Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dinner from the Farmers Market

AND here's what I made for dinner from the foods I bought this morning:
  • Roast farmers' market chicken stuffed with apple-sage dressing, including some spring onions. The dark color of the bird came from basting with hoi-sin sauce. Mmmmm.
  • Steamed asparagus (3 min. in microwave does it).
  • A little cranberry sauce that I made a few days ago from the last frozen berries left from last fall.

Note: for lunch we had lettuce from the market in our salad.

The Farmers Market Today

This morning the Ann Arbor Farmers Market was fairly busy, but not unpleasantly crowded. The number of sellers is so large that stalls now occupy quite a bit of the parking lot, as well as the established aisles.

We enjoyed seeing all the bedding plants in rows and on racks: herbs, tomatoes, all sorts of flowers. We bought asparagus, lettuce, and red spring onions, as well as a chicken and some lamb from the Ernst Farm stand, whose meat we enjoyed last year.

I was delighted to learn that the Michigan maple syrup growers had a huge success this year -- the poor conditions in Canada and New England didn't happen here. I bought some maple candy. The farmer says he's getting requests to sell his crop wholesale -- so they may run out despite the good crop.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Molecular Gastronomy

In his blog this month, famous food author Harold McGee had an interesting post on post modern cooking: News For Curious Cooks: Modern cooking and "molecular gastronomy". McGee has been creating a history of gastronomic seminars at the Erice conference center that brought together leaders in this field uniting science and cooking -- his forte. I learned that McGee was an organizer of these seminars, along with a physicist, Nicholas Kurti. Of course I was especially fascinated by this, as I've been a trailing spouse at 4 or 5 seminars at Erice. Being there is a fabulous experience -- including the food served at the many restaurants in the tiny hilltop town where an ancient monastic complex has become a physics and science conference center. The photo at right is from our most recent trip there a few years ago.

One point in McGee's articles was the distinction between the science of cooking, including various experiments in synthetic creation of food-like offerings, and the presentations of certain modern cooks. Their avant-garde cooking often goes by the name of molecular gastronomy, though there are many writers who feel this is a mistake. The term was introduced in the title of the first Erice seminar, not intended as the name of a type of cuisine, but as a discipline, if I understand correctly. McGee makes this point:

Misinformation and misunderstandings about experimental cooking have been accumulating from its very beginnings. They're now hardening into bad pop cultural history that tags very different chefs and their ideas with the impressive but empty terms "molecular gastronomy" and "molecular cuisine."

The two documents and many supporting letters and conference poster are a fascinating bit of history, which McGee is in a special position to preserve.

I was very interested in one link, to the website of the most famous of the cooks in this probably mis-named cuisine: Synthesis of elBulli cuisine, which is a manifesto (without specifically admitting it). I felt this set of principles resembled another such document: Marinetti's The Futurist Cookbook. I claim this in support of my recent observation (Futurists see the future) that Marinetti's food preparations and presentations -- which were meant only as an exercise in imagination -- closely resemble food of the so-called molecular gastronomists. It's bizarre how the pretensions of this modern cuisine resemble the rants of this 1932 document of strange surrealist intent.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Elaine's Salad -- too good to miss it!

Elaine wrote: "Fresh asparagus, fresh green onions, and fresh greens, all from the Farmers' Market! I made a salad inspired by a demonstration at the market. It had grilled asparagus and grilled green onions, mozzarella (goat cheese would be better--that's what the demo used), toasted walnuts, dried cherries, and chicken medallions, with a vinaigrette."

For html geeks, I tried looking at her blog's page source and directly copying the link to her photo. If Elaine ever deletes the photo, it will also be gone from here. For food geeks, I regret that I wasn't there to eat it too.

See Elaine's response at Rhubarb Crisp.

Oyster Lit

I recommend today's NY Times article: "Oyster Farmers Find a Boutique in the Bay" about oyster cultivation and the growing recognition that "If something that grows in the sea could have a terroir, it would be oysters." The specific oyster beds of this article are owned by the Shinnecock Indian reservation on Long Island, but the article's discussion ranges around the East Coast and the vast number of oyster varieties there. Every little cove practically has its own variety, to the point that some, they say, may be confused. The spring oyster season is coming to an end as the oysters fatten up and prepare to breed. In summer, as the old traditions say, oysters just aren't as good to eat, and may even be unsafe.

The Times article in some ways duplicates some of the material more fully covered in Mark Kurlansky's The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, which goes over a vast amount of New York history from the oyster-eater's and oyster-grower's points of view.

This article really brought to mind The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark, first published in 1959. Locmariaqueur is in Brittany, on the rough Atlantic coast, and the author paints a picture of a challenging and sometimes very dangerous environment. Like today's Times article, her book has a great deal of information on the difficulties faced by those who wish to cultivate oysters, as opposed to just gathering them. I've been meaning to reread this classic of food writing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

More Salade Niçoise

For a simple family meal I cheated slightly, and bought the green beans from the prepared food counter at Whole Foods. However, I made the potato salad myself, and added some tuna. For variety, I put a few sweet potatoes in the salad along with the white potatoes and vinaigrette dressing.

Note this: I have found that Whole Foods' 365 store-brand tuna has no added broth so it's amazingly much better than even the premium tuna from name-brand makers like Giesha, Star-Kist, etc.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


I love rhubarb. The crumble in the photo, which I baked this evening, was really good. Do you remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder story about how, as a young bride, she made pie from rhubarb (she called it pie plant) and forgot the sugar? I think Almanzo ate it anyway: just sprinkled some sugar on it.

According to the Larousse Gastronomique, my favorite culinary reference, rhubarb originated in northern Asia. Its first European use was by monks, as a medicinal plant, in the 14th century. This normally impeccable source claims that you can eat the leaves "like spinach" -- totally false -- they're poisonous!

