Saturday, January 31, 2009

No Gravy for You!

We needed a quick meal Thursday night (my daughter has orchestra practice so I don't get her home until 7:30 p.m.), so we ripped open a bag of Ikea Swedish meatballs. I'm sure my wife's Swedish grandmother is spinning in her grave, but the truth is they are almost as good as the family recipe. And they are fast: 15 to 20 minutes in the oven and done.

A key accompaniment is Swedish gravy in a packet (hey, you can't do it from scratch every day). It's simple. Water, milk, boil, stir and whisk. But I can never get it to come out right. Every time I make the gravy, it comes out lumpy, filled with unpleasant pebbles of undissolved powder. I try and try and try and the result is always the same: bad.

I finally gave up and asked my wife to do it. Maybe it's being Swedish or something, but for her it comes out perfect every time, as it did the other night. We do the same things and get different results. I guess the packet gravy gods just don't like me. Maybe I pissed off Thor in another life and this is his vengeance. No gravy for you!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Food and Rabbit Angstrom

I loved John Updike's Rabbit books. A friend of mine passed them on to me when I was living in Japan, and I read all three out at the time (this was the mid-1980s) in a matter of weeks. Updike's writing was superb; there was something about Rabbit Angstrom, the former high school basketball star who ambles through jobs, women and life, that went to the very heart of the America of his era.

With bated breath I awaited publication of the next installment in Rabbit's life (the books are set late in each decade starting with the 1950s) . When "Rabbit at Rest" came out in 1990, I devoured it in two days.

Returning to the subject of this blog, Updike, who died earlier this week, used food in the books to make insightful observations about the America of each era. In "Rabbit Redux," the Angstrom family of the late 1960s , finding itself with more money and less time, has taken to eating many of its meals at a burger joint. Updike describes in exquisite detail the slightly metallic taste as Rabbit sucks down the dregs of his industrial milk shake, foretelling the soullessness of the coming fast food explosion.

In "Rabbit at Rest," set in late 1980s, Rabbit says he will have a stern talk about self discipline and responsibility with his near-do-well son . At the same moment, he anticipates the pleasant crumble of the fat-laden cookie he will eat afterwards, a treat his doctor has forbidden in the wake of his angioplasty. So much for self discipline and responsibility in the Age of Reagan.

And finally, there is the huge meal Rabbit scarves down at a roadside restaurant during his flight to Florida at the end of the book. Updike describes Rabbit's appetite as bottomless as he tucks into pecan pie and other forbidden foods. His eating habits will have dire consequences, just as America's orgy of consumption has today.

These are amazing books that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gluttony is Good

I have a new guilty pleasure: Man vs. Food. No, it's not a PBS show about pre-historic man's never-ending quest to fill his stomach. Man vs. Food is a new Travel Channel show in which a likable somewhat rotund every-guy named Adam Richman travels the nation in search of the best pig-out food. At the conclusion of each episode, he undertakes a food "challenge" in which he tries to become one of a handful of people to eat the biggest sandwich in Columbus, Ohio (see photo) or scarf down an entire bowl of the hottest curry served in the United States, so hot the cook has to wear a gas mask to prepare it.

Adam is the Gorden Gecko of overeating: Gluttony is good. This guy's bowels must like the parking lot of the Meadowlands after an Ozzie Osborne concert.

The Puritan within tells me I should be horrified. Adam glorifies overeating of fatty, greasy, unhealthful foods as the nation struggles with an epidemic of obesity.

Then again, maybe that's a little silly. I mean, what am I saying, this guy's some kind of "role model" to kids? I can't deny the show is immensely entertaining in a train wreck sort of way. And much of the food, while it's not something you should indulge in every day, looks delicious in that it's-2-am-and-I've-been-drinking kind of way.

Party on Adam. I await the next challenge.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Old School

I just finished a book called "See You in a Hundred Years," the story of a New York writer, his wife and their small child who chuck their 21st century stresses and conveniences to live on a Virginia farm in 1900. My wife gave me the book after meeting the author Logan Ward at a writers conference.

The book is about "an experiment" -- as Ward calls it: Can the family live for a year without electricity, indoor plumbing, a phone or a car, while producing most, if not all their food?

