Friday, July 30, 2010

Pumpkin Harvest- I Am So Jealous!

I was both horrified and delighted to read this excerpt from the weekly newsletter at my daughter's school today.

The children were so happy to harvest the first two pumpkins from the garden!  They asked questions about the size, the color, the texture and they decided to cut one to see what was inside – which we did!

What?  My daughter harvested her first pumpkin and I wasn't there to see it?  Why didn't they alert us that such a miraculous event was going to occur today?  They should have put this in the school calendar so I could have planned to be there for the big moment!  This was much more exciting than the pizza party and I got at least five messages about that.

Wait a minute.  Have I gone insane?  It's wonderful that my daughter is learning about growing vegetables and that she has a teacher who encourages her love of gardening.  My daughter has helped us make jack-o-lanterns every year since her birth.  She's seen the inside of a pumpkin many times.  But I still wish I'd been there to watch her pick the pumpkin from it's vine, chop it open, and examine the slimy seeds and gooey flesh inside.  Maybe it's a little crazy, but I can't wait to pick her up and hear what she has to say about it.

Heirloom Foods- Mom's Pickles and Apple Sauce

I've been thinking a lot about heirloom foods recently and my mother keeps fanning the fires by sending me pictures of her pickles and apple sauce in the making.  I haven't gotten any details yet (hint, hint, mother), but in the meantime I thought I'd post this photo of her apples as encouragement for her to get with it, as my father would say.  (I've got a great picture of her pickle scum tucked away for future posting!)  Maybe when she finishes canning the pickles and freezing the apple sauce, she'll have time to send me more information to share with you.

Mom started making applesauce this morning.  This photo shows just fraction of the bushel of Rambo apples she's using in the process.  I consider my mom's applesauce an "heirloom food" because I don't think you could buy apple sauce made entirely from Rambo apples if you tried.  In fact, now that I think about it, I've never seen ANY apple sauce labeled with the kind of apples used in the product.  But if if such a thing exists, I'm sure it wouldn't be as good as my mother's apple sauce.  This is the best apple sauce in the world.

Just as my father's country hams have ruined my capacity to enjoy other hams without thinking of them as an entirely separate food product, I cannot eat apple sauce without comparing it to my mom's apple sauce.  It is in a class by itself.  I feel the same way about her pickles and I just finished making my first batch using her recipe.  You can see the results by checking out my Pickle Project post.  I have to admit that I feel a little exhausted by the process and I still haven't canned most of the pickles.  I don't think I'm up for making apple sauce at the moment.  Maybe next summer.

I'll print mom's applesauce recipe in a future posting once I can wrangle it out of her, but right now I want to say a bit more about the origins of my fascination with heirloom foods.  As followers of this blog know, I recently made up the phrase "heirloom foods" to describe foods that you can't get without making, growing, or otherwise processing them yourself.  Many of my favorite foods growing up were what I would now call "heirloom foods", but at the time, I didn't think they were special or unusual in any way.  That is, until I went to summer camp.

I was about ten years old when I first went to sleep-away camp and this is where I ate my first canned green bean (the industrially-produced variety, not the homemade kind).  I spit out the first bite of beans in disgust  because I was sure they were rotten.  Anything that tasted as horrible as that mouthful of green beans had to be rotten.  A green bean shouldn't taste like that.  Green beans were one of my favorite foods and I'd eaten hundred, probably thousands of green beans in my ten years of life.  My parents grew them in our garden and canned dozens of jars each summer.  But I'd never eaten anything that tasted like this.  The strange thing was that everyone else was eating them.  So I asked my fellow campers a few questions about the green beans and I finally came to the conclusion that I was the only one who had a problem with them.  I can't remember the exact conversation, but I do remember that I ended up feeling embarrassed because I'd never tasted a canned green bean before.  I was ten years old, for God's sake.  How could I have reached this ripe old age without eating a canned green bean?  Had I been raised under a rock?  No.  Next to a garden.

Looking back on it, this was a pivotal moment in my thinking about food... and about life in general.  Until that moment, I didn't realize there was anything unusual about my family or the way we ate.  But thanks to a mouthful of canned green bean I learned the truth.  My family was different.  And so was I.  Other people thought it was weird that I was so sheltered and out of step with "normal" life.  It certainly wouldn't be the last time I would feel this way.  My husband says my family's lifestyle "lags one generation behind the rest of the country".  Maybe that's true.  But he's been roped into our way of life and I think he likes the change... and the weirdness.  We might be out of step, but we eat better food.  And we enjoy it.

I know there are other people out there who feel the same way.  Write to me and tell me about your "heirloom food".  In my continuing investigation of heirloom foods, I'm going to my friend Jared's house tomorrow to watch him brew beer using the hops he grows in his garden.  I can't wait to share his story with you!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Photographs and Potatoes- Both Heirloom

Potatoes have been a part of my family's Sunday dinners for generations, but they were also a "work-a-day" food, as my grandmother would have said.  For her, this would have meant a food that was easily prepared during the work week.  Nothing special, just what we could call an "everyday food".  My family only eats potatoes once every few weeks and until now I've never thought about why I don't cook potatoes more often.  I suppose it's because some of the most delicious ways to eat potatoes aren't exactly the most figure-friendly and I only like boiled potatoes when the potatoes are really good.
My great-grandparents, Claude and Maude Phillips, sorting potatoes.  Photographer and date unknown.
My father's potato harvest, July 13, 2010.
When I was growing up, we ate potatoes boiled, mashed, deep fried (as in french fried), baked, and pan fried in a cast iron skillet.  During potato season, my family ate mostly "new potatoes", meaning small, young potatoes with thin skins.  We ate them boiled until soft and creamy and eaten with copious amounts of salt, pepper and butter.  This is still one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes.