A quick web search turned up the technicalities of this well-known danger: "Oxalates are contained in all parts of rhubarb plants, especially in the green leaves." The stems, explains the website, have a very low level of this toxin. "During World War I rhubarb leaves were recommended as a substitute for other veggies that the war made unavailable. Apparently there were cases of acute poisoning and even some deaths." From The Rhubarb Compendium.

The recipes in the Larousse Gastronomique suggest cutting peeled rhubarb stems into 2 to 3 inch pieces when you make compote, jam, or "English-style" pies and tarts. My mother did it this way, and her rhubarb compote was delicious but full of stringy things around 2 or 3 inches long. I am in the habit of using the food processor to make extremely thin slices of rhubarb -- as shown. This process is very fast, avoids the need to peel the stems, and thus preserves the beautiful red color. Also: no strings! I also pour a kettle of boiling water over the slices to reduce the acidity.

Rhubarb Crumble Recipe
For one 8-9 inch greased pan -- serves 4.

Rhubarb filling:

1 egg
3/4 cups sugar
2 tbs. flour
3 cups sliced rhubarb (wash & slice in food processor before measuring)
A few strawberries, chopped (optional)
Pour boiling water over rhubarb and drain well to remove some of the acid. Beat egg, stir in flour & sugar, and mix with rhubarb. Reserve strawberries for assembly.
NOTE: Rhubarb may be increased to 4 cups, other ingredients proportionally increased.

Combine the following ingredients into crumb-like topping:
4 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup oatmeal

To Assemble and Bake:
Butter the pan and spread the chopped strawberries in it. Place rhubarb filling in pan, and sprinkle topping evenly over the rhubarb. Dot with more butter.

Bake at 350 degrees, 40 minutes.

I bought a lot of rhubarb, and prepped it all at once. While my crumble was baking, I made a pot of compote (AKA rhubarb sauce) from rhubarb, strawberries, and sugar. Cooking the very thin slices goes fast. It was done quite a bit before the crumble. I added a bit of vanilla after cooking. Isn't the color beautiful? We'll eat it later: it keeps in the refrigerator.

Finally, when I open a book like the Larousse Gastronomique, there's no telling what I'll find. Here is an obscure and silly fact: the entry just before rhubarb is rhinoceros, whose flesh "is edible." In fact: "It is preferred," says this revered source, "to that of the elephant by natives who consider hippopotamus meat to be even better." I wonder if that's more accurate than the claim that rhubarb leaves are edible.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Food Insecurity

I recently posted some thoughts about an article on famine that I was reading, as I've done about other books and articles before. Famine and food insecurity are issues that I often worry about and read about. I'm in the habit, when I think about such things, of asking myself if personal solutions to a problem are reasonable, or if there are only political/collective solutions. In a comment response, I noted that three relatively independent food challenges easily become confounded.

Here are the three challenges I have thought about:
  1. The challenge of avoiding dangerous food of all sorts. These include things one faces in the grocery store, like mercury in fish, antibiotics in chicken, mad-cow in beef, e-coli in spinach, bad Chinese additives in apple juice, too much fat and corn syrup in packaged food, etc. Food-industry-generated bad choices that lead to obesity, excesses of dieting, or eating disorders also belong in this category. For a person of decent means, in a city like Ann Arbor where I live, options exist. However, one requires money, time to research the choices (and meaning of nutrition labels), and energy for careful shopping. If you are poor or preoccupied, you might be helped by regulation rather than just information.
  2. The challenge to the nation of maintaining a safe food supply in all senses. Our leaders have abdicated many responsibilities of regulation. This is a political problem, that also involves personal motivation. I think this may be a solvable one, though some proposals seem so inadequate as to be a cop-out -- like putting calorie counts on menus but doing nothing to offer better choices at good prices. The USA can afford to do better than we do at this time.
  3. The challenge to the whole world of meeting global food needs. For the poorest nations, for the poorest people within each nation, and for regions beset by natural and other disasters, starvation is an issue. In some countries in Africa, and in the recent events in Burma, evil intentions of leaders or of political factions are responsible for starvation. In many cases, however, global and local resolve might be able to improve the sufficiency of food for all. For this challenge, there are no personal solutions, and the politics really seem overwhelming.
Some of my thoughts on the subject appear in this post: What if global warming makes our crops fail?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Food History Short and Simple

The latest online feature at Gourmet online: The 25 People Who Changed Food in America.

This pictorial series begins with Thomas Jefferson, who "pursued an informed love of fine food both at Monticello and at the Presidential mansion."

The series seems to me delightful in its range of choices. Most of them are well known, though a few have been forgotten with the passage of 100 years or more.

Cookbook authors are not neglected: two of them include Julia Child, and Fannie Farmer -- whose photo I included. John Harvey Kellogg, Fred Harvey, and Ray Krok of MacDonald's illustrate the influence of food titans. I loved the selection for its imagination and variety. I won't hold it against the editors of Gourmet for including Earle R. MacAusland (1891–1980), magazine publisher who in 1941 founded the magazine itself. After all, it's still publishing both in paper and online after all these years.

Friday, May 16, 2008


All the while that I'm blogging my essentially frivolous thoughts on food, I am also in parallel thinking about the looming food insecurity of the third world. Every day new events and problems are the subject of various articles, to which I make no comment. I don't have any enlightening ideas or facts.

I would like to mention a particularly interesting article on this subject in the New Yorker: "The Last Bite: Is the world’s food system collapsing?" by Bee Wilson. In this article, Wilson discusses several books: The End of Food by Paul Roberts; Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe, and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.

A few quotes from Wilson's article:
"The world seemed to have been liberated from a Malthusian 'long night of hunger and drudgery.' Now the 'dark tints' have returned. The World Bank recently announced that thirty-three countries are confronting food crises, as the prices of various staples have soared. From January to April of this year, the cost of rice on the international market went up a hundred and forty-one per cent. Pakistan has reintroduced ration cards. In Egypt, the Army has started baking bread for the general population. The Haitian Prime Minister was ousted after hunger riots. The current crisis could push another hundred million people deeper into poverty."

