Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Soup and Salad Classics

Onion soup is one of the simplest French dishes, of course made famous because people went to the old Les Halles market to eat it in the wee hours of the morning to get over whatever they had been drinking in their night in Paris. Zola? Hemmingway? Anais Nin and Henry Miller? I don't know who was responsible for this fable from the distant past.

Originally, I made onion soup according to Julia Child, but I no longer add wine or cognac. Tonight I used somewhat dried out French bread, toasted with cheese on top for the garnish. It needs to be dry so it will soak up the soup just the right way. I've never used any other recipe except that of Julia Child, so I claim this is one more dish that I have internalized, and make it, despite the now-proverbial view that no one really makes any recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Ha again.

The key ingredient in onion soup, in my opinion, is the best possible chicken stock. (The onions are obvious: no onion, no onion soup.) Tonight's stock came from the roast chicken we had 10 days ago, including all the wonderful brown bits that were in the roasting pan and all the bones and so on, cooked in the slow cooker overnight.

This salad is a trendy American classic. In the recent obits for the author of the Silver Palate Cookbook, the recipe was mentioned as having been one of hers; however, I have never used that cookbook. I first saw this salad in the early 1990s at a restaurant in San Juan, PR and at the Common Grill restaurant in Chelsea, MI -- both places served modern American style food. Our nephew Jason used to make a very nice version. The total classic has pears, blue cheese, pecans, dried cranberries or cherries, and lettuce with a raspberry vinaigrette, often served on a flat plate with the pear fanned out artistically, and skimpily. The type of restaurant that served it also tended to identify at least some of the ingredients by brand name or terroir. For instance, Maytag blue cheese, Michigan dried cherries, Vermont maple syrup....

Tonight's version had lots of apples, pears, raisins, toasted pine nuts, and a lemon-maple vinaigrette with St. Andre cheese. I think I've made this one my own as well. Some of the ingredients were local, too.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"The Year of the Flood"

The challenge of raising good, organic food in the rotting cities of the not-too-distant future is one very interesting theme of Margaret Atwood's new book The Year of the Flood. The characters belong to a secret and persecuted environmental sect. They forage in city parks, plant gardens and raise bees on the rooftops of decaying apartment buildings, and study old healing lore. They avoid the products of the evil fake food and designer drug companies. Wise women of the group gather mushrooms for food and to enhance "meditation." They also have some deadly ones in reserve for extreme situations.

The working out of this theme is interesting. The characters revere the biosphere, they talk out loud to bees, they pray to environmental saints like Dian Fossey and Ewell Gibbon, and they exaggerate many of the tenets of today's real-world greens and environmental advocates of various sorts.

The hated fake foods and drugs, genetically altered meat sources (animals without heads or brains), and hybrid animals like pigoons (bred to engender organs for transplantation) or rakunks (pets combining the good characteristics of skunks and racoons) are all very inventively named and described. So the book has a very amusing and satirical side. The biggest sell-out the characters can do is to work for one of the fake food and drug companies -- whose employees have all the material goods that they lack. You could read it as a send-up of our culture. Or not.

The characters themselves are all very three-dimensional and convincingly appealing, tormented, or evil -- as always, Margaret Atwood is a master of character development. They sell natural products at open-air markets. They fight the disillusioned gangs of kids -- "pleebmobs" in the "pleeblands." They infiltrate fake health spas and sex clubs. Sometimes, despite their ideals, they go wrong and apply their skills to growing bad drugs in their urban farms, or sell out to the big corporations. They have a very elaborately described religion with its prayers and hymns interspersed in the text.

The Year of the Flood takes place in the same miserable future that Atwood created in Oryx and Crake. Since I knew this, I reread O&C over the weekend before I began YOTF. The action in two books takes place in parallel, and characters overlap -- so the new book at time seems to be a kind of back-story to the first. Even the imaginary products and animals are shared, with different features of them highlighted in each book.

While O&C was focused on one character, Snowman, and a couple of his friends, YOTF has several heroes and heroines. For me, it had too many to make as good a story. The plot seems somewhat driven by a desire to codify and explain the previous book. (I often find this sort of codification tendency a flaw in sequels to fantasy books: a need to draw maps, spell things out... even The Lord of the Rings codifies the spontaneous world of The Hobbit.)

The Year of the Flood contains multiple references to famous or semi-famous historical personages who have become the "saints" of the ecological religion that the characters in the book belong to. I didn't feel like googling all of them as I read, so I felt as if I was only half-way engaged in the book. I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of self-containment.

Snowman, the hero of O&C thinks he's the last survivor of a global pandemic, and the book thus seems rather pessimistic. He works for the survival of a new, artificially created humanoids who have better immune systems and lots of other new features -- an ultimate creation beyond even the animal hybrids. In contrast YOTF reveals that quite a few other conventional humans have in fact made it through the catastrophe -- and focuses on the "real" people, while O&C focused on the new breed. As YOTF proceeds from the time before the plague -- which they call "the flood" -- the characters struggle against increasing persecution. And after the flood, they struggle to apply their skills to a whole new set of survival challenges. Interestingly, one thing that fails them in the new conditions is vegetarianism. Slowly as desperation overtakes them, they overcome their revulsion for eating animals.

