Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Results of the Experiment

Our un-biased tasters gave the meal a two thumbs up. One reviewer came to the table and said, "Is this all we are having for dinner?", expecting several dishes to be on the table. The very biased creator thought that scaling back on the lemon peel and increasing the fennel would inprove it. Also, a couple of grates of romano cheese wouldn't hurt either. More collards, I ony put a little in, it could have used a little more color. We had watercress, onion and carrot salads to go with the roll up.


It’s four’clock and I’m pausing for my tea. No soccer or meetings this evening, so we are having a real family dinner. I’m experimenting, he, he…

I had half a Boston butt roast in the freezer, an assortment of veggies and a yen for bread. So this is what is in the works:

The Boston butt roast is in the pressure cooker turning into pork to shred, it is depressurizing at this point. Since my daughter is picking up finicky ideas from other kids, visible hunks of onion are out, so I put one into the food processor with some fresh carrot, six cloves of garlic and some frozen bits of collards that are taking up too much space in the freezer. I tossed in salt, black pepper, fennel that had been crushed in the mortar, lemon peel, a bit of thyme and a little of my not-so-secret flavor enhancer, Vietnamese fish sauce. The bread ingredients that I put in the bread machine an hour and a half ago will be ready soon. I’ll shred the pork, roll out the bread dough, and layer the pork and veggies on the bread dough, roll it up, glaze it with beaten egg and bake it.

I'll post the critical reviews of it later.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stinky Cheese

Stinky Cheese
One of my flavor quirks is that I like stinky cheese. I like to be able to un-wrap cheese in the kitchen then turn my back and still be able to smell it. Whether it is blue, runny, ripe, etc., I love it. So, when I discovered that I am allergic to cow’s milk I was horrified—how was I going to eat my cheese? I am very thankful that sheep’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses are now readily available in the US, but very pricey and often very stinky.
I will not forget the day I walked up to the cheese counter in Whole Foods and told the attendant, “What do you have in stinky sheep and goat’s milk cheeses?” His eyes lit up, a Cheshire smile formed as he leaned down into the case to present the varieties of fragrant dainties he had to offer. He looked at me as if I was about to be initiated into a secret society and was about to test my mettle. He did not know that I had been a card carrying member of the Stinky Cheese Society for years, but you get more samples if you play the initiate. The samples were exquisite; it appeared that I had passed his initiation as he set aside my choices. The prices stretched skyward, but I chose two small slices to take home (one was coated with ash) and meditate over with fruit and nuts, because sometimes I just need to be alone with my cheese.
Sometimes I share. Yesterday, my wedding anniversary, my husband brought home something in just the right size and color, ½ lb of blue, Roquefort, to be exact. He also picked out a neutral beige slice of aged goat cheese buche to accessorize. The man knows how to shop in all the right places!! I pulled out the dried fruit and nuts and arranged them with the grapes he picked up on his way home and placed them on the table next to the candles. The goat cheese on dates with a pecan amalgamated into textures and flavors that produced sighs on two sides of the table. My daughter, sitting on the third side chose not to become a stinky cheese initiate, just yet. She may have spied a possessive glimmer in my eyes when I offered her some and decided not to take the risk. Tonight after we have put her to bed we will slice some pears and meditate together.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fall Garden Beginnings

The first planting of green beans is about four inches high, the second planting just went in this afternoon. My daughter and I just planted a good sized section of carrots, since we eat tons of carrots and fresh juicy garden carrots are distant relations to the fibrous supermarket carrots. Collards, kale, gai lan, bai tsai,bok choy, mizuna, komatsuna, daikon, and rutabagas will be planted in two to three weeks when the temperatures start staying in the eighties instead of the nineties.


Walk through any supermarket checkout line and read the covers of the magazines.

In a magazine with a triple layer chocolate cake with white chocolate and raspberry ganache and a very thick layer of dark chocolate frosting photographed so that you can almost taste it, is an article about how to lose thirty pounds by the holidays. Feel set up for failure? You are, they sell more magazines that way.