I have mixed feelings about such ventures. On one hand I find them fascinating because I love history and because my mother grew up on a subsistence farm in Iowa during the Depression. Since I was a little boy, she told me about the outhouse, the outdoor shower and the pot belly stove that was their only source of heat. The family grew much of its own food (Like the Wards, my grandmother was a fanatical canner her entire life), had a milk cow named Old Boss who had to be led by chain because she ate rope and chickens that produced eggs and were routinely Henry VIII-thed into the pot for dinner.

But my mother's memories are generally not happy ones. She hated the farm, the endless drudgery,the narrowness of small town life and the hardships of the Depression. When idealistic middle class kids went "back to the land" in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my mother laughed derisively. "Just you wait," she said contemptuously. "They'll find out."

She was right. Most communes collapsed as soon as the hippies realized they had to get up at 6 a.m. to milk cows and flush toilets were not part of the program.

So while I am fascinated by "experiments" like the one in "See You in a Hundred Years," they also evoke in me a measure of revulsion and even contempt.

But Logan and his wife, while they were clearly naive and unprepared in some ways, strike a pretty fair balance. Both have living relatives who grew up poor at the edge of the era they are recreating, so they had a decent idea of what they were getting into. And Ward is clear-eyed in his descriptions of the endless hard work, chamber pots, goat droppings and the challenges of farming without pesticides.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book relate to food. Indeed, while I am skeptical of such returns to the past, I do believe that much flavor, goodness and diversity has been lost in the rush to factory farming. The Wards' experiment seems to confirm this. After a slow start, their garden yields a bounty of superior-tasting cabbage, carrots, tomatoes and corn. The goats they keep produce superb cheese and the fresh chicken eggs are tasty and nutritious.

At the end of the book, Logan recounts a conversation with a friend that I think puts the family's "experiment" in the right perspective:

I rattle the ice in my glass and turn to John. "Why bother with past?
He is silent for a minute. "When you think about it, the past is all we have. It's where we've been," he says. "And we sure as hell don't where we're going."
"Then it's a guide for how to live?" I ask.
"I don't think that the past should dictate the future, but it's a good foundation. Passing down culture from generation to generation is one of the things that separates us from other creatures. Personally, I want that link to the past. We find ourselves through the long trail of those who came before us."
Those who don't care about the past are disoriented, he says, showing no regard for the land, for humanity, for themselves.
I have only scratched the surface of this excellent book.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Chocolate Bundle of Delight

For several years now, I have frequented the farmer's market at Wooster Square in New Haven. For anyone unfamiliar with the Elm City, home of Yale University, the Erector Set and the hamburger and the best pizza in America, Wooster Square is the city's Little Italy (although arguably the entire region, having one of the heaviest concentrations of Italian-Americans in the nation, is one giant Little Italy).

The Farmer's Market on DePalma Court is a delight. Every Saturday (every other in winter), growers from throughout the state arrive to sell locally raised beef and pork, "happy" eggs, as my wife calls them, honey, maple syrup and all manner of produce. depending on the season.

But perhaps the biggest delight of any trip to the market is a stop at Sono Bakery's table of pastries, pies, breads and other yummies. My favorite is the chocolate bundle, a decadently flaky puff pastry filled with chunks of semi-sweet chocolate and topped with sugar crystals. For a serious chocoholic like myself, it's close to heaven on earth.

As you would expect this time of year, the pickings were pretty slim today: some organic garlic, greens at Two Guys from Woodbridge, potatoes, frozen pork and beef. But the turnout was still heavy, with long lines for eggs and fresh milk.

One of the longest waits was at Sono. After buying my eggs and Romaine lettuce (a must for my daughter's school lunches), I along with about dozen others stood shivering in a stiff breeze and temperatures in the mid-20s, patiently waiting for our bundles of sweet goodness. After a stop at the fish store for arctic char, I arrived home to devour my bundle in the kitchen.

