté a little bit longer than the recommended two minutes, because I wanted them really caramelized.

Then I added everything else to the pan, as the recipe says, and added an extra squeeze of lemon juice for good luck (and Rachael Ray, kiss my ass—I saw a show once on which she suggested that you squeeze the lemon with the cut side facing the ceiling because the seeds wouldn’t get into your dish that way. I tried that one time and fast found out she was full of it—of course they get in there; I squeeze the lemon over my cupped palm and let the juice trickle off to the side. The seeds get caught in my hand, and the juice neutralizes any garlic or onion flavor from prep I might have done earlier). I had forgotten to reserve the pasta cooking water (I never remember to do that), so I just used chicken broth instead. I figured since I was using homemade chicken broth, it would be fine (it was).

Here’s the finished product. It’s just hard to make something like this look pretty. But it tasted good.

Next time I’d cut the chicken in smaller pieces, or perhaps serve it over the top of the pasta and Brussels sprouts in the dish. The sauce is more of a glazing, rather than a true sauce. It didn’t take long to make—half an hour, perhaps. Also, half the recipe was ample for four people. My husband and I each ate a reasonable serving, and there’s still plenty left. It’s quite filling, between the pasta, the chicken and all those Brussels sprouts.

Penne with Chicken and Brussels Sprouts
recipe from Gourmet magazine, October 1995
originally credited to Chris Amirault, Milwaukee, WI

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 teaspoons dried thyme, crumbled
2 teaspoons dried sage, crumbled
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornmeal
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 whole skinless boneless chicken breasts (about 1 ½ pounds total), halved
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chicken broth
¾ pound penne or other tubular pasta
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large saucepan cook Brussels sprouts in boiling salted water 4 minutes, or until just tender. Drain Brussels sprouts in a colander and transfer to a bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking. Drain Brussels sprouts and transfer to a bowl.

In a small bowl combine thyme, sage, black pepper, and salt. In another small bowl combine 2 teaspoons herb mixture, flour, cornmeal, and cayenne. Rub another 2 teaspoons herb mixture all over chicken and dredge chicken in the flour mixture, shaking off excess.

In a 12- to 13-inch heavy ovenproof skillet heat oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and sauté chicken 3 minutes on each side, or until golden. Put skillet with chicken in oven and cook 8 minutes, or until cooked through. Transfer chicken with tongs to a cutting board and cool 5 minutes. Add broth to skillet and deglaze over high heat, scraping up browned bits. Pour broth mixture into a small bowl. Cut chicken diagonally into ¼-inch-thick slices and cover with foil.

In a 6-quart kettle bring 5 quarts unsalted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water and drain pasta in colander.

In the 12- to 13-inch skillet cook garlic in butter over moderate heat, stirring, until pale golden. Add Brussels sprouts and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes, or until pale golden. Add pasta, chicken, remaining herb mixture, broth mixture, lemon juice, ½ cup Parmesan, and ½ cup reserved pasta cooking water and toss well, adding remaining pasta cooking water if desired. Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup Parmesan over pasta.

Serves 4 to 6.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Elka Eckfield's Cheese Ball

In combing through the Appetizers, Soups & Sauces section of the recipe file, I stumbled on a recipe that I think is even better than the Liptauer or Mushroom Hors d’Oeuvres. Elka Eckfield’s Cheese Ball. Looking at the recipe, it perfectly encompasses everything about the kind of cooking that symbolizes its era.

Dick and Elka Eckfield lived across the street from my parents when I was in preschool. They had a daughter named Tammy, and there was a sort of subtle three-cornered rivalry between me, Tammy and a third little girl on the street, Victoria. Inasmuch as we were only two or three years old at the time, there wasn’t much malice or venom involved, but I remember some hurt feelings here and there. I think our mothers may have had some influence—my recollection is that my own mother was very fond of Victoria’s mother, but not so fond of Elka (although apparently she was sufficiently tolerant of her to get her recipe for cheese ball and keep it for 30+ years).

