Friday, July 31, 2009

Recent Meals

We've been enjoying some nice meals recently. Elaine and Larry joined us in one very nice outdoor dinner. We barbecued a whole spatch-cocked chicken (love that word). With it we ate more of the quinoa salad with oranges, raisins, and lemons. I mentioned the ice cream with warm chocolate sauce that Elaine made. On Thursday we tried a new diner that offers Mexican-Cuban food -- pretty pictures, not that great of food, though. Tonight we barbecued some skewers with tenderloin, red peppers, onions, and whole garlic cloves.

And now, it's the end of July.

Wine II

George Taber's book ranges over many topics related to the May, 1976, blind comparison of several wines from brand-new California producers with comparable awe-inspiring French counterparts. The details of this event are the centerpiece of the book. Taber was the only journalist who attended, and his article in Time Magazine was critical to the event's later importance.

In June 2005, a French export expert told Taber that France is now considered "le has-been." (p. 283) In several ways, Taber's suggests what a number of books have been saying for years, and are still saying so in some new books this summer: France is falling behind and barely knows it. In Taber's case, the French public, and French journalists and periodicals, refused to hear the results of the 1976 wine tasting, dismissing it, vilifying the organizer, or even falsifying their reports. While French wine growers and wine makers did pay attention and modernized some of their practices, French law, tradition, and public opinion make it almost impossible for them to adapt in order to stay competitive in the changing marketplace. I think this is the message of the book.

The Judgment of Paris is full of detail about wine and its history. Though the main focus is on the wines that figured in the famous 1976 tasting, Taber begins with a history of wine in the New World -- Chapter 3, "The New Eden."

I think I like the historic parts best -- so that's what I'm talking about here. At the very beginning of Taber's history are the fox grapes that inspired the Viking explorers to name their short-lived colony "Vineland" in around the year 1000.

Continuing with the colonization of America, in the first Virginia colony, planting grapevines was mandatory. In California in the eighteenth century, Father Serra started wine cultivation, growing vines in San Diego. Later, Thomas Jefferson was a lover of French wine, as well as a farmer. He experimented with native grapes -- which don't make good wine. Joseph Chapman of Massachusetts started the first commercial winery in California in 1826. The development of California vineyards was of course derailled by Prohibition. And so Taber arrives at the effort to produce good wine in post-war California, the main subject of the book.

The main body of the work, which I'm not going into, describes how a few dedicated individuals began their wineries, used the new knowledge created at UC Davis, and created a new remarkable product. They of course were rewarded with the unexpected high showing at the wine tasting central to the book.

Finally, Taber also provides an overview of the globalization of the wine trade since then. I find some of the historic snippets very interesting:
South Africa's vineyards predate some of the oldest in Bordeaux. The Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck planted the first grapes in South Africa in 1655. (p. 254)

As in other parts of the New World, wine followed the flag and the Roman Catholic Church to Chile. ... The first Chilean vintage was in 1551. (p. 264)
Note: I took the photo in the vineyards of Napa Valley a couple of years ago.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


I'm reading a book about wine: The Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber. I find it very, very detailed when it comes to the exact wines that were tasted on that historic day in May, 1976. The author was a Time Magazine reporter who attended the event, so his perspective is very interesting. I'll be doing a more thorough review of the book soon.

Related news about California wine at the present moment is that the recession is causing pain in the wine industry there. As of course it is everywhere. There's a silver lining on this as on so many economic clouds:
Consumers still interested in high-end wines may find great discounts now as everyone is trying to move inventory. Those who don’t want to spend a lot on wine may also be drinking better in the near future. Premium producers who need to make room for the new vintage may sell their wines on the bulk market, even at a loss. These premium wines in turn will be repackaged and sold inexpensively, though it will be difficult for consumers to identify which bottles benefit from a premium wine infusion. (from "Where Anxiety Is All That’s Flowing" by Eric Asimov, New York Times, July 28, 2009)
We were drinking some very enjoyable California wines while we were living in San Diego this spring. I hope we are lucky enough to get some of the good stuff when it's lower in price.