The perfect ending to a perfect Saturday morning.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Egg White Disaster Revisited

Of my posts so far, my failed attempt at scrambled egg whites has elicited the most comment. First to weigh in, my friend Claudia, cook extraordinaire.Link

For those of you who don't know Claude, she is the hostess with the most-est, former nutrition, food and dieting columnist for the Hartford Courant, the cook I wish I were. Utterly fearless in the kitchen, she has that rare ability to survey a table of ingredients and spontaneously whip them into something delicious and original. Beet salad, arugula, pistachio meat loaf, micro-green salads, cold cucumber soup, these are all foods that I tasted for the first time Claudia's kitchen (not a bad name for a Food Network TV show, now that I think about it).

Then there's the kitchen. Claude cooks on a to-die-for Viking gas range with six (or is it eight?) burners and even a proofing oven to assist fermentation of bread dough. I have serious oven envy.

When it comes to food, Claudia is my E.F. Hutton: When she talks, I listen. Here's her email regarding my scrambled egg white disaster.

No-stick frying pans won't work for eggs. You need to spray the pan with Pam, the butter flavor is best for eggs as it replicates butter quite well. There are no calories in spray oil.
It's better to make one egg with the yolk than wreck a bunch of eggs extracting the white. It's true the cholesterol is in the yolk but so is the protein which is what fills you and stops you from being hungry in a hour and snacking on cholesterol-loaded goodies.
Either way - yolk or not - you can make the meal more palatable by making an omelet. You can add chopped dill, scallions, chopped orange peppers (the best flavor-wise) broccoli, whatever you want in the vegetable category. You could also add half a wedge of Laughing Cow Lite cheese - the best light cheese but again there's the cholesterol issue.
What you want is an egg breakfast that has some volume so you have a lot of bites of food. It's good to serve yourself the omelet on a piece of multi-grain or whole wheat toast, but you don't want the thing so dry it catches in your throat. This requires a non-saturated fat, thin spread of some kind.
I think we should investigate the possibilities in the stores.

I feel chastened.

Then there was my friend Ken:
I find that the best way to make an "egg-white" omelet is to use three eggs whites and one egg yolk, saving the two others for whatever...sugar cookies...
And finally, Eleanor had this to say.

Thank you all for your good advice. My next effort will be egg white-ilicious.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama, African Food and "Authenticity"

I was deeply impressed by Barack Obama from the moment I saw him deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. My opinion of him only grew after I read his memoir, "Dreams from My Father."

A passage involving food (yes, this is a food blog) in the book's epilogue to me sums up him and his philosophy.

Obama is about to leave Kenya when his relatives take him to dinner at the home of a history professor. They eat tilapia and ugali after which the professor asks Obama his impressions of Kenya. Obama comments that he thinks many black Americans who visit Africa come away disappointed. Why do you think that is? he asks the professor:

She shook her head and smiled. "Because they come here looking for the authentic," she said. "Look at this this meal we are eating. Many people will tell you that the Luo are a fish-eating people. But that was not true for all Luo. Only those who lived by the lake. And for those Luo, it was not always true. Before they settled around the lake, they were pastoralists, like the Masai. Now, if you and and your sister behave yourself and eat a proper share of this food, I will offer you tea. Kenyans are very boastful the quality of their tea, you notice. But of course we got this habit from the English. Our ancestors did not drink such a thing. Then there's the spices we used to cook the fish. They originally came from India or Indonesia. So even in this simple meal, you will find it very difficult to be authentic -- although the meal is certainly African."
Later she says of the younger generation:
"They live in a mixed-up world. It's just as well. In the end, I'm less interested in a daughter who's authentically African than one who is authentically herself."
Like the food they ate, Obama is a mixture of cultures and influences, indeed like America itself. And he is authentically himself, which I would argue is authentically American. After all, there is nothing more American than inventing or reinventing yourself and Obama's unusual and complicated background forced him to do just that -- very successfully, I would add.

But this passage illustrates more than just Obama's personal journal. It also underscores his core message, infusing his rhetoric and, hopefully, his policies. There is no such thing as cultural or ethnic "authenticity," at least in the sense of purity uninfluenced by the outside world. We are, the world is, E Pluribis Unum, out of many one.

If we can remember that, the next four years are certain to be a huge improvement over the last eight. And if the world could learn this lesson -- Muslims and Jews for example, share the same origins and many of the same stories in their holy books -- it would be far better off. Let us hope that it happens.