The first summer I was home from college I ate almost nothing but boiled potatoes and green beans.   I just couldn't get enough of them.  Maybe it was because I was sick of all the cafeteria food I ate at college.  I'm not sure.  I do remember that I didn't eat green beans or potatoes for several years after that.

My father still grows lots of potatoes in his garden each year.  This year he dug up four bushels-- one bushel of red potatoes (Pontiacs) and three bushels of white potatoes (Kennebecs).  He told me that both sets of my grandparents grew Kennebecs in their gardens and I suspect that it is Kennebecs we see in the photograph of my great-grandparents sorting potatoes.

Recently, I at a delicious bean and potato dish at the home of my friends Lisa and Louis.  It was an afterthought to the meal they had planned to serve and we only had this dish because it was leftover from breakfast.  Yep, you heard me right.  Louis loves eating beans and potatoes for breakfast.  But the beans we ate were no everyday bean.   They were special Calabrian beans that his family has been growing for generations.  I loved this dish so much that I decided to create an homage to their very special heirloom bean and potato dish, but as a "work-a-day" recipe.  Lisa and Louis ate "beans and potatoes".  Without the special Calabrian beans, it makes more sense to call this "potatoes with beans".  Either way, it's delicious.

You could also make this recipe with green beans, although you might have to adjust the cooking times of both the beans and the potatoes depending on how soft you like your green beans.  (I'd suggest cooking the potatoes for less time in the beginning and adding more cooking time to the bean/potato steam time.)

This is the kind of dish that I could eat as a main course, but most people would probably serve it as a side dish.  And I have to admit, I could eat it every day.  At least for a summer.

Potatoes and Beans
serves 4 to 6 people as side dish

3 medium sized white potatoes, about 1 pound (Do not use baking potatoes as they are too starchy.)
1 pound of Italian pole beans or other green bean
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 clove garlic, finely chopped or run through a garlic press
10 fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped into small pieces
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional


  • Peel potatoes and slice into 1/4 inch thick circular slices 
  • Steam potatoes until they start to get soft, approximately 8-10 minutes
  • In the meantime, wash beans and trim off the stems.
  • When potatoes are soft, add beans to the steamer and cook for 10 additional minutes.
  • While beans and potatoes cook, get out a large bowl and add olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic.
  • When beans are soft, add bean and potato mixture to bowl and stir while the mixture is still hot.  The potatoes should be falling apart.  (I know this seems a little weird, but it's delicious.)
  • Sprinkle chopped basil on top.  If desired, you could also add a pinch of crushed red pepper.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Heirloom Foods: "Sunday" Dinner with Lisa and Louis

I had the most amazing Sunday dinner at the home of my friends Lisa and Louis last Friday afternoon.  Yes, I said "Sunday dinner."  Those of you who read this blog regularly know of my strongly held conviction that Sunday dinner is a state of mind and can occur at any time of day and on any day of the week.  It is true that Sunday dinner is traditionally a family meal eaten in the middle of the day on Sunday.  But to me, Sunday dinner is any meal where people are able to reconnect by enjoying a leisurely homemade meal together.  My dinner with Lisa and Louis did that and more.

When I arrived at their home,  I stood on the porch and rang the doorbell while marveling at the height of the bean plants in their front yard.  I had come for Louis's famous Calabrian Beans, but I didn't suspect that the bean plants would be over 10 feet tall.
Calabrian beans worthy of Jack and the Beanstalk, with rosemary in foreground, L&L's house, July 2010.

I heard Lisa call out "She's here!" from inside and I felt bad that I was a few minutes late, silently cursing the car that blocked the exit ramp with it's flat tire fiasco.  Oh, well, I'd made it.  And I had brought them a jar of my homemade pickles.  They would be the first people to try them outside my own family.  I knew Louis was especially fond of them and I figured they'd surely forgive my tardiness to get their hands on the pickles, if nothing else.  When Lisa got to the front door, I was quickly ushered into the kitchen where Louis was slaving over a hot stove in 100 degree weather, frying up some delicious looking squash blossoms and apologizing that they weren't perfect.  A little messy?  Yes.  Delicious?  Yes.
Lisa distracted me from my discussion with Louis about the importance of finding the perfect frying pan by waving a giant bowl of beans in front of me.  Before I knew it I was back outside photographing Lisa with a bowl of beans in front of the bean stalks, reverse angle.

