Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Food Porn

I was at the library yesterday looking for a book to read when I stumbled across Thomas Keller's new slate tile-sized, $50 cookbook, "Ad Hoc at Home." I'd already browsed a copy at a book store. Beautifully illustrated and laid out, almost erotic its photography, but way, way too expensive. And knowing Keller, probably containing recipes requiring candied pomegranate and saffron from an obscure region of the Canary Islands.

But check it out of the library, I'm there!

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size and heft of the book. It's got to weigh four pounds and is bigger than a large serving platter. Cracking it, it has the wingspan of an old fashioned newspaper, the kind that required readers to fully extend both arms to read.

I read the introduction and the cooking tips and advice, and was impressed. Yes, he's one of the greatest chefs in America, famous for turning out impossibly refined and delicious food, but his suggestions for the home cook (this book is supposed to be for the home cook) are surprisingly down to earth and basic. Cook dishes you like repeatedly so that you master them and learn to apply what you learn to variations and other recipes. Always be organized. Don't be measuring out liquids in the middle of a stir fry. Experiment, but try only one new recipe or technique at a time. All good common sense stuff.

Some recipes were involved and time consuming, but others were surprising simple. His burger and barbecue recipes are quick and easy. A cod with breadcrumbs and mustard also looks simple and tasty.

One drawback. The amount of butter and eggs is often mind-boggling. His ice cream recipes, for example, call for 10, that's right, 10 egg yokes. The dumplings for his chicken dumpling soup require 4 tablespoons of butter for just 2/3rds of a cup of flour. A brownie recipe has 3 sticks of butter and three eggs. My arteries are hardening just writing this.

All in all, a serious food porn. Great fun to read, but many recipes are not so much impractical as far too rich for the every day.

Picture of the Day

Saturday, 9:24 p.m.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pumpkin Pie Extraordinaire

I never ate pumpkin pie growing up. My parents were never big on it, so it didn't appear on our Thanksgiving table.

My wife's family, however, enjoys a good pumpkin pie, so after I got married I finally tasted it. I liked it and have had a piece at Thanksgiving ever since.

All the pumpkin pies I've eaten have been store bought, perfectly round discs with orange filling. So when my wife's friend Cheryl gave her a recipe, we took up the challenge.

I started with my mother's pie crust, which is deceptively simple. For a 9 inch pie crust, freeze a stick of butter for about an hour. This is vital because key to a good crust is keeping the little bits of butter intact within the dough. If you don't freeze the butter, it gets mushy as you cut it and you end up with butter smears into of pieces.

Cut the frozen butter into small pieces (as small as you can get) and work into a cup and a half of flour with 1/4 teaspoon baking power and a pinch of salt. I use an up-and-down motion with a whisk with a bulb on the end. Add six to seven tablespoons of cold water and mix with a spoon and then by hand into a ball. The trick is to use as little moisture as possible to form the ball. The less moisture, the flakier the crust.

Flour the counter and roll out the crust. Shape into a greased a 9 inch pie plate and build up the sides. I was somewhat flummoxed by this. My wife took over. Instead of pressing the crust onto the edges as with an apple pie, you literally build a straight, up and down parapet around the circumference. You want it about an inch high from the bottom of the pie plate. Don't be surprised if you have extra dough.

As I made the crust, my wife made the filling. She slightly beat 2 eggs and then beat in 1 can of pumpkin filling (about two cups), 1/4 cup each of white and brown sugar and maple syrup, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon cloves and 1 2/3 cup evaporated milk. For extra bite, you can add 1/4 teaspoon of all spice. We did not.

The filling was very thin, nearly as thin as water. Fear not. All is right with the world.

Put your pie plate with the crust on a tin foil-lined cookie sheet in a pre-heated 450 degree F oven. Transfer the filling (it's about four cups) into a measuring cup or other spouted vessel and pour into the shell.