Godspeed to President Barack Obama.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Primo Pancetta

I've never been a huge bacon fan. I don't mind it, but unlike my wife and my mother, who both love BLTs, I won't go out of my way to eat it.

So I've always been somewhat skeptical about pancetta, best described as Italian bacon. I'd seen it in the deli case at Liuzzi's (the best Italian deli I've yet found in Connecticut or anywhere) in all it's marbled glory, but never tried it.

My skepticism ended yesterday when I tried several recipes using pancetta in my recently arrived January Gourmet magazine. Given the brutally cold and snowy weather of the last few days, the winter minestrone soup looked especially appealing. The roast chicken with olives and pancetta equally so.

The result: heavenly, especially the chicken. The recipe called for breaking the chicken into 12 pieces, leg, thigh, wing, breast into 3 parts, and roasting at a high heat (450 degrees), which caramelized the pancetta on top of the chicken. The result were crispy bits bursting with salty pork flavor. Superb. The soup was nearly as good (I cut back considerably on the greens, about half what the recipe called for and put in too much pasta -- about half a pound will do -- but it was still outstanding). One bowl filled me up for the rest of the afternoon.

What cares what the doctor says about cholesterol. Viva pancetta!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rachel Maddow, Mixologist

I love Rachel Maddow. Her show is like a huge glass of cool water to a man dying of thirst in the desert. She is the first cable news host since Aaron Brown to have serious discussions instead of shoutfests and to demand her guests base what they say on facts. Seems so obvious, but in the bizzaro world of the Bush era, the obvious got buried.

I concluded not long ago that to succeed in cable news you needed to become a buffoon. Fox of course blazed the trail on this one, but CNN and MSNBC soon followed. Witness the transformation of Lou Dobbs from boring, buttoned-down business guy to raving railer against illegal immigration and corporate greed. And Olderman, well I do enjoy him, but let's be honest: he's a buffoon.

Rachel is not a buffoon. Who would have thought such a simple thing would be such a breakthrough?

But I digress. This blog is about food and drink, and, yes, this post is about just that. Not only is Rachel a boss news analyst and host, she can mix a mean cocktail. Check this out.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cardamom Bread 2.0

Time for an update on my quest for the perfect cardamom bread.

When my wife's grandmother died more than a dozen years ago, she and her mother divided up the numerous cookbooks and recipes in Grannie's kitchen. Born on an island in Sweden early in the last century, Grannie as a teenager braved a solo journey to America, landing on Ellis Island in the early 1920s. Her cooking, especially her baking, remains legendary in my wife's family.

So when I decided some years ago to bake a cardamom bread, I began by leafing through Grannie's collection of yellowing church cookbooks and Vasa (a Swedish self help organization) recipe collections. To my surprise, the recipes I tried yielded disappointing results. The breads came out too dry and lacking strong cardamom flavor. Perhaps with cardamom so expensive, people had to skimp.

Bottom line: Tradition failed.

In spite of my lackluster results, I could taste the potential. The breads I made were mediocre, but I could sense that the right combination of milk, butter, sugar, yeast and cardamom would produce a truly tasty and deeply satisfying bread.

I turned, like any red-blooded American of the 21st century, to the Internet. I found pages and pages of results. I soon learned that Cardamom recipes are to Swedes what marinara recipes are to Italians: Everyone has their own variation. Some were outrageously rich calling for multiple eggs and two sticks of butter. Too much, I thought. I don't want to bake a bread that sends diners running to the emergency room for an angioplasty.

Trolling, I found a promising recipe on blog written by a Mike Swanson. Swedish name, so that's got to be a good sign, I figured, even if his site calls him a "technical evangelist," whatever that means. Recipes are non-sectarian, I told myself. Let's give a shot.

The instructions, to my surprise, did not call for kneading. That didn't make sense to me, so I kneaded. The result was somewhat disappointing. The bread was better than others I'd made, but it still came out too dry and too dense.

So I tried it a second time, this time actually following the instructions (what a concept!) and not kneading the dough. The result was excellent, a rich, airy bread suffused with cardamom flavor. I added an egg wash and pearl sugar sprinkled, giving the finished product a deep brown color and little explosions of sweetness as it's eaten.

Having now made the recipe several times, I can say it's a good one, although it needs twice as long in the oven as the instructions say.

