Friday, March 15, 2013

Roasted Onion Salad

This is a simple and yet tasty recipe that makes a good side dish.  I don't think it really works for what we call a "salad" today but it sure is good, especially if you pair it up with a roasted meat dish or a grilled steak.

I found this dish in the book The Medieval Kitchen by Redon, Sabban, and Serventi.  (Here's a link to it on; I don't own a copy:

The recipe:

Take onions; cook them in embers, then peel them and cut them across into longish, thin slices; add a little vinegar, salt, oil, and spices, and serve.

This is my favorite way to prepare it.

It is well-suited for an historical cooking demonstration because you simply take the onions (sweet are best but any will do) and roast them in the fire.  I have never just put them in the embers because I find it more visually interesting to put them on skewers where people can see them.  Every once in a while I turn the skewer so the onion roasts evenly all the way through.  The onion is done when it is very soft and is trying to slide downhill on the skewer.

Making it at home is just as simple:  I put the onions in a pan (this catches the drips) and put them into the oven at about 350 degrees F for an hour or two.  In other words, I slow cook them until they are very soft and squishy.

This makes the onions tender and sweet, without that classic onion bite at all.

All done
In either case, when they are cool enough to handle, I peel and slice them. 

I prefer to use just a decent balsamic vinegar and a little grating of nutmeg.  It is also fine to put in some black pepper and a little salt.  I only use oil (olive oil) if I feel the flavor of the onions is a little flat -- mostly I like the clear mild onion flavor without the olive-y boost.  Whatever vinegar you use, make sure it is mellow enough to enjoy "as is".  You don't want a harsh tang when you eat these.

You can consider the advice on the bowl, too!
Nowhere do I give measurements for the vinegar and nutmeg.  I recommend that you splash on a little vinegar, scrape or shake on a little nutmeg, toss the whole and taste it.  Keep doing this until you get that delightful balance of flavors that tickles your tongue.  Different onion varieties and different vinegars will give different results, so you might as well practice analyzing what your taste buds are telling you.

The Verdict:  Success, of course!  I've used this dish many times over the last several years.  The only mistakes I've made were not cooking the onions until very soft, thus leaving behind some of the harsher onion flavor (it is better to cook them "too much" rather than "too little"), and putting on too much balsamic vinegar, so that all you can really taste is the vinegar.  You can drain off the excess and try to mellow it out by adding other spices and the olive oil.  Perhaps you can rinse off some of the vinegar, too, although I've never tried it.

The recipe direction for "longish, thin slices" is a good one.  Large or wide slices put too much onion in your mouth all at once, which I find feels like I am drowning in onion.  The smaller slices are easy to eat with a fork or even medieval-style, using your fingers.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dueling Cantaloupes, The Return Fire

The first recipe for Cantaloupe Pie from Dining in the Diner did not work out the way I think it was intended.  Now is the chance for the second recipe, this one from The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, to have its shot.

On page 90 and dedicated to Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African-American women to earn a bachelor's degree in the United States (, is the recipe.

Cantaloupe Pie

1 large canteloupe [sic]
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large pastry shell

I didn't put the pastry shell in the picture

Cut canteloupe [sic] in halves, remove seeds, cut up pulp and put into a double boiler with sugar.  Mix cornstarch with a little cold water and add to canteloupe.  After mixture thickens add beaten egg yolks and salt and cook a little longer.  Cool  Pour into baked pastry shell.  Spread with meringue made from egg whites and 1/4 cup sugar, flavored with lemon.  Brown meringue in oven at 325 degrees.  Cool before serving.

My Process
Instead of cutting up the pulp, I put the peeled, chunked cantaloupe through the shredder of my food processor.  After all, it worked so well for yesterday's recipe!  It takes very little time and I appreciated that.

When I added the sugar, I stirred until it was all dissolved before I added the cornstarch solution.  Also, I had the double boiler already simmering before I put in the cantaloupe.

It took a long time to cook the mixture in the double boiler.  About an hour, with me occasionally giving it a stir and checking on the temperature.  It was the longest thickening-with-cornstarch experience I have had!  The nice part is I didn't have to worry about overcooking the cornstarch and losing the thickening feature.

It was a little hard to tell when the mixture was thick enough to add the egg yolks and salt.  When I looked at the pictures it was obvious -- before it was thick it looked juicy and afterwards it looked creamy.  The cornstarch, when first added, made the mix look cloudy but that only went away a little bit once it was cooked since the cantaloupe juice is somewhat cloudy on its own.

Getting hot but still liquidy

It looks thicker

But I guessed when it was thick enough and then cooked the mixture about five minutes longer once I added the yolks.  Then I put the whole thing out on the counter to cool before I put it into the refrigerator.

