Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ice Cream !

For the first time, Miriam and Alice used their own money (allowance) to buy ice cream.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Dinner


We had a marvelous Polish traditional Christmas dinner cooked by our friends Michal and Anuska. The first course was whitefish in aspic with pierogis filled with cabbage:
Second: borscht, which tasted just like my mother's but included dumplings.
Third: stuffed salmon with vegetables.

Dessert: pierogis stuffed with plum butter served with fruit compote and poppy seed pudding with wheat berries, nuts and dried fruit.

Alice, Miriam, and Nicholas enjoyed their favorite kids' meal -- mac and cheese and chicken nuggets, thanks to the perfect hospitality of our hosts. Alice eats:
Miriam eats:

Nicholas eats:


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Kuerle fragrant pears in the Curious Cook


News For Curious Cooks: Kuerle fragrant pears

Again McGee has combined good news about food -- a type of pears being introduced to Americans -- with lots of scientific data about what makes them taste and smell the way they do. He summarizes: "Kuerle pear was developed more than a thousand years ago, and has been valued for its 'super white' flesh, elongated shape, jade green skin, and special fragrance. Substantial quantities are now exported."

I hope I'll find some the next time I shop at Whole Foods. The picture was the only one I found with a google image search.

A Christmas Mystery

In today's Guardian online is an article about Christmas Dinner: evidently an English Christmas dinner: "Top chefs' tips for Christmas -- How do you keep turkey moist? Can sprouts be interesting? We ask British chefs for their festive secrets."

The accompanying photo (shown as it appeared on the Guardian link to the article) includes a few of that most British of vegetables: the brussels sprout, as does the question about whether such a vegetable can be "interesting." I have had a few English Christmas dinners and have always been curious about what I saw as an obsession with Christmas brussels sprouts. They obviously MUST have them on the menu, but they also are very wary of them.

Some of the advice from the various chefs about making them "interesting":

  • "People usually hate brussel sprouts so we cut them into quarters and separate each leaf, which we then blanch. To finish we throw the leaves into a hot wok with a bit of bacon and you get this really green and vibrant dish."
  • "Frozen sprouts are the best."
  • "You can even plan what to do with leftovers to prevent wastage - ... why not make some bubble and squeak fritters? You can use pretty much any leftovers - leeks, onions, brussel sprouts, bacon, cabbage, a couple of chestnuts, anything really."
I'm lost in confusion. If they actually do hate brussels sprouts, think that frozen are better than fresh, and need to get rid of the leftovers, why are these vegetables a given on the Christmas menu?

As the New Yorker used to say: There will always be an England.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Brown Sugar

After several recent conversations about brown sugar, I was happy to see a discussion about sugars today in a New York Times article about cane syrup and its use in southern baked goods and other treats: Secret of Holiday Treats (by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, Dec. 13, 2006, New York Times). I also checked McGee's On Food and Cooking, out of curiosity to get a better understanding about what makes all these different sugars have such interesting flavors and textures.

My first conversation was with my friend Erin in Prague, for whom I put in the recipe for blondies. I have been aware for a long time that in standard European grocery sources, one does not find American-style brown sugar. Erin says she makes it out of
sugar and Czech molasses. Maybe she learned from McGee: "Brown sugar is soft and clingy because its molasses film -- whose glucose and fructose are more hygroscopic than sucrose -- contains about 35 times as much water as ordinary white sugar." The process for making brown sugar that he describes is more complex than Erin's simple mixing. McGee says brown sugar results from: "adding special syrups that have undergone the ideal amount of browning to refined, redissolved sucrose," followed by further processing that leaves a molasses coating. But for small-scale use her version evidently works -- I hope she makes some blondies and chocolate chip cookies!

In conversations with other friends, I have discussed the differences between the soft, clingy American brown sugar and the more crystalline varieties of "raw" sugar found elsewhere, such as Demarara sugar in England, turbinado sugar in the Caribbean, and cassonade or sucre roux in France. As we ate a delicious flan, we discussed the more classic method of making the brown syrup -- actually carmelizing sugar in a pan -- as opposed to the less risky short cut of melting brown sugar.