"All of these authors agree that the entire system of Western food production is in need of radical change, right down to the spinach. Roberts opens with a description of E.-coli-infected spinach from California.... Industrial farming means that even those on a vegan diet may reap the nastier effects of intensive meat production. It is no longer enough for individuals to switch to 'healthier' choices in the supermarket. Schlosser asked his readers to consider the chain of consequences they set in motion every time they sit down to eat in a fast-food outlet. Roberts wants us to consider the 'chain of transactions and reactions' represented by each of our food purchases—'by each ripe melon or freshly baked bagel, by each box of cereal or tray of boneless skinless chicken breasts.' This time, we are all implicated."

"So, yes, cheap food can be nasty, not to mention bad for farmers and the environment. Yet it has one great advantage that neither Patel nor Roberts fully grapples with: people can afford to buy it. According to the World Bank, four hundred million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in 2004 than was the case in 1981, in large part owing to the affordability of basic foodstuffs. The current food crises are the result of food being too expensive to buy, rather than too cheap. The rioters of Haiti would kill for a plate of affordable chicken, no matter how pale, soft, and exudative. The battle against cheap food involves harder tradeoffs than Patel and Roberts allow. No one has yet discovered how to raise prices for the overfed rich without squeezing the underfed poor."

Read it! Weeping optional.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cheesecake on the Coasts

It's food section day in the major daily newspapers that I read online. Last night I read the week's food feature in the L.A.Times: Old-fashioned cheesecake. My mouth watered as I read and looked at the incredibly appetizing photo (right).

If I had had the ingredients I might have started baking right away, though I admit, cheesecake requires much too much in the way of deferred gratification. In fact the instructive part of the article said to wait a day or even two so that the cake sets up and can be easily sliced. The next time I pass a bakery counter, though... And doesn't this paragraph sound both interesting and yummy?
"Cheesecake has that kind of power; it also has range. Stamped with an ancient provenance (Alan Davidson reports a description of a Roman cheesecake in Cato's 2nd century 'De Re Rustica') and European pedigree, it's made with ricotta in Italy, quark (a fresh curd cheese) or farmer cheese in Eastern Europe. And the distinctive texture and clean flavor of classic American cheesecakes comes from silky smooth, creamy but tart cream cheese."

What I wondered is this: does L.A. have its own special kind of cheesecake? I suspect it does. I remember it as quite often available in California.

This morning in the N.Y.Times food section -- a compendium of past articles titled Times Topics: Cheesecake. The list was illustrated with several tempting photos (one at right). The articles listed are all at least a couple of years old, and many deal with a fight over who invented some New York classic version of the dish. Not nearly as mouth-watering.

Although I'm a faithful reader of the N.Y.Times and its food section, I've rarely been to the city and have little interest in its priority claims about foods. I suspect that all New York foods originated with the diverse population one way or another. (In preference you can find me almost anywhere else: Hawaii, Washington D.C., Australia, New Zealand, Paris or London... just not New York.)

Anyway, I wonder if the food editors in New York noticed the L.A.Times article and put in this retrospective to stay competitive. That would be funny. The Washington Post isn't evidently playing the game: their food section leads with morel mushrooms, and their weirdness article of the day is on raw reindeer meat (in case you thought we hadn't gone off the deep end last week with yak cheese.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Waverley Root

Are you planning a trip to Italy? A reading project about an aspect of Italian life? If you plan to go even slightly away from the big, crowded tourist attractions, there's a 35-year-old classic book that can give you some unusual insights. In The Food of Italy, Waverley Root presents Italy's distinguished past as background for the development of Italian cuisine. Root connects amazing details about the foods produced and served in each region to the cultural past. These details can be overwhelming, but also fascinating.

In Root's introduction to Sicilian cooking, for instance, he begins with the ancients. "Archestratus," he writes, "was a Sicilian, born in Gela early in the 4th century B.C. He has been called the Brillat-Savarin of ancient times, though Brillat-Savarin was deadly serious about a subject which Archestratus treated lightly in his mock heroic poem, Gastronomie.... In typically Sicilian fashion, he interested himself particularly in fish. Yet little trace of Greek cooking ... remains in Sicily." (p. 596) Then he gives all sorts of details about the most famous Sicilian sweets, caponata, couscous, pasta with sardines (only in Palermo, you'll learn, the photo shows some I had last summer), and all sorts of mouth-watering vegetables and meats.

Most writers view Italian history as a progression of accomplishment in art, music, literature, and political innovation, from the era of the Etruscans (who, Root notes, perhaps invented pasta), through the Greeks, Romans (whose banquets are of course legendary), the Renaissance (when popes led the world in fine dining and gluttony), and into the 20th century.

Root presents each region's specialties and agricultural products with scholarship and humor. Concrete material on agriculture and cooking technique as well as legends, plays, and poetry all contribute to the narrative. You can learn a lot about pasta, in passages like this:
"The ring shape of tortellini suggests to the Bolognese mind the human navel -- or more exactly the feminine navel, for it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that the male umbilicus possesses inspirational qualities. Obsession with this resemblance has produced a number of stories about the origin of tortellini which contribute little to history, but do shed some light on Bolognese psychology. A 17th-century story is the simplest: it maintains that tortellini was born when a cook molded his pasta directly in the navel of a Bolognese woman. The image is fetching, but the exact process by which edible pasta could thus be arrived at is not easy to figure out." (p. 195)