My nephew, a very perceptive 14 year old, who got the food obsession gene from both sides of the family, pointed out that inside the fancy cooking magazines there are advertisements for quick to prepare, highly processed foods that are the antithesis of gourmet cooking. They are products in which ingredients are bought by the shipping container load, with laboratory synthesized flavorings and then overcooked in processing. Confused? Me too.

Magazines about living a purer more connected life advertising food made in factories. Is highly processed organic food an oxymoron?

Things I that leave me scratching my head:
“Franken-chicken” nuggets, with beef flavoring. Have a burger if you want beef.

Drinks that look like window cleaner. Appetizing aren’t they?

Sports drinks? If you aren’t training for a triathlon or trying to be the state champion of your chosen sport, why drink beverages that taste like chemicals? (This is a heretical statement here in Gainesville, birthplace of the most famous sports drink!)

Powdered lemonade, real lemonade has three ingredients, and has the same preparation time. Why drink flat tasting stuff made with thirty unpronounceable mystery ingredients?

Artificial strawberry anything.

Tofu hot dogs, I guess I just have a problem with a food pretending to be another type of food. I like tofu, I like hot dogs (and, yes, I know what they are made of), but tofu hot dogs are just silly and for that matter nasty tasting.

Jumbo anything (except elephants, but they don’t qualify as food for any living culture, that I know of) More of mediocre to bad food is a bad thing, isn’t it? Particularly egregious: muffins bigger than softballs with a day’s worth of calories, monster calzones, just order an unsliced pizza with quadruple everything then fold it in half…I must mention that a restaurant in town has Japanese bento meals, American style, of course, and the bigger version of any of their platters is called a Hippo Meal, now that’s honesty!!

Fellow foodies, please add to my list of stuff that just doesn’t make sense, tastes nasty or is just silly. I don’t watch television, so my list is very limited.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Little Ceremonies

It's late afternoon, I've made myself a cup of mint tea and I'm thinking about the time when I realized that I am continuing a tradition, going back, ummmmm, a few years:
Why do you always have teeeeeeeeeeeeeah? My college roommate whined in her nasally Boston suburb accent with her nose and her little finger in the air.

I was puzzled, I was just having a snack. “What do you mean?” I replied, scrunching my brows together.

“Every day at four o’clock you stop everything, make a pot of tea and have cookies.” Pointing her nose farther into the air, “You’re so English.”
“You do it all in a certain order, you put the kettle on to boil, never use the microwave, you wait for the water from the faucet to get hot, you rinse out the pot, pour it out, put the tea into the pot, which is inches away from the kettle, place the cup on the table with a plate with two to three cookies on it with a sugar bowl and the pitcher of milk. You get something to read and arrange it all on the table. The water boils and you pour it into the pot and place it on the table. After a few minutes you pour yourself a cup. You sit, read and drink tea for about a half hour. Everyday it is the same. You have teeeeeeeeeeeeeeah.”

I thought was just getting a snack to hold me until dinner time and taking my first real break of the day. It was my meditative time. I never considered it as part of my heritage.

Reflecting on my time at home with my family, every afternoon when my mom was home she would take a bit of a breather with a cup of tea, once in a while with a cookie, before beginning to cook dinner.
When she was working at the hospital, I did exactly the same thing. I came home from my after school activities, made myself a cup of tea, rested a bit and then cooked dinner.

On Saturdays, it was more of an event, because my dad was home. We’d be doing some projects around the house and around four o’clock he’d seek everyone out and ask, “How about a cup of tea?” There would be an extra bounce in his step if someone had made a pie. He would put the water in the English electric teakettle (bought in England in the 1970's while on vacation), which he had run special major appliance wiring for because it was 220v. In about a minute, the water would be heated (thanks to the extra electricity), the cups, napkins, sugar and milk placed on the table, with the cookies or pie ready. In a few minutes an announcement passed through the house to come have our tea and something sweet. I don’t ever remember any of us raising our little fingers, though.

