Wednesday, January 31, 2018

In My Kitchen: Planning and Listing

New in my kitchen this month: my resolve to label things as I store them in the freezer. For this, I bought freezer tape!

In the past, I didn't label these containers, and just had to guess what the contents were. Now I know. Freezer tape rules!
This gets me to a topic that I've been wondering about: how do people decide what's for dinner? Sometimes my own "planning" is just to pull out one of those boxes. With my new labels, I have a better idea of what to expect when I warm up the contents!

Reading blogs and online kitchen advice inspired me to examine the way I figure out what we're having for meals. Mostly I prepare food from scratch using what's on hand -- but starting at the last minute. Meals include breakfast, almost daily lunch, and dinner every night: we eat in most of the time. Sure, I sometimes identify recipes that I've been meaning to try, and buy the ingredients and get my act together for experiments. But not every day. Mostly I don't know what we are going to eat until we are almost ready to set the table. I'm beginning to think this is eccentric.

Elaborate meal-planning advice like this abounds on sites like this example at thekitchn.com and lots of blogs,
but I never do anything like a weekly plan. 
In particular, I can't believe the suggestions I see about printing out complicated shopping-list templates and laboriously filling them out by hand. It's 2018 and most people carry a smart phone with great listing capabilities with them all the time. For the last few years, thanks to Evelyn's example, I've been using the iPhone for my shopping list.
Screen shot of iPhone
Reminder app.

Milk low? Oatmeal used up? Cereal boxes mostly down to dust? (Yes, we eat boxed cereal -- sorry, not sorry.) Only one stick of butter left in the freezer? Peanut butter or jam jars almost scraped clean? Spice jars emptied? Exotic recipe requires chicken, eggplant, okra, and small hot peppers, as in the exotic stew I made earlier this week? Craving cookies or ice cream? When we need things, they go on the iPhone Reminder app.

The iPhone list is shared, so when my husband uses up an item he can add it to the very same list with his iPhone. And if he does the shopping, he can automatically check off the items and my iPhone knows it too. I guess it's in the cloud. Over time this list has also come to include specifications of unusual light bulb types, furnace filter size, battery requirements, and other stuff that's so easy to lose track of -- when things run out, they just get checked back on the list. True, there's no way to sort the list, which rearranges itself mysteriously as things are checked off and put back on, but I've gotten used to this challenge. However, I digress.

Let's get back to the original question, What's for dinner? Around 5 PM most days, I ask myself what I feel like eating, and what I feel like cooking. (Obviously if we have invited guests, I'll already have things well in hand by 5 PM -- I mean days when it's just the two of us.)

Dinner depends on these questions and answers:
  • Is anything approaching its final use-up-by-now date on the store packaging? Obviously, the presence of 2-day-old meat or ready-to-wilt lettuce is an overwhelming factor in what we'll eat.
  • No urgent choices? Well, what's in the freezer? When I cook meatballs or stew I usually make extra for the freezer. I buy frozen salmon in packages from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. I foil wrap Costco lamb chops or steaks in dinner-sized quantities and freeze them. I rely on frozen peas and corn or canned red, white, or black beans to add to many dishes. Recently, as I noted, I've been doing better with labels so there aren't quite as many mystery dinners.
  • Another question: did we have a large or a small lunch? What was it?  If we had egg salad for lunch, we aren't having omelets for dinner. If we had hot dogs or chili for lunch maybe a lighter salad would be good for dinner. And so on. Other side of the coin: if I do know what's for dinner, that helps me decide about lunch.
  • Above all: do I feel lazy or ambitious? Always a good question, which is a reason to keep nice bread in the freezer and sliced cheese, deli meat, or leftover roast in the fridge, ingredients for a quick soup or tuna for salad in the pantry, and salad vegetables ready to use. Yes, I keep boxed soup on the shelf, but usually add veggies when I make it. Yes, I use salsa out of a jar. No, I don't make my own tortillas. I'm not a fanatic about from-scratch cooking, just prefer it.
My lettuce storage box: empty right now because I'm
waiting for the lettuce supply to be safer.
A note on salad: recent publicity about the contamination of romaine lettuce with e-coli has been a real challenge, since I usually buy leaf lettuce, wash it in advance, and store it in a purpose-made crisper box to make salad prep less of an obstacle. I also sometimes cut up veggies in advance, to facilitate last-minute prep. We have salad for lunch or dinner just about every day, so this is an important issue.

I don't use bagged lettuce, but I understand why busier people do use it. I detest bottled salad dressings, but don't mind if I'm offered a salad where someone else used them -- I love using oil, vinegar, and mustard or making a yogurt-based salad dressing. So having ingredients ready to make a salad is one of my best planning devices.


    A few more new toys in my January kitchen

    My new kitchen torch -- which I've documented in two posts
     this month -- has now been joined by ramekins for crème brûlée.
    The torch (upper right) is shown the caramelizing sugar topping.
Shiny flakes of caramelized sugar on top of smooth crème pâtissière!

Why am I interested in meal planning?