Root goes on to cite literary sources in which the navel origin of pasta plays a role. Similarly, Root grounds his disquisitions of food and wine in details about the leaders of the land; for example, when describing the foods of the region north of Rome, he writes that eels become so tasty in the waters of Bolsena "that they led Pope Martin IV into the sin of gluttony. He was from the Touraine, where matelote of eel is a much appreciated dish; but this was not considered an extenuating circumstance by Dante (anti-French anyway) who punished him by placing him in purgatory in the Divine Comedy." (p. 99)

Another papal story: "In the 14th century, an offbeat gastronomic note was inserted into history by one of the less admired members of the powerful Visconti family, then ruling Milan. This was Barnabo, who had been excommunicated by the pope." This tyrant forced the monks who represented the pope to eat the bull of excommunication: "parchment, ribbons, seals and all." While the bull didn't poison the monks, Barnabo himself was poisoned somewhat later. A food story? Well, maybe. (p. 257)

Root often digresses from his vivid descriptions of the many dishes from every region of Italy. "In ancient Roman days, as in ours, a whole roast pig was customarily served with an apple in its mouth, and the apple was likely to be Picenian. Horace described Picenian apples as small but exceedingly tasty, whose like could be found nowhere else. A few centuries later another famous writer, Boccaccio, praised Picenian salame, whose superiority he attributed to the fact that the sausage casings were made from the intestines of the same pig which produced the meat." Delightful digressions! (p. 129)

It's impossible to summarize his work, as it's encyclopedic. In reading it -- preferably one regional section at a time -- you realize numerous connections in Italian culture. The Renaissance, for example, was a rebirth not only of art and literature, but also of food; Root shows you exactly how this truism might apply to your dinner, if you find the right small, non-touristy restaurant. The Romans left an indelible mark on the land and its food; you'll be more likely to notice the marks if you read the book.

Almost at the beginning of the book, Root writes: "while French cooking has become professional cooking even when it is executed by amateurs, Italian cooking has remained basically amateur cooking even when it is executed by professionals. It is, in short, home cooking... human, light-hearted and informal." (p. 18) Throughout this work, I appreciated the range of specific details that demonstrated how Italian cooking comes from the people.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Good Books on Italian Food

My previous post may seem very negative. To offset that impression, here are images of some Italian food and cooking books that I really like -- besides the PBS show "Lidia's Italy."

I've especially enjoyed the books of Mary Taylor Simieti on Sicily. She writes wonderful details of life there from the mid-60s until recently.

The depicted book on Italian-Jewish cooking by Edda Servi Machlin includes a sketch of "a vanished way of life" in her town of Pitigliano. Her story of life there is especially enjoyable. I regret that I have never yet purchased a copy, but I always intend to get one.

My plan is to reread more of these, and maybe some new ones. I've just finished with Elizabeth David's Italian Food. I love the way she intersperses anecdotes and recipes. She is just as informative as Pellegrini -- whose book I find so annoying that I ranted about it this morning. She often compares early-1950s English food to that of Italy, and though it's not a favorable comparison, she is never nasty and snide the way he is about American food and people. Sure, she thinks the English would enjoy life more if they ate more adventurously, but she tries to show them what's possible. And indeed, she succeeded in changing the English diet, as much as anyone could. (Another book I hope to read is a recent biography of Davis by Artemis Cooper.)

Check here from time to time for more book reports!

The Prejudiced Palate

"Let me illustrate... with a recipe for broiled red snapper. I created it some time ago as a sort of by-product of another dish that I was preparing at the moment. The genesis of this recipe has a further value. It shows a cook at work, experimenting with ingredients that he thoroughly understands and the quality of whose synthesis he can confidently predict." (p. 186)

These words from The Unprejudiced Palate by Angelo Pellegrini demonstrate why I find him a tedious, tendentious self-advertiser -- this must be the millionth time in the book that he mentions that he is a skilled cook. Everything he does, in his view, illustrates his confident competence.

In addition to being vain, he's an incredible male chauvinist of the worst old-world self-unaware school. Although his book dates to the 1940s, he has no use for the many achievements of women to that date, and more important, he views the women of America as incompetent, lazy, and inadequate to his lofty European standards. Here is a typical paragraph about the American housewife:

"If excellent meals require exotic and unavailable ingredients, endless hours in the kitchen, and a lifetime to perfect, Mrs. Jones is content to whet the can opener and concentrate on bridge. But she cannot consistently ignore the call to culinary self-improvement. To meet special occasions she will now and then hazard an invasion of the sacred precincts. After a hectic shopping tour... she advances gaily into the kitchen and takes a snort of this or that -- whichever she happens to have on hand -- to bolster her morale and quicken the imagination. A survey of her posts and pans reveals that they are woefully inadequate. Quaking with a sense of impending failure, she begins to mince and saute, simmer and strain. Her nerves kept in perfect equilibrium by her favorite cigarette, she meets each crisis as it emerges. Well in advance of the dinner hour, each little culinary symphony has received the final blessing, and the casseroles gurgle all over the stove." (p. 10-11)

I'll spare you any more of this! His contempt is so great he needs only hypothetical or fictitious examples of the degraded American woman to offset his vast superiority. When Pellegrini gets on the subject of American cookbooks and American housewives, or above all, of American working women, he becomes really offensive. It's a clue to his attitude that he never actually names a real cookbook or real anecdote: everything is a generalization about the superiority of his way, the inferiority of what he has seen in America.

Pellegrini delights in contrasting his Tuscan peasant childhood with the west-coast decadence and lack of taste he discovered later in his life, as a college student and professor. In the parts of the book where he sticks to his Italian memoirs, one can find lots of fascinating food facts about the unvarnished Mediterranean diet, as well as about the life of peasants in Italy before it became prosperous. His descriptions of wine-making are especially fascinating. I enjoyed his explanation of why polenta wasn't much of a treat as served without meat or flavoring at a peasant's table, though it was becoming a gourmet item in America. Even when he's engaging in self-congratulations about his ingenuity in making money to offset his family's poverty, even when he's quoting corny Italian proverbs, his memoirs are interesting.