At the end, the characters all assemble in a scene that originated as the last chapter of Oryx and Crake. In a way it makes the new book seem like an explanation for the somewhat dangling plot elements of the first book. I don't think this is a "spoiler" because the second book proceeds inevitably in parallel with the first -- if you read them one after another, you KNOW what's going to happen.

I believe that Margaret Atwood has promised a third volume in the series. I hope it will stand alone better than Year of the Flood. I loved Oryx and Crake (and many of her other books) so I have high hopes for it in a few years or whenever. I've been following her blog in which she is documenting her book tour -- today's post described a meal commemorating the food in the book -- Ottawa St. Brigid YOTF Dinner

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Plum Cake

Every summer or fall when plums are in season, I make plum cake. Today I used Roberta's recipe, which came out very good, so here it is:

Roberta's Plum Cake

1 stick margarine or butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
12 purple plums
Lemon juice [or vanilla]
Cinnamon and sugar mixture

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9" baking dish. Slice plums and mix with lemon juice [or vanilla] and cinnamon mixture.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, then dry ingredients. Spread batter in prepared pan, place plums on top, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour -- check at 45 min.

I often make other recipes for plum cake and similar cake with other fruit. In August when I was in Virginia and also in 2007, I made my mother's recipe. My sister made a friend's recipe in 2008. For related recipes see: More on Plums, Elaine's Plum Cake, Polish Peach and Apricot Cake from a New Cookbook, and Plum Cake

Friday, September 25, 2009

Plums, Potatoes, and Mutton

As the years in War and Peace went by, war made the lives of the Russians more and more difficult. Banquets with elaborate French-style menus -- as described early in the book -- gave way to cruder food. Anticipation of refined pleasure was replaced by desperate hunger. Needless to say, food played a small role in creating Tolstoy's comprehensive treatment of Napoleon's invasion of Russia; however, he built the whole picture through many small things, including food and how the characters viewed it. As I read the second half of this epic, I found these changes to be an interesting detail in the huge picture.

"Do you remember, once I was punished for eating some plums, and you were all dancing, and I sat in the schoolroom sobbing. I shall never forget it... And what was the chief point, I wasn't to blame." asked Natasha of her brother Nikolay as they spent an unusually tranquil moment together. (p. 485) Later in Moscow, even amid a turmoil of emotional experiences, Natasha Rostov attended church with her hostess Marya Dmitryevna. They returned to Marya Dmitryevna's scrubbed and cleaned house -- on Sunday, "neither she nor her servants did any work, and every one wore holiday-dress and went to service. There were additional dishes at the mistress's dinner, and the servants had vodka and roast goose or a suckling-pig at theirs." (p. 532)

But times became more and more difficult. As the noble Prince Andrey and his family prepared to flee their luxury estate in Napoleon's oncoming path, soldiers were becoming disorderly and the serfs and peasants were forgetting their place. "Two little girls came running from the plum-trees in the conservatories with their skirts full of plums. They ran almost against Prince Andrey, and seeing their young master, the elder one clutched her younger companion by the hand, with a panic-stricken face, and hid with her behind a birch-tree not stopping to pick up the green plums they had dropped." (p. 657)

In Moscow, to which many nobles fled ahead of the French armies, things became more and more chaotic. Soldiers looted a shop, "filling their bags and knapsacks with wheaten flour and sunflower seeds." (p. 652) A crowd watched "the flogging of a French cook, accused of being a spy." Pierre heard someone in the crowd make a joke of this cruelty: "Russian sauce is a bit strong for a French stomach." (p. 702-703)

Before the battle of Borodino, Napoleon had a cold and complained that he had "neither taste nor smell," (p. 735) while the Russian general Kutuzov dined on roast chicken, "chewing with difficulty" while hearing a briefing. (p. 753)

As the battle continued, Pierre somehow wandered around the battlefield and stopped by the roadside for the night. Three soldiers arrived and made a fire. They "set a pot on it, broke up their biscuits into it, and put in some lard. The pleasant odour of the savoury and greasy mess blended with the smell of the smoke. Pierre raised himself and sighed. The soldiers ... were eating and talking among themselves, without taking any notice of Pierre." They offered to share this meal, and Pierre -- the lover of fine food and drink -- took a wooden spoon that one of them has licked, and "fell to eating the mess in the pot, which seemed to him the most delicious dish he had ever tasted." (p. 784)

Later Pierre's lot became much worse. He was arrested by the French, almost executed and then spent months as a prisoner. Just after being saved from execution, he was given baked potatoes with salt -- it seemed to him "that he had never eaten anything so good." A wise old peasant, who became very important in this adventure, quoted a proverb: "the maggot gnaws the cabbage, but it dies before it's done" and at bedtime he prayed "Lent me lie down like a stone, O God, and rise up like new bread." (p. 902-903).

