Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Update: Waffles and Bacon in the Oven

Waffles and bacon in a warm oven, Father's Day 2011.
In my last post about eating breakfast foods for dinner I complained that my only problem with making pancakes or waffles for dinner is that I always end up cooking while everyone else eats.  I'm usually a little bitter about this state of affairs, so this past Father's Day I finally tried keeping the food warm in the oven until I'd make enough to feed the family.  I'm pleased to report that it worked great!

I set the oven for 200 degrees and against my better judgement, I didn't put paper towels between the waffles as I once read that I should.  In retrospect, this would have been a good idea.  I must admit that I saved the last waffle for myself because I knew that I'd be the only person who missed the crunchy exterior of a waffle hot out of the waffle iron.  Everyone said the waffles were delicious.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Update on WANTED: Recipe for Guacamole Fresca

Ingredients for Guacamole Fresca by Daniel Marlos, June 2011.
A few hours ago I posted this photograph from Daniel Marlos hoping to coax the recipe out of him as soon as possible... and here it is.  Daniel mentions that he makes it with stale chips, but  I suspect that is simply a mention of the actual ingredients he had on hand, not a recommendation.

Guacamole Fresca
by Daniel Marlos

This is as fresh as it gets.

First make a salsa of boiled Jalapeños Chilis and Tomatoes.  Peel skins from Tomatoes.  Vary the ratio to taste.  Salt and Puree.  You can burn chilis and tomatoes on a griddle for a more smoky salsa.

I hate to make guacamole.  It is messy.  I want to constantly lick my fingers which one cannot do when preparing food for another.  I made salsa the other day and I had stale chips and a ripe avocado.  There were fresh onions in the garden.  I couldn’t bring myself to make guacamole out of just one avocado.  I decided to make Guacamole Fresca at a party:

  • Make Salsa.
  • Give each person a fresh green onion.  
  • Give each person a small avocado and a knife.
  • Set out the warmed chips and begin eating.
  • Take the lead as the host.  Cut an avocado in half and remove pit.  Cut thin slices or small cubes without separating avocado from skin.  Dip chip in salsa and then scoop avocado.  Finish with a bite of onion.  Repeat until gone. 

WANTED: Recipe for Guacamole Fresca

Daniel Marlos sent me this tantalizing photo of Guacamole Fresca, but with only a promise of a recipe.  I'm hoping that if I post his very pretty photograph, it will encourage him to send in the recipe.  I'm feeling hungry already...
Still Life of ingredients for Guacamole Fresca, June 2011.  Photograph courtesy Daniel Marlos, copyright 2011.

Comfort Foods: The Comfort of Cooking and Talking about Food

When I created the Eat Sunday Dinner Questionnaire, I created a list of ten questions that I thought would allow participants to talk about their relationship to food in a personal and revealing way.  The first question in the ESD Questionnaire is "What is your favorite food?" and it's amazing how many times responders will discuss comfort food in their answers.  ESD's Hong Kong correspondent Christine Jagolino said her favorite food WAS comfort food "because it makes people happy".  What is Christine's favorite comfort food?  Sweet mac and cheese, although she says it's not something she can eat very often.

For Vi Thuc Ha, the ultimate comfort food is dim sum.  She grew up in Chinatown and regularly walked to  dim sum restaurants and delis "at all hours of the day and night".  Today, she says she loves all kinds of dim sum--"the cheap and the fancy avant-garde."  Daniel Marlos didn't name his favorite comfort food in his questionnaire, but said his favorite kitchen untensil was the spoon "because you eat comfort food with it."  Chef and photographer Fridgeir Helgason used the power of comfort food to create a sense of place at his 2010 exhibition of photographs from his homeland.  He prepared and served an amazing Icelandic lamb stew for visitors to eat as they viewed the work.  With a background in both cooking and photography, Fridgeir knew that serving one of the great comfort foods of his homeland would help viewers engage with his photographs in a deeper way.  It worked.

I find comfort in many different foods for many different reasons.  There are the classic comfort foods of my childhood-- country ham, fried apples, biscuits and gravy, white beans, and salmon cakes.  I love avocados and sand dabs because they remind me how great it is to live in California.  I love pirogi because it reminds me of my friend Daniel (especially when he makes them for me!)  I love chocolate-covered candied orange peel because it reminds me of a springtime walk in Paris.  I could go on and on.

