Saturday, March 25, 2017

Tagine of Lamb with Dates: a Recipe by Paula Wolfert

After slowly simmering lamb with spices. butter, and onions, you transfer the nearly-finished tagine to a serving dish,
surround it with dates, and sprinkle them with cinnamon. You finish it in a very hot oven, which slightly crisps the dates.
The photo shows the result, as I served it for our dinner this evening.

My copy of Paula Wolfert's Couscous.

Paula Wolfert has been in the news this week, including an interview in the New York Times (link), and a review of a new book about her in Food 52 (link).

I read both articles with pleasure, and decided it was time to try another recipe from Wolfert's book Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco. I chose Tagine of Lamb with Dates. The combination of onions, garlic, saffron, cilantro, pepper, and ginger really appealed to me, and for once, I followed the recipe pretty faithfully, except for scaling down the quantity to make it appropriate for only two of us.

Both of the inspiring articles were frank and detailed about the fact that Wolfert is suffering from Altzheimer's, and no longer can write or cook in the way she was famous for. Mayukh Sen his Food 52 article "Who is Paula Wolfert? A New Biography Gives an Answer," was also interested in introducing Wolfert to his readers, whom he feels might not be familiar with her work. While I had heard of her long ago, I admit that I only recently began experimenting with her recipes, such as the one I did tonight.

Before I cut up the lamb, I assembled all the ingredients.
Accompanying our tagine: salad of small tomatoes, cucumber, chopped preserved lemon, lemon juice, cilantro, and olive oil.

"Wolfert, author of nine cookbooks, was an early champion of Mediterranean foods in a time when their ingredients went unnoticed in American kitchens, beginning with 1973’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco," wrote Sen. His article interestingly describes how Emily Kaiser Thelin worked on the new biography, titled Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert's Renegade Life (cover at right).

Sen describes Wolfert's reputation thus:
"Though many American home cooks have been singing Wolfert’s gospel for decades, she isn’t discussed nearly enough as she should be. She's existed in the shadow of men like Yottam Ottolenghi, her spiritual successor, even though she tilled the ground he now walks on. Her lack of name recognition is incommensurate with her legacy, and with time and distance, it’s become easier to see how this happened. When Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Mediterranean came out in 1994, Wolfert toured the country, shoving hulking jars of Marash chile flakes under chef’s noses, going to bat for meze and pomegranate molasses. 'She was like a community organizer, lobbying for the region...,' Thelin claims. This was her modus operandi: She’d get these foods on your plate no matter what, cheerleading for them as loudly as she could."
And from the New York Times article "Her Memory Fading, Paula Wolfert Fights Back With Food" by Kim Severson --
"It would be hard to overstate the importance of Ms. Wolfert’s work, which introduced couscous and other classic Mediterranean dishes to generations of cooks. The New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne called her 'one of the leading lights in contemporary gastronomy.' She made Alice Waters fall in love with chicken cooked with preserved lemons and olives in a tagine, and primed America for the Middle Eastern flavors of Yotam Ottolenghi, who remains a fan. The British chef Fergus Henderson chose her cassoulet as his favorite recipe of all time.

"A whole murderers’ row of great American chefs — Thomas Keller, David Kinch, Judy Rodgers — has said how much her work mattered. 'I have always treasured and loved the vigor of her passionate and intellectual approach to authenticity,' Mario Batali said."

Finding General Tso and his Chicken

"The Search for General Tso" is a documentary film about the ubiquitous chicken dish that's been popular in American restaurants since the 1970s. It describes the history of Chinese immigration into the United States beginning with the California Gold Rush. It traces the persecution and abuse of Chinese immigrants at various times in our history, the development of Chinese-American food and American Chinese restaurants, and some of the actual traditions of Chinese food in China. It even briefly summarizes the way that Jewish New Yorkers often habitually ate Chinese food on Sunday and on Christmas. Interviews with American food writers, chefs, owners of Chinese restaurants, and various people in China and Taiwan provide a variety of facts and opinions about Chinese food and American history. We watched it on Netflix.

The movie includes lots of local color!

Several scenes are in Hunan Province where the original General Tso lived
during the 19th century. He is remembered fondly: he never lost a battle.
Almost every American city and town has a Chinese restaurant.
And virtually all of them serve General Tso's chicken.
Owners from many small towns were interviewed about their family history.
Adapting to American taste was a matter of survival for the restaurants in American cities where Chinese food
was unfamiliar and the restaurant's owners were often the only Chinese people in the area.
The inventor of the dish was a Chef Peng in Taiwan in the 1960s. The original dish was less sweet than the eventual
American-Chinese version, and did not have broccoli, which is not known in China.
The producer of "The Search for General Tso," which was released in 2014, was Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book that I also enjoyed very much.