Potatoes symbolized the desperation of the masses. The Tsar (perhaps posing) said that he would "go and eat potatoes with the meanest of my peasants rather than sign the shame of my country and my dear people whose sacrifice I know how to appreciate." (p. 875)

A poignant meal -- vodka, rum, white bread, roast mutton, and salt -- was eaten by Petya, the very young son of the Rostov family, just before he was shot in battle. "Sitting at the table with the officers, tearing the fat, savoury mutton with greasy fingers, Petya was in a childishly enthusiastic condition of tender love for all men and a consequent belief in the same feeling for himself in others." (p. 974) He offered his companions some seedless raisins, saying he had bought ten pounds of them. Dolohov, the soldier who was with him when he died just afterwards, thought of this offer looking at Petya's "blood-stained, mud-spattered face that was already turning white." (p. 986)

War and Peace is a long book, and deserves its reputation as a masterpiece. I've hardly said anything about it, but many other people have indeed said enough.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Count Rostov Entertains

"Well, little countess! What a saute of woodcocks and Madeira we're to have, ma chere! I've tried it. I did well to give a thousand roubles for Taras. He's worth it!" (p. 48)
So says Count Ilya Andreitch Rostov to his wife. In this early part of War and Peace, Countess Rostov doesn't pay much attention to her husband's preparation for celebrating the name-day of the countess herself and their young daughter Natasha. She points out that some of the sauce he has tasted has dripped onto his waistcoat, and then goes on to ask him for a large sum of money that she wants to give to a friend.

Tolstoy provides a detailed description of their activities on the name-day, introducing many of the important chaacteristics of these protagonists. The count's love of entertaining and the family's unfortunate habit of spending, gambling, giving away money, and mismanaging their vast fortune are all suggested as we get to know them. Not to mention their ownership of serfs -- humans who are bought and sold at a price.

That evening, one of the guests at the feast is Pierre Bezuhov -- another key character in the novel:
Pierre said little, looked about at the new faces , and ate a great deal. Of the two soups he chose a la tortue, and from that course to the fish-pasties and the grouse, he did not let a single dish pass, and took every sort of wine that the butler offered him. (p. 53)
And the Rostov's little daughter Natasha, dared by her brother, attracts the attention of all the dinner guests when she asks "Mamma! what pudding will there be?" -- her mother answers "Ice-pudding, only you are not to have any." Natasha keeps asking about it until she learns it is pineapple ice. (p. 55-56)

At many other dinner parties and entertainments in the book, Tolstoy doesn't name a single course or give any descriptions of the food. Only Count Rostov's interest in exactly how his guests are to be entertained leads to a detailed mention.

For example, another banquet is organized by the count, who gives the cook instructions about "asparagus, fresh cucumbers, strawberries, veal, and fish." Scallops in pie-crust, cold entrees, mayonnaise, all worry him. The strawberries and pineapple have to be obtained from another noble's greenhouses. (p. 270-271) At the banquet, the count still feels responsible:
His labours had not been in vain. All the banquet -- the meat dishes and the Lenten fare alike -- was sumptuous, but still he could not be perfectly at ease till the end of dinner. He made signs to the carver, gave whispered directions to the footmen, and not without emotion awaited the arrival of each anticipated dish. Everything was capital. At the second course, with the gigantic sturgeon ..., the footman began popping corks and pouring out champagne. (p. 282)
Food also illuminates the hospitality of an elderly relation of the Rostovs. After a day of hunting, he invites Natasha, her brother, and their companions into his simple home where they are served a tray with "liqueurs, herb-brandy, mushrooms, biscuits of rye flour made with buttermilk, honey in the comb, foaming mead made from honey, apples, nuts raw and nuts baked, and nuts preserved in honey." And then "preserves made with honey and with sugar, and ham and a chicken that had just been roasted." These simple -- Russian -- foods were all made by the housekeeper Anisya Fyodorovna, and recalled her "buxomness, cleanliness, whiteness, and cordial smile." Natasha feels she has never seen or eaten such wonderful foods: she has a moment of extraordinary happiness. (p. 474-475)

In contrast to the nobility, Tolstoy describes peasants who turn over their empty tea glassses leaving "an unfinished piece of nibbled sugar," (p. 319, 358); peasants who show hospitality with bread and salt (p. 347), a pilgrim woman who spends two days in the catacombs with only some dry bread (p. 360), and occasional mentions of other foods of poor people.

During the war, armies before battle cook porridge. Hungry soldiers try to find potatoes in abandoned villages:
Everything had been eaten up, and all the inhabitants of the district had fled; those that remained were worse than beggars, and there was nothing to be taken from them; indeed, the soldiers, although little given to compassion, often gave their last ration to them.
Fever and swelling resulted from bad food, but soldiers stayed at their posts in fear of the hospitals. They ate a very bitter asparagus-like plant called Mary's sweet-root, which also sickened them. Their few remaining rations were scarce biscuits and potatoes that were rotten and sprouting. They "assembled for dinner round the cauldrons, from which they rose up hungry, making jokes over their vile food and their hunger." (p. 363)

Food can be a vice, as for Pierre who "liked a good dinner and he liked strong drink; and, though he thought it immoral and degrading to yield to them, he was unable to resist the temptations of the bachelor society in which he moved." (p. 399) Food can be virtuous, as for one of Pierre's fellow masons, who works at masonic science "from morning till late at night, except for the times when he partakes of the very plainest food." (p. 403)

I'm halfway through reading War and Peace. I'm overwhelmed by its excellence. Critics generally find a way to highlight Tolstoy's unbelievable facility at presenting human nature, historic reality, and the flow of events on a personal and political plane. Looking at one type of detail -- food -- is my way of appreciating his unique and famous ability.

Page numbers refer to my ancient Modern Library edition, which has no date, no introduction, and no front or back material.