For me, a comfort food does one of two things-- it can remind me of a great feeling or moment from the past (country ham is my madeleine) or raise my spirits in an almost magical way.  I'm sometimes surprised by the foods that bring me comfort-- as in the case of The Magical Powers of Brisket or The Best Sandwich I Ever Ate-- The BCT.  Often these aren't foods that I'd normally consider comforting, but they bring me comfort at a moment when it is most needed.  Once they produce that comforting feeling, they are added to my mental list of "comfort foods".

There are some foods that are comforting only when I make them myself.  Carol Penn-Romine described a similar feeling in her ESD Questionnaire when she discussed her love for cooking her mother's beef roast, saying "I love both the results and the procedure itself-- the repetition of those steps gives me a feeling of connection."  I know how she feels.
A recent batch of milk gravy on top of a piece of homemade bread covered with fried chicken slices, June 2011.

For me, the most satisfying food to cook and eat is milk gravy.   Don't get me wrong. I love milk gravy.  I especially love sausage and gravy and often order it in promising looking diners.  But what I really love is making gravy myself-- in my own kitchen with my grandmother's cast iron skillet.  I don't care if the fat needed to make the gravy comes from the drippings of sausage or fried chicken.  To me, it's the gravy that matters, not the fat source.  I love stirring the raw flour into the shimmering fat and crackings that remain in the bottom of my grandmother's skillet. I love the soothing feeling of the spoon sliding through the thick creamy gravy after I add the milk.  This is the feeling of home.  Maybe it's because stirring the gravy was often my job in my mother's kitchen.  Maybe it's because the zen-like act of stirring gravy cannot be rushed, but I know that if I keep the flame under the pan just right and keep stirring in a slow and rhythmic circles, gravy will eventually magically appear.

This moment of transformation is very much like the process of printing a gelatin-silver photograph.  You carefully rock the seemingly blank piece of photographic paper back and forth in the developer and after a few long seconds, the latent image magically appears.  Whether I'm making a photograph or a meal, it's the anticipation of the transformation that really matters.  What's comforting is not the beauty of the photograph or the deliciousness of the gravy, but the knowledge that at any moment, transformation can occur and that life can, against all odds, change for the better.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ready to Bolt

I just received the following letter from Daniel Marlos, who came up with an ingenious plan for dealing with bolted lettuce.  My lettuce crop bit the dust a few weeks ago when I made the mistake of trying to separate some of the clumps of plants.  I knew it was risky when I did it, but the girls had such a fun time replanting the lettuce that it was worth it.  My only regret is that I don't have the bolted lettuce to try this recipe.
Daniel's bolted lettuce, June 2011.

What To Do When the Lettuce Bolts
 by Daniel Marlos

It’s a sad day when the weather gets warm and the lettuce bolts.  After several weeks or several months of providing the salad bowl with tender succulent greens, the Lettuce plants send up tall stems with spaced leaves and buds at the tip.  The leaves get milky and bitter and they no longer work in a salad. All is not lost.

Just pull up a few plants and strip them of their leaves.  Wash the leaves well and chop them.  In a wok under a high flame, break a dried Chile Arbol and toast it. Add some olive oil.  Crush a clove or two of garlic and add to oil. When garlic starts to sizzle, shut off flame and let cool for 15 minutes.  Remove garlic and eat it.  Turn flame back on and add lettuce.  Stir fry until it wilts.  Eat like greens.

Finished bowl of lettuce greens.  Photo courtesy Daniel Marlos, June 2011.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The remains of my grandmother's Guardian Ware lid, Spring 2011.
This post has been a long time coming--- mostly because I've been so heartbroken that I haven't wanted to think about the "unfortunate incident", much less write about it.   But here goes...

About a month ago I broke the lid to my grandmother's favorite Guardian Ware pot with tempered glass lid.  She used it to cook every meal I ate at her house and I think of her every time I cook with it.  I inherited the pot just after she died ten years ago, and I've always known that I was putting the glass lid at risk by using it (especially since I live in earthquake territory).  But I believe in using family heirlooms (in spite of the Sugar Bowl Tragedy of 2010.)  I figured it was better to enjoy using my grandmother's pot and thinking of her on a daily basis than to keep it it packed away "for safekeeping".

My grandmother's pot has an amazingly thick bottom and it's a pleasure to cook with.  I sometimes fear I shouldn't use it because it's aluminum, but then I decided that it's magical cooking properties make it worth the possible risk of cooking in aluminum (which nobody can seem to agree on anyway).  Until I started cooking with this pot I was unable to make rice without burning it.  I know I could get a rice maker, but that's just one more piece of equipment to clutter up my kitchen and I already have a box of pots and pans in the garage labeled "secondary cooking equipment".  I haven't opened the box in almost two years and I don't miss anything in it.

