Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I should have linked to this when it was the featured item on the front page last week, but it's still up anyway: my first freelance article in Culinate. Thanks to Helen at Beyond Salmon for suggesting I submit.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Odd and ends

Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker on a really local New York meal. Better than his stuff has become of late - I enjoyed him once, but have found the last couple years a tough slog through entitled yuppiedom. I am sure there are plenty of people who would put this essay in that category, too, but I can't resist the vegetables grown in manure from the Bronx Zoo.

I read so many food blogs, I've forgotten from whom I stole the idea of combining fresh corn, pancetta and sage, but whoever it was was onto something. The original version was based around butter, and lots of it, but, though I love butter with a true, deep and abiding love, I'm trying to drop a few pounds, so I went with olive oil. Of course, such dietary concerns did not prevent me from using pancetta, but one slice only, chopped tiny, browned and drained. Then four ears-worth of local corn, some minced sage, and heat. Put it to the side, then brown some scallops, and serve them on the corn. I liked this very much.

Made this summer's freezer pesto over the weekend, and threw the extra over tortellini last night. Was reminded yet again that I really prefer pesto in a secondary, not leading, role. Pesto and goat cheese as the stuffing for a chicken breast is great. But pasta with pesto-pesto-pesto is just too much pesto for me. Ah, well - it was quick.

Read Bananas last week, which I recommend. It's a quick read and pretty damned entertaining. The cultural history part is a bit weak - at points the author just lists songs with "banana" in the title and so on, but the history of the importation and selling of the fruit - the physical challenges, the political issues and the marketing aspects - was interesting and well-told. Just in case anyone doesn't know, bananas are by far the most popular fruit in the U.S. But not the most prized - people rarely cite bananas as their favorite fruit; they're just ubiquitous. People do love their banana bread, though. By far the search item that brings the most people here is "best banana bread recipe." Odd, don't you think, given how very many places on the internet likely claim the best banana bread recipe? Anyway, I finished the book with a powerful craving for banana muffins, banana cream pie, and the banana split at the East Coast Grill (roasted bananas with mango ice cream and raspberry sauce). I had to go read Fatland to prevent an outbreak of gluttony.

It worked: I ate a raw banana, then lay in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking of all the sugar I've consumed in my lifetime and waiting for the diabetes to kick in.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Youtube and Food

I spent many sunny hours of my youth that probably would have better been spent riding a bike or throwing a Frisbee inside, watching cooking shows. Julia, of course, was the queen of all, and I can still waste untold hours in her company. (Buy the DVD box sets and keep them around for the next time you're stuck on the couch with a cold - you will NOT be sorry). But there was also the slightly-creepy-but-informative Jeff Smith, the loud Cajun guy with the suspenders, and some less-memorable and shorter-lived PBS on-air cooks. Today, of course, the Food Network is superhot, and sometimes I feel like a bad foodie for not knowing a damned thing about those people. I don't have cable, what can I say?

But I do have YouTube. And the cooking goodies there are not to be beat - in the best internet style, you can find home videos of people in their kitchens, snippets from the big cooking shows (probably illegally posted), old educational films about food, and random weirdness.

First, great actor, and amazing dancer, and cook? Why every girl loves Christopher Walken (despite finding him, you know, scary.)

Solar cooking:

Cooking terms - a 1950s educational film. Corny, but surprisingly practical and informative for a novice cook. My favorite line: "At some time during your career as a cook, you will decide to serve scalloped cauliflower." You will, indeed.

And finally, foods on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair:

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Upside down, boy ya turn me

I like making upside down cakes. I like eating them, too, but making them is just as pleasurable. I feel the same way about pies - rolling the dough, laying the top on the filling, all so soothing. Which is why the film Waitress was about pie, and not, say, Danish pastries, which is far more enjoyable to eat than to make. But upside down cakes are fun. You cook the sugar and the butter a bit, then lay out the fruit very nicely, then make a basic cake batter and pour it over, simple, then bake. Finally, the great moment, when you turn the completed cake out of the pan and the top is revealed, all sugary and glistening, the fruit displayed in all its glory.

The Cooks Illustrated recipe is great, and that's the one I use when I want a basic butter cake, though sometimes I just use their proportions and technique for the topping, then switch a gingerbread cake in for tha base. The fruits they expect people to use are pineapple, pear, peach, apple or, interestingly enough, mango. I've made the pear version many times (that's the one that always gets gingerbread), and the peach once, though I can't say that would be a favorite use for a good summer peach. Make cobbler. It's better. Anyway, Cooks's list represents the most popular choices for upside down cake.