Monday, September 21, 2009


This is a deferred post to remind me that the chutney I made on Sept. 7 has now rested for 2 weeks. Resting chutney makes an amazing flavor difference. When I use it, I'll write more about how it tasted, and post the recipe if it's good.

UPDATE to this short post: I tried the chutney for lunch with leftover roast chicken from last night. I think this recipe is a keeper so here it is.

Peach Chutney
14 peeled peaches in various size slices
2 green apples peeled in various size slices
3 cups brown sugar (or 2 brown, 1 white)
2 cups cider vinegar
1 hot pepper and 1 small sweet pepper, seeded & chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 or more cardamom pods, crushed
2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon stick

While preparing the peaches, bring the other ingredients to a simmer. Add the peaches as they are ready. Simmer 2 hours until all fruit is very soft. Put into jars, refrigerate, and wait two weeks before using it. Refrigerated, it should keep for several months. It's good with meat, with cheddar cheese, or with curried vegetables.

New Recipes, Old Favorites

For Rosh Hashanah, many Jewish groups eat a variety of traditional foods -- crown-shaped challah, pomegranates, apples with honey, dates, roast meats, dishes made with seven vegetables, and many others. My only observance of Jewish ritual is cooking and eating these foods. This year, I tried two recipes from the New York Times food section.

Chicken stuffed with kasha and roasted with vegetables was last night's selection, from this recipe, mainly. It filled the house with a smell that I remember from childhood: chicken fat, garlic, and roasting meat.

Roast potatoes, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes and apples with a head of garlic separated into cloves (the recipe didn't mention garlic, but I added it)

Roast chickens stuffed with kasha

The table with my friend Abby's spinach salad (spinach is a North African tradition), a crown-shaped challah, and behind the salad, two pomegranates

Sweet-Sour Fish
Earlier this weekend, I made another New York Times recipe -- sweet-sour whitefish. The original called for salmon. In Eastern Europe, fresh-water fish was much more common, as the Jewish villages were very far from the ocean, as are we in Michigan. Using the head and tail of the whole fresh fish I bought, I made my own fish stock before proceeding with the recipe. Of course it took much longer to cook a whole fish -- but I think that made the broth all the better.

The fish in the oven

The cooked fish, with thyme leaves, lemon slices, golden raisins, and red onion

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Grange Restaurant, Ann Arbor

The Grange Restaurant has replaced our old downtown favorite, Bella Ciao. Grange has a philosophy: source all meat and most produce within 53 miles of the restaurant. The heirloom tomatoes, greens and plums for salad, pasta vegetables, and berries and pears for crisps and cobblers were all examples of this. At our table for 5 we sampled a big percent of the short menu and it was all good.

The decor has been redone -- the old draped fabrics and Victorian style are gone. Simple wood panels up to chair-rail height below -- plain white plaster above, with old brick archways exposed to show the 100 year old bones of the building. Frameless canvases of food are hung high on the walls. Oddly, the images are of kumquats, bananas, blood oranges, and other clearly-not-local produce. But the whole experience was very pleasing.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Salade Nicoise

Here are the ingredients for salade nicoise, which we had for dinner recently. The eggs and vegetables were from the farmers market; though I don't think of it as a seasonal dish, of course it's better when the vegetables are in season.

I can't remember whether I saw this dish in France prior to making it from Mastering the Art of French Cooking (p. 542, except I leave out the anchovies). I distinctly recall eating the potato component (pommes a l'huile, p. 541) in the incredibly cheap restautrants where we sometimes ate on our first trip to France, but if I remember correctly, they were usually served as an appetizer with one small fish filet like an anchovy or herring.

At various times, salade nicoise has been trendy on both sides of the Atlantic. On this side of the ocean, there's a tendency to upscale the dish by using fresh tuna. This is probably closer to the original version served in Nice -- after all, that's a fishing port famous for fresh Mediterranean seafood. Fresh Mediterranean tuna is something to dream about.

In the less expensive types of French casual dining places, it can actually be pretty bad. I have been especially disappointed when I find rice instead of the potato salad, or find canned green beans or even canned corn instead of what I think of as the classic ingredients.

Julia Child's version is what I've internalized -- as I've mentioned, I make a number of her recipes without looking in the book, and this is one of them. There are many variations in other cookbooks. In La Cuisine pour Tous, Ginette Mathiot almost agrees with Julia Child: she adds bell pepper (which I also do). The Larousse Gastronomiqe mentions ONLY anchovies, not tuna at all. Mireille Johnston's Provencal/Nicoise cookbook The Cuisine of the Sun lists every Mediterranean vegetable you can think of. Raymond Olivier, in La Cusine (a French classic) lists the ingredients as rice, carrots, onions, eggs, anchovies, tomatoes, herrings, sweet and hot peppers, and green and black olives. Really different!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What did Napoleon eat?

Cooking for Kings: the Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef was the selection for my new culinary book club at Motte and Bailey Booksellers last night. Part of the discussion was about Napoleon, for whom Careme cooked occasional banquets. He especially contributed to public events to celebrate such things as the imperial coronation:
"All Paris wanted to fete their new emperor. And before Napoleon left Paris to campaign in Germany the newly appointed 'Imperial' generals threw a ball for him at the Salle de l'Opera. Talleyrand recommended Careme, who created over 30 towering 'suedois' -- eye-catching layers of fruit in syrup presented in moulds with aspic and jelly." (p. 68)
More frequently, lavish entertainments -- catered by Careme -- took place at the palace of Talleyrand, who was much more into that type of thing. Napoleon said "Only if you want to eat quickly, eat chez moi." He wasn't that into the Careme style with large decorative architectural creations arranged symmetrically for the admiration of guests, and several removes of foods taking hours.