I think the real reason that I was so upset about breaking the lid is that I know it was an accident that could have been prevented if only I'd been paying attention to what I was doing.  I remember the exact moment I looked at the glass lid on top of my microwave and thought, "Huh- I should move that.  It's going to get knocked off and break."  Five seconds later, it did.  I knew before it hit that there was no way it would survive the trip.  I burst into tears the second I heard the crash.

I was miserable and I lunged for the phone to call my mother even before I cleaned up the broken glass.  This is not normally my natural reaction, but I figured that if anyone would understand how bad I felt, it would be my mother.  After all, the pot had belonged to her mother and my mother had given it to me.  I  felt guilty about breaking the lid and telling my mother was kind of like confessing.    Through my tears I told my mother that I couldn't believe I'd been so careless.  At that moment I realized that although I was upset at losing the lid, it was my own lack of attention that was really upsetting me.

Normally, I am very good at paying attention.  In fact, it's a character trait that I value highly in myself and appreciate in others.  You learn a lot when you pay attention to the things going on around you and to the people and objects that you value.  Only a few days earlier I'd given my photo students a lecture about paying attention in class.  I told them that understanding and analyzing photographs was simply a matter of paying attention to what they saw in the frame.  I described what I saw in a single Cartier-Bresson photograph for a full twenty minutes.  (I could have gone on longer, but decided I'd made by point by then.)  I also told them that their open-book final exam would be easy if they had taken good notes throughout the term and PAID ATTENTION in class and when doing their reading.  Then I proceeded to give them 90 percent of the answers on the final exam they'd be taking in two weeks.  I figured if I was going to give my students a lecture about paying attention, I'd better make it worth their while.

This lecture ran through my brain as the lid to my grandmother's pot fell to the floor.  I knew I could get a replacement lid.  The old lid was chipped anyway, so it wasn't such a bad idea to get a new one.  What was really bothering me was the fact that I hadn't been paying attention.  I was feeling lazy and tired and in pain when I put the lid on top of the microwave.  I'd been in the middle of cooking the first meal I'd prepared since injuring my shoulder several weeks earlier and it was harder than I thought it would be.  My shoulder ached as I lifted a cast iron skillet off the stovetop and put it on top of the microwave next to the lid.  My arm dropped unexpectedly with the weight and the jerk of this unsteady movement led to the demise of the lid.  On some level, I knew that this was a stupid thing to do and yet I did it anyway.  I was too tired and lazy to behave responsibly.  And this made me crazy.  It's been weeks since the accident and I haven't made a decent batch of rice since then.

One of my least favorite character traits is that I have trouble making allowances for myself that I easily forgive in others.  And I have trouble letting go.  But my parents have just arrived for a two-week visit and my five year old is clinging to my mother's neck as I type these words, saying "I've been waiting for this moment!"  I guess it's time to let go.  To forgive myself, forget about the broken lid and enjoy the visit.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Citrus Report: Late Spring 2011

The Second-- or is it the Third?-- Grapefruit Harvest of the Season, June 2011.
With only a few days left in Spring, I thought I should file what I believe will be the final citrus report for the season.  Although I've lived in Southern California for almost twenty years, I haven't still figured out the citrus season so who knows... there may be another Citrus Report yet to come.  Our citrus trees are still producing fruit in the third week of June, which is a great mystery to me.  We've carefully harvested the grapefruit and lemon trees several times already and much to our surprise, our delightful little trees continue to bear fruit.

There are also lots of oranges to be had, but we haven't been as vigilant about picking the oranges because they're SOOOO sour.  (Nobody but my youngest daughter will eat them in their natural state!)  I keep telling myself that I'm going to use them to make chocolate-covered candied orange peel (one of my favorite candies), but that just hasn't happened yet.  I think I'm still a bit discouraged from my marmalade mishap earlier in the season.
Our orange tree, still loaded with overripe oranges, June 2011.

I'm also discouraged by my inability to produce a stunning photograph of any of our citrus trees.  These poor little trees are crowded between power lines and other large trees (including several of the neighbors' avocado trees) and I never seem to get the lighting just right, but I slogging along.  Here's the latest of my lemon photos.  Sigh.
The inside of our lemon tree, June 2011.