Friday, March 24, 2017

What I've been cooking

Chocolate Fudge Pie in the oven.
Last week I wrote about pie for Pi Day (here: Pi Day Discovery and Zingerman's Pie). This week, I tried the recipe for Cruchon's Fudge Pie that was in that post. This recipe, which I found online, didn't specify what size pie was intended. Fortunately, I guessed that the original proportions were for a large pie, so I scaled down for the small pie (7" or 8") illustrated above. The texture of the fudge filling was very nice, and it tasted quite good.

Browning potatoes & carrots for corned beef hash.
Corned beef hash made from the Saint Patrick's Day corned beef, browned onions, hash brown potatoes, and a few carrots.

One more corned beef dinner: sandwiches with turkey, corned beef, and cole slaw on Zingerman's bread.
The slaw ingredients were chopped cabbage, grated carrots & ginger root, mayo, keffir, a dash of hot sauce, & caraway seed.

I rarely write up the meals that we eat on an everyday basis. This week I decided to describe some of the simple meals we ate. Two of our dinners were salmon broiled on skewers with portobello mushroom quarters one night, and broiled flank steak with heart-of-palm salad including olives, lettuce, and cherry tomatoes on another night. The best lunch I made consisted of a tabbouleh salad containing parsley, bulgar, tomatoes, lemon juice, and olive oil (recipe amalgamated from several online sources) and home-made hummus from chickpeas, tahini, and Trader Joe's pickled red peppers.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Psychological Thriller in Japan

A Quiet Place by Japanese mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto (1909–1992) is classified as a "psychological thriller." It's entirely centered on one character: Tsuneo Asai and his reaction to the sudden death of his wife Eiko. Because she already suffered from heart disease, her death in itself was not shocking, and Asai and her family perform the standard Japanese funeral rites. Of course for the American reader, these and other unfamiliar Japanese customs in the book create fascinating reading, but the point of the book is not to offer anthropological study, but to set up for a tale of suspense and action.

What disturbed Asai, once he dealt with the formalities, was that Eiko had died while walking on a strange street in Tokyo far from her home and far from the other Tokyo locations that he was aware she often visited. She had entered a small shop on the street when she became ill, but he soon learns that the shop owner had no idea of who she was or why she was walking by.

Asai thought he knew about all Eiko's daily activities, such as taking a class in writing haiku, so he feels a need to know what she had been doing in this neighborhood of beautiful and expensive homes mixed (strangely) with "couples hotels" where lovers could meet for a short or long assignation. At first Asai anonymously hires a detective firm to investigate the circumstances, but soon becomes involved in his own investigations, and immerses himself in a project of discovery that goes off the deep end. The plot  and character development that follow are extraordinary, but further discussion would be a very terrible spoiler, and you should read this book for yourself!

From the very beginning of the book we learn that Asai is much more dedicated as a "salaryman" than as a husband. His first thoughts on receiving the call from his wife's shocked and grieving sister and father are on his obligation to spare the business sensibilities of his superior in the government bureaucracy where he works and the feelings of their clients with whom he is having dinner. They seem more concerned about the loss of his wife, in a way, than he does.

While the foods being consumed at this and other meals in the tale is briefly described or at least listed, the real role of food in this novel is unusual and interesting. Asai's job in a government office is promoting agriculture in rural Japan. His education in a small college put him at a disadvantage in competition with other more prestigiously educated and socially privileged colleagues, so he worked extremely hard to become an expert at helping traditional rice farmers make a transition to production of beef and other more valuable commodities, as well as understanding the meat-packing industry and working with plant owners. His lectures and consultations were very well-received and in high demand. This paragraph explains:
"Asai made an effort to throw himself into his work. He was sent to Ishikawa and Yamanashi on government business. Farmers in both prefectures were interested in moving away from the cultivation of rice and developing their meat-processing industry. Asai went on a week’s tour, invited by local agricultural cooperatives to give lectures on the meat industry in their town or village. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had been trying to deal with the national rice surplus by getting farmers to reduce the acreage devoted to the cultivation of rice, but they knew their measures were inefficient. Local farming families also knew that this policy was doing nothing to improve their prospects. In the current recession, the present system of food control was just not working, and the future looked grim. The farmers felt that the recent trend of leaving the countryside in the off season to find outside work was not what their job should be about. Lately, even the women were being forced to go to the cities to find jobs to supplement their falling income." (Kindle Locations 1658-1665). 
Asai's ambition and commitment to his job motivated much of  his action in the book, and the description of this "salaryman" ethic was one of the most fascinating parts of the psychological portrait.