When he gets to America, though, his observations become less penetrating. To quote a review on the site: "He writes as if he was the first immigrant to come to America, the rest of us have been here forever clutching in our greasy paw a hotdog in one and a can of cream of mushroom soup in the other."

What really bugs me is that he can't present a recipe without continually making note of his superiority as a gardener, cook, and man of the world, and without putting down some American straw man (or more likely, straw woman) who uses inferior and tasteless ingredients, overcooks the pasta, deep-fries the delicate sole, doesn't like garlic, turnip greens, or kale; has never tasted rabbit or artichoke; or commits some other heinous culinary offense. That said, they may be good recipes, but there's no lack of good Italian peasant cookbooks these days.

His wrap-up attack (Chapter 6) on the American fried-chicken dinner is the least hypothetical of his diatribes, as it's based on an experience with a 4-H banquet from his youth. Most people would feel that the choice of frying, grilling, or roasting chicken, and the choice of biscuits or Italian bread were matters of personal taste. Most of the cooks he despises would simply not like the result of his suggestion to add chervil to fried chicken. For this author taste that differs from his is a moral failing -- "I am insisting upon old-fashioned virtues." (p. 234)

In the Conclusion, Pellegrini claims that he has simply explored "the significance of bread and wine," (p. 230) -- but this is false naivity on his part. The book is full of judgments and advice.His observations on American abundance and waste weren't all that original even in 1948.

I wonder that this passes for a classic -- the edition I own has now been replaced by one with laudatory notes by both Ruth Reichl AND Mario Batali. Give me the works of Pellegrini's near-contemporaries M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David any time! For a real treat, read M.F.K.Fisher's afterword to the Lyons & Buford edition -- she describes her actual meeting with Pellegrini at a wine-tasting where he reviled her for wearing perfume -- only to discover that he was smelling the odor of the soap he used at his motel.

There's certainly a lot of nostalgia, as well as irony, in reading this historical document, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you are really doing research.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Futurists see the future

The Futurist Cookbook by F. T. Marinetti, published in 1932 denounced all forms of pasta and called for a new, bold type of cooking. Here is example from a futurist meal he imagined:
The second course consists of four parts: on a plate are served one quarter of a fennel bulb, an olive, a candied fruit and a tactile device. The diner eats the olive, then the candied fruit, then the fennel. Contemporaneously, he delicately passes the tip of the index and middle fingers of his left hand over the rectangular device, made of a swatch of red damask, a little square of black velvet and a tiny piece of sandpaper. From some carefully hidden melodious source comes the sound of part of a Wagnerian opera, and simultaneously, the nimblest and most graceful of the waiters sprays the air with perfume. [From Marinetti: The Futurist Cookbook, translated, Suzanne Brill, 1989]
Before I continue, perhaps you need a brief summary of this 20th century cultural movement that had its origins in Italy about 100 years ago, developing in Italy and Russia with strange resonances to Fascist thought:

FUTURISM was one of the longest lived and broadest encompassing artistic movements of the 20th century, although it tends to be denied the importance it deserves because of its political associations.

Many of the early Futurists were anarchists, the movement was welcomed by Gramsci and emulated amongst the Bolsheviks, but it was the association of Futurismo with Fascismo that has left it somewhat tainted amongst progressives. This is ironic in that Futurism was the quintessenence of 20th century modernism and paralleled 'the cult of the new' exemplified in Lenin's dictum "socialism + electricity = communism". Although Mussolini's regime utilised modernist traits, it was more at home with the neo-classicism of Novecento.

Although mainly associated with the visual arts, Futurism began in 1909 with the proclamation of a manifesto by the Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944). The manifesto not only celebrated the dynamism of the machine age but strongly negated the past: "We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind..." [From "The Challenge of Futurism," Flux Magazine]

Obviously, the purpose of Futurism, like the purpose of much of modernism, did not seem to be to predict the future.

BUT I say that it did. And most bizarrely, the food preparations and presentations in The Futurist Cookbook that were meant only as an exercise in imagination, closely resemble food that many critics in the last 10 years have been thrilled to consume at expensive restaurants.

These meals -- that I've only read about -- come from a food trend called Molecular Gastronomy. Its principal inventor, Ferran Adrià Acosta, prefers to call it deconstructivist cooking. Adria is particularly known for making unexpected substances into foam -- foamed espresso, foamed mushroom and foamed beetroot are among these products.

His tortilla de patata, which in every other Spanish restaurant is a potato and onion omelet, is served in a martini glass and is liquid and foam. You are handed a spoon and told to dip it all the way to the bottom with each bite. You plunge through a white potato foam into a soft pudding of egg and caramelized onion. In his chicken curry, the curry is the solid, the chicken is liquid. [Amanda Hesser, "In Spain, A Chef To Rival Dali," New York Times, 1999]

Adria, whom you've probably read about, is widely imitated and his techniques, such as foaming, cooking in a vacuum, and creating little spheres from liquids -- a sort of fake caviar of arbitrary taste -- have been widely imitated and commercialized. The Chicago restaurant Alinea is one American version. Here are some futurist courses from an Alinea menu described a few years ago at its opening:

The first course was a visually nifty riff on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: a peeled, heated grape, still on a sprig, that had been dipped in a peanut purée and encased in a thin layer of brioche.

A later course paired slivers of rare beef with an undulating sheet of potato, which became a jagged landscape with discreet canyons and buttes of molasses, raisin purée, dried garlic, dried tomato and more: the flavors of A.1. steak sauce, candidly acknowledged on the menu.