It was our transition from our busy afternoons to our evening time. The world could wait a few minutes until our cups were empty.

I realize now that a little ceremony, a cookie and some tea might be what my daughter, husband and I might need to help settle in for the evening.

Besides, it’s our heritage.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Noodling Around

A few days ago when some friends came over for dinner I decided to try making whole wheat noodles with the four kids old enough to help, ages 2 ½ to 7 years old. I made the dough (the weather was finally perfect and they were playing outside with the chickens, otherwise they would have helped make the dough), and called them to wash up and to help stretch each individual noodle by hand. They had contests to see who could stretch the longest noodles, hanging them on the backs of tea towel covered chairs for comparison. The longest appeared to be slightly over 2 feet long. The two year old had the technique, but not the patience for the task, so he made pretty lumpy noodles, but when he wasn’t looking we thinned them out a bit, so that they would cook evenly. The noodles were cooked and served in 4 cups of chicken broth with a teaspoon of Vietnamese fish sauce, chopped scallions and grated carrots. The kids, beaming, would hold up a noodle from the plate and say,” I made this one! I can tell because…” There were no leftovers.
Last night I made dumplings of my own sort. I started with the recipe for Kazakh noodles in Beyond the Great Wall, I tweaked the dry ingredients.
My goal was to increase the fiber content and to vary the wrappers nutritionally, and just to experiment with the besan flour for the heck of it. I have twice made the regular noodles with the whole wheat flour substitution and they came out well, so I decided to go the next step and try to make dumplings with it.
1 ½ cups of whole wheat flour
1/4 c besan flour (chickpea)
1 ¾ cups of white flour
1 t salt
2 eggs
¾ c water
Mix dry ingredients. Add eggs and water stir until it makes a dough. On a well floured surface. Divide into four balls; flatten each to a long narrow rectangle that is about ½ inch thick. Cover with plastic wrap, and then a towel. Let it rest for 30 minutes.
For me there was no rest, I made the filling.
For filling
10 oz ground turkey
2 slices of apple smoked deli ham, minced
¾ of a cup of leftover cooked carrots, mashed
1 leftover boiled egg, mashed
2T garlic chives from the garden, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced

I cut the rectangles into eighths. My daughter rolled out the wrappers, while I made the sauce. I made a basic white sauce, but substituted 1c of chicken broth for 1 cup of milk, for seasoning my daughter added our favorite garlic/herb seasoning, 2 good shakes.
Then she stirred the sauce while I filled and sealed the wrappers. We boiled them until they floated in a saucepan filled with water and sauced them and added Romano cheese to our taste at the table.
When it was all placed on the table my daughter was resistant to put the sauce on the dumplings, but with encouragement and referral to a movie she once saw, where a rat combined flavors to create new and more complex flavors, she gave it a try. She hesitantly broke off a small piece and dunked it in a small puddle of sauce. Her eyes flew wide open and she dunked it a second time, and made what we call nummy noises. Success!!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Regional Impulses