Loqats in late May, 2011.
That's about it for our citrus crop, but I would be remiss if I didn't also mention our stone-fruit trees.  Our loquat trees aren't doing quite as well as they did last year, when our backyard was COVERED with loquats, each partially eaten by birds and squirrels.  Our harvest this year began in mid April so I assumed I'd be raking up bucketfuls of loquats in the backyard by now, but so far it hasn't happened.  I suspect this year has been too wet for them.

The Mystery Tree, however, has loved all the rain we've been getting and I have been cleaning up quite a few half-eaten fruits that I suspect are Green Gage Plums.  I made a delicious cobbler from the recently and although it was a bit sour on it's own, it was amazing with a little blob of Bryer's Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.
Mystery Fruit saved from the greedy squirrels, 2011.

Our entire avocado harvest for Spring, 2011.
I know I should probably end my report here, but I can't resist adding one last item to our harvest list.  This spring we harvested a single  avocado from a far-reaching branch of our neighbor's tree.  Luckily, trees don't care about property lines and one branch of the griant tree gracefully grew back into our backyard.  We carefully picked the avocado and hovered over it as it ripened in our fruit bowl.  When it reached it's perfect state of ripeness we made a large bowl of guacamole and gobbled it up in a single evening.  It was delicious.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Favorite Sunday Dinner: Alphabet Pancakes

"A" is for Annabel, June 2011.
This past weekend I brought back a Sunday dinner tradition from my own childhood-- "Alphabet Pancakes".  We never had a name for them when I was a kid, but sometimes my mom would let us make pancakes in the shapes our our initials and my sister and I loved it.

On Sunday morning my husband took the kids out of the house so I could sleep in.   While they were gone, I slept as long as I could (which was only until 8:30 am-- pathetic, I know) and then took a nice long bath.  When my family returned from their morning's adventure, everyone was starving and I was looking for a way to show my gratitude.  Inspiration struck-- PANCAKES!  I asked the crowd of hungry faces, "Who wants pancakes?"  Two not so tiny people screamed, "I do!", while my somewhat haggard-looking and unshaven husband looked at me as if I was crazy and said, "I was going to tell you not to go to so much trouble, but it's too late now."

I happily shuffled off to the kitchen in my slippers and before long I had two cast iron skillets bubbling away with initial-shaped pancakes.  This wasn't the first time I'd made pancakes in the shape of my family's initials, but it had been ages since I'd done it.  In fact, the last time we'd eaten them might have been Mother's Day 2010-- and they were made by my husband as a treat for me.

It was so long ago that I was pretty sure my toddlers wouldn't even remember the special meal of my childhood.  When the first batch of pancakes was ready, I called out, "Come and get it!"  In the midst of the stampede I heard my five year-old daughter say, "I wonder if she's making mine in the shape of a 'V'.  I hope so!"  I could tell that my husband was about to tell her not to hold her breath when they entered the kitchen and saw their initial-shaped pancakes at each spot at the table.  My daughters squealed in delight and my husband gave me a big kiss.  It was one of those rare perfect moments of motherhood.

Truth be told, I often feel slightly annoyed to be the mom who has to stand over the hot stove making batch after batch of pancakes while the hungry masses enjoy their breakfast at the dining room table.  But this morning, I set the plates down at our tiny kitchen table so I could hang out with my family while still maintaining my post at the stove.  I made silver dollar pancakes, a few more initials, and a stack of man-sized pancakes in my dueling skillets.  I don't know if it was because everyone seemed so pleased with the special treat or because I could, for once, enjoy seeing my family enjoying the food I made for them, but on this morning, being the mom seemed like the most wonderful job in the world.

I know there are mothers who have mastered the art of keeping pancakes warm in the oven so they can sit down with their families to enjoy a civilized meal together.  I am not one of those mothers.  It never seemed worth the effort until now.  The next time I make pancakes for my family, I think I'll give it a try although I suspect it won't be the same.  There's something magical about a pancake hot off the stove-- they're crispy and tender all at the same time.  Maybe I'll save the last pancake off the stove for myself and let my family eat the reheated ones.  Does that make me a bad mother or just a smart one?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Icelandic Butter and Pretty Pictures

When I headed out the door on Saturday night to go to my friend Amy Oliver's photography exhibition, I knew I would get to see great photographs and to drink great beer brewed by Amy's husband Jared.  What I didn't know is that I'd also have the opportunity to eat Jared's homemade bread, still warm from the oven, and topped with a giant blob of Icelandic butter.

