Sunday, December 16, 2012

Eat Your Books ... and Magazines and Blogs

While I am becoming more improvisational in my cooking, I still like to use recipes as a starting point (at the very least).  As I read and acquire more cookbooks and magazines and find more food blogs I enjoy, it becomes more difficult to remember which recipe comes from where.

Enter where thousands of books and a growing number of magazines and blogs are indexed (titles, authors, publications and lists of ingredients).  I can even add entries for personal recipes.

I especially appreciate the magazine indexing feature with the option to automatically add future issues of a subscription to my bookshelf.

Once I track down a recipe, I can bookmark it for future quick access, adding categories as I feel inclined.

The site is easy to use, and while there are options to add ratings and comments, there doesn't seem to be the usual emphasis on social networking, which I appreciate.

I look forward to making more efficient use of my growing recipe collection.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Italian Country Cooking by Loukie Werle

Title: Italian Country Cooking: The Secrets of Cucina Povera
Author: Loukie Werle
Photographer: Alan Benson
Publisher: Fall River Press (owned by Barnes & Noble, which would explain why I found this lovely book in a remainder stack for $12.98)
Copyright: 2007

Although I spend quite a bit of time reading and daydreaming about France and Paris when it comes to food (especially cheese), wine, fashion, art, history and scenery, when I read a book like this, I can't help thinking that perhaps I should daydream about using Italy as a home base for visiting France rather than the other way around.  Not that I haven't also long been a fan of Italian food, wine, fashion, history, art and scenery, but the daydreams usually have me somewhere in Paris and/or rural France.

The first section of Italian Country Cooking is devoted to pasta, which is probably my second favorite food after cheese, so I was hooked right from the start, and I want to make just about every recipe in the chapter.  Meanwhile, the gorgeous photographs make me want to shop for vintage rimmed soup bowls in which to serve these fabulous dishes.

The recipes in the second section focus on rice and grains.  Another win, given that I love risotto, with the bonus of a few farro recipes I want to try out with the farro I purchased before I really had any idea of what I would do with it.  Polenta falls into that category too, and now I have ideas for that as well, namely Lasagna di Polenta (polenta lasagna with three cheeses).  The Bomba di Riso (rice cake with provolone and sausage) is also on the "to try" list, once I figure out which pan I can use.

Moving on to beans and legumes, the Pasta e Ceci (chickpea and pasta soup) is a beautifully written example of how to really build a soup, layering in the flavors for a hearty result, and while I am very proud of my "improv" lentil soup, the Minestra di Riso e Lenticchie (lentil and rice soup)looks as if it could be equally good.  (Incidentally, I have discovered that the secret to really good lentil soup is to cook it longer than you think you should.)

Salads and vegetables are up next, and I dare you to resist the Asparagus Gratinati (asparagus and provolone gratin).  You will probably learn a thing or two about leafy greens.  I know I did.

La Vignarola (Roman springtime stew) has a detailed description for preparing artichokes which almost has me convinced that I can do it, but they still scare me a little, especially since the author does not offer suggestions of what to do with the outer leaves and so called "hairy choke."  I am wondering if I could maybe cheat and just buy artichoke hearts, except that I really want to try to cook something starting with a whole, raw artichoke.  If the artichokes do get the best of me, I could always console myself with Torta di Patate (potato pie with smoke mozzarells and salami).

Having cleansed the palate with salad and veggies, it's on to eggs and cheese.  Frittata al Forno (frittata with scamorza) offers incentive to (learn to) use the broiler, even in the midst of summer when tomatoes are at their peak.  Or perhaps try the recipe for a baked omelette which sounds more like a crepe.

Moving from the land to the sea, recipes for fish and other seafood, especially mussels and clams, are up next.  There is a swordfish recipe which promises to be "very lemony, herby and garlicky," and all I could think was "Sign me up!"

As an aside, the author does show a strong penchant for rosemary, which I don't care for, but I think a substitution could be made without undermining the recipes.  The same is true for chiles.  In fact, I think that almost all of the recipes could be adapted with ease to individual preferences and tastes, not to mention to what is actually available to hand.

Other meats follow in the next two chapters -- chicken, beef, veal, lamb, including several recipes for offal, and even a couple of recipes for rabbit and one for oxtails.  The final two chapters round out the meal, er, book with bread and pizza and desserts.

There are recipes simple and complex, vegetarian and meat loving.  Anyone with a love of hearty, classic Italian food should find recipes in this book to make, enjoy and share.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Small rant

Part of me is still hasn't recovered from the abrupt realization that the FDA is owned/run by massive pharmaceutical companies, and when I drove by a large, almost billboard-sized sign in a local farmyard (on my way to pick up some yummy, organic, locally grown produce) telling me that the country was going the wrong way and that I should do something about it come November 6th or God help us all, I risked driving off the road as I blinked in disbelief.  It was another "Seriously?!?!?!?" sort of moment.

I guess it is a sort of backwards way of saying God helps those who help themselves, but somehow I doubted that was the message intended by the sign.  Perhaps I should drive back and ask.

Here was a local farmer growing food and selling it to local consumers, which is a grand and glorious thing.  And yet this farmer thinks that a politician, any politician is going to improve his lot in life?  Really?

When did the amnesia epidemic break out?  Was it when elections weren't really won but rather decided in the courts after much wrangling and hemming and hawing and noise and bluster?  Every four years, and often it only takes two years, there is all of this screaming about how those who are in office are terrible and horrible and never did anything worthwhile and we should throw the bastards out.  And then if the bastards do get thrown out, they seem to only be replaced by new bastards.