One of the many innovations at which Careme participated was the increasing importance of diplomatic banquets. Talleyrand, backed by Careme, arranged at least four such banquets a week with 36 or more guests at each over-the-top event. The many inventions and pivotal new ideas of Careme are indeed one of the most interesting things in the book, as we discussed last night.

I was quietly wondering about another Napoleonic food first: the invention of chicken Marengo by the chef Dunand. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, at Marengo on June 14, 1800, Napoleon ate nothing before the battle. Having defeated the Austrians, he was a long way from his supply wagons, and the quartermaster could find only "three eggs, four tomatoes, six crayfish, a small hen, a little garlic, some oil and a saucepan. Using his bread ration, Dunand first made a panade with oil and water... ." Bonaparte insisted on having this simple rustic dish over and over again for good luck, and objected to any changes, though Dunanad wanted to improve and make the dish more classical. I like the contrast between this Napoleon and the one in the Careme book that we discussed last night (along with lots of other topics).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Immigrant Days

A wonderful article by Joan Nathan appears in today's New York Times food section. "Rosh Hashana, Circa 1919" describes life in an immigrant Jewish household, and what they ate in 1919. The Strawbery Banke restoration is "a living museum in which over 350 years of Portsmouth homes, stores, churches and history have been preserved." The foodways of the inhabitants have been researched by analysis of seeds and soil from the area and by interviews with children and grandchildren of the original inhabitants.

In particular, the article follows the actress portraying one Jewish resident:
"For Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins on Friday evening, she excitedly pinched rolled-out strips of pasta dough into bowtie noodles to use with leftover kasha stuffing from her roast chicken, and made traditional honey and poppy seed cakes."
Also don't miss "Rosh Hashana, Tunisian style" in the L.A.Times. In the context of a Tunisian-Jewish bakery owned by Alain Cohen, it describes foods for the holiday in this Sephardic community. Cohen grew up in Paris in a family of Jewish-Tunisian origin. He recalled his mother's holiday meal:
The feast would include fava beans with cumin; grilled lamb's liver stew; a frittata with ground chicken and lemon juice; a selection of salads; and t'fina pkaila, a stew of spinach, beef, sausage and beans, served over couscous.
In L.A., besides challah, sometimes baked with the good-luck open hand symbol, Cohen's Rosh Hashanah table includes a number of symbolic foods:
Figs, apples and honey are there for prayers for a sweet year. Dates are included so "that we elevate ourselves like palm trees and that our sins disappear forever," Cohen says. Sesame seeds suggest a proliferation of virtues. A fish symbolizes fertility.

Most powerful to Cohen are spinach leaves, thinly sliced pumpkin and garlic cloves, which are fried in an egg batter and dipped in honey or a sugar syrup. The garlic and pumpkin are to ward off enemies, the spinach a symbol of renewal.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Redefining Locavore

In a panel discussion at the Kerrytown Book Festival earlier this afternoon, I heard a redefinition of the term locavore. First, here's the description of the event:
"Local Foods in the World and Global Foods in Michigan" -- Moderator Jan Longone leads a discussion with Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of Zingerman's, and Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the "Roadfood" column, as featured in Gourmet Magazine and on NPR.
After a long introduction by Longone, Weinzweig began his talk. He explained that in his view, eating only local food in Michigan would mean 8 months of turnips, onions, potatoes... which is how I also view it. Food snobs, he says, think everyone should eat out of their own backyard. Or to put it another way, should be a locavore, which means to eat only food produced within some arbitrary number of miles from home. (I've never noticed food snobs saying that in particular, and I thought Weinzweig was a leader of food snobbery with his store's $5 chocolate bars and hand-made bacon, but that's another issue.)

What struck me was his alternative way to look at local foods: a new definition of locavore eating. Having a relationship with the producers of food products, wherever they are and wherever you are, is his redefinition of locavore. For example, his Zingerman's enterprize purchases artisanal long pepper and sea salt from a cooperative endeavor in Bali. They have email conversations with the artisans. And his phone operators have a relationship with the people who order food from his mail-order site. Therefore, these are examples of locavore food and purchasing. Of course, he explains, he also has local farmers who produce cheese and cream for his enterprize. So he's pure: almost.

The only thing that counts is taste, says Weinzweig. People like chocolate, pepper, coffee, and many other things that don't grow in Michigan, and they should be able to eat them without being criticized by anyone. I agree 100% with that. And local food isn't necessarily good food. Even canned goods, he suggests, are local somewhere -- I agree on that as well. (In fact, Del Monte, I think it is, has been claiming that the fact that the tomato canneries are close to the tomato fields makes their product local, but that's still another definition.)