Fridgeir's mobile photo of butter.
As we were leaving the event, a 6-foot tall Viking stopped me at the door of the gallery and said, "You can't leave until you try this butter!"  So I figured I'd better do it.

Icelandic butter?  Seriously?  Well, umm... YES.  I know we're all supposed to personally know the cow that our butter comes from these days, but I must say that Icelandic butter-- specifically Smjör slightly salted butter-- is REALLY good.  Decadent even.

Fridgeir Helgason, Summer 2010.  Courtesy F. Helgason.
My Viking friend Fridgeir had just bought Icelandic butter at Whole Foods and decided to bring it to the party when he heard that Jared was making bread for the event.  I was surprised by the amount of enthusiasm that went into his description of this butter as he handed me a thin slice of bread topped with a golfball sized sphere of the stuff.  Even when his girlfriend and all our friends protested at the amount of butter on the tiny slice of bread, I couldn't resist the temptation.  If Fridgeir said this was how to eat the butter of his homeland, then this was the way I was going to eat it.  Fridgeir laughed as he told me that he was preparing me for a winter's trip up the mountain to recover my lost sheep in a snowstorm.  I must say that with this butter in my stomach I think I might have saved the sheep.

My husband later reported that Fridgeir told him that "butter gives the Viking the power to leap out of a hot spring naked in the middle of winter, run to the top of the mountain through a snowstorm holding a sheep over your head going 'Yah!'"  Fridgeir raised his arms over his head as he screamed "Yah!" and when the crowd stared at him, he simply lowered his arms, shrugged and said, "Cause that's what we do in Iceland."  Vikings certainly know how to get attention.  They also know how to eat.

Fridgeir told me that Icelandic butter has a much higher fat content than American butter and as I was eating it, I was a believer.  It was the most amazing commercially-produced butter I'd ever eaten.  It was flavorful and creamy beyond belief.  As I swallowed it, I felt as if my mouth and throat were being coated with a magical substance that lingered for several minutes.  When the magical feeling was gone, I felt a twinge of guilt about how many calories I'd just consumed.  Of course, it was too late at that point and I wondered if I'd encounter any lost sheep on the way home.

The next day, I did a little research and compared the fat content of Smjör butter to the butter in my refrigerator, which just happened to be Whole Food's 365 butter.  The Whole Foods brand had 100 calories  in a one tablespoon serving.  The Smjör butter also had 100 calories in a one tablespoon serving.  I was shocked.  Both butters contained 7 grams of saturated fat, but the Smjör  butter did have slightly more cholesterol.  (Smjör butter had 33 mg of cholesterol compared to 30 mg in the Whole Foods brand.)  If that extra one percent cholesterol made such a big difference, then bring it on!

I'm sure I won't replace my local butter with an imported product, at least not for everyday use.  But rest assured, the next time I decide to make biscuits, I'll be trolling the aisles of Whole Foods looking for Smjör.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sense and Sensibility: A Guide to Feeding Children in a Literary Manner

A lingering shoulder injury has left me feeling less than creative in the kitchen and I've relied on my old standards for feeding my family in the past month.  We've eaten lots of spinach lasagna, broccoli pasta, "grandma potatoes" and homemade fish sticks.  I've also emptied the freezer of all the tupperware-encased meals I stashed away "in case of emergency".  Now that the "emergency" and the homemade meatballs are both gone, I've found myself left with a handful of hard-core anti-inflammatories and an urge to start cooking again.

Our garden and the local farmer's market is bursting with amazing produce and I usually start my meal planning with a trip to the backyard and then to the Sunday market.  I get $25 worth of anything that looks good.  Sometimes I go with a plan-- green beans are still in season, don't forget the corn on the cob--- but mostly I wander around and buy the food that calls out to me.  This works pretty well, especially because my children like their food "plain" and my husband is happily supportive of my strange culinary experiments.

We've used up most of our produce from the market so we'll be having spinach lasagna for dinner--AGAIN-- so that I have a little time to think ahead.

When I realized that I might be getting strong enough to lift my cast-iron skillet, I took the girls to the library and looked through the kids' cooking section.  They were going a little crazy so I scooped up a handful of books that looked promising (plus one book on princess cake-making by request) and headed for the door.

I ended up with the following selection:

1.  The Wind in the Willows Country Cookbook by Arabella Boxer
2.  Honest Pretzels by Mollie Katzen
3.  The Secret Garden Cookbook by Amy Cotler
4.  Fanny at Chez Panisse by Alice Waters
5.  The Princess caking-making book requested by my eldest daughter

I also picked up Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, which I'd put on hold when I knew I'd be going to the library.