I wrote about another novel by Matsumoto a couple of years ago here: Inspector Imanishi Eats Sushi. He was a very prolific author, although only a few of his works have been translated into English, and this translation dates only to 2016. I hope to read more!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

FDA Guidelines

The politicization of diet guidelines, the role of big food and big agriculture in determining what the FDA can say, and the disputes overall about what people should eat -- everything is so troublesome! Maddening, in fact. The conclusion, often, that your mother was right, you should eat your vegetables and leave it at that, is tempting. I rarely comment on this because it's so Byzantine.

I think this very old (2014) article from the Onion is very helpful or at least enlightening. Directly quoted (in fact lifted) from the Onion HERE.

FDA Recommends At Least 3 Servings Of Foods With Word ‘Fruit’ On Box

SILVER SPRING, MD—In an effort to get Americans to at least go through the motions of a healthier diet, the Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that it is now recommending individuals consume three servings of foods every day that simply include the word “fruit” on the box. “Though we have in the past advised eating a minimum of three pieces of actual fruit per day, it is now acceptable to eat any food labeled with the word ‘fruit,’ including variations such as ‘fruity,’ ‘fruit-a-licious,’ or ‘fruit-blasted,’” FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters, also noting that sweetened cereal or gummies shaped like fruit are entirely permissible under the agency’s new guidelines. “If it smells somewhat like fruit, or even if there’s a cartoon strawberry or orange on the wrapper, that’s sufficient at this point.” The FDA’s new recommendations are expected to be followed up by other guidelines under which anything successfully chewed and swallowed can now be considered a vegetable.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Seeing with an iPhone

Today at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, we visited the 2017 Ann Arbor Orchid Festival. Several orchid societies presented carefully arranged displays of their members' orchid plants. I was concentrating on getting close-up photos of the orchids, but the photos weren't really that interesting. So I moved on, and tried to see how other people were experiencing the orchid displays. Many were doing so with their iPhones.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Evening update: here's the dinner: corned beef, cabbage (braised,
not boiled in the cooking water), and some pickled peppers
and carrots.
 For the first time in ages, I decided to make corned beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick's Day. I'll be simmering the corned beef much of the afternoon, and I'm looking forward to having it for dinner.

Since it's Saint Patrick's Day, I was thinking about Irish food. Yes, there is corned beef in Ireland, but now there's also a very exciting range of other foods and quite a wonderful twenty-first century cuisine. Without any details, I present here some images of delicious things we've tried in Ireland, especially fish and oysters:

Plaice with little potatoes, snow peas, and other vegetables.
Lemon Tart

Fish & Chips.


Thinking of Ireland, I feel one should not forget the worst phase of Irish history: the potato famine of the nineteenth century. In Dublin in 1997, a very moving memorial to the Irish famine victims was created by sculptor Rowan Gillespie. Two photos of this collection of statues:

Galway, Ireland, a few hours ago: the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. Photo by my brother, with whom we also ate all those meals!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cory Doctorow for President

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a very amusing book about the state of the world in 2044. Because the planet has run out of fuel, most people have to live in packed dwellings, such as trailers stacked one on top of another, each tiny bedroom housing a whole family. Their concerns: "The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate chage. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars." (p. 1)

In 2044 America and other parts of the world, most people. at least most young people, spend the majority of their time in a role-playing game called OASIS. Wearing high-tech gloves and body suits, and "seeing" via retinal displays, they experience virtual reality and in many cases have no direct contact with fellow humans.

At the beginning of the book Wade, the narrator, describes the death of the creator and owner of the OASIS game and corporation. The most important fact: his will left his wealth and power to the winner of a virtual game to find an "Easter Egg" inside the OASIS. By page 9, Wade explains that he, "an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City," was the first seeker to solve the beginning of the riddle. And thus we are launched into a fast-paced tale of virtual, and eventually Real Life, adventure. Or if you like, a quest which focuses on the game-designer's obsession with 1980s geek culture including early video games, early home computers, popular tech-oriented movies, and other pop culture of that era.

Each of Wade's successive wins becomes known immediately through a public "Scoreboard" reporting his score and the scores of his competitors -- just like a video game only serious. This enables him to live a little better: he makes money by endorsing products, both virtual and physical, that people can purchase despite their terrible living conditions.