...There was a deconstructed Caesar salad, a deconstructed guacamole and a "deconstructed glass of white wine," which was a translucent rectangle of grape jelly with pinpricks of herbs, nuts and fruits often evoked by wine. I was instructed to taste each and guess its identity. [Frank Brunei, "Sci-Fi Cooking Tries Dealing With Reality," New York Times, 2005]

This is much more weird than life following art. Surely I'm not the first to notice.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Barbecue for Independence Day

This is from an article that I wrote a few years ago. I've removed personal information about the people I interviewed. Originally published in the local Jewish newspaper. Today is Israeli Independence day: 60 years.

Each spring, Israel celebrates two holidays in succession: Memorial Day (Yom Ha Zicaron), and Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut). Independence Day commemorates the day in May of 1948 when Israel became a State. Memorial Day recognizes and mourns those who have fallen in securing Israeli independence. Like all Jewish holidays, both start at sundown.

When Memorial Day ends, early in the evening, the mourning atmosphere will change instantly to celebration. And Israelis agree: a barbecue is the activity of choice for just about everyone in the country.

“When we were young kids,” explains Arik then head of an organization of local Israelis. “We got together the evening when the holiday began and had a big bonfire somewhere in our neighborhood.” Arik grew up in a semi-rural area near Petah Tikvah, where nearby fields allowed kids to do this.

“We would get potatoes and onions, wrap them in aluminum foil, let them cook in the fire, and then pull them out with a big stick and eat them.” he continued. “When we got a little older, we’d go into Tel Aviv and party all night, with fireworks and dancing. The next day we would spend at a barbecue with the family.”

Most Israelis plan outdoor celebrations with friends and family on Independence Day. “We ask each other, where will you be taking your mangal,” says Chava, who lives part time in Tel Aviv and Ann Arbor. “A mangal is a portable charcoal-fired barbecue pit. Every park, picnic area, and beach will be full of people around their fires. We never need a rain plan: it’s always sunny in Israel in May.”

Arik confirms a kind of joke about the prevalence of barbecues on Memorial Day: yes, he’s seen people cooking in the median strips of city streets, as well as in city parks, backyards (if they are lucky enough to have them), and other public spaces.

Though most Israelis like to spend the holiday eating outside, preferably cooking some foods on a grill, the origin of Israeli barbecued foods is a diverse as the population. Israeli food writer Daniel Rogov points out that the “the Israeli picnic is as likely to feature traditional dishes from Iraq, Tunisia or White Russia as it is dishes from Ethiopia, Greece or any of the other eighty nations from which Jews have immigrated.” Rogov’s article mentions a variety of grilled lamb and chicken dishes, as well as a side salad of marinated beans. A small selection of his recipes appears later in this article.

Various people explain the emergence of the barbecue custom in various ways. Chava can’t remember when barbecuing became so prevalent, but her memories go back almost to the founding of Israel, so she knows it had to have emerged in her lifetime. One Israeli friend explained to me that most Jewish holidays forbid both driving and making fires. Even less-observant Jews may be reluctant to flaunt these norms. Since Israelis love to barbecue, this is a rare holiday where they are truly free to do so.

Another practical explanation for this uniform activity is that spring is the best time for a barbecue: at Chanukah, when driving and fires are also allowed, it’s too cold. Whatever the reason, Chava says, “there’s smoke everywhere – and not from shooting!”


Arik described his outdoor family meals made up of pita bread, chopped salad, hummus, tehina, and other salads, along with the meat cooked over the fire. Kabobs made of turkey, chicken wings, broiled veal, and lamb are some of the possible meat dishes, though other types of meat and even fish may be on the menu.

Chava describes a full-course Independence Day menu with appetizers, pan-grilled chicken, side dishes, and dessert. She and her friend Mira Segal, also an Israeli who lives in Ann Arbor, got together and planned this menu, for which Chava prepared the following recipes. Besides serving these typical Israeli foods, Chava says that you should set the table in blue and white colors. If possible, she says, “You should also bake a challah in the shape of a Magen David. Chag Sameach!”

Chava’s Israeli Recipes
Hors D’oeuvres
Vegetarian Dip
3 medium onions
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 hard-boiled eggs
3/4 cup walnuts
Half tsp. Salt

Cut and fry onions in the butter lightly. Grate the eggs and nuts in food processor with salt and pepper. Mix all the ingredients together, put in a bowl and decorate with cut parsley. Serve with pita bread.

6 large tomatoes, 4 small cucumbers, 3 green peppers, 1 red pepper, 2 green onions, 6 radishes, 1 hard boiled egg (optional) 1 mango (optional), olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper.

Cut all vegetables into very small pieces and put in salad bowl. Grate egg over salad and season with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper.

Schnitzel from breast of chicken
2 lbs. of boneless breast of chicken, cut thin (and pounded)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Canola oil for frying

Roll each piece of chicken in the flour, then roll it in the eggs which were beaten before together with the salt and pepper. Lastly roll them in the breadcrumbs.
Preheat oil in frying pan and fry each piece on each side until browned. Soak extra oil up with paper towel.
It’s best served immediately, possibly with some lemon juice sprinkled on top and with some pickles (or pickled vegetables) on the side.

Mashed potatoes with fried onions
6 potatoes, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons. Osem chicken powder, 2 tablespoons Olive oil or butter, some salt and pepper.

Mediterranean style eggplants and zucchini
1 medium eggplant
4 medium yellow zucchini
4 medium onions
4 garlic cloves
2 green peppers
6 tbsp. canola oil
2 tbsp. thinly cut parsley
2 medium tomatoes
2 small cans of tomato sauce

Cut eggplant into cubes, salt and put aside for half an hour. In the meantime peel zucchinis and cut into slices. Cut onions and garlic into small pieces, clean peppers and cut into slices.

Fry onion and garlic lightly, then add eggplant which you have first wiped with paper towel, zucchinis and peppers. After a few minutes add parsley, cut up tomatoes, tomato sauce, salt and pepper and enough water to cover.
Cover pan and cook for about 15 minutes.