Louis had warned me that he does NOT give people beans "to go" so I knew I'd better enjoy them.  After all, it might be my only chance to eat them this year.  He does, however, give away seeds at the end of the season, so I'm hoping I'll be able to grow my own next year.  Louis' famous Calabrian beans are actually a variety of Borlotti beans, unavailable commercially even in Italy.  The original seeds were brought to this continent by his family in the 1950's from a town called San Giorgio Morgeto, in the mountains of southern Italy.  His family (and others) have "been propagating and eating a steady supply" ever since.

Always a food purist, Louis also told me that there were only two ways to eat Calabrian beans and we were going to eat them both ways.  Lucky me!  I have to say it was hard to choose between the two ways.

Bean Dish Number One was "beans with pasta", cooked in tomato sauce with a hint of Calabrian pepper, which Lisa and Louis also grow.  Delicious.  Lisa was nice enough to fish out extra beans to add to my pasta when she realized that I was scarfing them down faster than the pasta.  I told them I felt like my Grandma Willie who always requested just enough "seconds" of meat to match the piece of bread she had left on her plate.  She'd hold up her piece of bread and say, "I need just this much!" while pointing at her bread bite.  I held up my plate and said, "I need just enough beans to go with my pasta" and wondered how many beans I could convince Lisa to fish out of the bowl for me.
Calabrian beans with pasta, L&L's house, July 2010.
Bean Dish Number Two was "beans with potatoes".  I thought there was no way that this bean dish could compete with the first, because frankly, how could it?  I was wrong.  Beans with potatoes was amazing.  And very different.  Bean Dish Number One seemed unlike anything I'd ever eaten before and was wonderful for that reason.  Bean Dish Number Two tasted like... beans and potatoes.  With a twist.  Which was better?  I can't say.  Louis told me they hadn't originally planned to serve this second bean dish for our meal together, but when Lisa asked Louis what he wanted for breakfast, he'd said, "beans with potatoes".  Clearly I'd gotten lucky.

Beans and potatoes at L&L's house, July 2010.
I don't think I would ever attempt to make "beans with pasta" without Louis's special Calabrian beans (not to mention the fact that I have no idea how to get my hands on a Calabrian pepper without stealing it from their yard).  Somehow "beans with potatoes" seems much more approachable and I don't feel guilty trying to reproduce the recipe with a basic "Italian pole bean" from the farmer's market.  I can't wait to look for them on Sunday.  I'm not sure if I should tell Louis or not.  

We ate a lot of other great foods at that meal... sauteed greens, two kinds of bread-- Lisa's standard and very good whole wheat loaf and their famous Italian Hard Bread, which I really love.  And I can't forget Louis's father's special homemade salami.  Louis and I share a love of cured meats and we both come by it honestly.  My father cures country hams in his basement using a recipe he got from his Uncle Elwood.  Louis's father is a meat wholesaler/retailer who was born in Italy.  We children of the meat-curers have a special bond and it makes us want to share our father's goods with each other, in spite of the fact that we usually horde it for ourselves.  

In fact, I think it is our shared passion for heirloom foods (for lack of a better term) that makes meals with Lisa and Louis so much fun.  It's impossible to explain this kind of love to anyone who doesn't come from a "heirloom food" family.  I've met such people.  My husband is one of them.  He's a great eater, but his family doesn't have foods unique to them that you can only get by making them yourself.  I have, however, lured my husband into being a part of my family's food traditions and Louis has done with same with Lisa.  Louis's Calabrian bean recipes are now Lisa's too and she made the versions we all ate together.  Louis says Lisa even prepares them better than he does.  

It's interesting that I have just now come up with the phrase "heirloom foods" to describe foods that are based on family recipes, prepared at home with modern ingredients, and often served out of their original environment.  These foods are not simply dishes prepared from family recipes, but foods that you can't get without growing, curing, canning, pickling or otherwise processing yourself.  These are foods that cannot be bought for any price.  If you prepare any "heirloom foods", please write to me.  I want to here more about them.  You can be sure I'll be writing more about this topic in the future.

But for now, a final thank you to Lisa and Louis for such a delicious meal.  And a wonderful afternoon.  This was the best Sunday dinner I've experienced in quite a while.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tomato-Eating and Sunday Dinner Talk

My friend Lisa came to visit the other day and reminded me that I've really slacked off on the Sunday Dinner Project.  In my defense, my parents were visiting for a few weeks and we had the best kind of Sunday dinners... the kind that happen organically and don't seem like a big deal.  But since my parents have gone home, I haven't made the effort to set time aside on Sundays for my family to enjoy hanging out together  and eating a leisurely meal.

Lisa and I talked about how hard it is to host a weekly Sunday dinner, which is something she and her husband tried to do last year, but eventually had to give up.  We also talked about how strange it is that it takes us both the better part of a day to prepare Sunday dinner, even though we both regularly make home-cooked dinners for our families in less than an hour during the work week.   I've been thinking about this conversation a lot for the past couple of days and I've decided that my problem is that I try to do too much for Sunday dinner.  I need to do more "slacking off" in the cooking department and take more time to enjoy the day.  In my opinion, Sunday dinner should be about food and family, not about cooking elaborate meals.  So I'm taking my own advice about "The New Sunday Dinner" and trying to do less and enjoy more.