My favorite part of the novel, besides the suspense, was the description of his isolated apartment, entirely controlled by a very advanced computer, which he created for himself when he had advanced far enough to have a chance at winning the big prize. Without any contact with humans, he lives only to continue his quest. Food and new high-tech devices are delivered through an air-lock. To avoid obesity, he has his computer monitor his "vital signs" and keep track of every calorie he eats and every calorie he burns throughout the day; the computer forced him to exercise on high-tech treadmills. It only allowed him to eat "a preset menu of healthy, low-calorie foods. ... This was some sadistic software." (p. 196-197)

The most wonderful virtual reality device in his high-tech apartment was the Olfatrix smell tower, "capable of generating over two thousand discernible odors. A rose garden, salty ocean wind, burning cordite -- the tower could convincingly re-create them all. ... A lot of jokers liked to code really horrific smells into their simulations, just to mess with people who owned smell towers, so I usually left the odor generator disabled, unless I was in a part of the OASIS where I thought being able to smell my surroundings might prove useful." (p. 193)

About the politics of the era, Wade wrote that he didn't vote in the US government elections: he didn't bother because "I didn't see the point. The once-great country into which I'd been born now resembled its former self in name only. It didn't matter who was in charge... now that everyone could vote from home, via the OASIS, the only people who could get elected were movie stars, reality TV personalities, or radical televangelists." (p. 201 -- note: the book was published in 2011.)

Wade continued that electing the leaders of the OASIS government was different: "It was also time to elect the president and VP of the OASIS User Council, but that was a no-brainer. ... I voted to reelect Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton (again). There were no term limits, and those two geezers had been doing a kick-ass job of protecting user rights for over a decade." (p. 201)

I think the most impressive feature of Ready Player One is the conclusion. Unlike most dystopian or futurist novels, the plot does not fall apart, and though there's a bit of moralizing, it has a very satisfying ending -- which I will not spoil!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pi Day Discovery and Zingerman's Pie

A long time ago, we lived in Berkeley, California. So long ago that the "Berkeley Food Revolution" hadn't happened yet, and there were only a few good restaurants. If you wanted good food, you crossed the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. In Berkeley, only two restaurants had a high reputation: Cruchon's and The Pot Luck, which the famous food critic Herb Cain called "the only San Francisco style restaurant in the East Bay." Both restaurants were a little pricy for us, but we managed to eat there occasionally.

Cruchon's, a short walk from where we lived, was known for a very large selection of pie. I particularly remember that they made a fudge pie, which was like a brownie in a pie crust, and several fruit pies. I think the pie selection varied each day, but there were always a lot of appealing choices. Maybe I first tasted pecan pie there.

Since today is Pi Day (because mathematics, you know, π = 3.14) I was thinking about Cruchon's pie, and looked it up. There's not much about it online -- I already knew Cruchon's was "a notable sandwich, salad, and pie restaurant near the Berkeley campus." However, I did discover that the founder of both Cruchon's and the Pot Luck was a man named Hank Rubin (1916-2011). According to his obituary, he was the "father of the Berkeley Food Revolution and a well-known writer about food and wine." (source)

Rubin's fascinating  obituary appeared in a journal called "The Volunteer" which was "Founded by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Rubin, I learned, "was a lifelong advocate for social justice — a passion that drove him to leave UCLA in his junior year as a pre-med student and enlist in the first major fight against fascism in Europe, the Spanish Civil War, where he fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a contingent of American volunteers." His Berkeley restaurants, founded in the early 1960s, "were the first restaurants in the Bay Area to be fully integrated by race and gender."

I remember only the pie and a vague image of what it looked like inside the restaurant. Funny that I can't find a single picture online. The only trace other than the obituaries is that The Berkeley Historical Plaque Project placed a plaque on the former site of Rubin's Pot Luck restaurant, and included a brief bio, which says:
"At Cruchon’s, where sandwich makers were visible to diners, Rubin was undeterred by a loss of customers, angry protests, and threats of a boycott in response to his employing a staff that was mixed by gender and race and included longhaired students." (link)
The Berkeley Plaque Project also quoted a recipe for the fudge pie:
Cruchon Fudge Pie recipe given to Carole Joffe 
“Melt together: 6 tablespoons butter; 3 oz bittersweet chocolate, mixing well, one and one half cups sugar, 3 med eggs moderately beaten; 1/2 tablespoon vanilla—turn into unbaked pie shell bake at 375 for one and one half hours, uneven…” 
“Uneven” refers to keeping the oven door open part of the time. (link)
That's my Pi Day memory for this year! Here's what I bought and am eating today:

At Zingerman's Bakehouse: Slices of Pie for $3.14 apiece. Lemon, pecan, berry medley or apple.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Happy Purim

My Hamantaschen with prune filling and poppy seed filling. Other popular fillings include chocolate, jam, and more.
Purim, which is today March 12, celebrates the rescue of the Jews of Persia by the intervention of Queen Esther, who had married the King, as told in the Biblical Book of Esther. The evil adviser to the king, Steve Bannon, oops I mean Haman, had convinced King Ahasuerus to declare that all the Jews would be hanged. The King somehow didn't know that Esther was Jewish -- so she's always considered to be the first ever secret Jew. When she told him that an evil man wanted to kill her, he decreed that the man himself would hang -- and so the authorities strung up Haman.