Two groups of food bloggers gave me the idea to write about meal planning and organization, and I will be sharing this post with them:

Sherry at the blog Sherry's Pickings hosts a monthly blogging event called "In My Kitchen." Bloggers from around the world write posts about new food products and gadgets in their kitchens, and link their posts on Sherry's blog. A number of these bloggers have been participating in this event for a long time. Meal planning is an occasional topic of their posts, as well as related subjects like how to preserve what's growing in their gardens. It's fun to see what these bloggers are cooking each month because some of them are in the Northern Hemisphere like me, and others are in Australia and other places and thus using fruits and vegetables of a totally different season.


"Beth Fish" is the pseudonym of an editor and writer who blogs at Beth Fish Reads. Each Saturday she reviews cookbooks or writes about her own food-related activities and also hosts "Weekend Cooking" where a group of bloggers link to their posts about food or about anything they consider related to food. She's written quite a few reviews of books that discuss how to plan meals, shop, and organize your cooking life, and the bloggers in the group also return to the subject from time to time. They've thus made me aware of a number of questions on how to organize.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Not an Exotic Dinner


You may think I cook in a very exotic way. I didn’t want to give the wrong impression, so I decided to post a photo of tonight’s dinner: Shepherd’s Pie. That is, mashed potatoes baked on top of a casserole of ground lamb with vegetables and very classic seasonings. Not at all exotic!

NOTE: recipe here: https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/shepherds-pie-240224 -- used bell pepper instead of carrot. Sauteed vegetables separately, not in lamb fat.

Monday, January 29, 2018

An Exotic Dinner

Cuisine de Côte d'Ivoire et d'Afrique de l'Oeust is a very exotic cookbook that I bought on my most recent trip to Paris.
In English the title is "The Cuisine of Ivory Coast and West Africa." I have never had West African food, but I'm curious
and we were ready to experiment -- finally since we've had the book for over a year.
We picked a recipe with obtainable ingredients: chicken, onions, tomatoes, peanut butter, okra, eggplant, chicken broth,
small hot peppers, thyme, and bay leaf, to be served over rice. There were some very startling recipes in the book,
especially the ones that called for "smoked agouti" which is a rodent-like wild animal -- the greater cane rat in English.
According to the recipe, I browned the chicken and onions and added the tomatoes. Then I prepped the eggplant which
you can see at left. I readied the okra, which was frozen, and the peanut butter.
I used two jalapeños and one serrano pepper.
After cooking the chicken and tomatoes for half an hour, I added
the rest of the vegetables. Then, as directed, I cooked it another half hour.
A bowl of chicken and peanut sauce with rice. It was extremely delicious and we both really liked it.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Ursula Le Guin


To honor the memory of Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018), who died a few days ago, I decided to read one of her books that I've never read before. I chose The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia because Paul Krugman tweeted: 


I enjoyed reading this book, which was published in 1974, but which takes place thousands of years from now, on a pair of twin planets 11 light years from earth. Of course I liked the fact that the most important person in the story was a brilliant and original physicist, a man named Shevek. I also enjoyed Le Guin's depiction of a utopian society on the planet where he was born. It was a utopia of many sorts, especially a utopia of equality between the sexes, while the planet's twin, where Shevek visits, was a model of inequality between the sexes, as well as of general inequality between classes of people. Both fictional societies in the book offer insights into idealism and reality as applied to our own society, and offer thought experiments about things often taken for granted. Obviously, skillful plot and character development make this a readable and enjoyable work of fiction, not a diatribe or theoretical description.

As always, I watch for ways that food highlights social issues and other themes in novels that I read. Here's an example of food ways on Le Guin's utopian planet, where all meals were served in central canteens called refectories. The food in the refectories was supposed to be equal for all members of the population, whatever their contribution to society. Realizing that the ideal was undermined by special treatment of scientists thus affected Shevek:
"There was always a dessert at the Institute refectory at dinner. Shevek enjoyed it very much, and when there were extras he took them. And his conscience, his organic-societal conscience, got indigestion. Didn’t everybody at every refectory, from Abbenay to Uttermost, get the same, share and share alike? He had always been told so and had always found it so. Of course there were local variations: regional specialities, shortages, surpluses, makeshifts in situations such as Project Camps, poor cooks, good cooks, in fact an endless variety within the unchanging framework. But no cook was so talented that he could make a dessert without the makings. Most refectories served dessert once or twice a decad. Here it was served nightly. Why? Were the members of the Central Institute of the Sciences better than other people?" (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, p. 111). 
In the past I've read other novels by Le Guin, and I agree with the generally held view that she was an imaginative creator of literature and that classifying her work as genre fiction disrespected her accomplishments. However there are many many obituaries and older appreciations of her work that do justice to the past and to her oeuvre so I don't have to.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Louise Erdrich: "Future Home of the Living God"

Nothing is happy in Louise Erdrich's recent book Future Home of the Living God. It might be one of the most depressing books I have ever read. I don't want to talk about it much, but here are a few thoughts.