Our visit with Lisa was a good example of how to entertain a visitor without going crazy.  Violet and I made brownies, which is something we do frequently, and we can do it pretty effortlessly these days.   Lisa brought delicious chocolate chip cookies, so we had a lovely "coffee klatch" with very little effort.  After our snack, we took Lisa outside to check out our garden and she took some great photos of the girls with our tomato crop.  I love these photographs because they're a good reminder of our visit with Lisa, as well as a nice record of my youngest daughter's first real experience with home-grown tomatoes.

Annabel chows down on the first tomato of the season.
Annabel is the greatest produce-eater I've ever met.  She'll eat anything off a tree, bush, or plant, and she doesn't care what it is.  If she can pick it, she'll eat it.  Usually making loud guttural "HMMMM!!!" noises as she eats. The only problem with this is that she doesn't think about whether the thing she wants to eat is just the right size to choke on.

I was completely freaked out watching Annabel picking handfuls of cherry tomatoes and shoving them into her mouth, so I jokingly handed her a full-sized tomato and said, "Here, Annabel.  Try this instead!", while gently removing cherry tomatoes from her clenched fists.

I know how much Annabel loves fresh produce so I don't know why her obsession with cherry tomatoes surprised me.  I'd watched her eat her way through broccoli season, orange season, loquat season, and green bean season, but I was impressed by how fast a girl with only six teeth could make headway into a Champion tomato.  She didn't stop chewing until she reached the hard stem and even then I had to take it away from her.

Violet shows off her "pretend bite".
Violet is a different story.  She's a very picky eater and wouldn't go near the tomato I offered her until she realized how much attention Annabel was getting for her tomato-eating.  Then Violet insisted that she wanted a tomato too.  And she pretended to eat it so Lisa would take her picture.  This is funny to me on several levels.  First, Violet hates having me take her picture these days, so it was hilarious to watch her mug for Lisa's camera.  Second, the idea that Violet would even pretend to eat a "gross" tomato cracked me up.  But what do I care if she was only pretending?  Pretend eating is one step closer to actual eating.

To her credit, Violet has started eating some new foods recently, including cantaloupe, spinach lasagna, green beans, and watermelon.  She loved watermelon when she was a baby and it broke my heart to hear her say that watermelon was "not for her" for the past two summers.  But her love of watermelon is back!  And I'm thrilled.  Maybe the love of tomatoes will come some day too.

I'd be very excited if both of my girls turned into tomato connoisseurs.  Right now we're growing Sweet 100's, Champions, Celebrity Bush, San Marzanos, and my personal favorite, Mortgage Lifters.  I grow Sweet 100's (or Sweet 1,000's) every year because cherry tomatoes are easy to grow, and one plant will produce lots of tiny tomatoes which are fun for little girls to pick.  Champions and Celebrity Bush are hearty plants and the tomatoes are delicious on BLT's.

My new experiment of the season is the San Marzano and I have to admit that it isn't doing all that well.  Or maybe it's doing fine, but you can't make much sauce from the fruit of one slightly neglected tomato plant.  (I try to water frequently, but it's been incredibly hot here lately!)  Next year, I think I'll try growing a row of them.

My all-time favorite tomato is the Mortgage Lifter.  I don't know if this is because it's a tomato that my Granddaddy Phillips always grew or if the tomato is really that good.  Either way, the most exciting part of tomato season is when I harvest the first Mortgage Lifter.  That hasn't happened yet this year, but you can be sure I'll file a report when it does.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Recipe Testing for Cookbooks: Tea With Anne Willan- Part Two

Today: A sneak peek into the secret world of professional recipe testing.

If you read my first post about having Tea with Anne Willan, you'll know I won a visit with Anne Willan, the famous cookbook author, in a silent auction to benefit the Culinary Historians of  Southern California.  What I didn't mention in my previous posting is that part of the prize was helping Ms. Willan and her staff test recipes for her upcoming cookbook about the history of cookbooks.

Ms. Willan was in the final stage of testing recipes for the book, which is based on the antiquarian cookbooks she has collected over the years with her husband, Mark Cherniavsky.  The most exciting part (at least to me) is that she's including a selection of recipes based on original recipes from these old, sometimes ancient cookbooks.

At a recent lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library, Ms. Willan discussed her project and way in which she tested her recipes.  You can watch her lecture "Old Recipes in the Kitchen" or read my blog report,  but the basic idea for each recipe she includes in the book is to "reconstruct the recipe, not adapt it".   Meaning that she wanted to make a version of the original recipe that tasted as close to the original recipe as possible using modern ingredients.  Easier said than done.

When I and two other members of the Culinary Historians visited her kitchen, Ms. Willan and her team were finishing up the medieval chapter and we had the fun of helping them run through a final testing of recipes for Jance, Tarte of Prunes, and Ypocras.  Tarte of Prunes was pretty self-explanatory, but Jance? Ypocras?  I had no idea what these recipes would produce.  And that was part of what made the recipe testing so entertaining.  It was a discovery of something new, but at the same time very old.  And I suspect this same spirit will permeate the book.  I can't wait to read it and try out these recipes for myself.