One step towards food safety

The House of Representatives has passed the food safety bill. See: House Approves New Food-Safety Laws in the New York Times. Tracing of food as it traverses the complex system of producers and processors, more frequent inspection schedules, and mandatory recalls of tainted foods are some of the very desirable provisions of the bill.
The bill passed the House with overwhelming support from Democrats, but Republicans were split, with 54 voting in favor and 122 against. Democrats and some Republicans had worked closely in writing the legislation and advocates said that they expected similar cooperation on the issue in the Senate.
I hope the difficulties with over-taxing very small producers of locally-sold foods has been ironed out, or will be when the Senate takes up the bill in the fall.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pick-up Dinner

Elaine, Larry, Lenny, and I decided that after having lunched at Red Hawk, we should eat dinner in. So we had a pick-up meal: some frozen pot stickers (a recent discovery for keeping on hand -- they come from an Oriental grocery store, today's brand was Wei Chuan), and also a stir-fry of tiny Farmers Market green beans, pork chops (also from the freezer), and a sliced tomato.

Dessert: Elaine offered to make warm chocolate sauce based on her friend Charlotte's recipe. It was delicious -- we had it over Edy's Vanilla Ice Cream (freezer! yay!).

Charlotte's Chocolate Sauce -- with modifications
1/4 bar of Trader Joe's 72% semi-sweet chocolate (around 4 oz)
4 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp Amaretto
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp butter

Melt the chocolate, water, and Amaretto over hot water in double boiler. Add sugar. Stir til dissolved, and cook for 4 minutes, stirring. Off heat add butter and stir until blended. We ate it warm over the ice cream. Mmmmmm.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"Blue Corn and Chocolate"

Pineapples, peanuts, avocados, and the turkey are all popular foods that originated in the New World. In the recipes and historic overviews of Elizabeth Rozin's very famous book Blue Corn and Chocolate, we read about them as well as about the more usually covered New World foods -- corn, tomatoes, potatoes, capsicum peppers, chocolate, vanilla, and certain varieties of beans and squash/pumpkin.

Although the historic treatments are brief, I liked the combination of native American history with information about the acceptance of various New World food throughout the Old World. Just one instance of how Rozin profiles the spread of a food: her list of the many identities of one lowly food, cornmeal mush. With a variety of flavors and locales, it's known as American corn porridge with milk and sugar; Romanian mamaliga; African nshima, putu, ugali, and foo foo; Louisiana coush coush, West Indian cou-cou, and Italian polenta.

The recipes from many many cultures are very intriguing, and are organized to illustrate how widespread the foods have become. An east-coast American corn chowder recipe is followed by one for Chinese crab and corn soup and another for New Mexican posole. The peanut, native to South America, appears in recipes for soup from the American South and Africa, in English sauce for ham or pork, in Asian shrimp salad, Vietnamese dipping sauce, Malay curry, Indian croquettes, middle-American cookies and ice cream, and several other dishes in the book's peanut chapter.

Along with appealing recipes, Rozin gives as many reasons why the tomato has been distrusted as I've ever seen: including an Orthodox Jewish reaction that, being the color of blood, they must be taboo. She also shows how all the tomato prohibitions eventually disappeared. In contrast, the turkey fit perfectly into the late-Renaissance or Early Modern European love of large and showy roasts for the formal dining table. New World peppers were so quickly absorbed into native cuisines around the world that their origin became obscure. And despite early opposition, the potato also now seems native to many cuisines.

Only the illustrations are disappointing. At least in the hardback edition that I took out of the library, they are blurry in black and white, while the captions sometimes seem to refer to a larger color version. I wished I could make out the faint labels on the photo of Heinz ketchup bottles through the ages -- and figure out when the word "catsup" was replaced by "ketchup."

More obscure still, Rozin discusses at least briefly: manioc (source of tapioca that moved from the New World to Africa and Oceania), the American sunflower and its relative the Jerusalem artichoke; maple syrup; pecans; cashews and Brazil nuts (both native to Brazil); wild rice; and most obscure in my experience, the New World achiote -- small red seeds of the annato tree. Not even mentioned: quinoa, amaranth.

A fine book that deserves its excellent reputation, I find.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chocolate Mousse Revisited

This is a work in progress:
The bottom layer in these glasses is my first attempt at Vegan Chocolate Mousse. It was a little too stiff: I need to work on the texture, though it had good mouth feel, and the (not-vegan) whipped cream layer was a good contrast. Our friend Bob, who coached me over the phone in my effort to create this dish, thinks I should try using rice syrup or other syrup instead of sugar. Maybe also a smaller percent of chocolate. In any case, for the record, here's what I did:

Bob’s vegan mousse -- a work in progress
1 package (12 oz) Mori-Nu Soft Silken Tofu (from Whole Foods)
8 oz chocolate (Trader Joe’s 72% semi-sweet chocolate)
1 tsp vanilla
¼ to ½ cup sugar

Melt chocolate in microwave. Meanwhile, whip tofu with immersion blender until it’s the consistency of soft whipped cream. Add vanilla, then add melted chocolate and blend until smooth. (If chocolate is too hot, allow to cool a little before adding it). Blend in ¼ cup sugar and then additional sugar to taste. Spoon into a serving bowl or individual serving dishes. Top with sweetened whipped cream and berries.