After 15 minutes, lower the temperature to 350 and bake about another 45 minutes. The pie is done when a thin knife in the center comes out clean.

The recipe worked like a dream. The pie was perfectly set after the full baking time, rather amazing considering how soupy the original filling was.

The result: the best pumpkin pie I've ever tasted. Everyone loved it at Thanksgiving.

A huge success. Thank you Cheryl!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cheese Ball vs. Apple Pie

The New York Times had a fascinating article yesterday on what recipe website traffic reveals about regional Thanksgiving tastes. Much of data was unsurprising. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, New Englanders typically seek advice on apple pies (we grow tons of apples up here), while southerners are checking out the sweet potato pie recipes.

But corn casserole? What the heck is that? Whatever it is, it's huge on Mid-Western turkey day menus.

And cheese balls are big in a swath of the country's midsection running from Nevada to Ohio. I associate those odd boccie balls of whey, curds and nuts with the 1970s, like fondue pots, wide ties and disco. I had no idea anyone still ate them except as a joke.

Where did this tradition of cheese balls come from? Did they hitch a ride west on covered wagons, leaving a trail of cheese ball culture? The cheese ball trail perhaps?

Sometimes it seems like we're just becoming one giant homogenized mass. It's refreshing to see local food preferences and cultures existing, even thriving.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Home-made pies for today's feast. More on the pumpkin tomorrow.

Happy eating.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Turkey Day Prep

With Thanksgiving Day fast approaching, everyone is looking to get ahead of the game. I've already done so, baking dinner rolls this weekend and freezing them. Today or tomorrow, my wife will make her cranberry sauce (far, far superior to the gelatinous red stuff with the can ridges on the side).

In that spirit, Mark Bittman of the New York Times last week published 101 sides, soups, deserts, stuffings, etc. that can made ahead of time, everything from cranberry-orange sauce to pumpkin tofu pudding. As always, the recipes look yummy and sound easy. If you're looking for something new to cook ahead of time, check it out.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Vegan Jackpot

Yes, I know I wrote about vegans yesterday, but this one is just too good to pass up.

Connecticut is home to the two biggest casinos in the world, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, both operated by Indian tribes. In spite of offering the only legal slot machines and table games in New England, Foxwoods is in deep doo-doo. The recession combined with crushing debt are punishing the casino's revenues so severely it recently missed a bond payment.

The good folks at PETA have a solution: a vegan slot machine. The animal rights organization wants to pay for ads on Foxwoods slot machines that read, 'Don't Gamble on Your Health - Go Vegan!'

I know you would lose your money just as fast at a vegan slot machine as one advertising prime rib, but this just seems wrong, like alcohol-less beer or fat free mozzarella. Casinos are about indulging your inner vice, so an ad appealing for perceived virtue and clean living seems as out of place as a vegan at a pig roast.

I can't imagine PETA converting anyone. One-armed bandit fans seem unlikely to trade their bacon cheeseburgers for humus wrapped in kelp.

But stranger things have happened. Maybe Foxwoods will agree and instead of two cherries, a pair of kashis will pay off.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Abyss

An oped in today's New York Times makes three pieces in the paper in the last week plumbing the moral pros and cons of eating meat. The other two are here and here. All gave voice to the question of whether raising animals to slaughter and eat is morally defensible.

In today's piece Bucknell University Professor Gary Steiner, a longtime vegan, makes an extended and impassioned argument for veganism. Eating animals and using products derived from them is morally indefensible.

"Yes, there are animal welfare laws," he writes. "But those laws have been formulated by and are enforced by by people who proceed from the proposition that animals are fundamentally inferior to human beings."

They aren't? The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Bill of Rights and quantum mechanics are equivalent to a pig rooting in mud?

When people cite what they see as the immorality of using animal products, I think of two things: my parents and the Third World.

My mother grew up on a subsistence farm during The Depression. They had enough to eat, but only just. Without the chickens and the runt pig my grandmother got from a farmer and the occasional pheasant (what they ate for Thanksgiving), they would have starved.