The process description in the NYT article today claimed that all brown sugars were originally a direct by-product of one of the repeated steps of centrifuging and boiling down syrup in the process of making white crystalline sugar. To quote:
Brown sugars now come in a range of flavors: Demerara, turbinado and raw sugars are like the “first pressing” of the sugar: they are first to rise to the top during processing and have the lightest molasses flavor. Muscovado, a loamy, crumbly dark brown sugar, has the most. Most commercial brown sugars are not naturally brown from cane solids, but are a late-stage mixture of refined white sugar and molasses.
This confirms what I've heard in the past: that various brown sugars occurred during the refining process. When sugar refining was done on a smaller scale, for various reasons the less-fully-refined sugars were used, though less valued. Eventually sugar refining became totally industrial, and suddenly the brown sugars, once considered crude, became valued for the greater variety of flavors. And a new process was invented to produce these versions in a consistent, efficient way. Like bitter greens and potatoes, a food of poor rural people is elevated to a different status.

Monday, December 11, 2006

TransFat

In the not-so-distant future, all but traces of transfat will be banned in almost every food establishment in New York. The goal is safer eating, especially for those who frequent fast food and chain restaurants. For us non-newyorkers non-professional cooks, the issue of transfat avoidance is just as serious.

The most severe impact of the ban seems to be on bakers, who need to figure out the question: what's the best fat for making pies. I've already been in several conversations about this question, as home cooks -- maybe more than restaurants -- don't want to jeopardize the health of their customers even if it's legally permitted.

The campaign against cholesterol has already condemned pastry made with the old-old favorites lard or butter. For the large number of pie makers who have already quit using animal fat the choice has always been Crisco. Now we're discussing -- what's the next best? Experts are experimenting, and I await sage answers from writers like Harold McGee.

A start on resolving this issue is in today's NY Times:

In Trans Fat Ban, a Challenge Fit for a Chef






Update: the same subject, covered in the Washington Post concludes: "Not long ago, there were a couple dozen ways to risk your life in New York City. Death by rugelach, unfortunately, will no longer be one of them." (Unclogged Arteries, and Eateries, December 17, 2006)

See also Starbucks Cuts Trans Fats in Half of U.S. Stores (January 2, 2007)

AND Trans Fats Have Left the Diner (January 3, 2007)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The "New Cookery"

In today's Guardian the cooks/food writers Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee made a statement on "the new cookery." Their points:
  1. They are guided by "excellence, openness, and integrity"
  2. They value and build on tradition
  3. They also embrace innovation: "new ingredients, techniques, appliances, information, and ideas" -- but not novelty for its own sake
  4. They believe that "cooking can affect people in profound ways, and that a spirit of collaboration and sharing is essential to true progress in developing this potential."
Very interesting. Absolutely nothing anyone could disagree with in the summary statements or as far as I can tell in the elaborations of each point. A second article explains that they are rejecting the mechanical approach to "molecular gastronomy" and going back to basics.

Why do I wish for something more controversial?

See - Top chefs' manifesto on good cooking & I'm just serious about food

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Lebkuchen

A German tradition for the holidays is Nürnberger Lebkuchen.

They come from the bakers called
Lebkuchen-Schmidt GmbH. Packages of variously-flavored soft and crisp cookies are gift-packaged in beautiful tin boxes with a variety of designs on them. Lebkuchen in English means gingerbread, but it's the gingerbread of the gods! My friend Marianna just sent us a box of them. Evelyn and Tom also get them. What luxury!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

New from the Curious Cook!

Harold McGee is author of On Food and Cooking and other wonderful books about what happens when you cook. He explains the inner workings of mayonnaise, rising dough, foaming egg whites, and answers almost every cooking-chemistry question you can think of. It's a wonderful reference book to have at hand. I've enjoyed it for years.

Now for the really great news. Today McGee began a column in the New York Times:

The Curious Cook : When Science Sniffs Around the Kitchen.

This first offering described some interesting effects that occur when cooking garlic. McGee has a blog as well, which today offered additional technical details about the chemistry of garlic:

News For Curious Cooks: Curious Cook in the New York Times: Colorful garlic

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Food Drives

I learned something important about the needs of a food drive in a discussion last night. A doctor who works at a clinic for recipients of donated food gave us an important insight.

"Tell people to bring canned fruit and green vegetables," she said. "My patients have trouble getting enough fruit and vegetables. Bring canned green beans, canned fruit or even raisins. Everyone brings cans of pasta -- they get too much pasta."