101 minus 3 = 98

As I said, I decided to try some salads from this week's New York Times 101 salads. I made one with watermelon, peach, basil, bacon, and vinaigrette (on right below, with bowl of the first local apricots).

Quinoa was the base for the two other salads -- chosen for comparative tasting. First: quinoa cooked and cooled, then tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped parsley, zatar, cubed tomatoes, and topped with toasted pine nuts. And (not shown): quinoa tossed while still warm with orange zest, juice & sections, and golden raisins, garnished with lemon wedges and a sprig of mint. Do I plan to try the other 98 salads? I couldn't say, at this point -- though we and our guests did enjoy these. And quinoa, while not exactly new, was a great subject for conversation. We had googled it extensively while I was cooking. Said Len: "It's not a grain, it's a weed."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fresh Herbs

I'm about to try some of the 101 recipes that were published in this week's New York Times food section. So I needed fresh basil, mint, and parsley from the farmer. This year I'm traveling too much to grow my own -- but I love looking at the presentation by one rain-soaked occupant of an overflow space at the market. Also, I love to see the huge cabbages that are starting to come in. Today was also the first local corn, peaches, and apricots I've seen so far.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sicily, Ancient and Modern

I've been enjoying Pomp and Sustenance by Mary Taylor Simeti, whose other books I've enjoyed in the past. Sicilian heritage, she shows, is rich with food writing. Simeti starts us off with Homer -- remember the roast meats whose aromas waft up to please the gods? Remember the gardens in the land of the Cyclops? That was Sicily, with pomegranates, pears, apples, figs, olives, and grape vines.

Archestratus of Gela, Sicily, in the fourth century BC wrote about roast tuna sprinkled with vinegar. Plato mentioned "gorging food twice a day" in Sicily. The fish and vegetables of the ancient isle compare remarkably to the deliciacies of Simeti's twentieth-century life on a farm with her own olive oil and her own produce.

She offers classic recipes: pasta with eggplant, oil, basil, ricotta and tomatoes. Pasta with fresh sardines, fennel, pine nuts, currants, saffron, and toasted breadcrumbs. She discusses the influence of the Arabs a millenium later.

She makes me want to go back to Sicily. Or at least try to cook some of these dishes or read some classics. I'm lazy. I'll just peruse her book.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"The Devil in the White City"

In less than a year's time, an undeveloped park on Chicago's lake shore became a nearly magical "White City" -- the national exposition dedicated for the 400 year anniversary of Columbus's voyage in October 1892, and held in the summer of 1893. Author Erik Larson described a first impression of fair goers:
"They .... walked into the Court of Honor. The gold form of the Statue of the Republic, Big Mary, stood like a torch aflame. The basin in which the statue's plinth was set glittered with ripples of diamond. At the far end stood thirteen tall white columns, the Peristyle, with slashes of the blue lake visible between them. The light suffusing the Court was so plentiful and intense, it hurt their eyes. Many of the people around them donned spectacles with blue lenses." (p. 266)
When I read about the blue specs I realized that this White City was an inspiration for the Emerald City of Oz -- indeed, both L.Frank Baum and his illustrator, W.W. Denslow visited the expo.

Larson mentions many famous and influential visitors, but concentrates on the struggles of the builders and on the life of "the devil" -- a psychopath who used many aliases, especially H.H.Holmes. While living in close proximity to the site of the expo, Holmes probably killed as many as 200 people, mainly young women. (He was hanged after only one conviction.) The people through whose eyes we see the expo in the paragraph above are two sisters, soon to be victims.

In The Devil in the White City, the interleaved presentations of the expo's creators and the pathological destroyer of lives is an outstanding technique for illustrating many aspects of American society. While engineers from Chicago and the east coast were inventing and developing remarkable construction techniques and building such wonders as the world's first Ferris Wheel (named for its inventor), Holmes nearby was building a diabolical building that included sound-proof rooms with gas jets for suffocating victims and a labyrinth in the basement where he could dispose of the bodies. Incredible material!