Here it is with the added bake time:

3/4 cup of whole milk
1/4 cup (one stick) butter
1 egg
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons
2 teaspoons ground cardamom

Microwave the butter and the milk until the butter melts. Mix with remaining ingredients in bowl. Dough should be soft and glistening. Divide into three long strips, cover with cloth and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Braid into a loaf, top with egg wash and pearl sugar and bake for about 40 minutes. Cool on rack.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Chicken Salad a la Low Cholestoral

One of the best things about this blog is that it's encouraging me to innovate. I admit to being too rigid when I cook. I have a tendency to stick to the written instructions no matter what, which sometimes leads to disaster.

Take Sunday before last. I decided to make Pad Thai, a dish that my daughter and wife love. The recipe said to soak the rice noodles in water until they softened instead of boil them. Beset as I usually am by boiled noodles turning into a clump shaped like a mini-football, I decided to give it a try. The recipe said soak 15 minutes after which time the noodles were still the consistency of pick up sticks. I waited and waited and waited. After half an hour the noodles were somewhat pliable, so I forged ahead, reasoning that they would soften during the stir fry.

If only it were true. The noodles were still crunchy as a granola bar by the time the dish was done. My wife and daughter passed in favor of the leftover Indian food in the fridge.

So in the spirit of experimentation, I am venturing into the realm of mayonnaise-less chicken salad (that damn cholestoral thing again). On the advice of the doctor, I've been buying cooked chickens at the store and making sandwiches out of the white meat. Not bad, but a little boring and bland. What could I do for chicken salad without mayonnaise? I asked myself.

Recalling a Jamie Oliver roast chicken recipe using whole grain mustard (I like Jamie's food, although I find him somewhat creepy), I cut up a chicken breast, mixed in about a tablespoon of whole grain mustard and added about a third of a rib of celery. A little salt and pepper and it was done. I took a bite. Not bad. The chicken had a pleasantly tangy taste and the celery added a nice crunch. I made it again this morning using a whole chicken breast and it turned out well.

Here's a basic recipe. If readers try it, let me know how it comes it and whether they have any suggestions:

One cooked chicken breast, shredded
Two to three tablespoons of whole grain mustard
One half a celery rib chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fast Food Madness

I've eaten a lot of fast food in my life. And I've enjoyed it much of the time. There I said it.

So I am not usually a fanatic about such things. I like to say that there's a time and place for everything.

For perspective, I hark back to a story I heard about 20 years ago on the beach at Koi Samui in Thailand. My friend and I met an American recently returned from a long trip to "Mainland" China, as we then called it then. This was shortly after China opened its doors to foreign travelers, and it was far from the economic powerhouse with ever-rising prosperity that it is today. It was still an incredibly primitive and backward place. In contrast to today, a universal complaint from travelers to the country was the incredibly bad food. People told horror stories about greasy chicken backs and feet atop tasteless piles of rice.

After enduring weeks of horrible food, our friend described a joyous visit to McDonald's shortly after his arrival in Hong Kong.

"I'll never run down McDonald's again," he told us, his voice dead serious.

But now I have to reconsider my somewhat nuanced position. No it's not Fast Food Nation, although that superb book made me far more skeptical about the industry. It's this, which my friend Eleanor highlights on her blog. Burger King searched the world for "Whopper Virgins" -- people who had never had eaten a Whopper or a Big Mac -- to conduct a "blind" taste test. The company will make commercials with the results.

Watch the video. Words fail. Diabolic? Horrific? Sick? If I didn't know better, I'd swear the footage is from the latest Borat movie or a Saturday Night Live fake film. As Tony Bourdain would say, this is so wrong on so many levels.

No wonder the world hates us.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sage Advice

Mark Bittman, AKA The Minimalist, had an excellent article in Wednesday's New York Times advising cooks on how to spruce up their pantry in the midst of winter.

I agree with most of his recommendations, particularly on stock, which I only recently began making. But I have to dissent on the dried basil. In winter, "fresh" basil usually has no aroma or flavor and the consistency of a four leaf clover pressed into a book long ago and forgotten. I routinely use dried for marinara sauce with good results. Yes, it's not as flavorful as fresh, but it's still better than the dessicated product available in mid-winter produce sections.

