It was a bittersweet end to 2007.
Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises", one of Ruth's favorite paintings
Bitter because my husband's mother quietly passed away that New Year's Eve after a long struggle with pulmonary fibrosis that left her breathless but never helpless.
Sweet because she was a strong proud woman who had always lived life on her own terms and when an emergency hospital visit made it quite clear she was going to have to completely surrender her hard-fought autonomy in order to continue on, it seems like she may have finally decided she'd rather check out of this world than check into a nursing home. Her moxie knew no bounds and she would have been miserable in that environment.
84 years of living life her way was too strongly ingrained to let her choose any option that would not allow her complete control over every aspect of her life ; or so it seems to me. She had managed to live as she wanted to until almost the very end in the comfort of her own home surrounded by her favorite things (she was a bibliophile with bookcases that lined every wall of her small 4 room apartment), eating all her favorite foods - most of which had been prohibited by her doctors but her poor nurses who were hired to tend to her need round the clock wouldn't dare disobey her commands - better to risk being fired for incompetence by the visiting M.D. than incur Ruth's ire when her sweet tooth needed satisfying.
Unfortunately, my husband and I were on the other side of the country at the time of her passing. We were in Mayacama, a lovely resort at the foothills of the Sonoma Mountains with friends - 1-1/4 hours away from our San Francisco home. She was in New Jersey, the place she lived a lifetime. Her roots would never be fed by another soil. New Jersey was home.
Our last conversation with her was the day after Christmas, when among other things, she asked how our traditional Christmas dinner of which she was inordinately fond (roast pork, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut) turned out. Ruth lamented that her own Christmas dinner had been ill-conceived by hospital nutritionists and poorly executed by hospital cooks. It was definitely not up to her standards. She was a woman who relished every meal and maybe the prospect of a New Year's Eve of healthy but flavorless meals was more than she could bear. I wouldn't be surprised. If you were old, sick and in tremendous pain with only a bowl of Jello to look forward to after a long day of suffering, you might say "no mas" and give up, too.
Though she never called herself German, or even German-American and, when asked what her ethnicity was, simply said, "American" with a hint of vehemence in her voice as she shot the enquirer daggers from her steel gray eyes, she had a certain amount of pride in her German heritage. She grew up in a Depression-era America, one that did not welcome with open arms the wave of German immigrants fleeing Hitler. Being a "Kraut" back then got you spit on by the children in the working class neighborhood she grew up in, and was not something she and her family ever openly embraced. They did their best to assimilate their manners and tastes to suit what they considered the more homogenous Yankee way of life, except on holidays, when they celebrated their heritage the way all American immigrant families did... at the table set with their homeland's culinary delicacies. Sauerbraten, rouladen, Weihnachtsgans (the traditional Christmas roast goose), spätzle, stollen, and of course, sauerkraut all adorned the table during their festive season.
Ruth truly enjoyed fine cooking and dining. She was an expert cook, and natural gourmand. She considered the culinary arts as important a thing to be cultured as the fine art and literature that she oversaw when she acted as the Director of Cultural Affairs for Bergen County, a job she held until the last month of her life. We never did get to call her to wish her a happy new year. She died too early on New Year's Eve morning. I remember waking up at an ungodly 4 a.m. to what I assumed was a vision of my husband opening the resort suite's bedroom door. Except it wasn't him, at all... He was lying next to me in bed. It seems that his mother (for whom my husband bore an uncanny resemblance) came to say goodbye to us... I only wish I had cooked her last meal for her.
I've created these recipes in Ruth's honor because she was so fond of food writing, was the person who gave me my first subscription of Food and Wine, my first copy of the London Philharmonic's Bach Brandenburgh Concertos, my first coffee grinder to grind the Kona coffee beans she insisted I must try, my first steamed asparagus bundle wrapped with a chive ribbon - which I thought was the most elegant parcel I had ever unwrapped - and the first person to teach me the advantage of mustard and horseradish on a beautiful strip of beef. This is an intimate dinner for two that could easily feed four just add 2 more potatoes in the oven. Voila!
Here is what I would have served her a classic All-American meal with an elegant twist just like the woman who inspired it! Here's to you, Ruth.... with love:
Chilled Prawn Cocktail with Sriracha Sauce and Meyer Lemon Oil
Note: This starter couldn't be simpler. It's a small twist on the classic that I came up with because I found I had no ketchup. I did have Sriracha sauce (even Safeway sells it now) & a great olive oil from San Rafael infused with Meyer lemons called O Olive oil that uses California Mission olives & so a new recipe was born. We had just driven back from Mayacama & I was exhausted, so I took a shortcut and purchased amazingly pristine steamed & chilled prawns from Whole Foods from their seafood section, not the prepackaged ones in the refrigerated cooked food section, but prawns that had been freshly steamed & offered alongside the raw shrimp. These were enormous about 12 to the lb. I usually poach my shrimp with their shells on in a court bouillon but hey I was tired and one less pot to clean made these pretty cooked shrimp that much more appealing.