Federal and possibly even state level government has ceased to be effective in any kind of widespread way.  What is good for or works in Maine is not necessarily good for Nebraska or Arizona or Hawaii.  It just can't be.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Olive Tapenade

Making my own olive tapenade has been on my list for a while, and had I known just how easy it is to make, I wouldn't have waited so long.

I'm not sure where I got the idea that olive tapenade was complicated.  Probably the price.  Little jars have price tags much higher than a regular can of olives, so I figured that there had to be special secret ingredients.

Today I picked up a store brand jar of olive tapenade, and when I was finished shuddering at the sodium content (46% for the green olive tapenade and 38% for the black per serving), I read the ingredients list, which turned out to be olives, olive oil, garlic, mushrooms, spices and salt. Since I already had everything else, I bought two six-ounce cans of pitted olives, one black and one green.

When I got home, I did a little research to find out what the "spices" might entail and looked at a few different recipes -- some called for sun dried tomatoes and others for capers and anchovies.

It turns out that this is one of those fabulous recipes where you pull out the food processor, throw in the ingredients, pulse to desired consistency and voila!  Yumminess.

I decided on:
6 ounces each of black and green olives, pitted and drained
4 or 5 small portabella mushrooms
1 small jar of oven dried organic sunburst tomatoes (somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 cup) and their associated 3 roasted garlic cloves, seasonings and coating of olive oil (which I had made about a week ago but had not yet figured out how to use)
1 anchovy filet packed in olive oil
1 tsp (total guess) Pasta Sprinkle

Once everything was pretty well blended, I added a little bit more olive oil, maybe a tablespoon.  There is enough moisture and oil to be had in the ingredients that you really don't need much.  If you prefer the spread to be a little more chunky and crumbly (think tabbouli salad), you could omit it all together.

I didn't feel a need to add any salt beyond what was in the ingredients, although a little flake salt sprinkled over the top after spreading the tapenade on bread or cheese (or both) would not be untoward.  Also, for those who like pepper, by all means grind in as much as your taste buds desire.

I considered adding my favorite magic cheese, but decided I could sprinkle a bit on later if the mood struck me.

Spread on freshly baked Italian bread, and yum!  No, let's make that YUM!!!  Also very tasty on Brie, with or without the bread.  Or stuffed into a small mushroom.

The difference between homemade and store bought is on an order of magnitude similar to that of making your own marinara sauce with organic tomatoes rather than opening a jar.

And did I mention how simple it is?  Open a couple of cans or jars, and the food processor does the rest.

If you like olives, you will be hooked in a heartbeat and thinking about the possible variations -- Kalamata, Spanish, California, etc., alone or in combination, with or without sun-dried tomatoes, capers, anchovies.  Play with the seasonings to see which olives like which herbs.  Maybe even add a chile for kick, if you are in to that sort of thing.

Now I need to go learn about olives.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Cooking with Cookbooks

For some reason this article irritated me.  For several reasons, actually.  I thought about ranting against each point, but instead I have decided to wish the author inexpensive gadgets, extra long battery life and a stable high speed internet connection so that she never need consult another paper cookbook again.

Me, I love cookbooks.  I love the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook I inherited from my grandmother.  I love the old, battered, much used paperback edition of The Joy of Cooking which sits on the shelf next to a shiny, less stained hardcover copy of the 75th edition of the same book.  I love my well used copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.  I love the newer acquisitions such as How to Eat Supper and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.

I used to buy cookbooks because I thought I needed recipes in order to cook, and quite a few of them were pretty much collections of recipes without a lot of pictures or context and narrative.  I have since learned that I do not so much need the recipes themselves as I do the skills which they teach.  One of my long-term hopes and goals is that this self-directed culinary education will help me figure out how to prepare and update the recipes in the family recipe boxes.

If I want to try a new recipe, find out what to do with an unfamiliar ingredient or learn a new skill, however, I look in a cookbook.

I love reading cookbooks written by restaurant chefs -- even if the recipes aren't exactly designed for home cooking -- because they include their philosophy and process.  While the results of some of their experimentation don't appeal to me, they are still educational.  They tell me that I probably wouldn't like things it would never occur to me to put together, but they also encourage my own mind to think "off menu."  Sometimes way off menu.

Nor do I read only cookbooks when it comes to learning about food and its preparation.  I read memoirs and books of food writing and even food-centric novels.

Cookbooks can be delightfully specialized, and I am not talking about the latest diet or nutrition craze.  (One of the many joys of living without television reception or cable is that I tend not to hear about such things.)  You can get books such a Bones, Meat, Fat Roots and Salted.  If you want to be more inclusive, there is the Nose to Tail approach.  There are new (or maybe not so new -- again, no tv) and different genres -- whole foods, raw foods, sushi, miso, tofu.

If cookbooks are on their way out, why are book deals part of the up and coming chef's road to celebrity?  People want to connect with or associate themselves with these celebrities, and what better way to show your connection than a shelf full of books by Giada or Emeril?  By purchasing all of the other merchandise they endorse, of course -- pots, pans, knives, bakeware, and even foodstuffs.

(I will confess to owning several books by Giada and two Martha Stewart enameled cast iron pots, but I actually use the books and the cookware regularly.  Giada has some great recipes which I make often, and those Martha Stewart pots get the job done without the Le Creuset price tag.  In fact, last weekend, I made a modified version of Giada's basic marinara sauce in the larger of the two Martha pots.)

At the other end of the spectrum, there are cookbooks that aren't really cookbooks, such as Heston's Fantastical Feasts and Notes from a Kitchen.  Just today, Too Many Chiefs and Only One Indian caught my eye.  The last two are gorgeous works of art, not only for the food which they feature but also graphic design, typography and photography.  (One of my favorite things about them is that they cannot be had from or Barnes & Noble.)  A little less extreme but still impressively visually appealing is What Katie Ate, written by a commercial photographer with a passion for food.  She wrote the recipes, cooked the food, and styled and shot all of the photography in the book.