Bittman is the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, "How to Cook Everything." A volume hefty enough to hold a door open in a hurricane, it does indeed tell you how to cook everything. I've used its recipes for everything from roasted potatoes to bread pudding (an especially good one) to hot chocolate (also especially good).

I love not only Bittman's recipes, but his no nonsense approach, which, as you can guess from his minimalist moniker, is keeping it simple. As my cooking has evolved (or devolved, depending on whom you ask), I've become a bigger and bigger believer in simplicity. Yes, The New Basics Cookbook was fun in the 1990s, but who really has the time to cook a recipe with a score of ingredients requiring trips to specialty stores for candied, preserved lemon skins, armadillo livers and a specific 1984 vintage Riesling wine. Keep it simple.

Here is a link to Bittman's blog.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Crock Pot No Crock

My wife and daughter gave me a $15 Rival crock pot for Christmas. Frighteningly, unnervingly cheap. Would it work? We hoped so. Given our busy schedules (I usually get home around 6:45 or 7 p.m.), it would be a Godsend if it did.

For our maiden meal, we flipped through the booklet that came with the crock pot and settled on a pot roasted pork. Normally, we don't do a lot of pork. Too many times, I've set out to cook a pork chop, even a good one from the butcher, only to have it turn into a dry, stringy, gray hunk. Tear it apart and you could use the remains to restring tennis rackets. A far cry from the pork that my mother raves about from her Depression childhood. But that's a story for another post.

In spite of our past bad experiences with swine, there was something deeply appealing about the recipe. A pork roast falling off the bone with caramelized onions sounded like heaven on a cold winter's eve. So we decided to give it a try.

At about 6:45 a.m. after packing my daughter's lunch, I got started. The recipe called for a 4 to 5 pound boneless pork loin roast. I realized that the roast I had bought had some bones. No worries. I trimmed away the large one at the base. Probing with my fingers, I ascertained that only relatively thin rib bones remained inside. The solution: Cook it the maximum time suggested by the recipe, 12 hours. I followed the recipe ( see below) and set the pot to low.

Would the criminally cheap crock pot actually work? My wife and I apprehensively waited and watched. Within half an hour, the pot's sides were toasty warm. So far so good. Now let's hope it doesn't short out and burn down the house while we're at work.

My wife returned in early afternoon to a house filled with heavenly aroma, the pot's contents happily simmering away. It smelled so good that my daughter, a carnivore of the first order, wanted to eat some as soon as she got home.

I arrived home around 7 p.m., set the pot to warm and threw on mashed potatoes and carrots. I do most of the cooking, but there are certain things my wife does. One is gravy. Looking in the pot, she decided to give it a go. She proceeded to use the droppings to make a nutty brown, deeply flavorful gravy.

The moment of truth: I brought the roast out of the pot and put it on a cutting board. It smelled fantastic. The onions were soft and saturated with goodness. As I put the carving knife to the roast, the meat fell away. The result: a fantastic meal with relatively little fuss and effort. My only criticism: It was perhaps a tad overdone. Next time, I'll try 10 instead of 12 hours.

We had plenty of leftovers, which we had last night. The pork had lost of none of its flavor and it stood up well to a light microwave. There's still some left for sandwiches. A huge success.

Here's the recipe:

1 4-to-5-lb boneless pork loin roast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 clove garlic, slivered
2 medium onions sliced thin
2 bay leaves
1 whole clove
1/2 a cup of water (If meat is especially fatty, use a little less)
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Rub pork with salt and pepper. Make slits in meat and insert garlic. Put one onion at the bottom of the crock pot. Add pork and top with second onion and other ingredients. Cover and cook on low 10 to 12 hours or high for 5 to 6 hours.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Swedish Cuisine and Other Myths

My wife's family traces its roots to Sweden and Norway, whose cuisines are generally not ranked among the world's greatest. My wife and her family constantly make fun of their culinary heritage. Rule number one of Scandinavian food, they joke: everything must be white.