- 12 large prawns (about 1 lb.) that have been cooked, peeled and chilled
- 1 Tablespoon of sriracha sauce (Vietnamese hot sauce) plus more for plating
- 1 Tablespoon Meyer lemon infused olive oil (or a fruity olive oil & the juice of half a Meyer lemon) plus more for plating
- 1 Tablespoon of cream-style horseradish
- 1/2 cup of low-fat mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons of creme fraiche (or sour cream)
- 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard
- a pinch of freshly cracked black or white pepper
- 1 teaspoon of soy sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon of thai fish sauce
- 1 Meyer lemon, cut into quarters ( reserve 2 quarters for garnish)
- a few sprigs of chervil (optional for garnish)
- 4 marinated spicy cherry peppers stuffed with feta (optional for garnish)
Carefully pat shrimp with a wet paper towel to remove any debris, then pat dry with a dry towel and reserve.
In a small mixing bowl, combine mustard, sriracha horseradish and pepper. Add mayonnaise, whisking well to combine. Add creme fraiche, combining it thoroughly with the mayonnaise. Add soy sauce & fish sauce, whisk well. Whisk in the olive oil. Taste for seasoning. Is it too fatty or bland. Add more sriracha, pepper or mustard. Check consistency. Is it too thick? Add a squirt of fresh lemon juice. Is it too thin or too spicy? Add more mayo and olive oil. You're in control.
Divide the shrimp between two (or four) plates. Fan them out allowing them to slightly overlap. Add a dollop of the cocktail sauce. Place the pepper over the shrimp. Drizzle a little olive oil from the bottle over the shrimp. Then place little drops of the oil around the dollop of cocktail sauce. Using the sriracha squeeze bottle, place small drops of sriracha on top of the drops of oil. Garnish with a sprig of chervil & a wedge of lemon. Done.
Serves two hungry people or four average revelers.
Standing Beef Rib Roast with Horseradish Crust, Sauteed Haricot Verts with Shitake, Pancetta, Shallots
Note: This is an entree that always pleases carnivores. It's impressive to see and smells divine as it cooks but couldn't be easier to make.
Make sure you get your oven hot (500 degrees to start) ahead of time so the crust will crisp up. I use panko but you can use any dry unseasoned coarse breadcrumbs or make your own. I like mixing the panko with a little freshly ground sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, dried herbes d'provence and thyme. You can use your own favorite spice mixture. After I pat the panko on the roast to create the crust I spray the crumbs with high heat baking spray to ensure that the crusts gets crisp & not soggy.
I also make a simple garlic aioli from garlic cloves & extra virgin olive oil that I mix with the cream-styled horseradish & Dijon; then I rub the paste all over the roast & let it stand at room temperature for 1-1/2 hours or so depending on the size of the roast but you can skip the garlic if you don't like it on your beef.
As for the spuds, pierce the center of two large russets with a knife once not all the way through, pop the potatoes in the oven directly on the rack 1 hour and 10 minutes before serving. Fill with creme fraiche, truffle butter & season it to taste with salt & pepper
A 2-1/2 lb. roast (about 1 rib) will easily serve four people but you'll have to fight for that rib bone & will have an awkward time dividing it evenly which is why I'll say this recipe serves 2. Of course, I think the bone should go to the chef as a reward for all the hard work but I'm a little biased on this point. A 5lb. roast (2 ribs) may be a better choice for four people & you can always make delicious prime rib sandwiches or tacos with the leftovers for lunch the next day.
- 2-1/2 lb. beef rib roast (about 1 rib)
- 1/2 cup panko crumbs (available in the Japanese section of your supermarket)
- 1 Tablespoon of herbes d'provence
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
- 1 teaspoon of paprika
- 3 Tablespoons of cream-style horseradish
- 2 Tablespoons of Dijon-style mustard
- 2 Tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed
- freshly ground salt & pepper, to taste
- a splash of wine
- a splash of beef stock or veal demi-glace
- 1 tablespoon of unsalted European style butter (it has a higher fat content)
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees and place oven rack in lower third of oven. Make sure you have an oven thermometer in place to better gauge the actual oven temperature.
Remove roast from refrigerator (an hour before cooking). Set it in its roasting pan on a trivet, bone side down.