Minnesota, and maybe the rest of the USA, has become a desperate dystopia in this novel. The decent Minnesota people in the novel don't have a chance to live the decent life they've always experienced. For most of the novel the narrator and many others are trying to escape a newly created Orwellian government, including surveillance of everybody all the time. Computers -- even when not attached to any internet -- suddenly start showing images of "Mother," who seems to be a version of Big Brother in Orwell's 1984. Cell phones report everything to the mysterious police state, so most people have destroyed theirs. Fear reigns.

The whole world until just before the start of the novel was evidently pretty much as we know it ourselves in 2018 America. It's in the near future, with just a bit more climate change. Even fairly young characters remember when there used to be a Minnesota winter, though that was lost by the time the novel opens. Suddenly, as the inhabitants of this sad future see it, evolution has started running backwards. Maybe the explanation is that suddenly mutations are causing abnormal throwback-seeming creatures and plants to be generated instead of what's expected. No one understands exactly what's going on, and mass communication has essentially ceased. Darkness has descended. Everything that was predictable disappears -- accountable government, reliable news sources, trustworthy neighbors, and so on.

The thing is, the characters are incredibly vivid in their distress especially the young woman who is recording the narrative in real time, while it's happening to her and her family. Some of the main characters in her narrative are Native Americans living on a reservation and some are urban residents of Minneapolis. Everything about them seems so real it's scary. Good people help each other, bad ones turn each other in to the evil authorities, and it's hard for the sympathetic characters at the center of the plot to know who is who. I'm not going to try to do a plot summary, just to say that the most real thing is the horrendous fear they experience in trying to escape from the totalitarian society that has inexplicably and suddenly emerged.

Food becomes a kind of indicator of the circumstances. Early on, food made by family can make the bad times seem more normal. But conditions are deteriorating and hoarders begin to buy all the food, booze, and cigarettes from supermarkets. When the narrator is imprisoned, bad institutional food underscores the horrors of her experiences. She writes:
  • "I must stay ready for the sign, remain alert, prepare myself, stay strong. So I drink the powdered OJ and eat the rancid eggs, the strange bread, the curdled milk, and the coffee-type beverage so acidic it brings tears to my eyes. I eat the bean paste and slimy orange slices, the wads of wet Kleenex that are supposed to be mashed potatoes, and I walk up and down the one corridor, observing the routine, looking for a hole in the day." (p. 133)
  • "We eat every bite -- a mushy spaghetti with indeterminate meat in the sauce. Powdered milk. Congealed cornstarch pudding, butterscotch or maybe just scorched." (p. 158)
Comfort food after an escape and attempt to flee, creates a moment of peace, but not for long:
  • "Shawn stalks over to the stove, uses a can opener to neatly remove the top from a can of baked beans. He puts the can on top of the woodstove with a pair of tongs.... I can smell the rich sauce and the little white gobs of pork before the stuff is even warm. ... The beans heating in their tin bean can exude a summery hot-dog fragrance. Shawn spoons out half a can each of bubbling and hissing beans, into steel bowls." (p. 167-168)
  • "... sandwiches -- real bread, real sliced turkey, even mayo. And canned milk heated up with cinnamon and chocolate. ... 'So tasty I could cry.'" (p. 171)
A very very sad book. Unredeemed sadness, I think. Unredeemed by the narrator's efforts to find hope in religion, unredeemed by any other hope.

Cromulent and Esculent: Wordy Wednesday

Words that sound good or funny often catch my attention. Two words I like for this reason are cromulent and esculent. Runners up include corpulent, malevolent, indolent, redolent, virulent, violent, continent, prurient, and heaven-sent, but I won't say any more about them. Just that it's Wordy Wednesday and time for some fun with words. Here goes:

My Oxford English Dictionary.
Esculent means edible or suitable for food. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first use known to them: a quote from Bacon in 1626 -- "A number of herbs are not esculent at all." In my recent reading, I noticed esculent in several quotes in the book Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen. (Link to my review of the book.) Here is the word in use by one of the men that served in a militia with Lincoln in 1832:
"The meat we could boil -- when we could get a pot -- broil, roast, or fry ... The bread we could bake or fry, the latter mode was generally practiced, for it was the less trouble and the less time of the two modes; the former mode we usually practiced by wrapping the stiff, shortened dough in a spiral manner around our ramrods... where it would bake into a most esculent bread." (p. 78)
Gardening manuals and catalogues from the early 19th century were also quoted in the book; these used esculent to distinguish edible growing vegetables from flowers that were decorative rather than edible. I believe that the word is used less frequently now than it was in the 19th century.

Cromulent is a totally new word for our time, quite often used in pop sources. It was invented for a 1996 episode of "The Simpsons" -- as you no doubt know if you are a fan. It's now pretty widely used as a kind of random positive adjective, so it could be defined as meaning "just fine." Or something like that. It's also defined as "Appearing legitimate but actually being spurious." (Dictionary of American Slang).

