Thursday, December 27, 2007


Tomatoes are terrible even at Whole Foods in this dark and unproductive season. I decided that today was the day to use the slow roasted tomatoes that I froze last summer (see New Recipe). What looked good at Whole Foods was trout, which probably was raised on a Canadian farm not far from here. So far: locavore! As a side dish I made potato pancakes. Maybe they were even Michigan potatoes.

What else looked good at Whole Foods? Satsumas from California. Not so local! We served this meal to our friends Elaine and Bob. For appetizers, we had a selection of crisp vegetables and an Israeli vegetable spread. For dessert, Elaine made poached pears.

Also of note: we carried 6 bottles of wine back from Whole Foods in a wine carrier I received for Christmas from my friend Sheila. This is consistent with my upcoming New Year's resolution to reduce the amount of packaging I use.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Polish Christmas Dinner

Our friends invited us to a traditional Polish Christmas dinner. The first course was a delicious fish in aspic.

After the fish, we had beet borscht with pirogi filled with mushrooms, then lamb roast, two other types of pirogi, and a potato, tomato, and olive casserole.

I made this apple pie. We also had poppy seed cake, poppy seed pudding, and other pastries from a Polish bakery. What a great meal!

Here are our hosts Michal, Anuska, and Nicholas:

This is the second year we have had Christmas dinner with them. Last year's dinner can be seen at:

Christmas Dinner

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pubs in Wellington

Pubs facing the water are beautiful along the Wellington harbor. Beer and french fries seem popular. When you are done, if there's a little of the sour cream accompaniment left -- a gull will dip his beak in it:
Pub food also seemed very good. In a pub on Tinakori Road we had shellfish chowder and lamb shank:
The fries we ate at the Backbencher were kumara fries. The kumara is a sweet potato that the Maori brought with them to New Zealand:
The Backbencher is across the street from Parliament, so naturally, along with beer it features larger-than-life caricatures of politicians. Needless to say, we recognized no one, but identified the "types" completely:

And here is one cafe -- another type of casual dining -- where we had breakfast several times, and dinner once:
After yesterday, the longest travel day I can remember (Wellington-Sydney-Los Angeles-Detroit), we are home. I can now say that the food throughout the trip was fabulous. We enjoyed these casual places. We ate in the cheap neighborhoods across the harbor from the hotel. And we sampled the more formal establishments on the wharf. All the locals seem to recommend Shed 5 as the best for elegant seafood. We definitely had a great meal there but also had many others.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Lunch in Middle Earth

I think a hobbit would have approved of the lunch our tour guide served us while we were in Middle Earth. Egg with ham in filo dough, rolls with ham or smoked salmon, sticky date pudding slices, and chutney-like relish seem more like Bilbo's kind of thing, but we enjoyed eating out under the trees with a small flock of sheep lurking in the near distance.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Martinborough Wineries

The most famous and largest wine-growing area in New Zealand is Marlborough. We saw the vines as our scenic train went through that area on Thursday. A smaller, and more boutique-like wine area is near Wellington: Martinborough. We toured there on Wednesday. Interestingly, the vines in New Zealand all seem to be planted in open, flat fields, rather than on hillsides like French vineyards.

Throughout our tour, we enjoyed the atmosphere of small, owner-run wineries, including lunch at the Alana winery. At the Schubert winery, we found the German-style wines quite appealing. Our favorite wines were from Ata Rangi, where a pinot noir and a dessert wine were the best we tasted. Unfortunately, neither of these are exported. The dessert wine, in fact, is sold only at the winery. Current airline travel being as it is, we aren't in a position to bring any back with us, either.

Our guide, Murray, told us quite a bit about the history of New Zealand wine, which started in the 1980s when Britain joined the Common Market and virtually discontinued importing bulk foodstuffs from New Zealand.
The sheep farms, cattle farms, dairies, and other farms suddenly had to rethink their commodity production -- which they had depended on for over 100 years, since the invention of refrigerated ships. Value-added agricultural products were an obvious solution. Sheep pastures became vineyards. Dairies began to make specialty cheeses. Murray says as a boy, he never tasted an olive. Now olive orchards are beginning to make a variety of high-quality olive oils. The agricultural region is quite beautiful.