Two disagreements that I do have:
  • First, I don't see why he needs to co-opt the word locavore, even if some of the proponents of local eating go overboard and get silly. There are lots of other admiring words for eating well and knowing about the producers of the foods you eat, and where appropriate avoiding mass produced and mass market foods. So let the locavores be local. (I thought I was making a joke when I said I was drinking local coffee because I order it from a coffee farm I visited in Kona, Hawaii. He thinks I'm really doing it.)
  • Second, contrary to his generally sucessful claims of Zingerman's greatness, I actually am not very fond of Zingerman's food products other than the bread. And that's produced by another entrepreneur, actually. I think Weinzweig's principal talent is as a promoter. He's made the whole world think he has great products. I'm out of step, but not convinced.
Funny thing: we met some acquaintances we had been introduced to in California in the spring. They are visiting here, and had come to the panel discussion. They said "We ate at Zingerman's. The matzoh ball soup was terrible." The two of us filled them in on our view that the enterprize is overrated. Yesterday, giving them yet another chance, Len had a decidedly inferior bagel at the deli. And once we had a terrible meal at the famous Roadhouse. Alas. We wish we did find it as wonderful as it's hyped to be -- deserving of all the people who come to Ann Arbor just to eat there.

As for the panel discussion, Weinzweig is really an amusing speaker -- I guess that's how he's so persuasive of his greatness. And I really enjoyed the presentation by the Sterns. One anecdote told by Michael Stern put things into perspective. In their early travels in search of Real American Food they were in rural Louisiana. They asked the waitress at a small restaurant with a promising menu, "Do you have regional food?" She replied, "No, we just have regular food."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

End of Summer

Summer is winding up. At the farmers market today, notices announced "last peaches," "last blueberries," and other "lasts." Apples are ripe, corn is abundant, the reddest tomatoes are still available in many sizes. I returned the two peck boxes from last week's peaches and tomatoes and an egg carton, so they can be used once again.

I saw my first pumpkins, and the largest broccoli heads ever. I suspect the plums that I brought home will also be the last I see.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Poached Peaches

From my little paperback French cookbook came a recipe for peaches poached in wine. I made it as written, but only made around half, using an unconscionably good wine that just happened to be leftover from a couple nights ago. And from my peck of peaches, I have only 2 left that aren't cooked!

Peaches in Wine
3/4 cup red wine
3/4 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 peaches, peeled & cut in quarters

Bring the first 4 ingredients to a boil in a pot just big enough for a layer of peaches. Add the peach quarters to the boiling mixture, turn down to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the peaches, boil down the liquid a bit more, pour over the peaches, and chill.

It was quite delicious, very subtle -- and especially good following pasta with slow-roasted tomatoes and other local produce, along with a bit of Canadian goat cheese and Gilroy garlic.

Now of my peck of peaches, only two raw ones remain for tomorrow's breakfast. Of my peck of tomatoes, also two remain uncooked, plus a few slow-roasted tomatoes for bruschetta, a bag of them in the freezer, and some leftover ratatouille. We've eaten quite a few dinners of exclusively farmers market produce and Ernst farm meat. I admit that I was afraid I had over-bought, and I'm glad I applied myself to making good use of all the bounty.

Important Idea from Michael Pollan

In the New York Times: Big Food vs. Big Insurance By Michael Pollan. The main point:

The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. The president has made a few notable allusions to it, and, by planting her vegetable garden on the South Lawn, Michelle Obama has tried to focus our attention on it. Just last month, Mr. Obama talked about putting a farmers’ market in front of the White House, and building new distribution networks to connect local farmers to public schools so that student lunches might offer more fresh produce and fewer Tater Tots. He’s even floated the idea of taxing soda.

But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

The Marmelade Gypsy

Blogger Jeanie who writes The Marmelade Gypsy awarded me "The Tulip Award" and put me in a list of blogs she's recently been reading. I appreciate this honor. I've been enjoying her blog, named for her cat, in which she covers her various activities and relaxations, mainly in Michigan. Today she posted a variety of photos of her vacation at a cottage in Michigan and her current art project -- silk painting. The washed silk patterns she's doing look very pretty.

Earlier this summer Jeanie did a long series about a trip to Paris which I found very pleasant as it recalled many trips I've taken. She found me because of some scanned photos of Monet's Kitchen at Giverny that I posted some time ago, which she wanted to use to illustrate her visit to Giverny.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Michigan's Farmers Markets in "Gourmet"

Don't miss the article on Michigan local food in Gourmet! Most interesting paragraph:
If there’s anyplace that ought to be immune from a California-style food revolution, it’s Michigan. Long winters, high unemployment, an economy that’s been staggering for years, no instantly recognizable culinary culture—Berkeley it ain’t. But the truth is, Michigan farmers raise the second-greatest variety of agricultural products in the country, after California. Traditionally most of the fruits and vegetables grown there have gone straight to giant food processors, but that system isn’t working the way it used to, now that processors have access to cheap produce from across the globe. So farmers are turning to what’s called the fresh market—selling directly to grocers, restaurateurs, and the public. The amounts sold locally are still small, but the potential is immense.
Most of the examples are from the area west of Traverse City, but of course the whole situation reflects the culture of farmers markets in our great state. The author has a bit of that coastal superiority -- what! Michigan has local food? But still, it's a good article.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Another Julia Child favorite from long ago -- clafouti, a rustic fruit dessert. The dish originated in the French province of Limousin, due south of Paris. The standard clafouti usually has cherries, and in fact, the name of the recipe (p. 655) is "Clafouti: Cherry Flan."