For centuries, the celebration of Purim (which became a holiday many centuries after the possibly mythical events in the fifth century before the current era) included a variety of pastries, because the Book of Esther says to send gifts of foods to friends or others. American Jews today traditionally make Hamantaschen, which are three-cornered filled cookies based on recipes from German Jews a couple of centuries ago. More skillful bakers accomplish a more uniform result than mine, depicted above, but that's the kind of baker I am.

In addition to giving gifts of food, the celebration of Purim includes drinking until you are drunk (which the Book of Esther says you should do), dressing up in crazy costumes (which the Israelis really go overboard with), and reading the Book of Esther aloud. I'm not doing any of these  this year.

Baking: I used the recipe in The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden. I made my own prune filling,
but used a can of poppy seed filling. The prune ones came out better.

Published this week: "Claudia Roden Tells Her Immigrant Story" by Mayukh Sen -- a fantastic interview with descriptions of Roden's best cookbooks. Don't miss it.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Casablanca in Ypsilanti, MI

Bistilla -- A Moroccan dish I have wanted to try for a long time:
"Herb saffron chicken, orange blossom water, honey, almonds powdered sugar, and cinnamon."
Yesterday we had lunch at Casablanca restaurant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, a few miles from our house (Casablanca website here). I have been curious about the Moroccan pastry called Bistilla for quite a while, and immediately ordered it as an appetizer. I found it delicious, though Len said it was a little too sweet for him. Carol, who joined us, described it as "chicken baclava." OK.

Chicken Tagine, one of three entrees that we ordered. We also tried sweet lamb tagine and a merguez (sausage) sandwich.
A shelf of tagines.
The word "tagine" refers to both a pottery vessel for cooking and serving, and to the special stewed meat, fish, and vegetable dishes that are made in this dish. Casablanca Restaurant has had some problems with the health department inspectors, and they are no longer allowed to use these easily-cracked clay dishes to serve the tagines. I admit that I was waiting for their inspection reports to improve before I ate there. Fortunately, the problems seem to have been resolved recently. Am I crazy because I check the health inspections of places I go for the first time? Maybe.

Inside Casablanca.

Casablanca Restaurant is in a former Taco Bell location. Painted in grey and deep sky-blue, the Taco-Bell architecture doesn't seem in particularly unexpected for a Moroccan restaurant. There's a reason: the Mexican or Southwest US style adopted by Taco Bell has its origins in Spanish colonial architecture. Remember that in the Middle Ages Spain was occupied (or partly occupied) and governed by Arabs from North Africa, who influenced Spanish culture, language, and architecture. In 1492, the same year that they funded Columbus's voyage, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded in expelling the last of the "Moors," that is Arabs, from Spain. So the colonization of the Americas -- including the colonial architecture we now associate with the Southwest and Mexico -- immediately followed the era of Arab influence. Interesting.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Chef's Table: Enrique Olvera

Finally, we started watching the last 3 episodes of the Netflix series "Chef's Table." The first one we watched is about Enrique Olvera, a Mexican chef using many traditional ingredients and recipes in a high-level restaurant. As do most episodes of Chef's Table, this one includes very pretentious comments by restaurant reviewers, interviews with the chef himself, kitchen scenes, artsy pictures of the restaurant's featured dishes, lots of loud classical music, and many beautiful scenes from the surrounding territory. Also, it highlights the most exotic of the ingredients and methods, such as the dish above made with seasonal ants, which only creep out and offer delicious flavor for a few days each year.

Olvera is shown on visits to several sites in and near Oxaca, including corn fields like the one above. He uses corn in many dishes, including desserts, as obviously it's central to Mexican foodways.

One featured dish at his restaurant is a very complex version of mole, the sauce made from a combination of ingredients from Mexico and the entire world -- New-World chocolate, nuts, Old-World spices, etc. He serves it with tortillas that are made by hand in the restaurant.

Unlike several of the featured chefs in this series, Olvera seemed to me to cook really appealing dishes, which I think I would love to taste. Although I loved the recent parody of the series (which I posted here) I still enjoyed watching.