Fruit Salad
2 lbs. apples
1 lbs. pears
3 oranges
10 dates
10 dried figs
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup orange juice
1/4 cup sweet wine

Cut, mix, and serve.

Walnuts and Almonds Cake
6 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 lbs ground almonds
1/2 lb ground walnuts
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon brandy
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs

Beat whole eggs with sugar until thick. Add finely ground almonds & nuts, vanilla, brandy, lemon and then breadcrumbs. Bake in round buttered and lightly sprinkled with flour spring form for about half an hour in medium heat. When cooled you may decorate with a spread of slightly warmed jam (apricot or raspberry) and whipped cream over it.

Barbecue Recipes from Daniel Rogov’s Website

This Website includes a large number of recipes for small or large barbecues --even a recipe for an entire lamb that would serve as many as 40 people. Here is a sample of his recipes.

A Moroccan version

1 lb. (450 gr.) each ground beef and veal, mixed together
6 spring onions, chopped finely
5 cloves garlic, chopped finely
2 hot red peppers, chopped finely
1 tsp. each salt and pepper
1/2 tsp. each turmeric, dill seed and flour

Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and knead well by hand. Form into 3" (8 cm.) sausages and impale these on long wooden skewers. Grill over open charcoals or under a hot broiler, turning occasionally so that cooking is uniform. Cook just until the meat is done. Serve hot.

Spiced Grilled Chicken
An Algerian Recipe

2 small chickens, quartered
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup lemon juice
6 Tbsp. olive oil
8 - 10 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. parsley, chopped

Season the chicken parts with salt and pepper. Place the lemon juice, olive oil garlic and parsley in a bowl and in this mixture roll the chicken quarters, coating well. Let marinate 2 hours, turning 3 – 4 times.

Drain the chicken and reserve the marinade. Transfer the chicken parts, skin side down, to a rack and place over hot charcoals about 6" (15 cm.) from the heat and grill for 10 minutes, basting occasionally with the marinade. Turn the pieces and grill 10 minutes longer, basting once or twice. Turn the pieces once again and brush well with the marinade until the side facing the heat is nicely browned. Turn one last time, brush again and let the second side brown. Serve hot.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Michigan Hand-Snapped Asparagus!

Delightful! Reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver's raptures in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I was reading approximately a year ago. I cooked this local asparagus (from Whole Foods: I was too late arriving at the Farmers' Market) roughly by the method described today in the New York Times: An Improvised Asparagus Dish Is a Happy Accident. The author added some peas to the buttered mushrooms and asparagus, but I didn't. It was delicious!

Do I want to hear the voice of reason?

Harold McGee's "Curious Cook" column in today's New York Times discusses the evidence for greater nutritional value in organic produce, and a recent claim about Yak cheese: Let’s Take a Closer Look at That Study on Yak Cheese. I've been getting the impression that organics were really being discovered to be superior, but maybe I've been reading studies that are somewhat overstated.

About recent studies of nutrients in organic produce, McGee concludes: "Reliable information is still pretty sparse." His discussion of organics also includes an interview with Arthur R. Grossman of the Carnegie Institution for Science, a plant scientist. He writes:
It’s likely that there will never be a clear winner in the conventional versus organic battle if they are judged strictly by comparing their nutrient scorecards. But Dr. Grossman suggested that organic farming may have a more general nutritional advantage over a system that relies on agricultural chemicals.

“I think it’s likely that plants grown with minimal intervention by the farmer are chemically more complex,” ... “The biochemical machinery in plants is incredibly prolific,” Dr. Grossman said. “They can make hundreds of relatives of beta carotene alone. I’m sure we haven’t identified all the beneficial chemicals in plants. And diversity in the molecules we consume may be beneficial in itself.”

As for yak cheese, which has "higher levels of the essential omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish and plants" -- he points out that as with the higher omega-3s in grass-fed beef, the total amounts are not actually very high. If you really want omega-3s you should eat fish, walnuts, greens, or other sources that are actually high. His conclusion is that taste should be your guide. I guess this isn't entirely different from Michael Pollan.

Monday, May 05, 2008

In Real Life

"To me, life lived in commercials was real life. Commercials were instructions; they were news. They showed me what perfection could be: in the right woman's hands, the layers of a cake would always be exactly the same size. In the right woman's kitchen, a cartoon rabbit would visit the children and show them how to slurp down a tall glass of Nestle Quik with a straw. ... Commercials had a firm definition of motherhood, which almost all of my friends' mothers had no trouble fulfilling. They swept floors and scrubbed bathtubs. They cooked casseroles and washed dishes. They had smooth, sensible pageboy hairstyles and serene smiles. They set the dinner tables every night and sang Cinderella songs and taught their children where to sit."

In her actual life in 1980s Grand Rapids, Bich Minh Nguyen -- author of the memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner -- was defined by her origin as a Vietnamese refugee. Her father, working in a factory, was more and more distant. Her older sister was adjusting better than she was. Her step mother Rosa was a native-born American, whose parents had been Mexican farm laborers in Michigan agriculture: she taught ESL, worked on an advanced degree, and was a Cesar Chavez fan, a boycotter of grapes, supporter of teachers' strikes and starving refugees. Rosa, too, created a vast gap between the family and their white Republican Grand Rapids neighbors. Rosa reminded them that they too had been refugees, boat people, threatened with starvation.

American food memories define the author's culturally confused childhood. Pringles. Nestle's toll-house cookies. Big Mac vs. Whopper. Kool-aid popsicles. 7-Up. Hostess cupcakes. Frozen pizzas. Jiffy-mix muffins. A famous dish like beef stroganoff or simple American whole pork chops that needed to be politely eaten with a knife and fork. For each of these foods and many more, the author presents a vivid story of how she first tried it, how she coveted it, or how it showed the character of a girl who ate it.