I started with Feeding the Whole Family and after tagging lots of delicious sounding recipes, I realized that my kids wouldn't like any of them.  Like many young children, my girls like their food simple.  They'll happily eat corn, green beans, brown rice, and many other foods, but if I try to mix any of these components together they are NOT pleased.  I've struggle against this phenomenon for some time now without success so I've decided to take a step back and try a new approach.

Instead of looking for recipes that I think sounded "good" for my family, I sat down with the pile of children's cookbooks and turned on the television.  That's right-- I turned on the tv.  I happily gave myself a break from thinking about healthy eating and watched the second half of Sense and Sensibility (the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee version) while drifting through the stack of books I'd collected.  The first thing I realized when I laid all the books out on the bed was that there was a theme... a literary theme.

I am charmed by period drama, especially the British Regency and Victorian varieties, so I decided to give in to it.  If I loved these Romantic fantasies so much (as many girls and women do), why wouldn't my two daughters?  And if my girls loved simple foods, why not start there?   I had my two criteria: simple foods with good stories.  But what to do next?

Against my initial impulse, I went with Fanny at Chez Panisse.  Because of the cult of food that's developed around Alice Waters I was almost tempted to throw this book out the window, but the truth is that Waters has an excellent point.  Fresh foods simply prepared are the best.  So I decided to have an open mind, soothed by the language of Jane Austen playing in the background, and jump in with two feet.  It sounds almost cloying to say it, but this book is delightful.  My girls are too young to actually sit through the story of Fanny, but it was a pleasure for me to read and I found some really solid recipes.  Some of them are things I already know and haven't made in a while--- simple recipes for corn bread, pizza dough, and 1, 2, 3, 4 Cake (I'll be checking out my grandmother's Inglenook Cookbook for that one).  But I also found a nice simple recipe for Carrot and Parsley Salad and two great desserts-- candied orange peel (which I've been dying to make for over a month now) and chocolate kisses with no preservatives or extraneous ingredients.  I'll be sure to report back on the recipes once I've tried them, but this book is a fun way to start thinking about cooking with children again.

Excited by my initial success, I dove into a second book-- The Secret Garden Cookbook.  I loved the book The Secret Garden when I was young so this was an easy sell.  Thanks to this book I also discovered Amy Cotler as a committed local food advocate and writer for grown-ups who read cookbooks like novels.  The Secret Garden Cookbook discusses the kinds of food that the characters in the story might have eaten.  It also tells a very gentle (read: not scary or overly informative) story about the difference between "cottage life" and "manor life" and separates recipes by these influences.  In the end, The Secret Garden Cookbook was a lovely blast from my childhood literary past.  I was once again reminded of the great pleasures of simple foods that I ate as a child.  The funny thing is that although I ate these foods, I haven't cooked them before so in a weird way they're familiar and foreign at the same time.  We'll be trying Cheese Muffins, Welsh Rabbit, Potato Snow, Little Sausage Cakes, Fresh Spring Peas with Mint, and Glazed Carrots.  I love this book and may end up buying a copy if we haven't finished trying the recipes before the library book is due.

At this point in my research, I was feeling a little peckish, so I took a break and ate a turkey meatloaf sandwich for lunch.  Delicious.  Then I launched back into my cookbook project.  Honest Pretzels was up next.  I like Mollie Katzen as a chef and a cookbook author so I was excited about this book.  It's a good book for older children to read and once again, I felt that my girls were too young to really get into reading and following the instructions.  They certainly aren't too young to enjoy making and eating the food.  In coming weeks, we'll be trying her Giant Baked Pancake Puff, Smart Cookies, Little Pizzas, Made in the Pan Chocolate Cake (which I find very intriguing), Crunchy Zucchini Circles, Maple Yogurt Fruit Dip, and of course, Honest Pretzels.  Suddenly this all started feeling like a lot of work.