With all of the options offered by computers and other technology these days --digital photography, graphic design, vibrant soy-based inks, non-traditional paper fibers, typefaces, and even page size -- the possibilities for creative publications are more numerous than ever.  Why would you want to stare at a digital screen, when you can get a more complete sensory experience by holding one of these fabulous books in your hands and making a new discovery every time you turn a page?  After all, aren't the best meals the ones which engage all five senses?  So why not start the experience with the recipe source?

It's not that I do not look for recipes online, but I have gotten away from the ubiquitous and and  They are too noisy.  Too many choices.  Too many recipes and reviews by people I don't know.  Instead I read cooking blogs and follow links found in the Twitter feeds of cooks and food writers.  The only time I use recipe focused sites anymore is when I am trying to find a recipe I saw in a magazine and can't remember which issue.  (If anyone has a way of collecting and organizing recipes from magazines so that they can be easily found and used again in the future, I would love to hear about it.)

These cookbooks and blogs inspire me to not only work on my own cooking but also my writing and photography.  The more I read and the more things I try, the more things I want to learn and the more convinced I become that I can actually cook and write and photograph and have fun doing it.

Finally, there is my most recent discovery: cookbook stores.  Apparently there are loads of them if you just look.  Not only are they independent booksellers, but they are specialized independent booksellers.  (Take that, RAMJAC!!)

Maybe the cookbook publishing business isn't growing by leaps and bounds.  Maybe it is even shrinking, but constant growth isn't a sustainable course.  Maybe, as should be with food, there is a trend toward quality and time well spent rather than quantity and speed disguised as efficiency.

Whatever the case, I will keep reading (and buying) cookbooks.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pizza Post

Saturday night -- sometimes Friday night -- is usually pizza night, and the local delivery options definitely vary in quality.  Over the summer, I happened to stop by a local bakery on a day that they had fresh pizza dough, which led to this:

I rolled out the dough, spread some homemade sauce over it, and basically cleaned out the refrigerator.  Yum!

Since then, delivery has just paled in comparison, but I have not been quite organized enough to make my own dough, and the local bakery where I found it for my initial experiment can't always sell it, so they don't always make it.  Trader Joe's had some, but the ingredient list was too long.  Then, about a week ago, I found organic pizza dough at a local grocery store for about a dollar, so I brought home a couple of pounds and stuck them in the freezer. One pound makes a decent-sized pizza, as long as you like thin crust, and it turns out that it only takes a couple of hours to defrost (another concern I had about buying pizza dough to have on hand).

I thawed out some sauce cubes and sliced up veggies (again, cleaning out the fridge).

I oiled my largest rimmed cookie sheet with a small amount of canola oil.  Yes, you can use cooking spray, but you don't need much oil to cover an entire pan -- I would guess less than a teaspoon -- and you get the benefit of knowing what you are using, as opposed to whatever additives and propellants are in the spray.  If you are really worried, check out one of those pump sprayers that you can fill with the oil of your choice.  In this case, I used canola oil because it has a higher smoke point than the much beloved olive oil, and pizza does well cooked at high temperatures.

Then I rolled out the dough with a little flour, put it in the pan and spread the sauce.

After the sauce comes cheese -- I like a mixture of finely shredded mozzarella and mild cheddar cheese -- and then veggies -- thinly sliced summer squash, red onion, baby portabella mushrooms, yellow sweet pepper and kalamata olives -- followed by a little more cheese -- in this case my favorite "magic cheese" blend of parmesan, romano and asiago.

After about 20 minutes in a 435-degree oven (yes, 435), voila!  

Crispy, thin crust pizza with very little edge.  Again, I say, yum!

Yes, delivery is quicker (maybe) and requires less effort, but making it myself is not only far less expensive but also more satisfying on a number of levels, including taste and nutritional value.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Non-toxic non-stick?

While I love my fabulous stainless steel pots and pans, as well as the much used cast iron skillet which is older than I am, every once in a while I just don't want to worry about my food sticking to the pan, so despite my aversion to continued Teflon ingestion, I hide a small non-stick frying pan in the drawer under my stove.

Today I encountered Hydrolon.

I am suspicious that it may be one of those things which is too good to be true, but I am going to experiment anyway with this pan.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Field Trip

It started with a photograph with the tagline "essential summer reading."

The two books on the bottom of the pile did not immediately surface in search results lists on various bookselling sites, perhaps because they have a web site of their very own.

The site has a description and videos and a blog.  It also has a list of retail establishments -- all of them independently owned and many of them devoted exclusively to food -- where they can be purchased.

Rabelais - Fine Books on Food and Wine in Maine is a place I have heard of and have wanted to visit for a while, but then I saw Stir Boston and decided to check that out instead.

I don't think that Julia Child would even fit in that kitchen, and I wish that I had more time to explore the surrounding area, because it is in an interesting area of Boston.  I am already planning a return trip when I have a bit more time.

The book selection is small, but impressively diverse if a bit more on the gourmet or high end or ... advanced end of the shelf.  No television celebrities that I could see.  There was even a copy of Modernist Cuisine on the shelf, which I think might make an appropriate subjective bookend to Notes from a Kitchen, because it is as technical and scientific and structured as Notes is freeform, organic and alchemical -- two ends of the spectrum or two sides of the same coin.  In between I found The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz and Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes by Jeanne Kelley and Spice: Flavors of the Mediterranean by Ana Sortun and Heston's Fantastical Feasts by Heston Blumenthal, as well as Blumenthal's cookbooks and all of the River Cottage books.