Kaikoura in Maori means "Crayfish Dinner"

The Maori didn't have a French Chef like the one in the restaurant where we ate. What a beautiful surprise!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Good Eating

Though they may have exotic seabirds for sale in the fish market, I find that the food we've been eating here in Wellington has been delicious and very well prepared. Above is a tuna nicoise that I had on Saturday night. Lenny had fish with chanterelle mushrooms. The woman sitting next to me had duck breast, garnished with little beets, shown in the next photo.
At lunch yesterday, one of my fellow wives and I were in a very strange mall, where she had been shopping for New Zealand knitting wool. I had noticed an oriental restaurant "Satay Kingdom" serving a really appealing curry of New Zealand mussels:
At the conference banquet, we had scallops and New Zealand lamb, very nicely prepared, and a lemon tarte for dessert. The views from the banquet room were dramatic. Wellington is a city of hills and valleys, so that one constantly finds glimpses of the beautiful hillsides and the harbor.
Another night, we had splendid Indian food at a restaurant called Indus. The aloo gobi was really delicious, and I also loved the dal and the mixed vegetables.

Exotic Food

The muttonbird is a wild seabird that lives in this part of the world. I knew that these birds were prey for early people in this land, where the sea was a major source of food. I was really astonished to see that they are still sold as seafood.

Quote from the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand: "Also known as the sooty shearwater or titi, the New Zealand muttonbird is Puffinus griseus and belongs to the order of sea birds known as petrels. As a name, “muttonbird” appears to have originated among early European settlers in Australasia and is said to refer to the taste of the flesh. At least as probable is the theory that the name refers to the rather woolly appearance of the downy young."

My discovery that people eat these sea birds was especially startling, as our restaurant meals here have been quite wonderful -- but not in the least exotic as to ingredients.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

It was Babka

Babka has always seemed to me to be a rather elaborate yeast-raised cake native to Russia and Jewish bakeries of New York. My friend Natasha (from Jerusalem) made a delicious apple babka several times during her visit to Ann Arbor a few years ago. I knew that New York bakeries that I had never been to made chocolate babkas. In today's New York Times is a long article about babka: An Old Hanukkah Treat. In it are Joan Nathan's interviews with several chefs -- including Evelyn's favorite baker Ann Amernick whose photo I lifted. Each one describes how they make it.

Suddenly, I realized that what we called cinnamon bread when I was a child is definitely the simplest type of babka as defined in the article. Its ingredients were flour, eggs, milk, and yeast. Swirls of cinnamon-sugar were in each slice. Our favorite commercial version came from Pratzel's, my father's preferred local Jewish bakery. It was rather dry, really like bread, and had only cinnamon in the swirls, no raisins. I'm sure that the local bakers never used chocolate or more elaborate fillings, such as today's article describes. They always made it in a loaf, never in a tube pan as Natasha did, and as in some of the pictures.

When my father bought this cinnamon bread, we ate as much as our parents would let us. Sometimes we spread the slices with cream cheese. Sometimes we pulled it apart along the cinnamon fault-lines. We liked the most cinnamony slices, and especially the ends. The top was sticky with cinnamon-sugar, but didn't have a crumb topping -- the bakery made other coffee cakes with crumb toppings. Some of them might have also been varieties of babka. Other bakeries used crumb topping on their cinnamon bread.

My father's Aunt Goldie made the dough for cinnamon bread approximately the same way she made challah dough. She never measured, but added ingredients, kneaded, and used her hands to feel whether the dough was right. We thought her cinnamon bread was the best in the world. My father said so. I remember it as a little richer and less dry than the bakery version. She made it all year, as the article says, not just at Hanukkah. I can't remember ever hearing the word babka. Now I know.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Thursday, November 29, 2007

What would you serve to Queen Elizabeth?