I went into a Korean market today. I needed both a kimchi fix and a little lunch to tide me over so that I could complete my errands. I filled my basket with cucumber kimchi, rambutans, lychees, spinach and some mung bean sprouts and headed for the register. While waiting my turn I checked out today’s selection of foods that were freshly prepared in their kitchen. Today included chap chae, a dish with transparent sweet potato noodles, spinach and bits of beef, a Korean comfort food; spicy fish cake, which doesn’t taste fishy, and has a neat texture and flavor that my daughter can’t resist (me either), sushi-like rolls with seaweed, rice, eggs, vegetables and “krab”, spicy tofu with scallions, which is very spicy and filling, and a rice cake lightly sprinkled with black beans and shreds of pumpkin. I chose the chap chae and fish cake for my lunch.
After it was all rung up and paid for, I weakened and asked the cashier to ring up the rice cake also. It was my adventure for the day. It wasn’t the type of rice cake that you find in a plastic bag in the cereal aisle. It was a moist, dense, cake-like snack with just a hint of sweetness. It had a very pretty look to it, so I had to give it a try. It was a nice finish for the salty and spicy lunch, very simple. There are enough leftovers of noodles and fish cakes from my lunch to get my daughter fueled up for soccer this evening, so I don’t have to cook if I don’t want to tonight.
I love to check out the food kept by the register in other small markets and convenience stores. Growing up in Southern New England, with its huge Italian population, I thought that all convenience stores had pizza strips next to the register. Pizza strips are rectangles of pizza dough that are about 12 inches long and 3 inches wide, which have a slightly sweet tomato sauce with little puddles of grease, but no cheese, they are utter simplicity and very delectable. They are typically found with a layer of grease soaked waxed paper between the strips.
When I lived in central California the registers all had corn nuts and churros by the register. I haven’t seen corn nuts in many years, so I just did a web search and they still seem to exist, but clearly not in the stores I frequent. Lime & Chile flavor was my favorite. In Pennsylvania I remember baked goods being in that same spot.
Around here in Florida it seems that pickled eggs in bright red brine and boiled peanuts fit the bill for the regional impulse buy treats. I haven’t gotten my courage up yet for the pickled eggs the brine just looks unnatural, but the boiled peanuts’ were less of a leap, their texture and the salt are good for nibbling on the go, if you aren’t the driver.
I just got a book on inter-library loan about dumplings, I may have to read it, test it and write about it in the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

We're Jammin'

I eat grape jam about four times a year, other family members eat much more of it, but it is me who plans the annual trip out to the u-pick to fill our buckets with grapes.
We got up early on Sunday as planned, slapped on the sunscreen and big hats, had a quick bite and were out the door as the fog was burning off, which meant we were leaving just a little later than we should have.
At the vineyard, there were two other families already there, one, clearly early risers, were leaving. As we exited the car the farmer started pulling out the picking buckets for us. He directed us to the variety that most jelly makers prefer Ison, rather than Black Fry and we headed out to the vines. Muscadine grapes are different from any other grapes I have ever seen. They have the dark skin and gelatinous insides like the Concord, but they are almost the size of a small plum. Every year I marvel at their enormity.
We each took our bucket and we headed for the far end of the vineyard, hoping that the fruit would be less picked over since it was a longer walk. There was plenty of fruit, some of it had already gone by, but there still was a huge amount of perfectly ripe fruit left on the vines. We started to pick. Knowing that the fruit hangs down below the vines where you cannot see it, I crawled underneath. I checked for fire ants, finding it clear, I kneeled on the ground. The grapes were just above my head, as I tried to ignore the thoughts of the giant Florida spiders as the leaves brushed my hair. I began to pick, just barely touching the ripe ones as they fell into my hands and then into the bucket.
I picked some and then tossed one into my mouth. Immediately, I was transported back to 1970’s Massachusetts, to the grape vine alongside my grandparents’ driveway with my cousins running around with my sisters. The flashes continued for the rest of the day as the scents, sights and smells nudged my memory.
My daughter ran amongst the vines, picked a few grapes, studied the bugs and chattered more than the squirrels. Between the three of us, we picked two and one half buckets of grapes, weighing in at 16.06 lbs. They were a bargain at $1 lb.
We brought them home to begin the jam and juice making. The scent of the grapes in the big stock pot as they warmed was my time machine back this time to my mom’s steam filled kitchen in Rhode Island, with newspapers spread all over the table, with the food mill, big pots, pans, ladles and spoons and boiling mason jars. My kitchen right down to the style of the food mill was the same, except we used a dark colored towel instead of newspaper to catch the drips, because we read the news on-line. The cutting board turned a glorious shade of splotched purple, just as I remembered.
My daughter clearly enjoyed extracting the juice from grapes, “Squish this!” was an instruction I did not have to repeat or encourage, it just happened. I filled the mill with hot grapes, she rotated the pestle until the skins were dry and the pot underneath was filled with thick juice, and then requested more to squish. She seemed to know when the next batch from the stove was ready to squish, because she would disappear for a while, but as soon as the food mill was prepped for more she was right there, purple pestle in hand.
The whole hot, steamy, messy affair tangibly produced six pints of jam and three quarters of a gallon of juice, which will probably end up as jelly, since none of us drink much grape juice. The intangible products will have to wait thirty or so years, when my daughter craves connection to her past and the past of the women before her,and buys herself a food mill.