The results of an entirely unscientific study of upside down cake, via Google:

Peach upside down cake - approx. 289,000
Pineapple upside down cake - approx. 207,000
Apple upside down cake - approx. 12,400
Mango upside down cake - approx. 2,320
Pear upside down cake - 753
Fig upside down cake - 179 (about to be 180! Take that!)

Besides the surprising fact that there must be places in world where peaches are used more often for upside down cake than pineapple is, what these results tell me is that 1) not enough people are making or eating upside down cake and 2) people who are making it are stuck in a rut. Try something new, people. It's easy. It's good for you.

I decided to use figs* because I'm so fond of them caramelized - just sprinkled with sugar and touched with a torch. I figured upside down cake is a more elaborate way to get that flavor of caramelized sugar together with fig. I also added 3/4 teaspoon of cardamom to the cake batter, because my only issue with plain butter upside down cake is that the cake part alone can be a little dull (I'm not a cake person, really.) Cardamom marries well with figs, so in it went. And I think it worked out well - certainly the people who were eating it liked it enough to go back for seconds. My friend's little girl gave her special finger-to-the-cheek signal for yumminess, the highest of accolades.

*Figs may not be in season in New England itself, where only a few stubborn Portugese and Italian immigrants nurse their potted trees through the cold winter, but they are in season. They only appear on the shelves here for a few weeks out of the year. Get them while you can. If you're in Boston, this is the time of year to go to the Haymarket, where you can get little plastic containers of seven or eight figs for a dollar, far cheaper than the 99 cent per fig price at the grocery stores.
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hey, it worked!

I was watching a show at my parent's house in which a pair of British women go to disgustingly dirty homes and clean them. Which sounds dull as hell, but these houses are really, really dirty, and the voyeuristic pleasure is high. Also, the ladies wear rubber gloves with pink feather trim. And they give out little cleaning tips. I was mesmerized - I could have watched this for hours (I don't think the rest of the family had the same response). Anyway, one tip they gave out was so intriguing I had to get home and try it out right away. Here it is: use meat tenderizer to remove that nasty, baked-on, hardened grease that builds up on old pans. I tried it out on a Pyrex loaf pan that had become discolored from years of baking bread and, um, meatloaf.*

Not surprisingly, it didn't work quite so well as the British ladies implied, but it did work. The grease softened to the point of becoming removable, given a little soap and elbow grease. The pan actually looks almost new.

Never let it be said that television isn't educational.

*I don't do this any more - meat loaf comes out better baked free-form. But I didn't always know this.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Blog, blog, blog all the live-long day

I'm trying to get back into the habit of blogging by doing daily diaries this week, but unfortunately I lack photos and content for today. So some random musings:

Mad Martha's article on pasta salad this month begs the question: what is a salad anyway? If all the vegetables are cooked, and even the sauce would taste fine warm, aren't you just eating cold pasta? I can't say that I'm enticed by the idea of cold wilted greens on pasta, but generally I'm a big fan of pasta salad. The secrets to a good one, in my opinion: lots of vegetables, preferably including a few unexpected ones (raw corn is good); lemon juice not vinegar; plenty of salt in the pasta cooking water; good oil.

The locavore purists hurt the cause. Fussing over whether spices count and so on looks like insanity to outsiders. Then you end up with people convinced that we're going to ruin the economy by not allowing for imports and exports - according to at least one person commenting on an article about the Vermont locavores, Floridians won't be able to buy maple syrup and Vermonters will end up with scurvy if these crazy liberals have their way. So, let's reiterate: it's all about proportions. Vermont should export maple syrup, and it's fine for them to import some orange juice. But why should they import apples? Why should Britain import and export almost equal quantities of lamb? A sane approach would be maximizing regional food security by maximizing local production and diversification of production for local consumption, while still depending on some imports (the quantity of imports needed will depend on the region's own resources). This seems pretty obvious, but clearly when people for whom local eating is a new idea hear about it, they assume the point is extremism. Don't feed their fears.

Plums are better than peaches, at least in New England. I can't stop eating the local plums.

I could give up everything else sweet as long as I could eat ice cream every day.

Tammy at Food on the Food gets funnier all the time.

The weather is starting to turn a little cooler - at least at night. That makes me happy. I'm starting to get the cooking itch...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reclaiming the kitchen, Part Two: The Infestation

I was in denial at first. When I opened the cabinet and a moth flew out, I was convinced it had somehow gotten blown off-course and accidentally ended up trapped in the cabinet. Alone. Without a single mothy friend.

Of course, deep down I knew. The single-moth-theory has the same credibility as the single-mouse-theory. Bad things come in groups. There's never just one ant or cockroach or mouse or moth or neo-con. Once you have one, you can count on an infestation.