The other thing that’s notable about the Eckfields is that they had another daughter when I was about two and a half or three, and I remember that being the first time I recognized that families could have more than one child. I was an only child, Victoria was an only child (her mother had a son from a previous relationship, but he was quite a bit older than Victoria, and didn’t live with his mother, so for all intents and purposes, she was an only child). When Tammy’s little sister Monica was born, I remember not being able to comprehend having a younger sibling. It just didn’t make sense, somehow. In later years I was to long for a sibling, but at the time I just couldn’t get my head around the concept. Here was this baby, and it was never going away. It wasn’t like it just came to visit. It was theirs. Forever. Now to return to the topic at hand.

Cheese balls are classic 1970s food to me. This one especially, by virtue of the ingredients in it, just screams 70s. It tries to be sophisticated and gourmet, but it just can’t resist the siren call of “convenience” products. I had a conversation with my grandmother about cheese balls and she said she’d had some recipes for them that called for, oh, a little mustard, or maybe some Worcestershire sauce, and those don’t sound too bad to me. Or maybe they just don’t sound too bad in contrast to the recipe Elka gave my mother. This recipe has but three ingredients.

Aren’t they lovely? They are, from left to right, Roquefort cheese, cream cheese, and a jar or process cheddar cheese spread. (And let me note for the record that the name of the product is, in fact, Process Cheddar Cheese Spread not processed; I have a hard time with this, because I feel it’s grammatically incorrect, but I’m not going to bother arguing with Kraft about what they call this stuff.) I had no difficulty finding the Roquefort or the cream cheese, but the jar of process cheese spread had me flummoxed. I looked all over the store. I suspected it might be with things like canned oysters and sardines. Nope. Then I checked over by pimentos, capers, and Other Oddities Packed in Vinegar. Not there. Finally I was reduced to asking where to find the Jarred Process Cheese Spread. I felt the way I’m sure fifteen year old boys do when they’re buying condoms for the first time. Or, come to think of it, the way fourteen year old girls feel when they’re buying tampons. You hope that the person you’re asking, or who’s checking you out, doesn’t think they’re for you. You hope very hard to convey the impression that these are for your mom, or your friend; you wouldn’t need anything like this.

Here’s the exchange between me and Jamie, the very nice inventory clerk at Central Market:

Me: Hi, I wonder if you can help me find something…

Jamie: Sure, what is it?

Me: Well, this is kind of embarrassing, and I can’t actually ask for this without cringing, but, uh, do you carry jarred process cheese spread?

Jamie: [pointing straight ahead of where we’re standing] Sure, right down there by the crackers on the top shelf; see it?

Me: [smiling] No, because I don’t have my glasses on, but I’m sure as I get closer to it, it’ll come into focus. Thank you!

Jamie: No problem.

It took every ounce of my reserve not to explain just why I wanted jarred process cheese spread (“You see, I write this blog…”) because I knew he didn’t really care. And as hard as I hoped he would think it wasn’t for me—maybe I had some wacky neighbor for whom I was picking up a couple of things—of course he knew it was. So I bucked up and moved on.

Now we come to the actual making of the thing. First of all, I kind of stretched the truth when I said there were only three ingredients. There are really four, with the fourth being a cup of ground pecans. The instructions say to have all the cheeses at room temperature, and then mix them together. The original recipe has all sorts of strange underlines (converted to italics for the purposes of this post) by way of emphasis.

“When all cheese are soft—mix them together well—put in refrig till a little cool
then form a ball on wax paper—after ball is formed roll in pecans—cover all of outside.
Carefully wrap in wax paper—place in bowl or similar container—keep in refrig.
Can make ahead a week.”

I left the cheeses out on the counter for about an hour to soften; and then used my mixer to combine them well.

Then I put the whole thing in the refrigerator and let it cool until the next day. This had more to do with my schedule than my concern for getting the ingredients really cool. It worked out fine, however. When I removed the bowl from the refrigerator, I realized I didn’t have wax paper, only parchment paper. Despite this obvious departure from the instructions, I was successful in forming the cheese into a ball. What the directions don’t say is what to use to make this ball. I looked at the pile of mixed cheeses on the paper and realized that the only thing that was going to cut it was my hands. I have no aversion to using my hands in cooking, but somehow the idea of molding cheese with my hands seemed odd. Hamburgers, sure; biscuit or bread dough, naturally; cheese? Weird. I guess it’s because in the normal course of cooking, one doesn’t usually shape cheese. I’ve made molds that used cheese, but I spread the cheese into the mold with a spatula.

