Saturday, December 13, 2008

Forensic Recipe Reconstruction/Pumpkin Sauce

It is no secret that I have spent much of my time learning from my elders. I began with my own grandparents and have sought out the old men and women all over the world that hold the food traditions of their region in their heads and hands. So many things are not in cookbooks but are integral to the taste of the dish as made by these cooks.

One thing that I love to do is help people get into writing tastes and flavors they remember from those who had passed on. I call this service Forensic Recipe Reconstruction. By asking a multitude of questions, not only about the tastes and textures of the finished dish but the heritage of the person who prepared it I can often re-create the dish and put the steps on paper, much to the delight of the descendants.

I had one recently that was almost too easy. I got a phone call from a young man who had lost his grandmother. He was trying to re-create her fried chicken, he had watched her make it at least 100 times, he had written down the herbs and spices she used. Each time he made it it was ALMOST what he wanted and his frustration was palpable. After I asked him a few questions about his grandmother I asked him if he ever saw a coffee can near the stove.

"Yea, it would go from the stove to the refrigerator after breakfast every day."

Fry the chicken in bacon fat, not vegetable oil.

He did and called me back overjoyed. THAT was grandma's chicken. He had learned every step except what fat she had used.

Another query was not so simple.

A young man called needing his Mother's recipe for 'sauce'. To his mind her Tomato Gravy was the best in the entire world, the only thing she made for him and her meatballs beyond compare.

The sauce variations are so personal I warned him that this would be the hardest recipe to re-create and I could easily fail. We might never know.

I got all the information from him I could including approximate cooking time based on the fact that she would leave work at noon to make this sauce. I looked in her cupboards for clues and they were almost devoid of seasonings, I opened a drawer and found a plethora of receipts from grocery stores. I asked if I could take them too look for clues. He agreed.

As I went through the receipts the answer became clear. In addition to all the frozen meals, twice a month there was a receipt for Ragu and chopped Gilroy garlic, along with Swedish meatballs from Ikea. Based on the shopping times I could see that the sauce simmered for no more than 90 minutes.

I went shopping, dumped it all together and invited him to taste. He almost cried, saying that I had it exactly. After he cleaned his plate I told him the 'recipe'. He was infuriated, claiming that I had ruined the memory of his mother and I shoulda kept my mouth shut. He never paid his bill and later sent me some hate mail.

The following is a successful recipe reconstruction from a Perugian Grandmother who made a pumpkin sauce for ricotta stuffed Ravioli. After a couple of tries I got the sauce down and made the grandson happy. This is really a delicious fall recipe.

1 1/2 cups pureed pumpkin
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
20 fresh sage leaves finely chopped
2 cloves fresh garlic finely chopped

Mix together and warm, pour over ravioli or double recipe and use as a sauce for an all cheese lasagna.

Instead of cheese to garnish try a few roasted ground hazelnuts.


Paul green said...

I really admire your concept of forensic recipe reconstruction.

With the need for both parents to work these days, we have lost many of the recipes and techniques of our "scratch cooking" grandmothers. The coffee can of bacon grease is a perfect example. The memories of those foods warm the heart.

BTW, I'd sure like to hear more about your experiences with Bulgarian cuisine.

Anonymous said...

I have known Karl for decades now, and we are both feeling the passage of time in our knees and hands, but not in our hearts or our love of cookery and sitting down to chatty, happy dinners. . .

It is great to see Karl's blog is exactly like Karl: generous, talkative, enthusiastic and spot on as far as food is concerned.

We are sooo lucky he's going public.