She also loved salty Vietnamese pickles, lychees, green sticky rice with pork in neat packets, and steaming soups that her grandmother cooked. The descriptions are vivid: I wonder how they relate to anything I've eaten. Probably nothing similar to the scallion pancakes or spring roll I tried on my last time at a Vietnamese restaurant. Her food is not symbolic: you can almost taste it.

While the author loved her grandmother's pho and didn't mind the Mexican roasts her step-mother occasionally made, she longed to fit in with the American kids, characterized by what they had in their lunch boxes or what their families ate. Her family bought in bulk or on sale, while she longed for widely advertised brand-names.

Although she had arrived as a toddler and learned English essentially as a native, the author could never be assimilated into blond, Christian, mainstream Grand Rapids elementary school life. Even her name was impossible: Bich. How could she get even teachers to call her Bic or Bit? Not a good life on the playground or in the lunch room.

This is my favorite kind of memoir: vivid tastes tell the story. Yes, there was a spelling bee triumph that the teacher begrudged her because she was an immigrant. Yes, there were children's put-downs because she was not Christian. Yes, she was forgetting how to speak Vietnamese, so she also didn't fit in with that crowd. Her father gambled; her step mother divorced him but didn't move out. Her step sister shoplifted. Yes, she felt isolated. Her closest family member seems to be Noi, her grandmother, whose room she shares along with a Buddha statue -- they sleep with their heads towards Buddha, in respect, and her grandmother presents food to Buddha and to the ancestors. Once, she took a plum from Buddha's dinner and ate it herself, but usually she just looked hungrily at Buddha's dinner.

Finally, nearly an adult, she discovers that her unknown birth mother had had contact with her father and step-mother for years, but they never spoke of her. As it has been throughout her life, when she meets her birth mother, food is the issue. The first thing they do is go for Dim Sum: "our table filled up with tin and bamboo steamers of shrimp shumai... We ate spare ribs, shrimp balls, and sticky buns stuffed with red pork... my mother kept the food coming, anxious to show [her] welcome through generosity." This is their one and only contact, and it seems sad but not profoundly so, with a hint that her mother had not really wanted to raise the author and her sister.

Even her memories of children's books are dominated by food memories: "Ramona Quimby, Encyclopedia Brown, The Great Brain, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle ... I lingered over my favorite food parts -- descriptions of Turkish Delight, fried chicken, hamburgers with onions, thick hot chocolate, even the beef tongue the Quimby family once had for dinner." As I read the book, I remembered the meals in Little Women and the Little House books as well as she does. I also appreciate her growing recognition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's attitude towards outsiders -- and how this attitude still affected her life -- "I didn't have any nonwhite literature, anyway," she remarks. And her hope: "I could read my way out of Grand Rapids."

This is a remarkable memoir, not the least because of its incredibly skillful and consistent use of food to tell the powerful story of an immigrant experience.

(Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen. Quotes: pp. 125, 151, 160, 232, 163)

Update, August, 2017: This was the selection of my Culinary Book Club. All participants seem to have enjoyed it quite a bit.

Chicken Salad

For the last few weeks, I've been doing a lot of cooking ahead for house guests. This weekend, I made an old standard: chicken salad. I rarely cook from a recipe, and I realized that this dish is a great example of how I keep ingredient lists in my head and can make many versions of a single dish. This time, I tried for a very simple, child-friendly version: broiled chicken, mayonnaise, chopped celery, and grapes. I served it with other cut up fruit: kiwi, papaya, melon, and mango. No last-minute effort in this.

For other occasions, I choose other ingredient combos. If I use chicken, chopped celery, apples, walnuts, and mayo, I call it Chicken Waldorf Salad. With leftover turkey, dried cranberries, mayo, nuts, and apples, I call it the day after Thanksgiving. Whatever. It's a method, not a recipe.

I always work with just a few of the possible ingredients, chosen because they seem good together. Here are some suggestions:
  • The meat: I broiled some thighs and breasts, sprinkled with paprika, and cut them up. I sometimes use only white meat. In a great rush, I use pre-broiled breasts from Trader Joe. Leftovers from a grocery-store roast chicken also work. Leftover turkey works too. Any leftover poultry, for that matter.
  • The sauce: for all or part of the mayo, I sometimes use yogurt or sour cream. With non-fat yogurt and mayo and white-meat only this becomes a very low-fat dish. Once I tasted a sample of Trader Joe's wasabi mayonnaise: not a bad idea. A squeeze of lemon juice can bring out the fruit flavor.
  • The fruit: almost any reasonable combination works fine. I've used grapes, tangerine sections, pineapple, apple slices, mango, cantaloupe, dried apricots, dried cherries, raisins, dried cranberries, or celery. Oh, wait, that's a vegetable.
  • Spices and seeds: when I want more depth of flavor, I've added curry powder, toasted sesame seeds, toasted almonds, toasted walnuts, or chopped candied ginger (preferably from Australia).

Another set of changes you could make on chicken or turkey salad would be an American Oriental version. The dressing includes soy sauce, rice vinegar, canola or sesame oil, and optionally some grated fresh ginger or toasted sesame seeds. Vegetables: celery again, Napa cabbage, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, micro-wave-blanched snow peas, or water chestnuts. You could sneak some soba noodles into this one (use the cooking directions on the package). No recipe needed.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mona Lisa Everywhere

From yesterday's trip to Whole Foods: well, olive oil is one product that Mrs. Gioconda (see Mona Lisa is really Mrs. Gioconda) would have been familiar with at the time she sat for her famous portrait. I'm not going to try this new brand of oil. Why? Because recent scandals about the Italian olive oil industry have convinced me to choose Spanish, French, California, or Greek olive oil. In fact, Spanish olive oil often has that really delicious fruit-tinged flavor that I associate with being near the actual Mediterranean, while many Italian varieties no longer seem to have that quality. Maybe because they are adulterated with cheaper oils -- too bad.