Once I had formed the ball, I rolled it in the pecans I had ground up in the blender. This created more of a pecan dust, but I wanted to stay as true to preparation methods from the time as possible. I know for a fact that my mother didn’t have a food processor in 1973 (if in fact anyone did), and she would have ground her pecans in the blender. In any event, the pecan dust adhered to the cheese ball with no difficulty.

What I did wonder as I was rolling my cheese ball around in the pecan powder was just how many people this thing was intended to serve. The card gives no indication of how many servings might be intended from the proportions given. I made a half recipe and the resulting ball was the size of a softball. I’m a little afraid to think of how big a full recipe would be. I only made a half recipe because I didn’t want to be eating cheese ball for the next six months, the Roquefort cheese was $9 as it was (for a little over 3 ounces), and the jar of process cheese spread I bought was only 5 ounces, as opposed to the 10 ounces called for in the recipe.

Here’s the finished product:

This really didn’t taste like much other than Roquefort cheese. You could hardly tell the cheese spread was in there, which was kind of disappointing. I mean, if you’re going to make a recipe using something as low rent as jarred process cheddar cheese spread, you sort of expect it to have some presence, some reason for being in there, other than to ensure that you get your RDA of things like sodium phosphate and apocarotenal (color).

But cheese balls were very popular. I suspect because they came together quickly (without chilling time, it took me just under a half an hour to make this one), served a lot of people (in the case of Elka’s, I think a full recipe would serve half the population of Kansas, by conservative estimate), would be fairly cheap to make for a large group (mine cost about $15, and would easily have fed 15 or 20 people), and required little in the way of fancy serving equipment. They can be set out at room temperature, and about the only other things you need are crackers and a cheese spreader. In the past few years I’ve heard that cheese balls were out (evidently Ruth Reichel made that declaration in an interview), and that they were in (Amy Sedaris, the actress and sister of the hysterically funny David, apparently has a business that makes them and delivers them all over Manhattan with great success). I suspect Ms. Sedaris’s cheese balls are better than mine, because based on my own experience with this one, I can’t see why anyone would bother with them.

To conclude this I will tell you two things—first, that the cheese ball never really saw the light of day after it was rolled in pecans and photographed. I put it back in the refrigerator to keep (until when, I have no idea), and because my fridge is so small and crappy, I was forced to kind of balance the plate on some other things, and the next time I opened the door to get something out, it rolled off the plate and fell on the floor. It hit with a solid “thud” and I scooped it up and tossed it in the trash can. My husband asked me yesterday how it had turned out, and I explained its flavor and its fate. He said he would have liked to have tried it, just to see what it was like. I admitted that I could have just cut off the part that hit the floor (because it just dropped, it didn’t roll across the kitchen or anything), but that I looked at the fact that it had fallen on the floor as an excuse to toss it. Second, the jar that the process cheese spread comes in, once the label is removed, makes a surprisingly attractive little vase for a large bunch of short-stemmed flowers. I can’t say that I would have bought the spread just for that, but it’s a nice side note, and a bright side of having to buy the stuff in the first place.

And here, for anyone who wants to make this, are the proportions of the ingredients as written, along with the instructions rewritten and with emphasis removed:

6 oz. Roquefort cheese
10 oz jar process cheddar cheese spread
12 oz. cream cheese (or 4 – 3oz. packages)
1 cup ground pecans

When all cheeses are soft, mix them together well. Chill until somewhat firm. Using your hands, form a ball on wax or parchment paper, then roll the ball in the ground pecans, covering the outside of the ball well. Wrap the ball in wax paper and place in a bowl (or skip the wax paper and just place the ball on a plate), and refrigerate. Can be made up to a week in advance.

Serves probably 30 people.