Everyone at the table was given a handout for each recipe being tested that included a description of the dish, the book it came from, and the background of the recipe, along with the recipe itself.  At the end of the handout came a list of questions to be answered.  We were also given a "recipe testing sheet", which each person in attendance was supposed to fill out for future use.  Ms. Willan told us that she always likes to include outsiders in her testing because it provides a new perspective.  The outsider is often her husband, whom she calls "The Man on the Street".  But today, I was "The Woman on the Street".

First up was a recipe for jance.  Turns out, jance is commonly used ancient term that covers a wide range of foods.  According to Ms. Willan, every medieval cookbook contains a recipe for jance, but the ingredients can be very different, although jance recipes often call for almonds and ginger.  Our recipe came from "Le Viandier" by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel) and was first published in 1486 from a manuscript dated 1392.
Jance sitting on Anne Willan's kitchen counter after the recipe testing, June 2010.

We try the jance with celery sticks and a selection of crackers.  I take a cracker.  Then we turn to our recipe testing sheet.  Recipe name:  Jance.  Portions yielded:  We discuss, letting Anne and her capable assistant Christine lead the way.  "Will this recipe make 6 to 8 portions?"  "That's a lot of jance."  Ms. Willan makes imaginary dividing lines in the bowl of jance.  "How about 8 to 10 portions?"  Sounds good to me.  

Were the recipe steps clear?  Yes.  Any substitutions for rare ingredients?  What about verjuice?  Stop the presses.  What's verjuice?  Turns out it's a juice made from pressing unripened wine grapes and it was a common ingredient in medieval times.  According to Christine, you can also order it online and you can occasionally will find it at the Santa Monica farmer's market.

Level of difficulty?  Easy.  Then we get to the big question.  The Rating.  Ms. Willan polls the crowd and asks us each what we think of jance.  The first person questioned isn't a big fan and gives it a "B".  The second taster likes it-- "B+".  I say, "I like it.  It looks like hummus, but doesn't taste like anything I've ever eaten before".  Ms. Willan says, "Exactly!  Medieval chefs wanted to create a taste sensation that was entirely new... like nothing you've ever tasted before."  I say, "well, it worked.  And it would be really fun to serve to guests because it's a good conversation starter.  I give it an A."  Ms. Willan's intern Natalie says she can imagine serving it at a cocktail party.  Ms. Willan nods.  Anne asks Christine if she thinks describing jance as having the texture of hummus would be confusing to readers.  Christine thinks it would.

After surveying the rest of the crowd, I believe this recipe was eventually given a B+.  (I gave it an A, but as Ms. Willan later noted, "I see you're our generous grader today."  I was surprised and embarrassed and said it was somewhat unlike me (my photo students would never believe it!).  But I gave all the recipes high marks because of their exoticism.  I like to try new things and even though these dishes were out of the ordinary and had unfamiliar flavors, that was what I liked about them. 

Moving on to our next dish... Tarte of Prunes.  The original recipe for Tarte of Prunes was from "A Proper Booke of Cokerye", author unknown.  It is one of the earliest English cookbooks, published in 1558.  This batch of tarts was prepared by intern Natalie, and part of the testing procedure was to find out if Ms. Willan's recipe instructions were easy to follow.  Natalie says they were.  Was the cooking time accurate?  Yes.  Any substitutions needed for rare ingredients?  No.  Unless you count ypocras, which is a spiced red wine.  I'll get to the details of ypocras (also spelled hypocras) in a minute, but right now the big question was whether the tart was better with the ypocras or without.  

Tarte of Prunes with cup of ypocras in the background, Anne Willan's kitchen, June 2010.

Two versions were presented to us.  The one with a delicate leaf on top had ypocras, the other did not.  After some debate, we all agreed that the one with the ypocras was best.  It was richer and altogether delicious.  Ms. Willan described Tarte of Plums as a "five hundred year old Fig Newton", and it was, in a way.  But the version with the ypocras was something else altogether.  How could I resist giving this dish an A-?  I guess I was an easy grader that day.
Two versions of Tarte of Prunes, one with ypocras, the other without.  Anne Willan's kitchen, June 2010.

Next up, was the eagerly anticipated ypocras.  Ypocras is a spiced wine that was consumed as a beverage, or as a cure for "illnesses caused by cold humors", or as a cooking ingredient, as we saw in the Tarte of Prune.  The recipe was from from the same source as the jance-- "Le Viandier" by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel) and first printed in 1486 from a 1392 manuscript.

I was surprised that I really liked ypocras.  The only spiced wine concoction I'd ever had was Glögg-- and I am NOT a big fan.  But oddly enough, ypocras was the big hit of the day.

The most interesting thing about ypocras is that it called for an ingredient called "grains of paradise", which was new to me.  It was a common medieval substitution for black pepper, although it is in no way related to the pepper plant.  At a time when people often ate food that was going bad (or had gone bad), I can see why grains of paradise would have been a welcome addition to many dishes, including wine.  It's Latin name is Aframomum meleguaeta and it is part of the ginger family.  Native to West Africa, it was imported to Europe through caravan routes across the Sahara desert and up into Sicily.

It looks like pepper, but has a much more flowery aroma.  I don't know what ypocras would have tasted like with black pepper, but it certainly was delicious with grains of paradise.

The final rating for ypocras?  An "A".

As was the entire experience.