Prepare seasoning for the roast:
Make garlic aioli & horseradish paste by placing crushed garlic in a mortar & adding a pinch of salt while pulverizing garlic with a pestle. Continue adding tiny grinds of salt and small amounts of olive oil until an emulsion of garlic forms and all the oil is used. Add the horseradish and the mustard to garlic paste until well combined then season with fresh cracked pepper. Taste to adjust any imbalances in the mixture. Set aside.
Combine panko, paprika, salt, pepper, & all the herbs in a small bowl. Mixing well to season the crumbs. Set aside.
Thickly smear the just prepared garlicky horseradish mixture all over the roast. Gently place the now seasoned panko on the top of the roast (where the fat is) using a fork to sprinkle it on and your fingers to pat the crumbs into place making sure to use the horseradish paste to help the panko adhere to the meat.
Spray the roast with baking spray (or high heat vegetable spray) from at least 6 inches away.
Let the seasoned roast stand at room temperature for at least an additional 30 minutes before placing it in the hot oven. If you have a small apartment & an inadequate fan in your range hood, like I do now, open all the windows & doors and turn the hood fan on high before placing roast in the oven. Cooking this cut of meat will set off the smoke alarm if you don't ventilate the area well.
Once in the oven let the roast cook for a minimum of 15 minutes at 500 degrees until the bread crumbs become toasty then lower heat to 375 and cook for an additional 30 minutes or until its internal temperature reaches 130 degrees for medium rare (check with a meat thermometer after 30 minutes by inserting it into the center of the thickest part of the roast away from the bone). When roast is 130 degrees remove from oven and allow it to rest in a warm spot (remember, it's internal temperature will continue to rise as it rests) before carving while you make the green beans and the jus.
Place the roasting pan over two burners on high heat and add a splash of whatever wine you happen to be sipping at the time along with a splash of beef stock or veal demiglace to deglaze the pan. Be sure to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan & reduce the liquids until the jus achieves a viscous syrupy consistency then remove from heat and add the butter, swirling it into the sauce until fully incorporated & the sauce is thick and glossy. Taste for seasoning & adjust accordingly.
Sauteed Haricot Verts with Shitake, Pancetta, Shallots and Veal Demiglace
Note: The title of the recipe says it all. The shitake & the veal demi made it into the French green beans because I was too lazy to prepare the shitake sauce for the prime rib that I intended to make and opted for the jus instead. Waste not, want not so a new variation of haricot verts was born. Haricot verts are young green beans that are very tender & require no more than a 2 minute blanch before the saute. Be sure to prepare an ice bath of 90 percent ice & 10 percent water in a large stainless steel mixing bowl to stop the cooking process and keep a vibrant green color. This is nothing new but please take the trouble to do it. Once the green beans are cool, remove them from the ice bath so they don't get waterlogged and pat them dry with a clean dry towel or paper towels. The last thing you want is a face full of splattered hot oil because your green beans are wet & soggy.
- 3/4 lb. of haricot verts, stem end trimmed
- 1 ounce of pancetta, cut into small dice or lardons (your choice)
- 1/3 lb. of small shitake mushrooms, stems removed & sliced
- 1 large shallot, sliced thinly
- 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil plus more as needed
- 2 Tablespoons of veal demiglace
- freshly ground sea salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 Tablespoon white truffle butter (optional)
Set a medium-sized saucepan with salted water over high heat to boil. When the water reaches a roiling boil, add green beans & cook no longer than 2 minutes.
Drain green beans and immediately plunge into ice bath. cooling and drying according to note.
Place a 12 inch cast iron enamel coated saute pan (you know how I feel about Le Creuset, by now) over medium high heat, add pancetta and fry until fat is rended and pancetta is crisp.
Reduce the pan to medium and add olive oil, when heated (about 45 seconds) add the shitakes, stir for 1 minute, check for dryness adding more olive oil as needed then add shallots saute until shallots are translucent and shitakes have softened. Add cooled green beans & saute until veggies are well combined and beans are warmed then add veal demiglace allowing it to melt in while stirring until incorporated & it coats the vegetables. Remove from heat, stir in optional truffle butter and serve immediately.
Truffle Tremor Cheese
Well.... I must admit... I did not make this cheese. It's a cheese from Mary Keehn, the woman who brought you Cypress Grove's remarkable Humboldt Fog, and needs nothing more than a crusty warm baguette brushed with a little cold pressed olive oil, a few caramelized apple slices, raw honeycomb or ripe and peeled persimmon slices to end a holiday meal. Make sure to remove it from the refrigerator an hour before serving so it oozes onto whatever you choose to serve it with and eat it rind and all. You don't want to deprive yourself of any little bit of it.