Queen Elizabeth the First made a habit of dropping in for dinner. After she and her many courtiers finished eating, they would stay around for days or weeks. If you had a nice manor house or estate, you would be both honored and burdened to host your monarch at banquet after banquet. During her 45 year reign -- from 1558, when she was 25 years old, until 1603, when she died at the then-remarkable age of 70 -- Elizabeth did this all the time.

An Elizabethan manor house was a busy and heavily populated place. Workers of many social levels were attached to the noble family. The manor’s fields and gardens produced much of the food that would be used in case Elizabeth’s Royal Progress came their way. Gardeners, field hands, kitchen servants, and other workers raised pigs, fattened goslings, cultivated vegetables, grew and preserved fruit and grain, brewed ale and beer, and stored food from season to season. Stills in the kitchen produced flavored waters like lavender water or rose water and sometimes distilled spirits. The manor kitchens fed large numbers of people, but the Queen’s arrival definitely swamped them!

When the manor ran low on a particular food -- or to obtain something exotic or hard to produce -- they sent purchasers to fairs such as the great fair at Stourbridge near Cambridge, or to London, or to a port, where imports were available on the docks. They bought claret, white wine, and sack by the keg. They bought many sorts of fresh water fish and salt water fish, sometimes still alive in barrels. For celebrations, fatted calves were available from dairy farmers, for whom the calves were a by-product. Oranges, prunes, figs, almonds, and other warmer-weather fruits appeared in records of household purchasing. Menus list venison pasties, roast swans and larks, and elaborate meat and vegetable stews.

English gardeners were beginning to cultivate many new vegetables such as the potato, brought from the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh. Another New-World import was the turkey. Nobles – and eventually more ordinary folks -- were beginning to eat many types of lettuce, olive oil for their salads, several types of cucumbers, and many other new foods from all over Europe as well. Manor houses hired foreign gardeners to cultivate new trendy plants such as globe artichokes, eggplant, and pumpkins. They arranged to plant finicky trees, such as apricots and peaches, in the hopes of impressing Elizabeth when she arrived. They made special arrangements such as heated walls that helped the sensitive fruit to ripen.

In planting their gardens and choosing their produce, the nobles were very aware of what was in and what was out. At first introduction, Jerusalem artichokes were “dainties for a queen.” But they turned out to grow like weeds, and the attitude toward them changed from enthusiasm to indifference when just anyone could eat them. All kinds of distinctions were made. Which was better – Dutch or French cheese? Which was better – an English or a French turnip? Which of the numerous varieties of local or imported apples were best?

Queen Elizabeth was renowned for her love of sweets. Her closed smile in some portraits creates speculation that her teeth were all rotten from eating sugar. Throughout her reign, sugar imports grew continually. Recipe books describe fruit preserves made with a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit – the same as a modern jam recipe. Sweet! Her hosts would surely have provided fruit pies, cakes, cheese tarts, and other treats. The Queen deserved the whitest bread, the sweetest and rarest fruit, and the most lavish selection of meat, poultry, fish, and elaborate pastry.

Here’s how one recipe from Elizabethan times says to bake a cake. First, you bake the flour in the oven (evidently to get rid of weevils). Sift it. Mix butter, sugar, cream, and egg yolks with the flour. Flavor with cloves, mace, and saffron. Bake it.

Elizabethans worried about both health and taste. They thought of herbs as health-giving. For instance, sage eaten with butter for breakfast gave people strength, good health, and wisdom. (It’s called sage, isn’t it?) Imported spices – mace, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, and so on – made the food taste good. Despite the modern myth that people used to employ spices to cover rotting flavors, the Elizabethans were fastidious about their food’s tastes. Whatever they served their Queen was surely very high quality.

In the Queen’s own household, spices and exotic fruits were an important purchase – showing how valued they were. Her Office of the Spicery in 1582 wrote a document expressing alarm at the varying prices for currants, raisins, prunes, mace, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmegs. Her accountant mentioned increases in prices for sugar, cloves, and nutmegs, but decreases in other prices. No wonder she liked to go and eat at someone else’s table.