This made me realize: in my own shopping, I buy canned tomatoes, corn, tuna, beans, and soup. But always fresh greens and fresh fruit. Giving my preferred canned goods to a food drive is insensitive to the needs of the needy. I can buy fresh produce because I'm lucky to have enough time, enough money, and a kitchen where I can keep things fresh. I'm a little embarrassed because for the pre-Thanksgiving food drives, I specifically bought what I thought was good-quality canned soup. But of course it's a starchy product, and now I know better.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Greens

Arugula. Borage. Chicory. Dandelion greens. Curly endive. Belgian endive. Mustard greens. Rapini. Radicchio. Salad frisée. Sorrel.

Said the L.A.Times recently: "at this time of year, bitter greens are calling from nearly every other stall or stand at the farmers market or the grocery store; they're a boon of winter. Until fairly recently, bitter greens have been popular in this country only in the South, but more of them have become more widely available, though their names still can be confusing." The article describes (with recipes) the delicate and interesting flavors that can be achieved through various uses of bitter greens, using techniques from the American South, Italy, and the Carribean. ("The sweet side of bitter greens" by Beth Fortune, November 29, 2006)

The heritage of wild greens traces to just about every rural culture. Like the poor farmers in the South and the Italian peasants, rural people all over used to make use of whatever grew to supplement the few foods of poverty. Say the words "green vegetable" and most people will guess that you're worrying about vitamins. Poor people who had only coarse bread or porridge knew they needed variety. They picked whatever they could eat -- from fiddle-head ferns in New England to sorrel for borscht in Russia, especially in spring when the few shoots were the only edible choice.

A variety of writers describe how the Italians, particularly poor rural people, gathered greens and herbs. Camporesi, a writer who has some interesting insights into both good times and bad says: "Greens were normally consumed in great quantity," in his book called The Magic Harvest, "especially field chicory dressed with vinegar and bacon, boiled or fried field poppies, sizercia in salad with bitter vetch . . ., omelets with onions, leeks, chicory, beetroot and field poppies." (p. 9) He goes on to explain that the eggs for the omelets were in short supply, and the impoverished families used them very sparingly. Waverley Root, a writer with more emphasis on fine cuisine, describes a Ligurian dish of deep-fried wild plants: "chopped sage, wisteria petals, the hairy leaves of borage, edible roots, salsify stalks, squash flowers and mushrooms. ... most such ingredients are intended to flavor the batter rather than to be eaten for their own sake." (The Food of Italy, p. 375)

Leaves of wild plants such as nasturtium, mint, borage, arugula, and sorrel, and flowers of new fennel, rosemary, and violet, could all be turned into attractive salad material, according to Anna Del Conte's Gastronomy of Italy: “In the past such plants were among the principal foods of the poor who, out of sheer need, had learned how to recognize and cook them. . . . Nowadays, good cooks have again come to recognize the culinary value of these simple unpretentious plants.” ( p. 104) Another food writer, Montanari, explores the distinctions between peasant and noble foods as well, saying that "bulbs and roots (leeks, onions, turnips) were left to the peasants, as were the 'lower' and more common greens. Fruit from trees instead was suited to the aristocrat." (The Culture of Food, p. 90)

In the south of France, people gather "herbs de provence" — rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, savory, parsley, lavender, laurel leaves, and other native species; fresh or dried they flavor salads, stews, and soups. If you ever accompany a French person who knows how to gather these herbs, you'll remember the bright sun, vivid blue sky, and marvelous perfume of the scrubby, rather plain-colored thyme and rosemary. Perhaps your host will throw a handful into the fire over which meat is roasting, or use them in a fish that's been brought from the Mediterranean that morning. Quickly, you'll learn why modern chefs expound the virtues of this type of cooking. But centuries ago, these native herbs were valued far less than prized exotic spices such as ginger and pepper, which were imported by tortuous routes from the East Indies.

In the book Honey from a Weed, Patricia Gray includes an entire section called "Edible Weeds," which begins "Edwardian Englishmen laughed at French governesses for picking wild chervil, dandelions, and sorrel in spring for salads, for cutting nettle-heads for soup." She describes the necessary economies of the families in Italian villages and countryside where she lived, and how they value the plants that can be gathered freely. Her experience includes similar foods during long stays in Greek islands. She mentions having found that similar edible plants were used in the Middle Ages in Germany and Poland. Her general view is that the greater and greater cost of organic and wild foods is making what used to be the food of the poor into "outrageous luxuries." (pp. 188, 325)

In ancient China, too, peasants were aware of all the edible plants in their environment; like the European and American rural people, they kept a living tradition of which normally spurned plants, particularly wild ones, could be used when crops failed. In the Han period, thousands of years ago, poor people normally ate garlic, scallions, beans and water, taro, or dried grain, but turned to soy to relieve the effects of famine, according to various articles in the anthology Food in Chinese Culture.