My favorite topic, food, received some interesting coverage in this book. Meals at the fair were thought to be far too expensive for ordinary people -- the fair took place during an economic downturn when banks, railroads, and building firms were failing locally and throughout the US. People thus brought picnics, which meant that trash was a big problem -- one thing about the "White City" was an effort to make it cleaner than the normal American city of the time, especially cleaner than its host, Chicago. In contrast, the author includes the menus of lavish banquets -- ten or twelve courses mainly described in French, and accompanied by French wine, champagne, cigarettes, cigars, cognac, and cordials. So we also see how the wealthy expected to dine.

A chocolate Venus de Milo and a 22,000 pound cheese from Wisconsin were among the expo's food attractions. Shredded wheat was a brand-new product first seen there. Another novelty that food inventors demonstrated: Aunt Jemima's packaged pancake mix. Cracker Jacks carmel corn snack, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, and Pabst Beer also appealed to their first customers at the expo. In fact Pabst's signature blue ribbon was awarded in a competition there. The introduction of new food products has been a staple event at fairs ever since. (I'm thinking of the mini-donut invented for the Minnesota State Fair some time in the 1980s. Or corn dogs.)

In the first all-electric kitchen ever built, expo-goers saw the first automatic dishwasher. Electricity was used in many relatively novel ways at the fair, supplied by the first large-scale Alternating Current from a Westinghouse generating plant, instead of Edison's preferred DC. Electricity powered the Ferris Wheel, elevators to the walkways of the tall expo buildings, moving picture projection by Edison's new Kinetoscope, demonstrations of long-distance phone service, and lighting to illuminate the fair at night.

If the book had only described the marvels of the fair, it would have been vaguely interesting. Details of the lives of the architects, politicians and engineers, however, are skillfully played off against the macabre life of H.H.Holmes, the deaths of his victims, and the story of how he was eventually caught at his evil doing. Thus for me, the book becomes a real winner. I'm really grateful to my friend Prue who loved it and told me about it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Nice Crepe

At Cafe Zola downtown: the crepe florentine. In Paris crepe stands and little crepe-specialist-restaurants near Place Jussieu, I've eaten similar savory buckwheat crepes filled with spinach, but they have a less pretentious name. The French call this menu item the "Pope-ee" which is spelled "Popeye." Spinach. Popeye. Yep.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Antonin Careme

For my new culinary book club, a future selection is Ian Kelly's Cooking for Kings: the Life of Antonin Careme the First Celebrity Chef. I bought it, read it, and enjoyed it. I especially liked the color illustrations -- including a rare etching of a kitchen of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton in which he once cooked. (p. 138-139; partly shown on the cover)

I knew that Careme had set down the principles of French cuisine in his many encyclopedic cookbooks -- for example, that he had defined the basic sauces that every French chef must memorize and perfect while apprenticing. I knew that he had shifted French aristocratic dining tradition from service a la Francaise (many dishes served at once with great pomp) to service a la Russe (plated courses as is now the norm in American and European restaurants). I knew he was important.

I didn't know he had learned much about Russia by going there to work for the Tsar. I didn't know he worked for Tallyrand, for British royalty in London, and for James Rothschild. Though he always had a huge staff working for him, he was highly innovative in both cooking and presentation of the foods.

I knew little about Careme's short life in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. Careme was born very poor and abandoned by his father at age 10. Within a decade, he had found work with a chef, learned the profession, set up on his own, and become amazingly successful. He created large presentation pieces to be staged at banquets. As a gifted draftsman, he took notes and made sketches of architectural works in the French National Library as foundations for creating these amazing structures. Eventually he also wrote a book on architecture. His early death was probably caused by the terrible conditions of a chef's life in the charcoal-fumed atmosphere of the basement kitchens of that era.

I'll probably write more about this book in a couple of months after attending the group discussion of the book.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

CSA Challenges

Evelyn had a CSA challenge: she felt bullied by cabbage, which was supplied in reasonable quantities, but enough to overwhelm her. She doesn't like raw cabbage dishes that much. She likes stuffed cabbage but didn't have time to boil the leaves a few at a time, prepare the filling, carefully roll up the little packages, and then braise them -- what a job! She didn't even have time to study the issue.

However, a fellow CSA member provided a suggestion for frying bacon, adding cabbage and browning it, adding onion, sugar, and vinegar, and cooking til done. They were all really delighted with it. I checked the web: though it tastes to her like something from a German restaurant, it's identified as southern or Irish. I'll have to try this -- though I don't have a CSA, Michigan cabbage is really great right now. I would add caraway seeds.