The best part is that not only do places like Stir and the other establishments on the list exist, but they are thriving.  At least, I hope they are thriving.  Based on the call I heard the employee take while I was paging through cookbooks, Stir certainly is.  Cooking classes and private events are booked well in advance, and the business is preparing to celebrate its fifth anniversary next month.

Equally encouraging is the success of grassroots creative endeavors.  I'm sure that they have always been around, and I am sure that there are still quite a few that never see fruition, much less success, but there are projects such as Notes from a Kitchen which have found a niche and a market without being sold through major outlets.

It is certainly inspiring, potentially motivating ... contagious, even (in a good way).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Food meet wine, live happily ever after

Since I have been experimenting with and learning about wine, I have heard about the wonder that is food and wine pairing.  I have even experienced a bit of it myself -- a tannic red wine mellowed by a creamy blue cheese, for example.

Last night I attended a wine dinner and experienced the true wondrous possibilities of combining complementary wine and food.  The food was delicious.  The wine was excellent.  The two together transported everyone gathered around the table to an entirely new dimension.

Four "small plate" dishes, each paired with a complimentary generous sample of wine.

First course: Truffle Lobster Purse paired with Louis Latour Pouilly Fuisse 2010, Burgundy, France
From the menu: "Claw and knuckle mean with a portabella cream sauce baked in spring roll wrappers and topped with white truffle oil."

This is the only dish I photographed because once
the eating began, I forgot all about photography.
I am often not one for cream sauce, but mushrooms in cream sauce is a classic, the ration of mushrooms to cream was generous, and the way that these little "purses" were assembled, the lobster ended up nestled in a bed of the sauce, neither overwhelming the other.  The spring roll wrappers brightened the dish with a bit of crunch, while offsetting the richness at the same time.

The wine was a Burgundian chardonnay.  Generally, I am not a big fan of chardonnay, although I have been introduced to a few that I have been willing to bring home with me.  I'm pretty sure that this was the best I have tasted so far -- smooth, almost creamy, mellow, lightening up the rich food.  The French just know how to make wine.  That's all there is to it.  Even more so than the Italians (but that may be because I tend to prefer lighter wines and have become rather fond of bubbles).

As soon as I tasted it, I couldn't help wondering what effect the simple, gorgeous, spacious, delicate feeling, probably actual crystal wine glasses had on the taste.  The wine glasses in my house are fairly basic and functional (although I did make a point of buying flutes from which to drink sparkling wine), and as wine glasses go, not very large, or at least the bowl of the glass is not very tall.  They certainly get the job done, but now that I have had wine in the "right" glass, I can appreciate how the appropriate vessel opens up a wine and allows it to reveal greater complexity and depth of character.  (That being said, my cupboard space is limited, so I am going to stick with my current drink ware for now.)

Second Course: Wild Mushroom and Confit Duck Crepe paired with Byron Pinot Noir 2010, Santa Barbara, California
From the menu: Tender confit duck leg blended with porcini and shiitake mushrooms, cram and demi-glaze rolled in fresh herb crepes.  Topped with creme fraiche and a blackberry port reduction."

This was my first experience with duck -- rich, but not as fatty as I expected.  The tang of the blackberry complemented the richness of the meat, and the crepe added a touch of sweetness, all of which were enhanced by the pinot noir.  Since I tend to like sour cream or cheese on just about anything and everything, the creme fraiche was a lovely touch.  Meanwhile, the slight tannic qualities of the wine complemented and were complemented by the mushrooms.  I think that the cream almost made the wine taste creamy.  Or maybe subtly velvet.  (I don't speak wine, yet.  I only speak yum.)

Third Course: Korean Short Rib paired with Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel 2009, Lodi, California
From the menu: "Marinated and slow braised, served with scallion jasmine rice and braising liquids."

This was the piece de resistance, with the strongest aromas promising delectable things to come.  The meat fell right off the bone and readily disintegrated into shreds of meaty goodness.  The scallion jasmine rice was more of a garnish, adding subtle hints of flavor in the background.  The braising liquids were savory, until you sipped the wine and the peppery chile flavors popped out.  I don't care for sharp spice, but in this case it was a pleasantly surprising new experience.  This combination offered the most layers and variations, distinct but woven into a cohesive whole -- a culinary example of the whole being so much more than the sum of the parts.

Dessert:  Doughnut Bread Pudding with Espresso Ice Cream paired with Campbells Rutherglen Tokay NV, Australia (no vintage year given)

After the savory, spicy richness of the rib, something mellower and sweet was a welcome change and a delightful finish.  The doughiness of the pudding enhanced the raisin, honey and vanilla flavors of the wine, which was not so sweet as to be cloying.

The group was a fairly big crowd of a about twenty-five at one long table, but multiple conversations carried on with ease as people bonded over a shared love of food and wine and branched out into subjects of family and occupations and travel and hobbies.  Given that this event was such a success, the organizer has plans to make it a monthly offering, and I can't wait to do it again.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tuna Benedict?

As I sat down to eat my tuna salad on tomato slices, I couldn't help thinking that while tasty, they might be missing something.  Perhaps a salad or a side of steamed vegetables.  Then I thought -- eggs!  An egg would be just the thing.  Initially I thought a few slices of warm, hard boiled egg, but then I thought "tuna melt meets eggs Benedict": toasted English muffin (or stick with the tomato slices), plus tuna salad, plus egg, plus hollandaise sauce and/or Swiss cheese or perhaps pesto, assembled and toasted or broiled until heated through and browned on top.

I'm salivating with curiosity.  Anyone else?  Yes?  No?