The Merriam-Webster dictionary, which doesn't actually include it as a "word," discusses cromulent at some length, including this summary of the first instance of the word:
"The schoolchildren of Springfield are watching a film about the founding father of Springfield, Jebediah Springfield. The film ends with Jebediah intoning, 'A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.' One teacher at the back of the room leans over to another and says that she’d never heard the word embiggen before she moved to Springfield. 'I don't know why,' the other teacher replies. 'It's a perfectly cromulent word.'"
The writers of The Simpsons had evidently been challenged to invent two plausible but not-real words, and came up with both "embiggen" and "cromulent." (Though there are a few earlier, more obscure citations for "embiggen.") Both are now rather widely used! Merriam-Webster concludes:
"While we don’t yet enter cromulent into our dictionaries, it’s a perfectly cromulent candidate for future entry."

Monday, January 22, 2018

What did Abraham Lincoln Eat?

What did Lincoln eat? Here are some examples: Gingerbread men made by his mother, who died when he was 9. Honey from "bee trees" near the family's frontier farm. Corn dodgers, hominy, and other corn-based foods. Apples -- his lifelong favorite. Vegetables of all kinds -- and it's amazing how many kinds of vegetables were available then. Prairie chicken and many other types of game as well as domestic beef, turkey, pork, and more. Sausages. Fried oysters -- not raw! Fancy French banquet food at the Astoria hotel in New York on the way to his first Inauguration. Cold baked beans for breakfast in the White House. Chicken fricasee made to comfort him as he suffered from leading the Civil war.

Through extensive research in collections of memoirs about Lincoln, in White House archives, in newspaper accounts of banquets and political events, in 19th century farmers' publications, in records of the grocery stores of Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln lived for much of his adult life, in contemporary cookbooks, and more, author Rae Katherine Eighmey has put together a readable and very believable account titled Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln's Life and Times.

Although Eighmey found few direct or detailed descriptions of full meals that Lincoln ate, her ingenuity in developing information and recipes is impressive. She researched the kitchen equipment available and in common use on frontier farms such as that of Lincoln's father, the better stoves and tools that could have been in the Lincoln house in Springfield, and the quite old kitchen stove that the Lincoln family discovered when they moved into the White House. This history covers many historic ingredients, such as available spices, lye for making hominy (too dangerous for modern use!) and leavening agents used prior to baking powder (not yet in common use), especially saleratus and other home-made leavens made from ash. The author experimented with ways to recreate the 19th century foods in a modern kitchen: the recipes at the end of each chapter are very intriguing, though I haven't tried any of them.

Above all, there's a fascinating social history of what Lincoln ate on his lifelong journey from frontier farms in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois through urban life in Springfield, and on to the White House. The growing sophistication of foods that the railroad delivered to grocery shops in Springfield included barrels of oysters kept alive with seaweed; canned foods like tomato sauce just being introduced to American cooks; and various flour products and the breads that were baked from them.

Eighmey writes: "The five years from 1854 to 1859 were pivotal for Lincoln, for the Union, and for the people of Springfield. And part of the story could be told through the food folks in Springfield ate, revealing a crossroads of cuisine feeding a complex society rooted in traditions, open to innovation, and influenced by non-midwestern opportunities." (p. 185)

Rail travel and transport, rapid communication by telegraph, and more innovations were important in the political life of Lincoln and his contemporaries, a topic that's often covered. The changes were also reflected at the table: "Now food traveled readily between sections of the country giving people more and more choices. Even though the political differences between North and South were increasingly tense, on Springfield tables Carolina rice could share a dinner plate with New England stewed codfish. In Springfield the benefits of progress were now an obvious part of everyday life: Oysters! Pineapple! Tomato sauce! In cans!!!! ... A huge variety of fresh and packaged foods filled the stores, and the growing, diverse population had the money to buy it." (p. 187)

The last chapters of Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen reflect the stresses of Lincoln's life as president, and his personal stress at the death of his young son. I especially admired the descriptions of Lincoln visiting the military camps and eating with the soldiers; those stationed in Washington were reasonably well-fed. Particularly interesting is the author's efforts to reconstruct the methods and recipes for baking the soldiers' bread that had to be produced in very large quantities -- "a simple flour-and-water bread leavened with a yeast sponge." (p. 231)

Needless to say, any book about Lincoln's life ends on a terribly sad note, as his death was tragic and full of terrible implications for the history of the country even up until the present.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Guest Post on Kitchen Torch Chemistry by Len

Kitchen Torch Chemistry

We have been having great fun with our new kitchen torch. I have found it amusing to look into what it does to food.  I have found that knowing a little about the chemistry of browning food has helped in finding ways to use the gadget.

When we brown food with the torch we are enabling two different chemical processes depending on what we are cooking: caramelization of sugar or browning of protein (the Maillard reactions). In both cases the goal is the same: the heat of the torch turns simple flavors into complex ones; that’s what cooking is mostly about. The background material to this is completely standard. A good source is Harold McGee’s classic book, On Food and Cooking, Chapter 14.

Caramelization:  Sugar has a very simple flavor, detected by receptors in the taste buds on the tongue. Table sugar is a colorless crystal which has no odor. If you heat it rapidly to 320F (160C) it melts to form a colorless liquid. However, around that temperature it also starts to break apart due to the heat. This is a slow process until about 338F (170C) when the rate of decomposition increases rapidly. The syrup turns brown – it becomes caramel and smells delightful. What’s happening is that the fragments of sugar recombine to make more than 100 different products, many of which can be sensed by our olfactory bulb. That’s how we sense complex flavors.