Most infamous and horrific of all is lutefisk, which I am assured by my in laws is every bit as horrible as it sounds. What, pray tell, is lutefisk? Cod soaked in lye. Yes, you read that right. It is a traditional Christmas dish that takes days to prepare because, well, you gotta soak all that caustic lye out of the fish or it will fry your throat and esophagus, leaving in need of reconstructive surgery so you can swallow again. Why do they eat it? Tradition! By the way, it also smells horrendous.

My theory is that Viking captains came up with lutefisk to keep their crews rowing. Keep you going you scurvy bastards or I'll force more lutefisk down your throats. No wonder they were so vicious once they got ashore.

To get the full effect, click this link to a New York Times story several years ago about lutefisk season in Minnesota, ground zero of Scandinavian America.

For the record, my wife's family long ago stopped eating lutefisk. We're no longer poor and stuck in the dark in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, so why eat this awful stuff?

Actually my relatives exaggerate. Nordic food may lack in some areas, but it more than makes up for it in breads, especially coffee breads. My favorite is cardamom bread. Cardamom is an Indian spice that comes in pods and has a wonderful taste and aroma. For the best results, you pop it out of the pods and crush it. It is powerful so you don't need much.

Cardamom is common in Scandinavian baking, which I find fascinating and puzzling. You can't get much farther away from India than Scandinavia. How and when did Cardamom enter the Nordic diet? I'd love to know.

I have tried for years with mixed success to bake a good cardamom bread. So I am launching the cardamom bread project, my attempt to at last find a decent cardamom bread recipe. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Papa's Treat

I started cleaning out the basement yesterday, my project for the winter, when I came across my old copy of "Green Hills of Africa." A superb book, stellar, sparkling writing from the beginning to the end, Hemingway at his absolute best.

Regarding this blog, I immediately recalled a passage in which Papa lovely describes German beer with "silver foil" around the neck. It took some skimming, but I found the passage. It's as good as I recall:

"Hey, M'Cola," I said. "Beer?"

"N'Dio," he said with great force, and from the chop box one of the natives had carried on his head produced in its straw casing, a bottle of German beer, one of the sixty-four bottles Dan had bought from the German trading station. Its neck was wrapped in silver foil and on its black and yellow label was a horseman in armor. It was still cool from the night and opened by the tin opener, it creamed into three cups, thick-foamed, full bodied.

"No," Pop said. "Very bad for the liver."

"Come on."

"All right."

We all drank and when M'Cola opened the second bottle Pop refused firmly.

"Go on. It means more to you. I'm going to take a nap."

"Poor old Mama?"

"All for me," I said. M'Cola smiled and shook his head at this drinking. I lay back against a tree and watched the wind bringing the clouds and drank the beer slowly out of the bottle. It was cooler that way and it was excellent beer.
Described like the true hard-core alcoholic that he was. Just reading it that leaves you dying for a cold one.

Don't Try This At Home

Faced, like so many of us, with a doctor instructing me to cut the cholesterol, I decided yesterday morning to make scrambled egg whites for breakfast. I'd made egg white French toast the week before and it worked.

I proceeded to confidently crack three eggs, separating them and giving the whites a quick whisk with salt and pepper. Thinking I would be even more virtuous, I eschewed butter for the no stick pan, heating it dry. Once the pan had reached a nice temperature, I dumped in my whites.

Disaster. The whites immediately grabbed the pan, forming the consistency of disintegrating acid paper paper, browning and cracking into pieces. I fought to salvage something, stirring frantically. A few curdles formed that I dutifully scrapped onto a plate and ate (I try to never waste food). The final product tasted at best pretty blah with chewy consistency. All in all a pretty pathetic failure. I tried to take picture of encrusted pan to post, but my wife talked me out of. Too gross to post.

Now I understand why the coffee shop in the "Bizzaro World" Seinfeld episode refused to serve egg white omelets.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Hunger of Memory

I recently finished The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit one of the best and most moving books I have read in a long time. It is the heartbreaking story of an Egyptian Jewish family's privileged life in Cairo destroyed by strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser and turmoil in the Middle East.

Once part of the Cairo elite, the proud Lagnado family, which traced its roots to Aleppo in Syria, is forced to flee in the early 1960s along with most of that nation's 80,000 Jews. After a stop in Paris, the family ends up penniless in Brooklyn where the author's father, a one time entrepreneur extraordinaire and man about town, fails spectacularly. Ravaged by various ailments and pining for the beloved Cairo he will never see again, the father is forced to eek out a living selling neckties and earning tiny commissions on bolts of cloth.