Of course I am using a peck of peaches this week. There's no peach version in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, so I followed the variant for plums, which behave pretty much like peaches in cakes and the like. The liqueur in which I soaked the peaches was Amaretto, and I added a few lavender buds as I've read it's good to do with peach desserts. (They unfortunately look a bit like small insects. But they aren't.)

Clafouti batter bakes up to be halfway between a cake and a custard. The result tonight was delicious. However, it doesn't photograph very well, as it's a little sloppy looking. At least you can see that I sifted powdered sugar on it successfully.

Clafouti is not one of the Julia Child recipes that I've made over and over, though I do remember making it soon after I got the cookbook. I served it to some friends who came to dinner in our first student apartment in Berkeley. "Clafouti?" said our guest, "is there also Clafou-coffee?"

It was very exotic to make such a thing.

Monday, September 07, 2009


Tonight I made ratatouille from the eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers, parsley, and tomatoes I bought Saturday at the Farmers Market. While it was in the oven as shown, I looked up Julia Child's recipe for this dish on p. 503 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As I said earlier today, I've internalized quite a few of her recipes -- I can't imagine how many times I've come home from the market and made this dish.

I rarely look at the recipe any more, but I confirmed my claim. I used the ingredients she calls for -- in more or less similar proportions. The way I make it now includes, in addition to parsley, some herbs de provence, influence of my friend Michelle and her amazing kitchen in Cotignac in the Var region of France.

Michelle bought her vegetables at the little local markets in town -- for ratatouille, she says, you need only good eggplant, courgettes, herbs, and tomatoes. And she picked rosemary and sage from the weedy-looking edges of the fields and vineyards near her farmhouse (now sold). French food in general -- and as presented by Julia Child -- has always been based on good, local produce. If anyone views local and French as separate goals, they are only looking at American fads, not at basics.

I have changed Julia Child's method slightly, as well as adding more herbs. For one: eggplants now, according to experts, no longer need salting as they are not bitter -- especially not the very small white ones from the market. Further, instead of frying them, I now oil the slices and bake them on a heavy cookie sheet to save time. I'm not as fanatic about seeding the tomatoes as I used to be, either, as I think some of that jelly-like tomato pulp is quite flavorful when the tomatoes are so perfect and ripe. Also, as I make a large quantity I do the final cooking in the oven -- and I've already frozen some for next winter. Does this disqualify my claim that I am doing it by the Julia Child method? Ratatouille is not a finicky dish; measuring exactly would be silly. I think I've internalized it.

Well, that's one follow up to my post from this morning. Also important to me -- lots of people are still buying Julia Child's book as shown from the following amazon info about it: Sales Rank: #2 in Books (See Bestsellers in Books)

Popular in this category:

#1 in Books > Cooking, Food & Wine > Regional & International > European > French

And by the way -- it was delicious! For another version of my dish see Oh, Rats.

I never made Chicken Marbella

An op ed in Sunday's NYT discusses the career of Sheila Lukins, author of the very popular Silver Palate Cookbook, published in 1982, and its sequels. Lukins died last week, so it's kind of an extended obit.

In the article -- The Fickle Palate -- NYT food writer Kim Severson writes: "The enduring dinner party dish of the book — and the era — is chicken Marbella, a rather unremarkable baked-chicken dish that draws its character from prunes, olives and capers. Just mention it to any decent cook old enough to have had her own apartment in the 1980s and you will get both an eye roll and a nostalgic smile."

Severson (who isn't old enough to remember all this, I suspect) adds "The dinner party food of the 1980s followed a period in which ambitious hosts had exhausted themselves trying to master the art of French cooking." Other trends also emerge as Severson proceeds into the 90s when "...'Moosewood Cookbook,' with its zucchini boats and calorie-laden mushroom strudel, had quickly lost its charm." After Moosewood, more fads -- people turned to comfort food; more recently, to grains like quinoa (which I've noticed on a lot of restaurant menus lately).

There's something fishy about this summary of food fads of our time. It makes me think the New York Times is a little too trusting in its own material -- as if I needed more evidence of that. More generally, this summer a lot of articles about food fads and trends have appeared in many places. Most of them refer to the movie Julie and Julia, which I haven't seen. They mainly adore Julia Child -- I agree. As for their generalizations about food trends -- I disagree with a lot of what they say.

Severson, it seems to me, believes that everything she reads or writes in the paper of record applies globally. If the NYT says it's being done -- that's it: everyone everywhere is doing it. Through the decades, I've been aware of the numerous cookbook fads, as well as of Martha Stewart, who is never acknowledged in the article. Maybe she's anathema in the NYT food section? Somehow, I'm suspicious about these generalities.

Though I heard of the books, I never made Chicken Marbella. I never owned a Silver Palate cookbook at all. I didn't get around to Moosewood till years later. To be exact: I just kept plugging along with my obsession with French food. I wasn't typical of the type of housewives described in Lukins' NYT obit in which Julia Moskin wrote that Lukins "spotted a niche that had been created by the emergence of working women, who were interested in good food but lacked the time to produce it." Somehow I always took the time, as did lots of people. The many disconnects between what I read and what I know are why I'm having a problem with many recent articles about Julia Child as well as with this one.

Fads, Fads, Fads -- or Not?