I do like slaw, and I have some ready for my guests tonight. Still using oriental ingredients like sesame oil, sriracha sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, and rice vinegar.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Art Fair Food

This year at the art fair several big companies were promoting products by giving away samples. Young women and men were walking around with single-serving boxes of Honey Comb, which I assume is a cereal. Kashi had several tent-like booths with samples -- and a long line. Some kind of vitamin product or water had a booth in another part of the fair. I'm not sure, I think this is a new thing.

Curry and a new Book Club

This week I attended the first meeting of a new culinary book club sponsored by Motte and Bailey booksellers, the kind of independent bookstore that really does contribute to the community. (I'm not one of those people with the knee-jerk love of independent bookstores.)

The two proprietors led a very interesting discussion of their first selection, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham. I reread the book for the discussion -- like their second selection, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, it's already a favorite of mine.

The book club has a promising future. More than half the attendees had read the book, for a start. They liked it for its history of colonial attitudes, and for the way the book traced the spread of both foods, like peppers, and cuisine, like curry. They enjoyed the way that the "dining room" was politicized, as the book points out.

At first the British occupiers ate native foods; over time, especially as the wives were brought out, they tried to maintain a totally British table. But of course they couldn't ban all Indian influence: the book has lots of information about the interaction between English matrons and Indian servants. The turning point: the Indian mutiny received some interesting amplification from one discussion leader, Gene Alloway -- who's a history buff, I gathered.

The book's history of food words also interested lots of participants. Nabob, for example, was the name for a British official. One person observed that even the word curry was shown to have an interesting history -- coined to describe a fusion of Indian styles that became popular among the British in India, then among the returning nabobs in Britain, and later worldwide.

I'm looking forward to future discussions: too bad I plan to be out of town for the discussion of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Food Blogger Ethics

I recently read about an effort to impose ethical standards on food bloggers -- specifically, should a blogger accept free products, promising to blog about them. (Presumably any human is so grateful for free food that they would recommend the product, human nature or greed being what it is).

Guess what? Someone just offered me some free bottled sauce to blog about. No thanks. I don't need any formal code of ethics to be turned off by this idea.
But I'll be wary if I see anyone recommending this product on a blog -- the would-be-free-advertiser obviously wrote to everyone in the blogosphere with a food blog.

The code of ethics also responded to a restaurant blog that normally publishes anonymous tips. They recently published something ridiculously libelous accusing a restaurant of falsifying claims about something like fresh or organic produce (I don't recall the details). The ethics people think this should be formally unethical. But that all happened in Los Angeles.

I guess everyone is by now used to google ads for diet products. If you read blogs or anything else with ads, you just know that diet ads appear if google's artificial intelligence noses out the slightest relationship to food or eating. The ethics people aren't interested in that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


From Saturday's Farmers Market basil, I decided to make pesto. Here for the record is the recipe I found, with my changes.

Basil-Walnut Pesto
3-4 oz. parmesan and romano cheese (or all parmesan)
1 basket of basil (as depicted)
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled & cut up

Clean basil and remove stems and any wilted or blackened leaves.

In food processor, using the metal blade, grind up the cheese and set aside. Put the walnuts & garlic in the bowl (with a pinch of salt and black finely ground pepper) and pulse until finely chopped. Add basil and pulse once or twice, then add oil in a stream, finally cheese.

Meanwhile, boil 1 lb of linguini according to package directions. (I only used 1/2 lb. but it should have been a pound). Use around 1 tb. of the pasta water to rinse the oil from the measuring cup, and pour this into the pesto. When pasta is done, put it into a serving dish and scrape the pesto onto the pasta and toss.

I served it with a few Trader Joe's black olives and tomato slices from the Farmers Market.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Eating Well

Quite early this morning, we went to the farmers market; first, we refilled our supply of Ernst Farm lamb and beef. Last night we cooked the last of our leg of lamb steaks, as shown.

Despite an early rainstorm, the market was pretty busy. I enjoyed looking at the exotic items such as red currants and gooseberries, but I bought more ordinary things like basil, snow peas, mushrooms, and blueberries.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Noodles and Eggplant

I've been browsing in the book Medieval Arab Cookery. It includes a scholarly edited version of two manuscripts of recipes, and a number of short articles on diverse subjects, particularly on the history of various dishes. It's fascinating to learn how cooking ideas and ingredients spread through the Arab world and sometimes further.