In my apartment-renting experience, I have been mercifully spared cockroaches, ants and termites. But I have suffered from mice, the moths that eat your sweaters, the moths that eat your oatmeal, tiny gnats that swarm up from the sink drain in August, fruit flies, and even once, god help me, rats. Or rat. Actually, I believe that may have been the one case of a lone pest. I had just moved into an old house across the road from a stream, and when the landlord was finally convinced that I really, truly had seen a rat - no, not a mouse, a rat, damnit! - he set out poison, the rat was found dead in the basement, and I was bothered no more. But that's beside the point. What I'm saying is that I am no stranger to pestilence. And, while the ick factor and the I'm-going-to-stand-on-this-chair-and-scream-like-Lucille-Ball-until-someone-kills-that-thing factor are far lower with pantry moths than with rodents or even swarms of fruit flies, the fact is that pantry moths have it on everyone for tenaciousness. Getting rid of the things is hell.

First off, you have to throw out food. A lot of food.
Posted by Picasa

(Why did I have three containers of oatmeal? I have no idea.) I find the tastes of pantry moths strange to say the least. I understand their fondness for oatmeal and popcorn. But Penzey's Northwoods Fire Seasoning? Isn't that a little hot for mothy palates? Several bags of good pasta and a couple boxes of cheap pasta were ignored, despite being open and available. But one particular bag of wide noodles was full of the little buggers. They didn't get into the wild rice, but they did get into the chocolate. They apparently love lapsang souchong tea, but not green tea or red zinger. I don't understand.

After you throw everything out, you have to wipe down every surface with a bleach solution and hope to kill off some of the eggs. Of course, you won't get them all. Some will be lurking somewhere, ready to come back and make Pantry Moth: Resurrection.

Since I had to clean out the pantry anyway, I decided it was time to do some other maintenance as well. Summer is a time of pantry-neglect - while vegetables and fruits are ripe and fresh, who thinks to restock canned goods? But then you end up not having the tomato paste that would liven up the dressing for the pasta salad or the capers you need for the tartar sauce for those crab cakes. So I wanted to do an inventory. Also, I had some stuff that was, um, old. Really old. There was a bottle of fish sauce three years past its sell-by date - which is bad enough, but it was also one of TWO bottles of fish sauce, which I use so rarely each one had only an ounce or so missing. Okay, away with the moth-infested and the ancient. Wipe down all the jars and cans. Vacuum inside. Lay some contact paper over the thirty-year-old unfinished plywood shelving. Then restock. Voila!
Posted by Picasa

(Not the whole of my dry good back-stock, of course, but the main center of the operation. Baking is a satellite cabinet.)

In case you're wondering what I consider pantry essentials (and I would love to know what other people consider pantry essentials), I'll tell you:
Canned tomatoes, whole and diced
Canned and tubes of tomato paste
Chicken broth (for when I run out of frozen homemade)
Marinated artichoke hearts
Jars of roasted peppers
Cans of coconut milk
Cans of tuna (for sandwiches)
Jars of good tuna in oil (for salads and pasta)
Cans of smoked sardines
Cans of salmon (for desperation dinners)
Chickpeas, white beans, black beans
Chipotle peppers in adobe sauce
A good array of vinegars
A few premade sauces/marinades (I always have a couple around, like the Carribean hot sauce sold at crafts fairs by a local woman and the local maple syrup and fig sauce I picked up somewhere - good when you lack imagination or time)
Rice, wild rice, steel-cut and rolled oats, kasha
Pasta and lots of it
Vegetable oil, olive oil, toasted sesame oil, and those fantastic Boyajian citrus oils
Soy sauce, fish sauce
Honey, maple syrup
Peanut butter
And of course, all the baking stuff - sugars, flours, baking soda, etc. Spices, extracts. Cocoa, condensed milk, tapioca, cornstarch. Molasses.

Them's the basics. I also have a lot of odds and ends in my pantry, as I discovered while cleaning it out: a can of haggis (a gift from someone, and not meant as a joke, believe it or not), a bottle of birch syrup (so intriguing, but what do I do with it?), two cans of escargot, a tiny container of plum paste, a huge jar of Russian plum butter (I do love plums), a jar of chestnuts, a bottle of key lime juice.

I figure someday there's going to be a disaster of some kind - the avian flu pandemic or just a really big Nor'easter - and I will be sitting pretty. Admittedly, I'll have to figure out how to make a dish out of chestnuts, escargot and coconut milk, but I'm sure I'm up to the task.