There’s are problem though: sugar burns at 350F (177C). We need to work in a narrow temperature range, which sounds tricky. In fact, it can be done, and  American children (or at least the patient ones) are trained to do it when they learn to toast marshmallows. Remember, brown them, don’t burn them.
Fig 1:  A torch is a great way to toast marshmallows in the winter.
Well, I guess we did burn them a bit.
The second problem is more serious. Water is usually present In food, and water boils at 212F (100C). If the torch is used on a wet surface, all the heat will go into evaporation, and the temperature will stick at 212F (100C), well below the caramelization temperature. A torch is a really bad tool for boiling water.

In crème brûlée this difficulty is avoided in an elegant way. The dish is made of a custard (flan or crème pâtissière) which is allowed to gel. Then sugar is put on top and caramelized. The custard is quite moist, but the surface need not be because the of the “skin” on the surface. A dense surface layer is quite common in gelation, and it seems to seal in the water. Making crème brûlée with a torch is dead easy, and the torch is an ideal tool. The contrast between the solidified caramel surface and the smooth custard underneath is wonderful. This has been one of my favorite desserts for a long time. See Mae’s previous post (link) for our success in the first try.

Encouraged, we decided to broaden our scope. We looked on the web and found two recipes that somehow made caramel in wet surfaces. The first is grapefruit brûlée, allegedly grapefruit with a nice crisp top. However, when you cut a grapefruit you release juice, and the surface is simply wet. We failed on our first attempt to make this dish. We followed a recipe that said to just put sugar on and torch it.  We did this, but the crisp texture of a caramel was simply not there. We made things worse by following our habit of pre-cutting the grapefruit sections to make them easier to eat.

Of course, there is a nice thing about this kind of experiment: you can eat the failures. A warmed-up, sugared grapefruit is fine for breakfast.

All undaunted we decided to use our insight into the mechanisms involved. We melted some butter and brushed it on the surface so that this would seal in the water long enough to make caramel. Then we sprinkled sugar on top and torched. It worked, and the dish was delicious.

Fig 2: Grapefruit brûlée made with melted butter.
Note the flake of caramel.
Even stranger was the claim that you can make oatmeal brûlée. We make oatmeal by boiling rolled oats in water in the microwave. It’s a wet dish. We did the straight-forward thing that recipes suggested (using drier oatmeal than we usually do). We failed. The result was sugared oatmeal – no bad thing, and we ate it, but not what we were after.

Following a suggestion by Evelyn we decided to seal this surface in a different way, by adding honey. Honey is a supersaturated solution of sugars (glucose and fructose). A thick honey doesn’t have much water, and is known to caramelize. We melted thick honey in the microwave, poured it on top of our oatmeal, and torched vigorously. We could easily smell caramel as we proceeded, and the result was extremely nice.


Fig 3: Oatmeal brûlée made with honey.
Caramelized honey has a nice, complex flavor.
Maillard Reactions: The Maillard reactions occur when a small sugar is heated in the presence of an amine (nitrogen-containing) group. Proteins are made of amino acids, and are usually the target of the reaction. The sugars occur naturally in the food. The temperature required for rapid reaction is 280-330F (140 – 165C). When the reaction proceeds many hundreds of reaction products are made. They are very complex: the wonderful odor and taste of grilled meat is produced this way, as is the brown crust of bread or cookies (they smell good too.)

The problem of moist surfaces is not usually present in this case. Broiled meat may be moist inside, but the surface is dry. We have shown in a previous post how we torched a steak after broiling. We put more black pepper on the steak than we usually do, and the result was quite interesting because we liberated the aromatic oils in the pepper. Our next experiment will be to use green peppercorns. There is a classic French recipe for steak with green pepper sautéed in a hot pan. We want to try broiling and then torching. Stay tuned.

The reductio ad absurdum of this kind of thing is something we have read about, sous-vide cooking of steaks. Professional chefs put steaks in plastic pouches and heat them in water baths at 135F (55C) to for an hour or two. There is no Maillard browning at all, but uniform cooking. Then the steak is torched on the surface. The photos we have seem make a steak look like an industrial product, some kind of plastic molding. We have no idea how these productions taste.

A simple example of Maillard is the browning of toast, and a torch can do it, though it’s a bit perverse. However, we can nicely combine the two browning reactions by making cinnamon toast. We buttered bread, sprinked on sugar, and torched. Excellent result.


Fig 4: Cinnamon toast came out very well.
Notes on technique: We use a butane torch made by Iwatani that we bought on Amazon. It’s fine for our purposes. Professional chefs use more powerful propane torches, the kind that plumbers use to solder pipes. I have been strictly forbidden to even think about bringing such a thing into our small, not very fireproof kitchen.