In particular, I'm wondering about the claim appearing in many articles that virtually no one ever made Julia Child's recipes. Or the further claim that new buyers who have made her book a recent best seller recently won't cook from the book either. This seems so wrong! As an example, I bring up not myself but my friend Alice, who still loves the recipe for blanquette de veau, among others. Or another friend, Sally, who in the 70s repeatedly made Julia Child's coq au vin and baked Julia Child's French bread to go with it. Len made the bread as well, for a while.

The most cited article denigrating the content of Julia Child's books is by The Americans–well, one way of telling the history of American food is an oscillation between the plain foods of democracy and the elaborate high cuisine of the world scene of gentility and sophistication. Julia Child, publishing when the Kennedys made gentility and sophistication respectable, neatly bridged that divide with democratic access (hard work and practice) to a sophisticated international cuisine."

New York Times food writer Julia Moskin suggests also that it's much easier to make French food than Julia Child allows. In "A Boeuf Bourguignon in (Gasp!) Five Steps" she reviews a newly-translated work by Ginette Mathiot, first published in 1932. Mathiot's specialty was mass-market books in France. (Yes, they have them, even for cooking -- my little collection of them, purchased in 1976 and including one by Mathiot, is in the photo.)

Mathiot is very old-school -- when the new translation of her book is published, I wonder how people will like it. Her boeuf bourguignon, says Moskin: "has just nine ingredients (plus salt and pepper) and takes just five steps." And it "is equally suave and feels more satisfying — great payoff for little work." I'm skeptical -- French housewives may be assumed to be rushed, but somewhere back in that day, they had learned the techniques that Julia Child was promoting: so they were bringing a lot more to those simplified recipes than today's potential American buyer. I think the French now might find her retro as they have moved on -- I wonder how it will do when it goes on sale here.

What all this makes me realize is the enormous influence of Julia Child. No matter how many other cookbooks have been popular -- she's unique.
When Julia went to the Cordon Bleu and learned how to cook—by hand, without fancy equipment, from the ground up—she was also learning that passion and appetite weren’t enough. She needed technique, confidence, patience, and a host of finicky skills that only came with practicing. It was an approach to cooking that had all but disappeared from American kitchens, and without it Americans were never going to know what they were missing.
Similarly, the NYT review of the film:
The impact of that first volume of 'Mastering the Art,' and of Child’s subsequent television career..., is hard to overstate. The book stands with a few other postwar touchstones — including Dr. Benjamin Spock’s 'Baby and Child Care,' the Kinsey Report and Dr. Seuss’s 'Cat in the Hat' — as a publication that fundamentally altered the way a basic human activity was perceived and pursued.
I'm going to have to make a list of my favorite Julia Child recipes, the ones I have made over and over. From the 1960s onward. Not exclusively. But often.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Emily Brock's Diner

Delighted as I am by any miniatures, I loved "The Counterman Diner" by Emily Brock, dated 1991-1992. It's in the glass pavilion of the museum because it's almost entirely made from glass. It has all the little details right down to the pies & the dishes in the sink. Here's the back:

Also at the Toledo Art Museum today, we enjoyed a variety of art works from Africa, Europe, and America. The glassblowing demo was very skilled. I was almost put to sleep by the intense fire flickering in the "glory hole" where the molten glass is kept at blowing and forming temperatures. However, I watched from start (a lump of glass the size of a golf ball on the blow-pipe) to the finish of a fluted vase with a crackle finish and a wide, flared mouth.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

What I bought at the farmers market

Some people post what they bought for $10. I'm afraid I wanted a lot more -- the basket of peaches alone cost more than that. However, I'm very happy to have eggs, peaches, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, onions, herbs, squash, and more. Not shown: lamb and beef from Ernst Farm.

The maple sugar candy is a special treat -- I was very sorry to hear that the man from whom I bought it in the past took ill and died over the winter, though his sons are still sugaring and making the candy, fortunately.

Half the basket of tomatoes and half the peppers are now in the oven roasting slowly -- here are the tomatoes on the baking sheet. By midnight we'll have a delicious batch of semi-dried tomatoes, as well as some roasted hot peppers.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Woody's Ice Cream

On our last evening in Fairfax, we went out to dinner and then to Woody's Ice Cream. It's great -- ask Alice or Miriam.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Fairfax Farmers

At last -- the end of summer and time for lots of tree-ripe peaches and fragrant tomatoes. Saturday we went to the main Fairfax Farmers Market at the railroad station (the RR doesn't run trains on Saturday -- just hosts the market). We bought tomatoes, plums, peaches, and a few other things. We still have some eggplant from the CSA share.

We quickly ate all the peaches and many tomatoes. Monday night, I cut up the rest of the big red ripe tomatoes and slow-roasted them overnight with garlic, sweet peppers, and a few of the little yellow cherry tomatoes. This is supposed to preserve the vegetables, but somehow we ate most of them for dinner last night.

This morning we stopped at a little farmers' market on the other side of town. More peaches! More tomatoes! But no photos. Before lunch, Alice, Miriam, and I made a peach-plum crumble, carefully eating some of the brown sugar as we worked. They liked using the tips of their fingers to blend the butter into the topping, and they took turns using a sharp knife to slice the fruit. We sampled the crumble for lunch dessert. It was delicious. We also made some yellow jello for dinner.

On Saturday, we bought some herb cheese and some feta cheese from Miriam and Alice's favorite cheese lady. Also, they selected flowers for a bouquet from the flower stall.