Same goes for my father, who grew up in Germany during World War Two and experienced if not outright hunger, certainly something close to it. To this day, he tells how he and his brother would literally lick their plates after meals and how he loved the Air Force because he got three squares a day. He and my family fought for every scrap, every morsel and would have literally walked a mile for extra animal protein.

And then there were the bony, hollow-eyed street urchins I saw years ago on the streets of Manila. Put a platter of meat, fish and fowl before them, and they would have devoured it. Same for the Filipino family that on the same trip invited my friend and me to their home, a simple shack, the walls decorated with pictures from magazines, for a chicken dinner (the best-tasting chicken I ever ate). They were making it, but just barely. Should they have freed their chickens, which would have been quickly killed and consumed by predators, and tried to live on bananas and rice?

It seems to me that these arguments expose a fundamental and often problematic strain in the American psyche: Puritanism. All Americans, from the most macho, meat-eating Texan, to the most liberal vegan New Englander, are puritans. They share John Winthrop's vision of America as a City upon a Hill, a Zion that strives to be a beacon to the world. That vision was originally religious and still is for many. But Puritanism was along ago secularized and embedded in America's DNA. Non-religious visions of America as a Perfect Society can be just as militant, idealized and -- yes, unrealistic -- as religious ones.

This strain in the American psyche seems to be growing more powerful. Witness the Tea Partiers, as well as the growth of extreme diets and alternative spirituality of the type that recently killed two people in Arizona. Tough economic times, I suspect, cause people to go to ground, which in America often means a fervent, religious or semi-religious belief in "fundamental" truths that promise deliverance, but often blur reality and hinder practical solutions.

Even Professor Steiner acknowledges that taking veganism to its extreme (he says he recently discovered that the soothing aloe strip on razor blades contains animal products) can lead you to an abyss.

I see this particular abyss as man made. For our ancestors, as well as most of the world which either gets not or just enough food, it does not exist.

Certainly, I respect the choices people make regarding their diet. It's an intensely personal decision, as it should be. I will choose to pass the turkey.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Funeral for a Friend

A friend of mine died this week. David McClendon, with whom I worked for more than a decade at the New Haven Register, passed away suddenly from Sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that scars and damages the internal organs. He was 44.

Dave became very sick last March and spent 10 days in the hospital. After he got out, he started a blog about his struggle to manage and overcome his illness. Here is a link. I don't think you have to have known David to be moved by his posts. To the end, he was insightful, honest, optimistic and positive. No self pity here, no whining. I hope I could be half as brave.

Even though I knew David for more than a decade and he was my boss for several years, I learned things from his blog that I never knew, that he was a cartoonist, that he longed to write serious fiction and that he was once a serious martial artist.

Many memories have un-spooled in the last few days. In them, David is always smiling. It's how I will always remember him.

My deepest condolences to Dave's family and loved ones. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Good Bye Gourmet Project: Flank Steak and Noodles

Recipe Two in the Good Bye Gourmet Project. It looked and sounded delicious: stir-fried flank steak with a Chinese noodle cake and snow peas. Only problem was, my daughter's not big on snow peas. So I substituted broccoli.

I started by steaming the broccoli about three minutes. My wife and daughter like their vegies soft, so if you prefer your crunchier, steam it less or not at all.

The rest of the prep was straightforward. As my noodles boiled, I sliced the flank steak, chopped the scallions, minced the ginger and measured out the oyster sauce, sugar, soy sauce, etc. I judged, as I often do with stir fries, that the wet ingredients were going to burn off too much, so I added a few tablespoons of chicken broth (I make my own and freeze it in ice cube trays so I can microwave a few squares at a time).

After draining the noodles, I slide them into the pan. It took six or seven minutes a side and several teaspoons of vegetable oil and a heat closer to high to crisp up each side, hotter and about twice the time and oil in the recipe. After about 12 minutes, my cake resembled the one in the magazine.