"Notes on Persian Pasta" begins with the first Iranian noodle dish, mentioned in a tenth-century Arab cook book, called lakhsha. (p. 251-255) Noodles, we learn, were mentioned as early as the year 500 in Greece. The word laksha became a noodle word in a large number of places: in "Nogai, a Turkic language ... (laksa); Hungarian (laska); Ukrainian (lokshina), and via Ukranian Yiddish (lokshn); Russian (lapsha); and Lithuanian (lakstiniai)." In Indonesia, the word was laksa; noodles likely came there from the Muslims of Gujarat. By the 13th century, other types of noodles and other words for them became common in the Arab world, including stuffed pasta -- which influenced Russian stuffed pasta. I found this brief trip around the world of pasta to be very amusing. (Only a non-reader could still believe that Marco Polo brought pasta from China, you know)

Another article describes a family of dishes made from eggplant: "Buran: Eleven Hundred Years in the History of a Dish." (p. 239-249) In 825, at a lavish wedding took place in a high noble family. The bride's name, Buran, became associated with a type of eggplant dish. From a tenth century recipe: "Take small eggplants and gash them, cut off the stems and soak them in salted water. Then take a small pan and pour olive oil and murri (soy sauce), pepper, caraway, and rue."

Within a few centuries, other versions of the dish added walnuts, herbs and more spices, and varied the technique somewhat. More and more eggplant dishes, both with and without meat, appeared in Arabic recipe collections. Onions, coriander, saffron, meatballs, layered multi-ingredient casseroles, spreads (like baba ghannouj), yougurt, and grains eventually became part of the tradition, which extended as far west as Spain and far to the east as well. "As for the Lady Buran herself... she even traveled with her husband on his military campaigns... and was with him when he died in a war against Byzantium. She retired to spend her widowhood in a palace just downstream from Baghdad, ... [which] became famous for the elegance with which she decorated it."

Here's the reference, though I checked a copy out of the library:
Medieval Arab Cookery: Papers by Maxime Rodinson and Charles Perry with a Reprint of a Baghdad Cookery Book by Charles Perry, A. J. Arberry, and Maxime Rodinson (Hardcover - Jul 1, 1998)

Update. A few days after I read the book, a friend served us his special baklava, made with passion fruit syrup. I loved it because the tart passion fruit syrup adds a sour taste to the usual version, which I find too too sweet and cloying. From another chapter of Medieval Arab Cookery I remembered this description of medieval Arab pastry -- "Apparently the combination of sweet and sour flavors was considered appropriate with meat but not in a free-standing confection." (p. 283) So our friend has improved on a 1000 year tradition!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Evelyn's CSA

Evelyn brought me the goods: her farm share for last week. We ate some of the lettuce and the blueberries over the weekend. Tonight I used up the summer squash/zucchini and some of the wonderful little spring onions. I made one set of veggie skewers, one set with chicken and chicken sausage -- the latter a convenient leftover. I basted them with oil, dill, paprika, and a bit of chopped garlic.

On the hot Weber grill, Lenny broiled them to a delicious doneness, adding a bit of bbq sauce at the end -- a mixture of soy sauce, catsup, vinegar, and brown sugar.

I haven't signed on to buy a CSA share myself -- there are only 2 of us, and we didn't get back here until the middle of June. I think the whole idea of Community Supported Agriculture is great. It's true, we don't do kale -- Evelyn had to take that part of her share back with her. But if we ever do sign up, I imagine we'll find someone to take the kale off our hands. And I'd love it when the tomatoes come in!

Evelyn's farmer supplies vegetables of surprising variety, berries, and also eggs: half hen eggs, half duck eggs. (They were too fragile to make the trip, obviously.) He plants enough different things that a few storms or hot weeks still leave some good produce for the people who subscribe. Evelyn and her kids toured the farm during his spring open house, so they know where their vegetables grow, and they have met some of the hens.

After Artusi

Italian food, all cookbook writers agree, is really regional food, despite the unifying influence of Artusi's cookbook (which I wrote about here).

Following on, I've been perusing a variety of cookbooks that treat one or several regions and include food memoirs, history, and a variety of information about cuisines. I haven't tried any recipes yet, but I hope I'll be brave enough to tackle a few soon.

The Good Food of Italy by Claudia Roden, written about 20 years ago, includes a great survey of Italian regional cooking. Most interesting are her specific observations about how much industrialization, the move from rural to urban life, and the resulting prosperity after World War II, changed the way Italians eat.

The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger (1996) contains a magnificent collection of images of food and cooking from antiquity. Recipes offer modern methods of making the foods of specific times and places in ancient Greece and Rome, beginning with Odysseus and wrapping up at the Roman baths.

Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily by Clifford A. Wright (1992) attempts to identify the Arab influence in the cooking of Sicily from nearly 300 years of Arab rule during the Middle Ages. However, I'm sceptical about the author's scholarship -- he writes "A new invention from the windy and arid regions of the Arab world, the windmill, arrived in the early tenth century. Now more flour could be milled and more bread eaten. Pizzas such as the tasty Carbuciu, a double pizza stuffed with tomatoes, oregano and anchovy, became popular." (p. 28) Really. Tomatoes are a new-world product. They couldn't have reached Sicily until centuries after the Arabs left. Maybe the recipes are better than the author's rather thin summary of history.

The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin (1981) is one of my favorite food memoirs. Her early life in a small town before the persecution and essential expulsion of the Jews from Italy is very important, and this is a classic record of a lost tradition. I reread it every time I'm in that section of the library.

La Cucina di Lidia by Lidia Bastianich and Jay Jacobs (1990) has intrigued me since I watched one of Lidia's recent cooking shows on the PBS Create channel. She's so unlike the Food Network stars -- modest, and interested in good food and how people enjoy it. This is a celebrity biography, but enjoyable, and I bought the book because I have high hopes for the recipes.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Bread Riots

I mentioned last week (here) that I was reading the once-famous novel The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi in Italian) by Alessandro Manzoni. I did not expect it to furnish me with any ideas on food -- but it surprised me. It's a novel full of dramatic historical events -- famine, invasion by foreign armies, plague, and the evildoing of power-drunk nobles and clergy. All of these disrupt the lives of the two betrothed lovers of the title.

The novel begins when a weak-willed parish priest refuses to perform the marriage of two peasants, Renzo and Lucia, because a local nobleman covets the beautiful girl. Just in time, the couple escape their small village to avoid him. (The rest of the book basically follows them as they flee and undergo a variety of perils.)

A bread riot greets the young man as he enters Milan in flight from the angry and vindictive nobleman. He comes through the gates, and the mob is running in the streets carrying stolen bread and flour that they have looted from bakers' shops.

The book is very long and digressive, so the reader is treated to a long description of the food shortages and what the city fathers are doing to respond to public demand for affordable bread. Here is an abbreviated version of his description:
This was the second year of bad harvests. ... peasants... were compelled to go out and beg for their bread instead of growing it by the sweat of their brow ... The unbearable level of taxation, levied with incredible greed and incredible folly; the habitual behavir of the troops quartered in the villages ... and various other factors ... had been slowly helpingto produce that tragic result throughout the territory of Milan. ... And that miserable harvest was not yet fully gathered in, when requisitions for the army ... made such a hole in it that the shortage of grain began to be felt immediately. With the shortage came its painful, salutary, inevitable consequence, a rise in prices.

But when prices rise more than a certain amount, they always produce a certain effect... This effect is a common conviction that it is not in fact the shortage of goods that has caused the high prices. People forget that they have feared and predicted the shortage, and suddenly begin to believe that there is really plenty of grain, and that the trouble is that it is being kept off the market. Though there are no earthly or heavenly grounds for that belief, it gives food to people's anger and to their hopes. Real or imaginary hoarders ofgrain, landowners who did n ot sell their entire crop within twenty-four hours, bakers who bought grain and held it in stock -- everyone, in fact who possessed or was thought to possess grain was blamed for the shortage and for the high prices, and made the target of universal complaint and of the hatred or rich and poor alike. The storehouses and granaries were known to be full, overflowing, butsting with grain... (p. 231-232)
Pressured by the mob, the magistrates fixed the price for food, which meant that vendors couldn't afford to buy supplies at the higher wholesale price, and that importers couldn't obtain grain from elsewhere. Under mob pressure, bakers were baking and selling at a loss, and they begged the authorities for a recourse. When a higher price was set, the mob took to the streets. At dawn on the day that Renzo arrived, the mob had begun with attacks on bakers' delivery boys, and continued with looting the bakeries.