There was more filling than would fit the crust so I tasted the leftovers.  Oh my!  What I got was a fresh cantaloupe flavor, lightly sweet, and very appealing.  The previous recipe was sweeter and a little more cloying and, although I originally liked the nutmeg flavor in it, in a re-taste, the nutmeg was more of a shocking flavor than nice.  I definitely liked this version's flavor better.

After an hour or so in the 'fridge the mixture was cool enough and thick enough I was willing to put it into the crust.  Then the entire pie went into the 'fridge with hopes it would get solid enough to be viable.  I figured I would put the meringue on later.

It took several hours but it looked thick enough to warrant putting on the meringue.

Then I browned the meringue first in the 325 degree oven (for ten minutes) as suggested, which dried it nicely but did not do more than brown the tips.  So I switched it to under the broiler and was pleased with the results.

It went back into the 'fridge to chill out before the grand taste-test.

The Verdict
I would call it a "success"!  Although the filling was not as thick as I'd like it to be, it was still thick enough to cut and maintain its shape.  It took another day before I felt like the juicy part was starting to soak through the crust, although that was not a bad thing.

I liked the flavor -- still fresh and not too sweet -- much better than the first recipe.  There was more filling than would fit in the crust, so I got to eat that separately (another treat!).  My guess is that our modern cantaloupes are bigger on average than what was available in the 1940s to 1950s and that is why I had so much trouble getting the filling to thicken correctly.  If I made this again, I would add more cornstarch.  I would would also consider using a puree of cantaloupe to see if I liked the smoother texture better.

Either way, the flavor was lovely, especially if you like cantaloupe, and I do.

I would recommend this recipe over the first unless you really love the flavor of nutmeg.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dueling Cantaloupes, The First Shot

I recently reread one cookbook (see the Feb 2013 post, "Lemon Smothered Chops") and acquired a new old cookbook.  Both had their versions of a recipe that caught my eye, cantaloupe pie.  Doesn't that just sound weird/intriguing/curious?  I decided the only thing to do would be to make them both and compare their processes and results.

I started with the recipe out of this book, a new one to my railroad cookbook collection, Dinner in the Diner by Will C. Hollister.  It was published in the early 1980s and discusses many rail lines including the Texas and Pacific Railroad which was first organized in the 1870s.  The text on page 127 says, "Among the delicious dishes favored on Texas and Pacific dining cars has been cantaloupe pie, the recipe for which is given here." (Page 128)

ISBN 0-87046-011-0
 Cantaloupe Pie a la Texas and Pacific

1 well ripened cantaloupe
2 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup cold water

The eggs are for the meringue

Strain juice from seeds of the cantaloupe and put meat of cantaloupe through a ricer.  Preserve both the meat and juice.  Pour this mixture into a sauce pan and add the cup of cold water.  Place on stove and boil for five minutes.  Mix flour and sugar together and slowly add to the hot mixture, stirring constantly.  Add the butter and nutmeg.  When the mixture is cool, pour into ready-baked pie shell and cover with meringue.  Brown in oven.

For Meringue:  Whiles of three eggs (well beaten) with one teaspoon sugar.

My process
I don't have a ricer so I put the peeled and chunked cantaloupe through the grater of my food processor.  I think it achieved the same goal.

There wasn't much juice with the seeds until much later, after I had already started cooking the mix. 

The recipe wasn't clear about how to handle the heat after the cantaloupe had boiled for five minutes, so I turned it down to low for the rest of the steps.

I'm not sure how slowly I should have added the flour/sugar mix but I did make sure each part was well-mixed before I added another.

After getting the whole mix cooked and blended, I let it sit on the stove top to cool.  It never got any thicker than soup.  This would not do for a pie filling.  One cut and it would all leak out over the pan, if it hadn't already soaked through the crust!

Soupy.  Not good.

I thought perhaps I needed to cook the filling longer, to give the flour a chance to thicken it.  So I brought it to a boil for three minutes and then let it cool again.  I even put some of it in a little dish into the refrigerator to see how it would thicken.  Again, it didn't get thick, not even the chilled portion.

At this point I would call the recipe a failure!

Not wanting to just toss the whole thing out -- after all the flavor was lightly sweet and cantaloupe-y with just enough texture from the shreds -- I mixed in one tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with 1/8 cup of water, and brought it to a boil again, this time for two minutes.

The mix was definitely thicker.  But even after having it sit in the refrigerator overnight, it did not get thick enough to put into the pie crust.  Perhaps I should have used two tablespoons of cornstarch.

I think it would a wonderful topping over vanilla ice cream so it won't go to waste.  Tomorrow I will try the other recipe!