Monday, August 13, 2007

5 second rule

The Washington Post takes a look at the 5-second rule. Something to consider - when I was in culinary school, pretty much everyone was down with the 5-second rule. Except, of course, the people who had worked at big fancy-pants restaurants in New York. They preferred the 5-minute rule. It makes a gross sort of sense, actually - the more expensive the restaurant, the more expensive the ingredients. A cook can afford to toss a 20 cent hamburger because it touched the floor, but a loin of venison? No way. And this is why I prefer home-cooked meals.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Reclaiming the kitchen, part one

So, there are a number of reasons I haven't been posting much, but the one big, overwhelming reason is that I just don't cook that much any more. It's summer. It's hot. I get grumpy and lazy. I've been hiding in my air-conditioned bedroom, eating cherries, cereal and ice cream, letting the kitchen itself bake under the beating sun. You see, my kitchen is a later add-on to a Civil-War-era building, and it isn't particularly insulated from the elements. In the winter, it's cold, in the summer, sweltering. So even cooking that's really just chopping - the gazpachos and salads and sorbets that make up the backbone of summer food - is rather unpleasant. Who wants to stand in a sweatbox and chop vegetables? I order pizza, eat it at my computer. Swear quietly. Remember that summer will eventually end, and there will be a day - good God Almighty, there will! - when I can braise again!

So of course, I figured it was time to paint the kitchen. I wasn't using it, after all.

The smart person might point out that painting a kitchen is a far, far sweatier job that making gazpacho in it. This is true. But my kitchen-resentment had reached a boil, so to speak. For my kitchen was not only hot. It was ugly.

"Ugly, you say?"

Yes. Truly, deeply ugly. Behold.

Posted by Picasa

Now the heart of the hideousness is clearly the walls. Whatever possessed a whole generation of landlords to cover endless walls in plastic, brown, faux-wood-panelling? I can live with the always-dirty-looking-even-after-I-just-washed-it linoleum. I can live with the Office-Space-drop-ceiling-of-despair. I can even live with the rust-crusted stove that tips forward so much sauce pools in the front of pans (NOT SHOWN for the protection of your innocent eyes). But the panelling was making me crazy - a sort of Grossman's Discount Buildling Supplies version of the Yellow Wallpaper.

So I painted, heat and all. Generally, I'm not a big fan of the "slather everything in white paint and be done with it" approach to decorating, but given the limitations of my rental, this was the best option. I painted those brown walls white. I also used white paint on two bookcases and a cd rack that I had left neglected because the whole faux-wood-panelling thing left me too despairing to bother with trying to make anything else in the room nice. I painted the distressed blue cabinet (which had worked in an earlier apartment, but not here), the girliest of pinks. Why? Because I'm a girl who lives alone and I can, damnit! I threw out most of the stuff under the "sideboard" (really a desk I scavenged from the sidewalk and topped with a great piece of granite my old roommate got for me from some friend who worked at a quarry) and took off the tablecloth that had been hiding the mess. I took down some of the excess from the walls. I hung white shelves to match the white walls. I hit Target, TJ Maxx, Marshalls and AJ Wrights (nothing but the best 'round here) in a desperate search for affordable, decent looking curtains. I gave up and bought some calico for $3/yard and made the world's simplest cafe curtains. And here it is, my new kitchen, the $120 remodel, a fine example of nana-chic:
Posted by Picasa

The current fad for kitchens is some weird boardroom/factory/Tuscan villa cross. Lots of expensive masters-of-the-universe materials like granite and cherry, combined with brushed steel appliances of a size and quality intended for 24-hour-a-day production lines, and everything "softened" by the application of a bit of yellow wash on the walls and a few cans of olive oil. The design magazines are full of these places, and they bore me to tears. The message they send is one of power and money - I can afford the same equipment I see in the restaurant kitchens featured on the Food Network, I can afford to put tropical woods in places that will daily get splattered with tomato sauce. Blah, blah, blah. In contrast, the message of the white-painted kitchens of our grandmothers was both more modest and more impressive: I can keep this shit CLEAN.

Ever since I painted the table white, I've been wiping paw prints. I had no idea the cats spent so much time on the kitchen table in my absence. Now I have the dirty, dirty evidence. I'm worried about anyone coming into the apartment without notice: Hiu, nice to see you, come right in, just give me a moment to wipe down the kitchen table, because you. Have. No. Idea.

It could send a girl running to a table made of wood from destroyed rain forests.

But overall, I really, really like my white kitchen. It's pleasant and bright and cheery. It says: want a cuppa? It says: there are cookies if you want one. It says: dig in. And I like that.
Unfortunately, I wasn't done. There was another problem with the kitchen, something besides aesthetics that was driving me back to the pizza shop. And that was the pantry and, ahem, its resident moths.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Good article

in Salon about local, seasonal food and who needs it most.