Fig 5. Our torch.
That said, I have found that I do want a pretty hot flame. I turn the gas all the way up and adjust the air so that the flame roars. The exception is for marshmallows and crème brûlée. For these dishes almost anything will do.

Do you need a torch? Of course not. Unless you want to solder pipes, anything a torch can do can be done with an oven broiler or a toaster oven. (Okay, not the marshmallow). But playing with fire is really cool, and I highly recommend it.

NOTE FROM MAE: The guest author of this post is my husband Len, a Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan and (now) dedicated kitchen torch user.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Eponymous Characters in Literature

It's Wordy Wednesday again. Last week one of the words I mentioned was Panglossian, which comes from Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's Candide, and defined, in the words of Pangloss himself: "marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds." (source)

I was trying to think of more words from memorable characters in literature -- so memorable that their name became a word and they became eponymous. I digress to call out that wonderful word eponymous, meaning a person that gave his or her name to a word or a concept or even to a physical thing, like (shudder) Trump Tower. Or the derived concept.

You probably know quite a few such words yourself. I thought of these:
  • The term Uncle Tom often appears in discussions of current events. You probably know that its origin is a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The dictionary offers two meanings:
    -- "a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals), and also
    -- "a member of a low-status group who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority."

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin also includes the character Simon Legree, a name that has become synonymous with a cruel slave driver.

  • Nabokov's book Lolita is the source of the word lolita -- "a precociously seductive girl."

  • From Shakespeare: a Romeo is, of course, a handsome lover.

  • Caliban by Rackham
    Also from Shakespeare: a caliban, from the character in the Tempest, is a degraded or bestial man.

  • Yet another Shakespearean word -- sometimes the name Dogberry, a self-satisfied policeman in Much Ado About Nothing, is applied to similar officers of the law outside of the play. This one is a bit obscure, I think.

  • Many other Shakespeare characters' names are also used to indicate similar individuals of the same type -- Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Othello, Iago, Hamlet, Portia.

To return to panglossian -- it's one of several words that Merriam-Webster online includes in "A Who's Who of Literary Allusions: Words that Come from Characters in Books." Examples from this list:
  • W.C.Fields as Mr. Macawber.
    (All images from Wikipedia.)
    From David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: micawber -- "an improvident person who lives in expectation of an upturn in his fortunes."

  • From The Three Princes of Serendip by Horace Walpole: serendipity -- "an assumed gift for finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for."

  • From Gulliver's Travels by Swift: three words -- yahoo, lilliputian, and brobdingnagian -- which apply to three types of characters: boorish, very tiny, and gigantic.

  • My biggest surprise was finding that the name of the disease, syphilis, originated as the name of a character in a literary work!  "Syphilis was the name of the ostensible first sufferer of the disease, a shepherd and hero (if such a word can be used here) of the 1530 poem written by the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus."

Other eponymous literary words on the dictionary list: pollyanna, pander, malapropism, milquetoast, gargantuan, pooh-bah, and quixotic. There must be many more such words, based on the enormous number of memorable characters in literature throughout the ages!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mona Lisa Handbag

My new, custom-made purse. Thank you, Evelyn.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Invertebrate Intelligence

"Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien."-- Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (p. 9). 
Peter Godfrey-Smith's book about his experiences with octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid (the cephalopods) combines the author's academic profession, philosophy, with his avocation: scuba diving. I don't read much philosophy -- in fact, I avoid it -- but I found this a readable and very informative combination of theory and observation.

It's likely that you've seen a Youtube video of an octopus escaping from the aquarium where it's supposed to live and sneaking into a nearby aquarium to eat the other captive fish. Thanks to stories about efforts to keep them in captivity, the cognitive capabilities of the octopus are almost legendary. The various species of octopus range greatly in size, and inhabit most of the world's oceans; the author's experiences are mainly in Australia and California, with reports from scientists in many other locations.

An octopus has eyes much like ours (lens, retina...) but also visual sensors are found all over their skin. Octopus blood is totally different chemically in the way it supplies cells with oxygen; an octopus can take in oxygen through the skin as well as the gills -- and an octopus has three hearts to circulate the blood. An octopus has a huge number of neurons; in fact, the neurons in octopus arms are almost independent of its brain. An octopus has no bones: it's almost entirely made of soft flesh, which has various consequences. Sometimes the octopus is solitary; sometimes octopus groups seem to live together. The social organization of the octopus isn't yet understood: it's challenging for humans to spend much time with them since scuba diving is pretty time-limited.