I set the cake aside and completed the recipe, sauteeing the broccoli, the scallions and the steak and then adding the sauce, corn starch and sugar mixture.

As promised, about 40 minutes start to finish. The result was somewhere between good and very good. The meat and broccoli had excellent flavor, although the mixture was a little dry. Next time, I'd add a little more chicken broth. The noodle cake was tasty, crunchy on the outside, firm on the inside, although it was a little ungainly to eat.

All in all, a good solid dish. I'd make it again.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Save the Pie for Later

They're executing you at dawn. The warden enters your cell and asks what you want for your last meal. Steak? Lobster? Oysters? At least you don't have to worry it being bad for you. Hell, have a burger, cooked in lard with bacon and cheese between two grilled-cheese sandwiches, and a deep-fried Twinkie for dessert. It's not like it's going to kill you.

Slate has a fascinating article on last meals of the condemned prompted by last week's execution of D.C. sniper John Mohammad. Turns out he didn't want the world to know what he scarfed down before being strapped to the gurney.

But others didn't mind or the state in their day didn't give them the option of keeping it secret. John Wayne Gacey, fabled killer clown of Chicago, was a former prison cook who asked for shrimp, fried chicken, French fries, and a pound of strawberries. My personal favorite is brain-damaged Arkansas killer Ricky Ray Rector who shoveled down steak, fried chicken and cherry Kool Aide, but decided to save the pecon pie for "later." I give him an "A" for irony.

What Jeffrey Dahmer would have ordered? I think we can guess.

Believe it or not, there was even a website devoted to last meals, It sold merchandise, including a deadmaneating thong for the ladies. I'm not even going to think about going there.

For the record, my last meal would be lobster.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Home Run

My daughter acquired a taste for camembert cheese while we were in Paris this summer. Slices of camembert on French bread and she was in heaven.

She called this morning when I was shopping and asked for Camembert. No French bread, I warned. That's fine, she assured me. I'll eat it with crackers. You'll eat it all? I asked. It's not cheap. Yes, she promised.

Luckily, I was at Liuzzi's, the best Italian deli in the New Haven area and home to an incredible and delectable selection of cheeses. I love buying fancy cheeses at Liuzzi because it's not a fancy place. The guys who work there are regular Joes who happen to love cheese. A hat tip to New Haven's Italian heritage.

I asked the cheese guy for an inexpensive Camembert and he sent me to Hudson Valley Camembert from Old Chatham, N.Y. Reasonably price, local and superb, he assured me.

He wasn't kidding. I got it home and Julia immediately attacked. It's one of the best Camembert's I've ever had. It's creamy, but light bordering on fluffy. You get that wonderful cloud-like creaminess in the first bite followed subtle taste that blossoms as you chew. Wonderful. If you see this cheese buy it immediately.

My daughter Hoovered half of it for a breakfast.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Back of the Package

We've all seen them: Recipes beckoning from the back or side panel of packages. They promise Rice Krispie bars, tuna casserole and muesli muffins, all designed of course to get you to buy more Rice Krispies, egg noodles and muesli. How good can they be?

For a sampling, check out this blog devoted entirely to back-of-the-box cooking. Today's recipe of the day: quick dill dip featuring . . . wait for it . . . Miracle Whip. Or how about this one for chicken and mushroom gravy. The mother ingredient? You guessed it. Campbell's mushroom soup. Mmmm, they sound so sooooooothing, as my friend Alice would say.

But not all back-of-the package recipes harken back to Jello molds, Wonder Bread and Studebakers. I've found one I especially like, Nestle's chocolate chip cookie recipe. I make them all the time. It's quick, easy and decadently tasty. I have a preference for the milk chocolate variety. Here's the recipe. I recommend one change: Cut the sugars to half a cup each. I like my cookies a little less sweet.