The book, a memoir by the family's youngest member, Wall Street Journal reporter Lucette Lagnado, includes repeated luscious, loving descriptions of the food of her childhood. Indeed, food, the longing, memories and pleasures it evokes, is a source of both happiness and sadness throughout the book. Many of Lagnado's most memorable passages describe her legendary grandmother's cooking and the central, spiritual, event supernatural role that food played in the life of her family. Take this passage:

My grandmother Zarifa believed that certain foods possessed magical powers.

Bananas and raw eggs were at the top of her list, along with almonds, sour cherries, olives, and, above all, mesh-mesh, ripe, luscious apricots. Zarifa wold slip them into virtually any dish on Primus, and she was such a gifted cook that every course she prepared from simple grilled meats to elaborate stews and roasts, emitted a mysterious vaguely fruity aroma.

Anyone who came dine at Malaka Nazli could count on a transcendent experience. What was in there? they’d wonder, amazed at their sense of absolute well-being.

At one point in the 1940s, Lucette's uncle feels desperately ill and resorts to the standard family cure-all: a cappuccino at Groppi, a legendary pastry shop that makes repeated appearances in the book. When the coffee fails to revive, Uncle Salomone visits a doctor who diagnoses pleurisy and prescribes bed rest and as much much food as he can eat. The subsequent cure, administered by Lucette's grandmother, has to be read to be believed.

Later, struggling in exile in Brooklyn, the family finally lands its first apartment, owned by fellow Syrian Jews. It is a sweet that makes them feel at home for the first time since arriving in America:

Efadolou,” they cried, Arabic for welcome, and with typical Syrian hospitality, they offered us a platter of khak, salty ring-shaped biscuits covered in sesame. We hadn’t eaten them since Cairo, and biting into the delicious treats made us realize that we were both far from home and that we’d finally arrived.
This book is a pleasure and a revelation many levels, not the least of which the deep meaning that food can have in our lives, especially those who have left their homes to start a new life elsewhere. It led me to pull out an old Middle Eastern cookbook I got from God knows where and try a recipe. I will try more and report on the results.

In the meantime, if you are interested in Middle Eastern Jewish food, here is a link to a New Yorker Magazine piece on the food of King's Highway, the Brooklyn neighborhood where many Syrian Jews settled.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome To The Table

Welcome to 5 Snacks after 10! I'm sure you're asking, where does the title come from? Good question. The answer: My wife constantly gives me a hard time about my propensity to snack in the evening: a bowl of Swiss muesli (a passion for which I acquired as a student in West Germany, as it was called in those days), its kashi and nuts brought to the peak of flavor with just enough milk, followed by crunchy stoned wheat crackers, a glass of iced orange juice and seltzer, a bowl of unsalted sunflower seeds and a bunch of succulent, sweet grapes to balance it all out. Well, it's usually not that much, but I admit to being an inveterate evening grazer.

So when I talked about writing food blog, my wife gave that skeptical look she's so good at and said. "You should call it "Five Snacks After 10" since all you do in the evenings is eat." As is so often the case, my wife was right. A blog was born.

I also have to credit my friend Eleanor whose reply when I discussed the concept for this blog was an immediate "I'd read that!" Eleanor and I have been talking about food since our days at the long defunct Mystic Compass newspaper.

So what's this blog all about? Everything and anytthing having to do with eating and drinking. I am a passionate, almost entirely self-trained home cook who faces the daily challenge of creating a nutritious, delicious meal for my wife and daughter every night in 40 to 45 minutes. Sound familiar? I'm guessing yes. This blog will include tips, recipes, successes and disasters as we all race to get a meal on the table.

I will also talk about buying food at the supermarket and the farmer's' market, food on TV, in the movies and in books, restaurants and specialty stores that I patronize, my past experiences with eating and cooking overseas and in America and anything else culinary-related that crosses my transom. Needless to say that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. I hope that what follows is interesting, engaging and as varied as my evening snacking habits.

Welcome to 5 Snacks After 10 and Bon Appetite!