Tuna Salad on Tomato Slices
1 Medium to large tomato, sliced crosswise
(Mine was a little smaller than a softball, and I got four probably 1/4-inch slices after cutting off the top.)
1 5-ounce can Wild Planet Skipjack light tuna, *undrained*
1 Rib celery, finely chopped
Mustard to taste
(I used whole grain dijon, probably between 1/2 and 1 tsp.)
Mayo or Miracle Whip to taste
(I used about 2 tsp of Miracle Whip light.)
Small handful magic cheese
Sunny Paris seasoning

Arrange tomato slices on a plate and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper or to taste.

Mix the tuna, celery, mustard, and Miracle Whip in a bowl until well blended.

Sprinkle in the cheese and a few shakes of Sunny Paris seasoning and mix again.

Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed.

Pile the tuna on the tomato slices until the bowl is empty.


Food riff: Sprouts, baby spinach leaves, small leaves of lettuce, fresh basil or other fresh herbs of preference could easily be layered over the tomatoes before piling on the tuna.  A thin slice of Swiss or cheddar or Harvarti or mozzarella could be used in addition to or instead of the greenery.  Alternately, the cheese could go over the top and the lot could be toasted or set under the broiler for a few minutes and then perhaps even topped with a touch of marinara or salsa.  As with the salmon salad of a recent post, garlic and/or onions could add a bit of zing and relish a bit of crunch.  Maybe even mix the tuna with pesto rather than mustard and mayo.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Layered Omelette

Usually when I make an omelette, I beat the eggs, mix in whatever other ingredients I want to include and pour the whole mixture into a hot pan.

Today I decided to try layering instead.

I chopped up several slices of prosciutto and heated them in a pan.  Once they started to crisp, I poured two beaten eggs over them.  I let eggs and prosciutto cook for a moment and then sprinkled shredded cheese over the eggs.  I cooked the mixture with minimal disturbance until almost set before loosening carefully and flipping bravely.  (I must have had the courage of my convictions because everything stayed in the pan.)

After switching off the heat under the pan, I steamed some chopped zucchini separately and scattered it over the omelette once I had slid it onto a plate -- the plate which covered the bowl of zucchini while it was steaming, so it was nice and hot.

I'm not entirely sure that it was *better* than the way I usually prepare omelettes, but I could tell the difference, tasting layers of flavor rather than simply a blend of flavors.

As a side note, hot food really should be served on warm plates.  I remember my father putting plates into the oven to warm a few minutes before dinner was ready.  I remember warnings about hot plates from waiters in restaurants.  I never gave it a whole lot of thought or really made any kind of connection.  Only when I read The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry in which there is an instance when the author fails a test because she did not warm the plate did I put it together.  (Keeping a few glasses in the freezer for cold beverages is an excellent idea, too.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Wild Planet Salmon Salad

I much prefer fish to beef, pork or even chicken, but as seafood prices have risen and sustainability becomes ever more a concern, I have been eating much less fish as well, but canned tuna in water continues to be a staple -- lean protein that is easy to prepare.

After a batch of not so great grocery store brand albacore, even the old standby was suspect, but now there is hope in canned seafood from Wild Planet Foods.  Their products are by no means inexpensive, but you get what you pay for in this case.

Tonight it was once again too hot to cook, so I decided that tuna fish salad was the way to go.  When I discovered a can of salmon in the cupboard, I upgraded.

It was so tasty that I ate it all before I really even thought about taking a photo.

I started with six ounces skinless boneless canned Alaskan pink salmon.  No water, no oil - just fish and fish juice, which meant that there was no need to drain the can and which also meant I could use a lot less dressing.

I added fresh dill, organic whole grain mustard, Miracle Whip light (I know, I know, but I haven't gotten too far on making my own dressings yet), and magic cheese.  All of these were to taste -- probably five or six torn sprigs of dill, about a teaspoon each of mustard and Miracle Whip, and a generous sprinkle of cheese.  I  added small quantities until I was satisfied with the look, feel and flavor.

There is certainly room for a little salt & pepper and perhaps a bit of celery and/or relish and/or onion for crunch.  Serve it on a bed of lettuce or sprouts or chips or make a sandwich.

I ate mine right out of the mixing bowl ... but I did take the time to use a fork.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book reporting

Despite what various purveyors of school supplies probably want you to think, it's a bit early to be thinking back to school thoughts, but I found the following while cleaning out e-mail, and it seemed like a fun thing to share.  If anyone else wants to share scholastic (or not) formative book memories, feel free.

E-mail originally written 5 February 2011:
Although I like writing about books (and music and movies for that matter), I was never much for book reports.  I think that second grade might have been the first year I had to write them because I have several memories of never quite getting it right.  I either included to much detail or not enough.  And then one day I got in trouble for (I think inadvertently because I don't recall doing it deliberately or to get out of my own assignment) using a significant portion of the blurb on the back of _Superfudge_ by Judy Blume in my own report.  I think that it made sense to me because it seemed to have exactly what the teacher wanted.

Wait.  I take that back.  It was third grade.  Not second grade.

The too much detail mostly came from wanting to share the complete experience of a book I had read -- such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- and which I had enjoyed, or which had made a strong impression on me.

I don't necessarily remember a whole lot else about grade school, but I have lots of memories of reading and books.  Fifth grade was The Red Pony by Steinbeck, and an abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities.  Sixth grade was All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott and To Kill a Mockingbird as I recall.

Charlotte's Web is one of the few books I have read more than once, and I have read it probably half a dozen times.  Second grade might have beenStuart Little.  I remember a teacher reading it to the class.  I never could get through The Trumpet of the Swan.  James and the Giant Peach was another book I heard read aloud in second grade.

I remember Ann Burns giving me a copy of Peter Pan.  And Willow giving me a copy of The House of the Spirits.  I remember Just So Stories.  I remember Beatrix Potter and Madeline L'Engle and Saturday trips to the library.  Books and stories have been the constant in my life for as long as I can remember.