I use a cone shaped mill with a cone shaped pestle, there are many types which can be found in antique shops for about $40,or in the church thrift shop where my mom socializes weekly for about $3, I understand that she practically dove across the room to get it for me when it came in.

Janet's Grape Jam
Adapted Recipe from Ball Blue Book:

2 quarts Muscadine or Concord Grapes
6 cups sugar

Wash and de-stem grapes.
Place in a stock pot and cook over low heat until the grapes begin to burst.
Place some in a food mill set over a large pot. and process until the grape skins are nearly dry and the juice ceases to flow. Repeat until this procedure until all grapes are processed. (I don't have the patience for the process in the book of separating the skins and pulp and processing separately, apparently my mom doesn't either, because I know she has never done that)

Add sugar to the pot of juice. Bring slowly up to heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Then bring to a boil and stir frequently until it reaches the gelling point, the spoon that you stir with will cool and it will gel on it, then it is ready. Skim foam. Pour jam into sterilized canning jars leaving 1/4 in head space and process 15 minutes.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

It's The Breakfast Inquisition

My daughter and husband went out to breakfast this morning. My husband loves to eat breakfast out, it is one of the little luxuries of life for him and he wants more than anything to share this with me, but I often send them off without me. In theory eating breakfast out is a good thing, someone else touches hot burners, stoves and toasters, while I wake up and sip my coffee and juice, but the reality is much different.
The Scenario: First, I try to use the most pleasant voice possible to break the news to the server. I brace myself for the sharp edge of the black coffee as I explain to the wait staff that that milk shows up in unexpected places. We usually start with non-dairy creamer which invariably has dairy products in it. I have no idea why they call it non-dairy creamer, because it isn’t. Then, I have to examine the package the bread comes in to see if I can eat the toast. Then I need to inquire about the cooking oil/grease to see if it contains butter or whey. Sometime around this point, they usually start looking around to see if they are being filmed for some sort of reality programming or if someone has a cell phone camera pointed in their direction.
I move on to the menu. I eliminate anything with cheese, so most omelets are out, anything with a sauce, so eggs Benedict are out, then I eliminate all the buttermilk pancakes, crepes, and waffles, the white gravy with the sausage and the biscuits and English muffins…and so on, until I order fried eggs over medium, bacon (cooked in a clean pan not on the griddle) and, maybe, dry toast.
Ahhhhhh, it is so very relaxing as I sip my bitter coffee and subject the staff to the inquisition. I wonder what Torquemada ordered for breakfast?
As I wait for my food to come I watch the other tables diving into their Belgian waffles with whipped cream and strawberries, imagine the texture of the sausage gravy, and soak up the scents of the savory stuffings of the omelets, knowing that had I stayed home I could have had something similar.
I closely examine my Spartan food as it comes to the table, because I know that if I aggravate a cook, the food may contain some very personal, unspoken messages. Once satisfied it is safe, I sigh and eat my breakfast. The next hour or so, I keep checking myself to see if I am developing any allergic symptoms.
An hour and a half at home writing, drinking light, sweet coffee and eating leftover spaghetti with capers and sausage is just the thing, while they are out eating breakfast; it is one of life’s little luxuries.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Wanted: Dish Elves