I find it fascinating that the foods of poverty, once little valued because they lacked the substance to satisfy real hunger, are now valued precisely because of their low calorie count. Again, I contemplate our wealth and our lack of consciousness of this wealth.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Soup and Potatoes

The Soup website came up in a google search because I wanted to find an old Yiddish song my father told us about once: "Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes. Thursday and Friday potatoes. But on the Sabbath for a change a potato kugel, Sunday once again potatoes. Oi, bread and potatoes, meat with potatoes, lunch and supper - potatoes, still and again, ..."

In my father's childhood, potatoes were about the only form of nutrition in a time of near starvation -- maybe a little bread was also sometimes on the table. "Fish potatoes" meant potatoes cooked in water that had once been used for cooking fish. A potato kugel was mainly potatoes too, but for the Sabbath, maybe there was a little egg and onion to flavor it. If you made kugel, you shared one or two eggs around the entire family.

When World War I started, as my father always told us, his mother made sort of a wall out of potatoes in a room of their house. She bought the potatoes in the fall so that the family wouldn't starve during the winter. Others with less foresight weren't so lucky.

In the village, everyone was hungry in war or peace time: but they still had a sense of humor. So we have the song about the long week of nothing to eat but potatoes. Day after day, nothing but potatoes. Bitter but funny.

When we were children, somehow my father still didn't think a meal was quite complete unless there were some boiled potatoes and some bread to eat with our meat and vegetables. We never really understood what he was describing: hunger. Maybe we still don't. He hoped we never would.

For the entire potato song in transliterated Yiddish as well as another great old Yiddish song about how the Tsar eats potatoes take a look at this page: SoupTale: YIDDISH POTATO SONGS. See if you don't think the whole Soup website -- soupsong.com -- somehow captures the old Web Spirit. I think it's been around since the Web was young, and I think I have run into it before.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Two Classics


Recently, I made totally classic brownies -- here's a photo of the ones that are still in the freezer. I also make totally classic blondies from time to time. Both are irresistible to eat when still hot: don't burn your tongue on the melted chocolate!

By request, here are the recipes, both fairly easy and quick.

Classic Brownies
From Baker’s Chocolate package 2006

4 squares unsweetened chocolate
1-½ sticks butter (3/4 cup)
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup flour
up to 1 cup chopped nuts (optional – you could also use dried cranberries or cherries)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly grease 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

1) Microwave Method: Melt chocolate and butter in microwave for 2 mins. on high in mixing bowl large enough for all ingredients. Stir to complete melting of chocolate. Cool if necessary to avoid cooking the eggs during step 2.
1) No Microwave Method: Melt chocolate and butter in top of double boiler, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool to avoid cooking the eggs in step 2. If you used a large enough double boiler, proceed. Otherwise, scrape chocolate into larger mixing bowl and continue.

2) Fully stir sugar into chocolate mixture. Mix eggs & vanilla together and add to batter. Stir in flour. Also add nuts to batter if you like the nuts spread througout the brownies (see next instruction).

3) Spread batter in pan. Alternate use of nuts: spread the nuts on top and pat slightly into batter if you like the nuts on top.

4) Bake for 30 minutes. Tester will not be clean: it will have a few sticky crumbs. Do not overbake. Cool for 15-20 minutes and cut in squares. Loosen from pan. Remove when cool.

Classic Blondies
(also known as Butterscotch Brownies)

1 stick butter
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 and 1/3 cup mixed fruit, chocolate, and nuts. Use any nuts, chocolate chips, chopped chocolate, chopped dried apricots, dried cherries, chopped candied ginger, or any other dried fruit in a combination that appeals to you.

Grease an 8" or 9" square pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1) Melt butter and brown sugar in saucepan or microwave. Cool so it won't cook the egg in next step.

2) Add egg and vanilla. Sift in flour. Stir well. Add nuts and fruit to batter and stir well. Or wait and spread them on top of batter in pan in step 3. Chocolate chips or chunks definitely work better if added to top of batter, without stirring, after it is in the pan.

3) Spread mixture in greased pan. Add remaining chocolate/fruit/nuts. Just press it in a little. Bake 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Tester will not be completely clean when they are done.

4) Cut brownies into squares after cooling 20 minutes. Loosen from pan. Remove when cool.