A while ago I came across a book titled Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde.  Oscar Wilde is one of those literary figures I have always wanted to know more about and read more by.  I am not so much interested in the scandalous bits as I am his library and how much literature, reading and writing were so much a part of his life, his very being.  He is up there with Tennessee Williams' notebooks and the diaries of Virginia Woolf.  Dashiell Hammett was a great letter writer, and the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway intrigue me as well.  I like seeing them on my shelves next to Homer and Shakespeare.

I like reading what famous writers (or even just writers I enjoy reading) have to say about reading and about books they love.  Allende's The Sum of Our Days is a wonderful memoir because of the way that her writing is the constant through everything else that happens.  I should send it to you if you haven't already read it.  I have her other personal/non fiction writing, but I haven't read it yet.

The letters between Julia Child and Avid Devoto are a complete delight to read.  I should plan another day trip to D.C. so that I can go to the Smithsonian and see the famous kitchen.  I did it a couple of summers ago to go to the National Book Fair, which was held on the national mall.  I went to the talks I wanted to hear and then wandered around the city.

Many of my "friends" on the ubiquitous social network (to which I no longer belong) were famous people I have never even met, but a lot of them post about writing as well as their lives.  The social networking site I actually prefer, however, is  I have author friends there, too.  It's all about books.  You get to see what your friends are reading, what they have read, what they want to read, and how they rated or what they wrote about various books.  It's fun.

I like the book world.  Movies and music are good, too, but books are still my favorite.

But can you eat a book?

In an attempt to refocus time and energy (dare I say attempt organization?), I find myself wondering if books and food can coexist and co-mingle peacefully in one blog.  On the other hand, it might be more work than it is worth to keep the two separate.

I think that the best plan is to not worry about it so much and do something about actually writing, even in fragmented bits and pieces.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Variety in every bite

One of the benefits to cooking -- and I think especially to cooking new recipes -- is a lack of homogeneity within each dish.

I have become a fan of green beans and black quinoa salad.  Well, I use regular quinoa rather than black, but the basic plan is the same.  By using fresh green beans and preparing the dressing myself, I am assured that each bite will be slightly different.  Some beans are crunchier, others are sweeter.  Some bites are more garlicky while in others the balsamic vinegar is more prominent.  Not every bite includes green onion.  It is a lovely little adventure to keep eating in order to see what the next bite may bring.

Plus, it is a lovely starting point.  Since my first experience with the recipe, I have prepared it with zucchini instead of green beans, and I am pretty sure that there is an asparagus variation in my near future as asparagus was on sale at the grocery store (and early spring is asparagus season).

Cooking classes tell you that you want to cut up ingredients into equally-sized pieces so that everything cooks evenly.  That reasoning is all well and good, and perhaps with practice I will eventually achieve uniformly cut potatoes or carrots or celery or whatever, but until that day I plan to enjoy my inconsistent, varied results.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The post:
Susanna is officially convinced that the FDA is more interested in the health of pharmaceutical companies and industrial farming than the people ingesting the products of said companies. From the milk carton label: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormone." Seriously?!?

The comment:
What are we supposed to do when Congress and all the regulatory agencies are bought? If you have any insight, I'd really like to know.

The insight (or lack thereof):
The way I see it, there are two choices -- we can rail against the machine, or we can remove ourselves from it.  (And there is likely a third choice of finding some balance or happy medium between the two extremes, but I have never been much good at balance.)

We can become activists, educate ourselves as to what is really going on and why (i.e. follow the money), write to our government representatives -- local, state and national -- telling them what is wrong and asking them what they are going to do about it so that we don't elect someone else the next time around.  We can get involved and encourage and corral others to do the same.  Go to meetings and rallies.  Vote every chance we get.  Write letters to editors.

To me, however, that sounds a lot like becoming part of the noise which causes me to not watch, read or listen to news, and I would worry about getting lost in the crowd.

My current plan runs more along the lines of removing myself from the machine, or at least significantly reducing its influence on my life.  I have been reading about food and cooking for the last several years.  This year, I am shifting more toward learning about where food comes from.  I already know about the horrors of industrial agriculture -- turkeys that can't walk (or, as I have recently learned, reproduce on their own), egg-laying hens that never see the light of day, dairy cows living in boxes, hooked up to machines -- but, on the other hand, I don't really know what "organic" means, especially if it still comes in a box or wrapped in plastic, or the difference between cage free, free range and cruelty free.

In the last year, I have made an effort to shop smaller in general, and now I am focusing on being much more aware of what is in my food and where it comes from.  I am being helped along with this year's reading list, which has thus far included The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and, most recently This Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love by Kristin Kimball.

I am educating myself, and discussing what I read and the affects and influences it is having on the choices I make with people who have similar interests and concerns.  It's not hard to find common ground.  After all, everyone has to eat, and most people like food quite a bit.

I grew up in a household of ingredients, for the most part.  Despite the urban setting, there were gardens in the back yard.  There were weekly visits to the farmers' market.  Fish was fresh, rather than breaded and frozen. Veggies could be frozen, but I don't remember anything other than tomatoes coming out of a can.  Bread was homemade rather than store bought.  Cheese was purchased cut from a wheel or block and wrapped in butcher paper rather than cellophane wrapped in individual squares.  For a long time, yogurt was homemade.

I want to get back to being a household of ingredients.  And I want to know where those ingredients come from.  I watch my co-workers eat microwaved frozen meals.  The ingredient list takes up a whole end of the box.  Meanwhile, last week *my* frozen meals were fennel, spinach and split pea soup (also including onions, garlic, a few herbs, water and white wine) topped with a bit of sour cream.