This evening I’m not hungry, it happens every once in a while. I just do not feel like cooking. I think it has to do more with dirty dishes, but tonight if I were to just have rice with a little soy sauce, and green onions, it would be okay. I think of it as my single woman meal, a meal I cannot do anymore. Some days are just blah, and I really don’t want much, but others are expectantly waiting for their protein/complex carb/vegetable boost. Since I am the cook, I just buck up and open the freezer and hope that there is something in there that will fit the bill for the others dependent on me for nutrition. Tonight, there is still more of that leftover chicken in the freezer. We had a bbq and folks ate less than expected, ergo we had 10 lbs of cooked chicken in the freezer. The nutritionally dependent ones will have to deal with it, again.
Back to the dishes, I always consider the story of The Elves and the Shoemaker, I keep hoping that if I head to bed, leaving a pile of dirty dishes dumped on the counter, the elves would come in the dead of night and I would wake to a sparkling kitchen. Virtually no one hand sews shoes anymore, so those elves should have ample time to come wash glasses, sponge off counters and polish the bottoms of pots and pans! They keep skipping my house, so I need find a supply of elf attractant. I wonder what department that would be in?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


“I’m nibbly.” I’ve announced this many evenings and it always gets my husband attention, because nibbles, like pie crusts, are about as easily made for two as for one. He raises and eyebrow and asks casually, “What kind of nibbly are you?” Now, I know that women have the reputation of craving chocolate and sweets, but in my personal, very casual, research, the snacks to have are salty, and crunchy. This disappoints my husband. One friend and I rhapsodize over salt and vinegar potato chips with another friend it is sauerkraut, by our tone of conversation, you’d swear we were discussing something else entirely.
Gardinera, sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi of all kinds all qualify in the salty crunchy category, and all have their particular moments. My husband knows when I get a certain look in my eye in the late fall that trouble is afoot. He knows that one day soon he is going to walk into the house and smack his nose against the wall of fresh, five days fermented in the hall closet, kimchi vapors. He doesn’t get it, but that’s okay, then I don’t have to feel guilty for not sharing.
He often shakes his head as he walks into the bedroom late in the evening to find me reading with a pretty tray on the bed next to me displaying a bowl of kimchi, a fork, and a glass of goat milk. Gardinera, sauerkraut, and even hot banana pepper pickle rings all serve the same purpose and get their chance on the tray, but those usually indicate that I have not had the chance to stop by the Asian grocery lately, or that the bai tsai cabbage and mu radish are out of season in my garden.
It may be a hereditary thing, because my mom has always been a popcorn woman, I sure have that gene and I passed it to my daughter. We buy popcorn in bags of straight popcorn, none of that overpowering palm oil-"butter" flavored stuff, nope just the popcorn. We have special poppers for the microwave and then season it on our own. Back in the days when it had its own appliance and was bathed in oil my Mom popped many fields worth of corn, the smell of it brings me back to my childhood lying in bed sniffing the air for my mom’s popcorn. Some nights she would flavor it with garlic or what we called green cheese from a shaker and it made it very difficult to stay in bed, but since my mother was a stern disciplinarian, I did stay in bed. I know that I am not a stern disciplinarian, because if I pop corn before my daughter is asleep I know I will hear the quiet creeping noise of a child sneaking out of bed and soon see oversize eyes like those of the kitschy cat pictures peering around a corner, beseeching me for just a little taste. My flavoring of the moment is two shakes of garlic-herb seasoning, two shakes of smoked paprika, two shakes of cayenne pepper, a bit of salt, and more margarine than I feel comfortable talking about.
Mom is a salty-crunchy female, so are my daughter and many of my friends, we appreciate chocolate, but for the visceral snack needs, cravings and obsessions, it is salty-crunchy all the way.