I was really losing steam by this point, but with only two books to go I felt like I couldn't stop.  I forged ahead with The Wind in the Willows Country Cookbook by Arabella Boxer.  Sighing, I opened the book to the first chapter to find that Chapter One was entitled "Food for Staying at Home".  Just my style.  I was ready to head to the kitchen to make the first three recipes in the book-- Eggy Bread, Fried Marmalade Sandwich, and Fried Cheese Sandwiches.  Yum.  Not especially healthy for a middle-aged woman looking to lose a few pounds, but delicious nonetheless.  And after all, wasn't this project about getting my kids into the kitchen and to try something new?  I flipped through the book again, starting at the back this time.  We already had too many dessert recipes to try so I didn't mark of any of these, but it was interesting to note that this book, like The Secret Garden Cookbook, also has a recipe for a "Fool". I marked it after all.  This one looked really good.  I also marked recipes for Sausage Rolls, Tomato Chutney, and Wayfarers' Easy Pizza (certainly not authentic, but you don't have to take time to let the dough rise, so I'm in.)  I think I may have gotten off track if my goal is to get the kids to eat these foods.  I can't imagine convincing my oldest daughter to eat tomato chutney, but I know the little one will go for it.  She'll eat tomatoes straight off the vine and beg for more.  Time to stop.

Oh, wait.  That damned princess cake book is still here.  Demanding to be read.  My daughter had chosen it so I gave it a shot in spite of the horrid tiara on the cover.  Not that I have anything against princesses... or tiaras... but I couldn't imagine how this slim pink volume would have anything to add to my project.  Maybe I'm being ungenerous, but after reading a few pages I packed it up in my library bag and am now getting ready to return it to the library before my daughter remembers it's missing.  With so many delicious recipes to try, who needs flowerpot ice cream?  My daughter might disagree but I hope to distract her with a Giant Baked Pancake Puff and homemade chocolate kisses.  How can I go wrong?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

First Tomatoes of the Season: Recipe for Mustardy Summer Salad

The first tomatoes of the season in front of the Mortgage Lifter plant, June 2011.
On Monday I harvested the first of our tomato crop.  We had just four small cherry tomatoes fully ripened on the vine, but they were so beautiful and fragrant that I took a photo of them and decided to make a salad in their honor.

This salad not only showcased our first home-grown tomatoes of the season, it also used up the leftovers from yesterday's dinner.   I used a LOT of mustard in the dressing for this salad because my husband is mustard-crazy, but I've included a more modest amount in the recipe below.
Mustardy Summer Salad, June 2011.

Mustardy Summer Salad
Serves 2 (although can easily be doubled or tripled)

  • 1 cup steamed green beans-- still slightly crunchy, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large tomato (or a cup's worth of cherry tomatoes) chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 ear corn, cooked and sliced off the cob (keeping pieces as large as possible)
  • 2 T fresh parsely, chopped
  • 3 T feta- crumbled
  • 1 t Dijon mustard (you can certainly use less)
  • 2 T white balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 6 T olive oil
  • 1/4 t sea salt
  • fresh ground pepper to taste
  • Place green beans, tomato, corn, and parsley in a small bowl
  • Make dressing in a small bowl or leftover mustard jar by mixing Dijon mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl and mix (or shake) to combine
  • Just before serving, top vegetable mixture with dressing and feta and gently mix to cover all ingredients
  • Enjoy immediately

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mystery Fruit in My Own Backyard

Those of you who have been following the Mystery Fruit Tree saga and the recent Don't Eat These Mushrooms! thread know that I'm excited by culinary mysteries-- especially when they take place in my own backyard.
Mystery fruit as it fell in my tomato patch, late May 2011.
Looking up into the mystery tree, late Spring 2011.
Today, I'm hoping to enlist readers' help to get to the bottom of my current culinary dilemma.  We have our own version of the Mystery Fruit Tree in our yard and I think what we have is a Green Gage Plum.

I haven't had these plums since I ate them on my grandfather's farm.  I remember them as yellow-green, tart, and as my youngest daughter would say when we're forcing her to be polite-- "not my favorite".  We paid no attention to them last year when just a few rock-hard green golfballs rolled underfoot.  The squirrels ate them and that was fine with us.  This year, however, there are a lot more of them and they're growing lower on the tree so we can reach them before they hit the ground and crack open.

Here are seven qualities of our mystery fruit:

1.  Our mystery fruit grows on a tall (25- 30 ft.) tree that is able to withstand neglect and horrible pruning to make way for power lines.
2.  The fruit is green and ripens to a pretty yellow-green.
3.  The skin of our mystery fruit is thin and fuzz-free.  (No fuzzy peach-like skin as in Daniel's Mystery Fruit.)
4.  Our mystery fruit ripens and get soft (also unlike Daniel's Mystery Fruit.)
5.  Our fruit has has a very small pit-- about the size of an almond-- and the flesh clings to it tenaciously.
6.  When ripe, the flesh of the fruit is yellow and soft.
7.  The fruit is tart, but tasty.
Three views of our mystery fruit, June 2011.
I didn't know what to make of our mystery fruit.  If you have ideas, I'd love to hear them.  For now, I'm going to tentatively identify it as a Green Gage Plum.  And I've photographed it in several stages since I want to eat them up and not just identify them.