On Saturday I bought a bag full of leafy greens from an organic farmer twenty miles from my house.  It was a bit of an adventure to get there, but I managed not to get lost, and today I made lasagna with the spinach I bought from him, ricotta cheese I made myself (though I can't quite vouch for the source of the milk), marinara sauce I made myself, and an egg from a cage free, organically fed chicken.  The pasta, mozzarella and herbs are of unknown origin, but I feel pretty good about it all the same.  For one thing, it tastes good.  For another, the ingredients -- even the not so local ones -- are pretty basic.  For a third, I am helping sustain local farms.

In short, while I am not currently willing to take on the FDA, I am willing to take on my own kitchen where I know that the choices and changes I make will really count for something.  In fact, they already have.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mastering the art of leek and potato soup

One of the items which did not get cleaned out of the refrigerator when I made my fabulous vegetable soup was a pair of leeks.  I forget if I bought them with a purpose, or if I just had vague notions of satisfying my craving for leek and potato soup, but in the end the plan became leek and potato soup.

Now, I already knew that this soup is as basic as it gets -- leeks, potatoes, water and salt.  Puree if you like.  Add cream if you like.  And that's pretty much it.  What I was not sure of was the proportions involved, so I went looking for a recipe to tell me.

I started with my monstrous Gourmet cookbook.  With over a thousand pages, I thought I would find what I needed for sure.  There is even a quote from Ruth Reichl, the editor, on the back cover professing "Our goal was to give you a book with every recip you would ever want."  I looked in the index under leek, potato and soup.  Nothing.  More than a thousand pages, and I strik out the very first time I try to use it.  Yet another example of bigger not always being better, I suppose.

My next stop was at to see what my pal Lynne Rosetto Kasper had to say on the matter.  She had what I was looking for, but she admitted that Julia was her source, specifically Julia's Kitchen Wisdom, so rather than write down or pritn out a recipe from the internet, I decided that it would be just as easy to go straight to the source.  And there it was, the very first recipe, under the heading Primal Soups.  I didn't even need to use the index!!

Given the simplicity of the recipe, I am curious to see if it shows up in Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.  One part leeks, one part potatoes, two parts water and salt to season.  Bring to a boil and then simmer, partially covered, for twenty to thirty minutes or until vegetables are tender.  Adjust seasoning as needed and serve as is or pureed, with cream on top or whisked in.

I had a little more than two cups of leeks once I chopped them up.  (Don't forget to rinse thoroughly and use white and light green parts only, composting the dark green bits.)  I chopped up a little more than two cups of potatoes.  Julia calls for "baking" potatoes.  I have red potatoes because that is what I love -- for baking, boiling, frying and mashing -- and I refuse to peel, so after a scrub and a chop, in they went.  I added four cups of water and half a cup of pinot blanc because I seem to use wine almost as often as magic cheese these days -- Valley of the Moon Pinot Blanc 2010 to be specific in this case.

I think that I could have done with less liquid -- maybe cook uncovered rather than partially covered.  I wanted creamy soup, so I pureed in half a container, about four ounces, of mascarpone cheese.  The soup was still a little thinner than I would have liked, but it tasted pretty darn good.  The second cup was almost buttery, which kind of made me wonder what a splash of lemon juice might have done for it.  I wasn't brave enough to try this time.

Following the success of this recipe, I have begun reading Julia's Kitchen Wisdom, and once again, Julia is brilliant.  If you are intimidated by Mastering the Art of French Cooking, try Julia's Kitchen Wisdom.  It's a diminutive volume, but every page is packed with recipes broken down into their building blocks -- a distillation of forty years of cooking adventures.

I have learned that "rather than using a butter-and-flour roux for thickening, you simmer rice in the soup base until very tender.  When it is turned into a very fine puree in the electric blender, you have a deliciously creamy, literally fat-free cream soup."  Brilliant!  And gluten free for those who are concerned about such things.  She did not specify what kind of rice to use, but I wonder if the naturally creamy arborio rice I have been using for risotto would be as delicious as I imagine.

Thanks to this little book, I am no longer intimidated by fish chowder and am excited to make my own.  Hollandaise sauce, on the other hand, while very clearly explained, is still kind of scary.

I am only eighteen pages in, but I have already marked half a dozen examples of Julia's trademark humor and turn of phrase.  I would quote more extensively, but I think that they would lose something when taken out of context, so you will just have to go get your own copy and read to see what I am talking about.  Go on.  You know you want to.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

When meat loaf is stuffed in a pepper or a squash rather than a pan

Stuffed red and green peppers
and zucchini and yellow squash
To quote a movie I have watched entirely too many times, "I read somewhere that it's bad form to say yum while you are eating, but yum!"

When you can easily (okay, so my definition of easy cooking might be different than a lot of other people's, but bear with me just for fun) make food this good on your own, why on Earth would you eat processed crap?

I made the stuffed peppers and squash pictured to the left, and wow are they tasty.  Depending on your preferences, they could have possibly done with a bit more seasoning, but I am going to stick with wow and yum.

One large egg, one small onion (finely chopped), one shallot (finely chopped), one rib of celery (finely chopped), three to four cloves of garlic (minced), three tablespoons of ketchup, and about one quarter cup fresh parsley (chopped) were all whisked together in a large bowl.  (As a side note, I purchased a set of Duralex bowls not too long ago, and I love them.  They are lighter than my trusty Pyrex, but I think just as sturdy, and come in many more sizes.)  Salt and pepper were added to season.  (I didn't use much of either.)  Next a generous handful each of Panko bread crumbs and magic cheese (blend of Romano, Asiago and Parmesan) were mixed in.  (If you want to measure, go with 1/4 cup.)  Into the mixture was folded a pound of ground turkey.  Oh, and the innards scraped out of the squash.  (Another side note: a butter knife is excellent for scraping out said squash.)