The theme of hunger, famine, shortages, and illogical or effective measures taken by both the hungry people and their leaders continues through the book. For example, when Renzo crosses the border of the Duchy of Milan and enters the next territory (meaning he's gone from the area ruled by Spain to that ruled by Venice) he finds that the rulers have purchased loads of grain and are arranging to feed the hunger. Thus they have acted more wisely and preserved civil order. "A bit less noise and a bit more sense." (p. 330)

All in all, I enjoyed reading this classic, which now seems to be obsolete. The 720 pages went much faster than I anticipated. Although the hero and heroine at first seemed to be rather foolish and unable to grasp that they were being abused and betrayed by those they believed in, they learned to be less trusting of the authorities as the book progressed. By the end, I was happy to have them finally reunited after two years of persecution, and married at last.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Fourth of July Foods of the Day

Noon: Watermelon after the spontaneous Burns Park neighborhood parade.

2:00 PM: Dairy Queen with Red White and Blue Sprinkles; Girl Scout Tagalong blizzard
(after lunch -- hot dogs, no photos)

3:00: Dinner prelude: Jason's Imam Bayildi -- Turkish stuffed eggplants
(followed by a canoe and rowboat interlude on the lake)

5:30: Nat making ribs: the piece d'resistance!

Dinner sides: Kaywin's fruit salad; Nat's cornbread with fennel, raisins, and cranberries; Carol's vegetable salad with goat cheese, hearts of palm, and more; Mae's Jello and potato salad

7:00: S'mores for dessert

Friday, July 03, 2009


I'm in the middle of cooking Independence Day foods -- real American potato salad with egg and mayo, slaw (though with an Asian flair), meat for the BBQ. And suddenly, I find myself thinking about dumplings.

A few days ago, I read this wonderful piece by Jennifer 8 Lee, author of the Fortune Cookie Chronicles: I Believe in the Power of Dumplings. Favorite quote:
But pause and reflect nearly every culture has some version of a meat and vegetable bundle in a carbohydrate casing — and if they don’t, they borrowed it from somewhere else. In China they had potstickers, which became gyoza in Japan, manduk in Korea and momos in Tibet. In Brazil, land of meat, gyoza were brought over by Japanese immigrants and morphed into gargantuan things the size of a man’s first. There are also the dumpling cousins: Italian raviolis, Jewish Kreplach, Indian samosas, Jamaican patties, Polish perogis, and Ukranian varenikt. Humans, much like we’re genetically programmed to think babies are cute and protection-worthy, are designed to love dumplings.
And then, I found a review of Chicago dumplings published a couple months ago in Gourmet magazine online -- Eight Great Dumplings in Chicago. Food reviewer David Tamarkin briefly described a couple kinds of Asian dumplings, pierogis, robust, beef-filled kreplach at a deli, Viennese spaetzele, Lithuanian Koldunai, and Ethiopian sambusa.

Funny train of thought. I resist the urge to google for more...

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Two Top Books of 100 years ago in Italy

Pellegrino Artusi's cookbook The Art of Eating Well and Alessandro Manzoni's historical novel The Betrothed are said to have been in "every middle-class household, from the top to the toe of the [Italian] peninsula." At least so I read in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food. I've been exploring various topics based on my browsing in this encyclopedic treatment of all matters of Italian cuisine, so I decided to read Artusi. And I recently read a long biography of Manzoni, which made me curious about him. So I have both of these classics checked out of the library. (See my earlier posts: From ABBACCHIO to ZUPPA INGLESE and Manzoni.)

I started with Artusi, whose book "made a greater contribution to the unification of Italy than all the efforts by politicians and linguists to bring a country of separate entities with their own languages and dialects into a coherent nation." His collection of dishes contributed to the unification of Italian food, as did his choice to write in Italian without any French terms. (Quotes from OCIF p. 28)

I think this iconic cookbook -- which I've been hearing about for ages -- is so widely influential that it doesn't offer too many surprises. Italian cooking has simply permeated American culinary thought for as long as I've been cooking and eating in restaurants. The presence of the all-American pizza restaurant, the popularity of spaghetti from before my childhood (and its later renaming as "pasta"), and the influence of Italian ideas on many modern American restaurants (like my favorites in La Jolla, Barbarella and Piatti) cause me to find Artusi an interesting but not eye-opening author. The notes and historical background by Kyle M. Phillips, the translator, make it worth looking through.

I'm around 1/3 through the 700+ pages of The Betrothed. I find it readable and enjoyable. I can fit it very well into the European literary trends of its day, when people had more time for this sort of reading. I'll write a more thorough review on the other blog when I finish it.

I still like Red Hawk!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Good Article on Organic Food Question

'Organic' label doesn't guarantee quality or taste


-- in today's L.A.Times. My favorite quote: "Certainly, there is a problem with chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers when they are used incorrectly. But it's quite a leap to suggest that because something is harmful when misused, it mustn't be used at all."