Just goes to show you that a good recipe can come from anywhere.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cooking and Human Evolution

Last night, my wife, daughter and I watched the second installment of the superb PBS documentary "Becoming Human" about human evolution. It focused on Homo erectus, the first human ancestor that resembled modern man.

One key leap forward, according the program, was cooking food, especially meat. This allowed homo erectus to have a shorter digestive system so he could more easily take in the huge amount of calories he needed to function and survive. In discussing this development, the program suggests that sharing a meal around a campfire was key to development of one of humanity's defining characteristics, our intensely social nature. In essence, cooking helped make us human.

It's an interesting theory with the ring of truth. What is more social than a shared meal? The dinner table is where friendships, marriages, families are often born and certainly nurtured and strengthened. When a young man or woman is serious about a member of the opposite sex, they bring them home for dinner. Our most important holidays, Christmas Passover, Thanksgiving, center on shared meals.

An interesting aside: In searching for the "Becoming Human" website, I typed "Evolution" into Google. The first hit was the site for a multi-part PBS series done in 2001. The next five were articles or sites attacking the series and the science of evolution, including an interminably long article on World Net Daily, the lunatic website that claims the president was born in Kenya and commie Nazi aliens are threatening to eat Glenn Beck's brain (Wait, they already have).


No such hits appeared on the same page as PBS' "Becoming Human." I will venture cautious optimism and take this as a sign the anti-science lunacy of recent years is perhaps waning somewhat.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Good Bye Gourmet Project: Kale Soup Disaster

Last weekend, I set fourth on my Good Bye Gourmet Project by making the November issue's Portuguese kale soup recipe. Sure looks good in the picture above. But don't let appearances fool you. It was tasteless and greasy, borderline gross. It would have been truly disgusting if I had followed the directions to a "T."

I figured this would be a good one, a hearty soup for a bracing late autumn day. It would fortify me for leaf blowing that afternoon (I have enough oak leaves to wall paper a McMansion). In preparation, I bought a bag of organic kale and a stick of chorizo, a spicy Portuguese sausage.

I followed the directions, browning the chorizo in olive oil, removing it and then browning onions and and garlic in the rendered fat and oil. So far so good. The sausage smelled so delicious it got my daughter out of bed. Bacon, she thought. Poor deluded soul.

I added water and potatoes and brought the soup to a simmer. My wife walked up and glanced in the pot.

"Are you going to keep all that grease in there?" she asked.

She was right. A film of grease globs nearly covered the surface. I checked the recipe and confirmed that I was not to drain or skim off the grease. Sorry, Charlie. This is way too greasy. I took up a spoon and began skimming. I soon had a quarter cup of grease in a bowl. How appetizing.

I finished up the dish, mashing some potatoes when they were done, adding kale and returning the chorizo to the pot. Amazing, the recipe calls for another tablespoon of olive oil. I love olive oil, but more of it on top of all of that sausage fat? I'm sorry, but the very idea is gross.

Still, what stared up at me from the pot looked pretty good. I ladled out soup for me and my daughter and we tasted. Bland, bland, bland. Salt helped a little, but not much. Even the chorizo, which tasted great right after I browned it, had lost much of its flavor.

You could try simmering longer before adding the potatoes, but to paraphrase the boys at Mythbusters, this one's busted. A deeply disappointing, borderline disastrous recipe. Interestingly enough, the recipe is not on Gourmet's website. I think someone figured out it sucks.

So the score is: Disaster: 1, Good Eats: 0. On to the next one.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Quick Raspberry Sauce

Earlier this fall, my mother-in-law suggested that my daughter and I go raspberry picking with her at a local farm. It was a smashing success. About two hours of pleasant work yielded us about five pounds of raspberries. The cost: about $25. Considering that you pay $3 or more for a small container of inferior berries at the store, a bargain.