Peppers (cut in half cross ways with seeds and ribs removed) and squash (sliced lengthwise and hollowed out) were stuffed with turkey mixture, placed in oiled baking dish.  Marinara was spooned over the top, about a tablespoon per pepper or squash half.  The lot was baked for 45 minutes at 400 degrees and then removed from oven and baking pan onto platter where they were sprinkled with a bit more cheese.  More marinara sauce could be added to taste, but these were plenty moist as is.

For me, they make a fine meal on their own, but some rice or cous cous or pilaf on the side might not be a bad idea.  Or maybe a salad and some garlic bread.

Overall, pretty low fat and low sodium -- certainly lower fat than regular meat loaf, which the stuffing ends up resembling once cooked -- except for the cheese, but you could reduce or omit that.  Oats could be substituted for bread crumbs.  I use oats most of the time when I make meat loaf.  The ketchup might be evil (despite Reagan's classification of it as a vegetable ... although aren't tomatoes fruit?) in terms of sodium, but with only three tablespoons in the whole recipe, it works out to something like a teaspoon or teaspoon and a half per serving.  Nevertheless a bit of Worcestershire sauce (which is probably equally evil, if not more so) or balsamic vinegar could be a decent replacement, as could a bit of homemade marinara sauce -- just something to give it a little more flavor and something else besides the egg to bind it all together.  Oh yes, the egg.  Well, again, one egg in the entire recipe, but the corresponding dose of egg substitute ought to work as well.  Otherwise it has no business being called egg substitute.  It should be more like egg approximation.

All in all, an excellent, lower fat meat loaf alternative.  (Once more, I say yum!)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Rainy day cooking

Today was one of those perfect, cold, gray, rainy days just made for cooking, so after I spent a surprisingly short amount of time at the DMV renewing my driver's license, I picked up a loaf of sourdough bread and some sour cream and went home to make soup, which is not only an excellent activity for a rainy wintry afternoon, but also a great way to clean out the refrigerator (provided that anything fuzzy or out of date does not actually make it into the pot).

I chopped up a large red onion, a shallot, three stalks of celery, a small bunch of slightly wilted carrots, at least half a dozen cloves of garlic, half a small head of cabbage, two small zucchini, one small yellow squash, one broccoli crown, and about eight medium-sized white mushrooms.

The onion, shallot, garlic, celery, and carrots went into my larger enameled cast iron pot (like Le Creuset but not) with enough oil to coat and seasoned with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.  (I have a nice blend of peppercorns.)  They were cooked, covered, over medium low heat for about fifteen minutes, stirred frequently to keep them from sticking and burning.

Seasonings went in next -- dried basil and paprika (two teaspoons each) and tomato paste (two heaping tablespoons -- and the lot was stirred together and cooked at a higher temperature for a couple of minutes.  I always find that the vegetables get a bit dry at this point, in danger of burning, so I add half a cup of wine to keep everything moist and yet still hot.  This time it was Grappa La Court red wine.

Then the rest of the chopped vegetables were added, along with a couple of handfuls of spinach, which I did not chop, another one and a half cups of wine and six cups of vegetable broth.  I think I chopped up a bit more cabbage and threw that in as well.

I simmered the lot for about twenty minutes and then started tasting.  Yum!  The wine is rather strong, and fairly tannic, so the broth was a shade bitter.  I ground in a little more sea salt and some herbs (a blend which came packaged in their own little grinder), and simmered a bit longer.  Even more yum!

A hefty slice of sourdough bread, and lunch was served.

One of the main reasons I make a version of this soup fairly often is that it freezes really well and is therefore great to take to work for lunch, so I am set for lunches next week.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mushroom and Pappardelle Soup with Gremolata

Vegetarian Times January/February 2012, page 30

I still don't know what pappardelle noodles are, although I am sure that a small amount of research would remedy the situation, and they could perhaps be a project for my fancy new pasta maker.  Given that there are no instructions for cooking the noodles ahead of time, I am guessing that they must be pretty close to fresh in order to be cooked after simmering in soup broth for about 6 minutes.  I used medium shells instead and boiled them while preparing the rest of the soup.

I did not cover the pot while bringing the soup to a boil and can't help wondering if that omission on my part accounts for the relative thinness of the broth.

I used white mushroom rather than cremini and threw in a few baby bellas for good measure because I do so love the portabellas, and rather than one large onion, I diced a large shallot, a small yellow onion, and a small red onion.

Produced by Vina La Fortuna
S.A. Sagrada Familia, Chile
As usual, I substituted part of the broth for wine.  In this case, 7 cups of broth became 5 cups of broth and 2 cups of my favorite sauvignon blanc.  Culpeo sauvignon blanc from the Curico Valley in Chile is wonderful for both drinking and cooking -- lighter and a bit more accessible or friendly than what I generally think of when I think of sauvignon blanc.

I did not drag out the food processor for 1/3 cup of parsley, 1 clove of garlic and 2 teaspoons of grated lemon zest.  I chopped up the lot and used the mortar and pestle instead, which worked just fine as far as I can tell.

Is it just me, or is grating zest a pain?  Relatively speaking, a lot of effort for not a lot of return.  It also seems a bit wasteful to buy an entire fruit and only use a very thin outer layer of the peel, but then it is not exactly difficult to find a use for the rest of the lemon.  I'll have to investigate the possibility of acquiring packaged zest since the lack of same will often deter me from trying a recipe.

I added more noodles to the leftovers.  If the recipe were made as a thicker, alfredo sort of sauce, it would go nicely over fettuccine or baked chicken -- anything that likes cream sauce really. Peas would be a nice complement to the beans and mushrooms as well.