On octopus behavior Godfrey-Smith writes: "Octopuses, of at least some species, have an opportunistic, exploratory style of interaction with the world. They are curious, embracing novelty, protean in behavior as well as in body." (p. 98) He describes the ways that the octopus and close relative the cuttlefish can display dramatic patterns and camouflage on their skins: "They can be completely invisible to an observer— an observer looking for octopuses— just a few feet away." (p. 123). He provides a great deal of detail on how they use a number of different types of pigment cells and reflective cells in their skin, and speculates on what these displays might mean. This is incredibly fascinating:
"Intermediate between the clear cases of camouflage and of signaling are deimatic displays. These are dramatic patterns often produced while fleeing a predator. It’s hypothesized that they are an attempt to startle or confuse the foe— to suddenly look different, and weird, in a way that might lead the predator to pause or lose their bearings. Here, the display is supposed to be noticed, but it does not send information to a receiver. It is merely supposed to be confusing or disruptive." (p. 125).
Most fascinating of all is the possibility that the displays are not only for communication or for camouflage, but also a side effect of the animal's inner state:
"That is how I interpret the colors of many giant cuttlefish; they are an inadvertent expression of the animal’s inner processes. Such patterns include flares and surges of activity, and also subtler changes. If you look closely at the 'face' of a giant cuttlefish— the area between its eyes and down the first part of its arms— you will often see an ongoing murmur of very small color changes. Perhaps the machinery of color change is in an 'idling' state there." (p. 127).
"A large and friendly giant cuttlefish" --
one of the wonderful photos from Other Minds.
Other Minds describes cephalopod evolution, anatomy, and behavior in systematic terms, and attempts to analyze just what observed behavior tells us about the neuroanatomy and neural organization of these creatures. There's a certain amount of speculation about how the two different evolutionary paths -- ours and those of the cephalopods -- led to some type of cognition and intelligence with very different anatomical structures.

Can we look an octopus in the eye and seem to reach any sort of understanding with it? Well, just maybe. But Godfrey-Smith doesn't encourage over-interpretation of human-octopus encounters. Other Minds is a richly thought-provoking book! The conclusion:
"There are many reasons for us to appreciate and care for the oceans, and I hope this book has added one. When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all." (p. 204). 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Playing with Fire

New in our arsenal: a kitchen torch arrived Friday. We started with steak.
Flaming the steak (after broiling) brought out the flavor of black pepper.

We charred the skins of bell peppers, which then were easy to remove.
The peppers had a slightly charred taste but remained crisp.
Friday dinner: pepper steak and bell pepper salad: quite delicious!
Saturday breakfast: butter and cinnamon-sugar melted onto grapefruit halves.
Good, but next time we'll brush melted butter onto the fruit first, to keep the grapefruit juice out of the sugar.
Vegetable soup topped with cheese and one pearl tomato: the torch
was great for melting the cheese and blackening the tomato.
A good lunch.
The ultimate torch experiment: creme brulèe for dinner dessert.
The sugar melted and then turned into a kind of caramel candy. Just what we hoped for.
Yes, some of these dishes could be prepared in other ways, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
Soon, if all goes as planned we will: 
  • Eat oatmeal with sugar torched on the top for breakfast. 
  • Buy marshmallows. Torch them. We have graham crackers and chocolate bars. You know where this is going.
  • Buy better custard cups (we're afraid the Pyrex will explode from heat shock).
  • Think about torching some fish.
  • Work on our techniques! Len does the torch part. I do the prep.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Dreaming of warm places with spicy food

Spices in the Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, 2006.
Cold, cold winter here: frequent snow storms, grey skies with rare glimpses of blue. Thursday's temperatures exceptionally went into the fifties, but Friday will be back well below freezing with a low of 9º F.

I'm dreaming of warmer places and of the spices from exotic cuisines in faraway places. At right is a random selection of images of spicy food that I've enjoyed on past journeys.

And here are my dreams of places I've been and new ones where I want to go:
Herbs in the Machane Yehuda Market

I dream of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean.  Friday in Rabat, Morocco, it's forecast to be 64º -- I dream of eating a special Moroccan tagine with the hot red sauce called harissa. I've never been there, but I can dream!

In Jerusalem, Friday's temperature is 60º and if I were there, I could eat falafel with the Yemenite sauce called zhoug made from cilantro, parsley, cumin, coriander, hot hot pepper, and olive oil. I love to think of Israeli markets full of amazing spices and herbs as well as many exotic foods all ready to eat.
Provence: spices in the market at Arles, 2016.

In Nice, France, it is forecast to be 60º. I dream of fish stew with the sauce called rouille made of olive oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper. I remember Provencal open-air markets full aromatic spices.

Closer to home, I dream of New Orleans where it's 70º. Imagine a plate of newly-opened oysters with lemon juice, horseradish, and a handy bottle of Tabasco sauce  -- on Avery Island near NOLA, the McIlhenny family has made Tabasco Sauce since 1868.

I dream of San Diego where high temperatures this week will be 68º and I could go to a nice taco stand and enjoy a burrito with some hot salsa in sight of the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

San Diego, California: Roberto's Burritos in 2009.
Near LA (Friday expected high 71º) they make sriracha which started as an ethnic Asian condiment and is now everywhere. And I could also enjoy the beach.

The vast Pacific offers many exotic islands to dream about. I'd love to travel to Fiji, Easter Island, New Zealand, New Guinea and more. I also love Hawaii where temperatures are in the seventies, as they are almost all winter. I dream of several favorite restaurants in and near Kona like Island Lava Java where I often have ordered fish tacos or Salade Niçoise -- Hawaii is home to Pacific Rim cuisine which includes almost every warm-weather cuisine in the world!
lunch4662
Saint Lucia in the Caribbean: a spicy lunch some years ago.