Famines occurred in several years of Elizabeth’s reign: 1585, 1586, 1594, 1595, 1596, 1597. Starvation among the poor was an issue in these years. City people planted root crops in dung heaps, and writers advised the poor to eat beans, vetch, bran and other famine foods. The rich, however, could continue in their lavish food ways, feeding the Queen when she arrived at their manor homes.

Note: This exercise is based on a new book – just published 2007: Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 by Joan Thirsk. All information is from that book.

For my other exercises in food history see blog posts: Mona Lisa: By Request: What did Mona Lisa Eat?; What did Columbus Discover?; and What if global warming makes our crops fail?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Falafel Fluffle

I really like falafel, especially those Israeli falafel sandwiches with a pita stuffed with hot little deep-fried balls of chick peas, salad, tahini sauce and sometimes even french fries. My favorite falafel source used to be a little food stall on Rue des Rosiers, the old Jewish street in Paris. I've eaten it in the Arab neighborhood of Dearborn, Michigan, at Ann Arbor's Jerusalem Garden Restaurant ... all over.

Falafel, I understand, is popular throughout the Middle East as well as with Israelis. In Israel it's sometimes called Yemenite falafel. The Israeli version is supposedly of Egyptian origin. Yemenite Jewish food-stand owners created their own version, though it wasn't part of their cuisine before they left Yemen. I imagine every national version has its own story.

A few weeks ago, when many sources cited an article called "FBI Hoped to Follow Falafel Trail to Iranian Terrorists Here" by Jeff Stein, I was amused. Here's an excerpt from the story:
"Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.

"The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.

"The brainchild of top FBI counterterrorism officials Phil Mudd and Willie T. Hulon, according to well-informed sources, the project didn’t last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI’s criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous — and possibly illegal.

"A check of federal court records in California did not reveal any prosecutions developed from falafel trails." [Note: when you read on, you'll understand why the link might eventually not point to the same story!]
Yesterday, the FBI made a statement on the matter of Falafel Terrorism, signed by John Miller, Assistant Director, Office of Public Affairs:
"We at the FBI were surprised to read about a supposed FBI program to monitor the sales of Middle Eastern food products in the San Francisco Bay area in support of counterterrorism intelligence gathering (“FBI Hoped to Follow Falafel Trail to Iranian Terrorists Here,” November 2, 2007).

"Having never heard of this, I spoke to the counterterrorism managers, who in the story were identified as having hatched the plan, as well as everyone else who would have had any knowledge of it. Nobody did. ...

"While the story may have been the source of some amusement, I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight on something that touches on something so important as national security and civil liberties."
Yes, as I said, I was amused at the idea of who would be entrapped by a net around falafel eaters -- including me. But not particularly including Iranians -- Persian cuisine is a fine and wonderful one, but not part of the Middle Eastern tradition that includes falafel. I expect that the vast number of bloggers and others who have responded to the first article covered this in great detail.

At any rate, I would have thought a journal called "Congressional Quarterly" had better standards. The FBI press release lists the CQ article as "too ridiculous to be true." I'm eagerly awaiting further crossfire between the parties to the claim. (I learned about the FBI press release in Quote: Dept. of Too Juicy to Be True from the New York Times blog The Lede.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A weekend of food

On our visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Saturday, we enjoyed this painting of hors d'oeuvres by Gustave Caillibaut. But of course you want to hear about our Thanksgiving dinner:

Elaine cooked a fabulous meal entirely according to tradition. Maybe we were obligated to make up for Evelyn's decision to have fondue and trifle for her Thanksgiving dinner!

While Larry carved, Lenny made a fabulous glossy dark sauce for the turkey and stuffing, which Elaine had started the day before, and which she and I worked on for quite a bit of the day.

Elaine is really good at planning, and I joined in with the scheme. She had made one pot of stock from the neck and giblets on Wednesday. We used this for the stuffing. She'd also left the bread out to dry some overnight, and we seasoned it from her brand-new jar of poultry seasoning.