I'm NOT an easy grader-- ask my students.  But I give the whole experience an "A+."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tea With Anne Willan- Part One of Two

I recently had the pleasure of having tea at the home of Anne Willan, celebrated cookbook author and founder of LaVarenne Cooking School.  I'd won the privilege of having tea with Ms. Willan and receiving a personal tour of her collection of antiquarian cookbooks in a silent auction to benefit the Southern California Culinary Historians.  It was a treat on many levels.  

The day before the event, Anne Willan's fabulous assistant Christine Matsuda called me and asked if I had any particular food interests.  I mumbled something about Sunday dinner and my fascination with all things pickled, cured, or preserved.  (I was in the middle of The Pickle Project at the time.)  That seemed broad enough to cover most of my food obsessions.  Christine said she would pull some books that might interest me.  She also asked if I knew June Taylor, whom they'd recently seen in San Francisco.  She owns a shop called the Still-Room and does lots of pickling.  I told her "no" and Christine said, "We have so much to talk about when you get here!"  Now I was really excited.  

When the big day arrived, I was practically giddy.  Ms. Willan ushered me into her dining room where I saw a vast display of impressive looking books on the dining room table and we dug right in.  Ms. Willan described the background of each book as she showed it to me and the two other club members who made up our little group.  She also graciously filled in the gaps of our historical knowledge as she went along so we'd more fully appreciate the works in front of us.  

The following is a paraphrased and excerpted account of the event, heavily influenced by my excitement and poor memory.

Ms. Willan:  "This is a 1491 edition of an incunabulum from the 4th century.  Do you know what an incunabulum is?"  (Three shaking heads.)  "Ah, well, this is an early printed book that was based on a 4th century text.  It was originally written by a monk to explain the rules for living in the monastery.  I don't read Latin, but we had the relevant parts translated.  The Seventh Book is about feasting."  (Ms. Willan turns the pages, then pauses for a moment.)  "Oh... yes... the Fifth Book is about sex."  She continues turning the pages and regaling us with fascinating trivia about the incunabulum, but I lose focus for a moment to consider how funny she is.  Before I realize it, she's moved on to a second book.

Ms. Willan: "This is Scappi."  She says it like she's greeting an old friend.  "This is the first book on making pastry.  It was written in 1492, and this is a second edition printed in 1653."  We all eagerly lean our heads forward to see it, drawn in by her enthusiasm.  We pass the book around and Ms. Willan presents a third book.

Next up is a first edition copy of "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple" by Hannah Glasse.  Ms. Willan had flashed this book to the crowd at her lecture at the LA Public Library in May and it is one of the jewels of her collection.  I'd asked Christine about pulling it for us so I knew it was coming, but I still couldn't help beaming when I saw it.  It's the first American cookbook and I knew the content of this book pretty well from my Sunday dinner research.  Still, getting to thumb through a first edition was pretty cool.  And I learned something new.  The first edition was uncredited, having been authored simply by "A Lady".  Very intriguing.  There's so much more I could say about this.  But I will press on.

By this time, Ms. Willan is holding a small book that she says may be the first cookbook ever written. Written in the 16th century (when there was little distinction between food and medicine) this book of recipes contains ingredient lists, exact amounts of ingredients to be used, and detailed instructions for creating everything from love potions to preserves.  And the author -- Nostradamus!  Nostradamus made preserves?  Who knew?  I think about how much my husband, who has made numerous documentaries about Nostradamus, would love to see this.   I lapsed into reminiscences of my honeymoon in France when my husband and I went on a pilgrimage to Nostradamus' birthplace in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence -- but I snap out of it as soon as the next book appears.

Ms. Willan:  "This is a second edition of Le Cuisiner François by François Fierre de la Varenne from 1652.  We named our cooking school after it."  Gulp.  I realize that I've been given the opportunity not only to see an impressive collection of books, but also to get a glimpse into Ms. Willan's life and I feel a little overwhelmed.

The list goes on...  Several amazing coronation books, volumes that describe the various events surrounding the coronation of kings.  The oldest was from England's James II (1685!) which included a series of intricate engravings that showed who sat where for the feast, what they ate and where each dish was laid out on the table.  From this I learned the expression "to sit below the salt", which meant you were a commoner.  Hey, salt was expensive and if you were seated "below the salt" at the dinner table you were not very important.  

I haven't even mentioned "Nutt's Confectioner".  But I suppose I have to stop somewhere.  Suffice it to say, I was in heaven.  Little did I know that the best part of the day was yet to come.  I'll write about it (and show photos!) in my next post.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fourth of July Sunday Dinner

Fireworks at our local park, July 4, 2010.
Violet puts the finishing touches on her deviled eggs.
I was so preoccupied by The Pickle Project that I forgot to post these photos of Violet making deviled eggs for our Fourth of July Sunday dinner.

She and my mom had a great time cooking together and they told me they made "special deviled eggs for Grandpa"... the ones with lots of paprika.

We had a very traditional Fourth of July Sunday dinner... Dad grilled hamburgers, mom made potato salad, and Violet made her "famous" deviled eggs.  It reminded me of the Fourth of July meals from my childhood.  It was also the best kind of Sunday dinner.  Lots of family, not too much work, and everyone had a fun time.  And to make it even more special, we got to watch Violet enjoy her first fireworks display.  (In previous years she's said "they're too LOUD!")