The Caribbean includes Cuba where the temperature is in the eighties and though I've never been there, I'd like to try the famous spicy black beans and more, as well as see the fascinating island with its famous old cars.

On a trip to Saint Lucia we tried the local curry chicken roti, a dish influenced by East Indian people who came to various British colonies in the Caribbean. At the resort where we stayed, we also enjoyed lots of interesting fish dishes. It's 83º there and that would feel good. So would snorkeling!


Florida Keys: The Fish House, 2017. Their "Matacumbe" preparation
with tomatoes and onions is very delicious!
In Key Largo, Florida it's 81º and I dream of the spicy fish at the Fish House there: not to mention key lime pie! Also driving the beautiful long road across many causeways, eventually arriving in Key West.

I dream of many other exotic locations, where the food is spicy and the weather is pleasantly hot. It's 103º in Buenos Aires and 90º in Rio -- maybe too hot, though I'd love to see them! It's only 81º in San Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, where I'd love to taste the foods made famous in the books of Jorge Amado -- especially the spicy dish called Feijoada. Enough dreaming!

Finally: this is loco moco, a Hawaiian special plate lunch including hamburger, rice, gravy, and a fried egg.
It's total fusion food including flavors from several of the immigrant groups that make up the Hawaiian melting pot.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Vocabulary Lessons in Robin Sloan's "Sourdough"

Robin Sloan's novel Sourdough conveys a sense of the author's wonder at the richness of the English language. Following are a few quotes illustrating how Sloan introduces the reader to interesting words, some of which were new to me:
I recently reviewed Sourdough here.
  • "Proprioception, which is, I think, a beautiful word— pro-pri-o-cep-tion!— and also the process by which organisms judge the position of their own body parts in space. It’s a crucial sense; definitely more important than a few of the Big Five. When you walk, you look forward, not down at your feet, because you are confident they are where you expect them to be, obeying your commands. That’s a pretty cool feature. It was an unanticipated consequence of working on robot proprioception that I would often sit at my desk snaking my arms around in the air, trying to pay very close attention to what was happening." (Sourdough, Kindle Locations 198-203).
  • Pareidolia: "The loaf had a face. It was an illusion, of course. ... It’s called pareidolia. Humans see faces in everything. Even so, the illusion was … compelling." (Kindle Locations 525-526).
  • Botrytis: "'Have you heard of botrytis?' She said the word carefully, bo-try-tis. 'They call it the "noble rot." These grapes actually get moldy on the vine. On purpose, I mean. It gives the wine a flavor— you’ll see.'" (Kindle Locations 2041-2043).
  • Symbiote: "Most plants have at least one bacterial symbiote, he told me. He pronounced it carefully: sym-bi-ote. He looked out across the airfield, at the scrubby red and green plants. All those? Infected. But that’s not the right word, he said. Infected means there’s something wrong. This is all right; it’s partnership. Some plants are infected by bacteria that are themselves infected by a virus. Wheels within wheels. Clockwork." (Kindle Locations 2650-2653).
  • Panglossian from Voltaire's Candide --  not quite directly mentioned: 
    "One of Candide’s companions, Pangloss, whose name I recognized from the hundred-dollar adjective he inspired— I’d never known the etymology— insisted throughout that all their misfortunes were for the best, for they delivered the companions into situations that seemed, at first, pretty good. Until those situations, too, went to shit." (Kindle Locations 2795-2797). 
It's been a few months since I devised an etymological post and called this Wordy Wednesday (instead of Wordless Wednesday). So here's my extension of the list:
  • Etymological -- et·y·mo·log·i·cal -- relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Dinner: Faye Levy’s Meatballs


Faye Levy is a cookbook author and food journalist who writes about a variety of Israeli and Jewish foods -- amazon.com lists at least 10 cookbooks that she authored. Tonight I adapted her recipe for chicken meatballs in tomato sauce (published here) to accommodate what I had in the house. In particular, I used ground turkey rather than chicken. Also, having no orzo, I made a pilaf of wheat berries. My tomato sauce was made from a can of San Marzano tomatoes slowly cooked with onions, spices, and other vegetables.

Unlike most meatball recipes, this one does not include either raw egg or chopped vegetables such as onion and celery in the meat mixture -- only spices and breadcrumbs. The resulting taste and texture were excellent. The recipe calls for a delicious combination of spices characteristic of Yemeni-Israeli cuisine called hawaij --  fresh garlic, hot pepper, turmeric, and cumin. I added a touch of cardamom, also found in many recipes for hawaij, which sometimes includes quite a few other spices as well. While I've seen hawaij in Israeli markets, it's rarely available here: you have to blend your own.

Meatballs as they came out of the oven. I baked them on a silpat mat,
as I usually do with meatballs, rather than frying them. I added the olive
oil (recommended for frying) to the meat mixture.
We ate our meatballs and pilaf with a salad of fresh tomato and arugula.
We love mushrooms and bell peppers, also suggested for the tomato sauce.
Dessert: freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies from cookie dough that
I made on the weekend.