We gorged ourselves for a day or so. I used some to make raspberry-peach pie, which was superb, a near perfect balance of sweet and tart. Using my mother-in-law's system, I froze the huge surplus on cookie trays without washing them and stored them in plastic bags. I've been having a bowl for breakfast every couple of days ever since.

This weekend, my daughter had the idea of making another raspberry-peach pie after I spotted some peaches in the store. I unthawed a cup, but when we returned to the store, the peaches were gone.

Left to her own devices, my daughter added some sugar and cinnamon to the raspberries and stirred. The peaches, already soft from having been frozen, quickly broke down. The result was a pleasingly tart, slightly cinnamony raspberry sauce. Excellent. We'll have it tonight on ice cream or perhaps with our cream puffs.

The recipe is simple. Take one cup of unthawed frozen raspberries (you can buy them in the frozen food section), add sugar and cinnamon to taste and stir.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Jamee

I love the Jameson Irish Whiskey commercial that seems to run continuously between segments of The Daily Show (guess they're trying to hook the younger crowd). It's a playful yarn that both satirizes and plays to classic Irish stereotypes (impulsiveness, love of stiff drink, foolish bravery in the face of danger, triumph against all odds). It's like an updated "The Quiet Man" with a dash of early 21st century irony.

My first Jameson was a memorable experience. I was 21, fresh out of college and hitchhiking through the west of Ireland, a beautiful and desolate place dotted with the ruins of stone cottages abandoned when much of the population fled the Potato Famine for America. My traveling companion, a Dublin native and not an especially heavy drinker, decided it was time for a mid-afternoon "Jamee."

We stopped at an Irish pub out of central casting and had a glass. It was wonderful, warm and smooth. I'd like to think that a peat fire was raging in the fireplace and someone was playing a harp and singing Irish folks songs, but I think that's in my imagination.

In spite of the pleasantness of the experience, I didn't acquire the habit. I'm not much on hard liquor with the exception of a once or twice yearly tequila shot or brandy. In fact, I don't think I've had a "Jamee" since.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Good Bye Gourmet Project

I've written before about my sadness at the death of Gourmet magazine, which I subscribed to for years. Leafing though my final edition, a magnificent, perfectly roasted turkey gracing its cover, I hit upon an idea. Why not cook every recipe in the final edition of Gourmet and write about? By my count, there are 56 recipes. None require obscure, outrageously expensive or hard-to-get ingredients or specialized equipment, belying the charge that the magazine failed because it was too phoufy and impractical for the home cook.

It might take a year, but why the heck not? Not only is this a fitting tribute to a much beloved friend, but also an opportunity to branch out and challenge myself as a cook. I've traditionally tried only a smattering of recipes in each issue, usually entrees and deserts. The last issue has soups, stocks and a plethora of vegetable dishes. I will have to cook them and hopefully learn something in the process.

Stayed tuned for the first post of The Good Bye Gourmet Project.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let the Battle Begin!

Iron Chef is doing a show highlighting the White House garden and spreading the gospel about fruits and vegies for the young. Once again, bravo Michelle Obama. I can't wait for the episode (It's one of my daughter's favorite shows).

Looking forward to the Beck rant on this one: Glenn will probably blow up pictures of the chefs picking produce from the garden and, using a pointer, solemnly direct viewers to the plethora of RED vegetables. And if you look closely at that cucumber, what do you see? Hitler's face. And isn't that arugula, tell me if I'm wrong, look closely, it's that arugula?

I mean, it's all perfectly clear, isn't it? (Glenn stops speaking. Tears well from his eyes. His voice lowers to a weepy whisper) We're not just losing our country. (Glenn pauses, fighting back tears). We're losing our diet. We have to stop them, my friends, I beg you, we have to stop them.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Food Story in Three Parts

Salt and Pepper Shakers, a piece of Halloween candy and a digital camera. Using those items, my daughter composed the following food story:

Salt and Pepper find a candy bar.

They fight.

Pepper Wins!

The End