Happy Fourth of July!

Violet's first attempt at deviled eggs.  Delicious!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Parents' Garden: Before and After

Dad's garden, June 26, 2010.
Sunday dinners in the summer are all about eating what comes out of the garden.  And when the weather takes a nasty turn, it has a huge effect on Sunday dinner and dinner conversation.  Even when I'm not in Virginia to eat the produce from my parents' garden, we talk about what's happening in each of our gardens... what what's doing well, what isn't, and what we've eaten lately.

My dad has been sending me photos of his garden every couple of weeks so I can see what "The Lot" looks like these days.  He's also been talking about what the heat wave is doing to his corn.  (I will censor the actual report, but it's not good.)  Luckily, dad says he thinks the corn may recover.

As I was typing this blog entry, I got a call from my mother and she made a funny comment about how much water was running down the basement steps.  Since she was in the middle of a long saga about a mysterious leak in my parents' swimming pool, I didn't want to distract her by asking for details, but I assume this means that it's finally raining in Virginia.  At least I hope that's what it means.  It would be good news for the corn.
Dad's garden, July 7, 2010.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Pickle Project: Finale- Today We Eat Pickles!

My first-ever batch of homemade pickles in my grandmother's serving dish.  
When I called to tell my mother that the pickles were finished and that they were delicious, she said, "I was waiting for this call!"  Then she asked me if they were as good as Granny's pickles.  I told her they tasted just like hers and that I was very pleased.  She said, "Well, I didn't want to bring myself into it, but I'm glad you like them.  I have a feeling they'll give mine a run for their money this year."  Then we discussed the importance of using small cucumbers and the glory of the "Japanese Short" variety.  I'm not sure which one of us was most excited.  Thanks, mom!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Pickle Project: Day 14- The Last Day

Drained pickles awaiting their reheated juice, Day 14 of The Pickle Project, 2010.
So today is the last day of The Pickle Project.  Drain the pickle juice, reheat it, and pour it back into the crock.  Tomorrow we can eat pickles!
Close shot of pickles in their freshly reheated juice, Day 14 of The Pickle Project, 2010.

Pickles in the crock.  Day 14 of The Pickle Project, 2010.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Pickle Project: Day 13- Same Old, Same Old...

Day 13 is a boring day in The Pickle Project.  Drain the pickle juice again, reheat it on the stove and pour it back into the crock.  So I amused myself by taking a photograph of my reflection in the pickle juice.

Me and my pickle juice, Day 13 of The Pickle Project, 2010.
But for those of you who are interested, this is what the pickles look like before I poured the pickle juice back into the crock.
My "almost pickles" without their juice, Day 13 of The Pickle Project, 2010.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Pickle Project: Day 12 Reheating the Juice

Friday, July 9th was Day 12 of The Pickle Project.  And it was the last day I had to try anything new.  Today I drained the pickle juice from the crock, boiled it on the stove, and poured it back over the pickles in the crock.
Pickle juice boiling on the stove.  July 9, 2010.  Day 12 of The Pickle Project.

 I probably didn't need to bring the pickle juice to such a rolling boil, but frankly I forgot about it in the midst of making dinner.  No big deal.  They look like pickles to me.
Pickles with freshly boiled juice, July 9, 2010.  Day 12 of The Pickle Project.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Pickle Project: Day 11- Sugar and Spice

Day 11 is the day that scared me from the beginning and I knew I'd have to do it without my mom's help because she left for Virginia yesterday.  Today the recipe called for me to make a syrup out of vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices and add it to the crock.  I don't know why this seemed like such a difficult step, but I suppose it was because this was the day that my sliced cucumbers would theoretically start to look and SMELL like real sweet pickles.  Or not.
Eight pints of sugar and pickling spices await the vinegar bath, Day 11, July 8, 2010.

My mom had brilliantly suggested that we measure out the sugar and pickling spices into a large food-safe container so I could just pour it into the vinegar when the time came.  It seemed kind of unnecessary to me when she suggested it, but today I was grateful to know that I had mom's help with this crucial step, even after she'd gone home.

Pickles in my sink, Day 11, July 8, 2010.
The next step was to pour 3 quarts of apple cider vinegar into a large stock pot and bring it to a boil on the stove.  While I waiting for the vinegar to come to a boil, I drained the pickles and wiped down the sides of the container as my mom had said I should.  I was surprised at how many pickles there were.  It didn't look like there were so many when they were at the bottom of a 5 gallon crock, but they really filled up my sink!  And I swear there are more than when I started.  Is this possible?

I let the vinegar simmer while I made dinner and when my husband got home, he said, "Hmmm... smells like pickles!"  I figured that was a good sign.

After dinner, I slowly poured the giant container of sugar and pickling spices into the pot, stirring it frequently.  I thought about how much of the sugar would actually be absorbed into the pickles and how much would stay in the pickle juice.  I also decided that this might be why my mom's pickle juice is the secret ingredient in both her cole slaw and her potato salad.  It's my secret ingredient for the best tuna salad in the world, if I do say so myself.

Vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices, Day 11, July 8, 2010.
I was relieved to see the smelly liquid look like the pickle juice I knew and loved.  It seems like The Pickle Project is going to be a success... as long as I don't become complacent and forget to re-boil the liquid gold and pour it back over the pickles in the next three days.

Once again I must thank my mother.  She's been calling me every day to check up on the process and remind me to pay attention to my pickles.  She also said she's starting hers soon and I think I'll give her a run for her money this year.  Let the pickle wars begin!
My almost pickles, Day 11, July 8, 2010.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Pickle Project: Day 10- Water, Again

Day 10 is a boring day in life of The Pickle Project, but frankly I was relieved.  Today I just drained off the alum water and added a fresh pot full of boiling water.  Easy.  And for the first time, the pickles have stopped looking like cucumbers and seem to be on their way to being real sweet pickles!
Alum-laced pickles before adding fresh boiling water on Day 10, July 7, 2010.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Pickle Project: Day 9 - Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz

Today was the first day I had to deal with the pickles on my own and it was time to add the alum, which my mother says is the ingredient that makes the pickles crispy.  No big deal, I thought.  Same process with one different ingredient.  So why did I freak out when the alum starting bubbling like crazy in the pot of boiling water?

I frantically called my mom, who told me she usually adds the alum to the water BEFORE she brings the pot to a boil.  Live and learn.

Another note of interest:  The pickles themselves bubbled once I added the alum water to the crock!
Pickles bubbling in the alum water, Day 10, July 7, 2010.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Pickle Project: Day 8- Swapping Out the Scummy Water

Day 8: Scum on top of pickles.
Today is "Day 8" of the Pickle Project and Mom and I have been faithfully stirring the "scum" into the pickles for 7 days now.  It's finally time to switch out the water.

We've been following the recipe for 14 Day Pickles.  And this is today's mission:

Day 8:  Drain salt water from cucumbers.  

Pour 1 gallon of hot tap water over cucumber chunks and drain again.  Wipe any scum from sides of jar. 

Pour 1 gallon boiling water over  cucumbers chunks.  (It is important to do steps 8 - 14 at approximately the same time of day so you have a full 24 hours between steps.)

I have to say I was surprised by the fact that the cucumber pieces actually bubbled when we added the hot water.

One tip:  Make sure you've got your crock in a safe place when you add the boiling water.  I didn't realize that the crock would be too hot to move for a while!

Day 8:  Bubbling cucumber slices in boiling water.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pink Fish Sticks, Again

Pink fish sticks for dinner, June 18, 2010.
A few weeks ago, I ruined an "easy dinner" for Friday evening by leaving a roasted chicken in the car overnight.  So I had to resort to Plan B.  Unfortunately, there was no Plan B.   I didn't want to go to the store, so I dug into the depths of the refrigerator and came up with some leftover boiled potatoes, a few roasted tomatoes, and fresh green beans.  A search of the freezer revealed a vacuum-packed bag of salmon, so I figured it was time to try another version of "Pink Fish Sticks".

The first time I made Pink Fish Sticks, my girls liked them, but I wasn't crazy about them.  My mistake had been to try to make them look like traditional fish sticks.  I'd cut the salmon into strips and dipped them in an egg wash.  Next I coated them in sesame seeds and panko bread crumbs before pan-frying them.  My hard work was unrewarded.  My oldest daughter had complained that they weren't "pink enough", so this time I decided to forgo the breadcrumbs and just give them a straight pan-fry in canola oil with a little salt and pepper.  They were much better.

I also made a dipping sauce from soy sauce, honey, garlic, and rice wine vinegar.  Sadly, I was so frenzied about getting dinner finished in time that I didn't write down the amounts of the ingredients I used.  I guess I'll have to try again and report back.  But I can say, my husband loved it and repeatedly said, "What's in this sauce?" and "You made this?", so I figured it would be worth trying to recreate it sometime.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Growing Peaches in Mt. Washington

My friend Daniel Marlos submitted the following article  just in time for peach season, at least in Southern California.  I've been making my own variation of Daniel's cobbler recipe for years and have given it to my mother, who has also made it with great success.  I look forward to trying "The Sneaky Peach".  Thanks, Daniel!
Daniel's peach tree, photograph by Daniel Marlos 2010.

Growing Peaches in Mt. Washington
By Daniel Marlos

There is no fruit quite like a fresh peach right off the tree.  There are many varieties of peaches that grow very well in Southern California, and new varieties make it possible for a conscientious gardener to extend the season for fresh peaches by planting early varieties, mid season varieties and late season peaches. 
I got a Desertgold peach tree from the Glassell Park Fruit Tree giveaway about five years ago. It bears small peaches in late April and throughout May.  This year, Rourk, a member of the Rare Fruit Growers Association, asked if my peaches were watery and tasteless.  They were, but when I tried baking with them, the peach cobbler was awesome. I also entertained one evening, and rather than making Mint Juleps to take advantage of the fresh mint, I decided that I really needed to utilize the bounty of peaches.  I remembered a drink my bartender cousin introduced to the family in the 1970s.  Though I didn’t have a recipe, I had a general recollection of the ingredients, and the name Sneaky Peach is unforgettable.