While we were cutting up celery, onions, and carrots, we also put aside a baggie full of chopped veggies for later making stock. As Larry carved, he put the bones right into a big pot. It cooked overnight. Saturday we used the fantastic stock for French onion soup for lunch. I realized that French onion soup is almost a Thanksgiving tradition -- for later in the weekend. It's the moment when we have great stock every year.

For Thanksgiving dessert, we had two pies and a chocolate cranberry cake. By that time, I was only able to eat one small piece of apple pie. Elaine makes the best apple pies I know of.

I think everyone had a fantastic time at Thanksgiving dinner. We had plenty of pie and apple salad left over for breakfast on Friday, too, before heading for Indianapolis (around an hour's drive through Hoosier fields past industrial areas, and into the city).

At the Museum Friday, we ate an entirely unmemorable cafe lunch, and of course had a full plate of leftovers for dinner Friday night, all very traditionally oriented, of course.

By Saturday night -- after the French onion soup lunch -- we were ready for a restaurant. Is a Chinese dinner part of Thanksgiving tradition? I don't know. We ordered shrimp with walnuts, moo-shu pork, fish with black beans, and a dish of green beans (despite the green beans we had eaten for Thanksgiving).

Food has obviously been very important to the Chinese for a very long time. In the Han Dynasty, more than a thousand years ago, the dead were sent off with a vast number of preparatory statues to accompany and serve them: including food. This selection, which we saw in the museum, includes a number of items, including a boar's head. An oven for cooking it is off to the side.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The First Locavore

I mentioned earlier that the word locavore was the Oxford University Press word of the year. Jessica Prentice, who coined the word, has written a guest blog with a wonderful description of how she became a locavore [avant la lettre] and then how she invented a word for it.

Read this:

The Birth of Locavore

Food Banks and Food Drives

This morning I contributed some canned goods to a drive at the center where I take my aerobics class. On Thanksgiving morning the instructors traditionally do a workout session where the price of admission is a donation of food. (At times in the past, people used the cans as weights in the workout, but they don't do this any more.)

Again this year I'll be out of town -- in fact, I've never been in town for the Thanksgiving workout. But I brought my Campell's Tomato Soup and a couple of others. And I think of all the school plays where children dressed as Pilgrims bringing in "a canned good." And students at the door to collect food for the needy. Our local food banks this year have announced greater need than they've ever seen, thanks to many unfavorable economic trends. Food Gatherers, the main Ann Arbor food bank, ran out of food for the first time this summer, according to their Christmas appeal.

Last year, a physician acquaintance told me that we should bring canned vegetables to offset the more commonly contributed items like my soup or the often-contributed spaghetti. I didn't get to an appropriate store this time, so I had to bring what I had on hand already -- but I've tried to learn from her.

I believe that most recipients are truly needy, and that anyone lucky enough to have adequate food can help them. Contributions of money are also part of the commitment that I make and that I think other fortunate people should consider. We need to count our blessings: and share them. I think I'm in the mainstream on these feelings towards food banks, soup kitchens, and distributors of food packages.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran an article by Mark Winne, who is the former director of Connecticut's Hartford Food System. Winne explained why he thought this was not the right approach. He wrote that food banks and food drives cause us to "continue down a road that never comes to an end. Like transportation planners who add more lanes to already clogged highways, we add more space to our food banks in the futile hope of relieving the congestion." Instead, he says: "We know hunger's cause -- poverty. We know its solution -- end poverty. Let this Thanksgiving remind us of that task."

Well, he makes it sound simple. I wonder -- Winne has a book coming out early in January: Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. I'll try to read it to find out how he thinks the solution to this problem should be approached.

I assume that in the current conditions -- that the poor are hungry, and we can help by giving them food -- he doesn't just think we should ignore the problem the way that Herbert Hoover did, for ideological reasons, at the beginning of the Great Depression. The question of where to start and what to do about poverty seems really daunting to me. I find it hard to criticize the direct help that's been the approach for thousands of years. I don't think that the article is convincing in its claim that people will not fight poverty if they are giving food to food banks. I think it might make them more apt to favor solutions to poverty.

See When Handouts Keep Coming, the Food Line Never Ends by Mark Winne, November 18, 2007.