I happen to like a cobbler more than a crumble, so I decided not to use Daniel's recipe for Mystery Fruit Crumble, and make a Mystery Fruit Cobbler.

Mystery Fruit Cobbler
by Susan Lutz, adapted from a recipe by Daniel Marlos
Close view of Mystery Fruit Cobbler, June 2011.

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 shy cup sugar (I used 1/2 cup sugar for biscuit topping and 1/3 cup for fruit filling)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 2 cups mystery fruit or fruit of your choice (stone fruits and berries work best)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • a pinch of nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups water

  • Cream cold butter and 1/2 cup of sugar together in a large mixing bowl on high speed.
  • Mix flour, salt, and baking powder in a separate bowl and add to butter/sugar mixture, alternating with milk in three additions.
  • When incorporated, spoon into greased 9 x 11 inch baking dish or 10 inch cast iron skillet.  The dough will be thick and it is best to spoon "blobs" of the dough across the bottom of the pan.  It will not completely cover the pan and that's just fine.  The fruit will sink and your cobbler will end up with a nice fluffy crust when you pull it out of the oven.  
  • In a separate bowl, mix 2 cups fruit, 1/3 cup sugar (or more with tart fruit), cinnamon, nutmeg, and water.
  • Carefully spoon fruit mixture over top of dough.
  • Bake at 375 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes.
  • Enjoy immediately with vanilla ice cream.  If using store-bought ice cream, I strongly suggest Breyer's Natural Vanilla Bean.  NOT French Vanilla.  But that's a very personal choice.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Memorial Day BBQ

Vegetables hot off the grill in our backyard, Memorial Day weekend, 2011.
This past weekend we had the most amazing barbecue we've ever hosted at our house.   My husband and I couldn't stop telling each other how fantastic is was.  Then we discussed how lame we were for being so pleased with ourselves.

Magical unicorn in our backyard, Memorial Day weekend, 2011.
We didn't have a giant party or even a casual neighborhood affair.  It was just our immediate family with a handful of vegetable kabobs and a plate of grilled sausages.  The most exciting part of the barbecue was the appearance of a unicorn, but that's another story.

What surprised us was that we had so much fun with so little fanfare.  We (ok... I) usually exhaust us both trying to create an elaborate spread for our friends and family when we entertain, but this time was different.

It's easy to blame my overachieving behavior on the fact that I'm from the South and Southerners are known for making LOTS of food for any social occasion.  The truth is more complicated.  I somehow felt that if I didn't go overboard with food preparation then I wasn't doing "enough".  I have a large extended family and when we all get together there are a lot of people to feed.  A lot of people who can EAT.  But there are also a lot of people to help cook.

Of course, my mother can seem to feed 30 or 40 people without blinking an eye.  I guess that's the advantage of experience.  My mother has fed a crowd of people every few months for the past thirty years-- holidays, office parties, and garden club meetings-- but I most definitely am not.   I don't have the right kitchen equipment or recipes or the knowledge to figure out how to prepare enough food for twenty people and get it ready all at the same time.  I don't live in a world where I need to cook for a crowd on a regular basis, so it makes sense that I can't do it well.

When I was single I hosted a Christmas party for about 30 of my closest friends and it took an entire week to prepare the food.  I always loved this party, but there's a reason I hosted such a large event only once a year-- I spent the rest of the year recovering from it.  I hope that as our family grows I'll be able to host large parties with less angst.  I want my children to feel that they can bring friends over for a meal whenever they want to and that there will always be an extra place at the table.  I know it will take years, but I hope to increase my culinary skills as my children-- and their group of friends-- grow.

For now, it's enough to hang out under our orange tree and play with my girls in the sandbox while waiting for my husband to tell me that the sausages have reached the perfect state of crispiness.  Maybe having a husband to do the actual labor of cooking once in a while is one of the keys to success.  All I know is that during our after-dinner walk we smelled the lingering aroma from our barbecue and I was proud that for once the delicious smell drifting through the neighborhood was coming from OUR house.
Sausages on the grill, Memorial Day Barbecue, 2011.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Forget the Food Pyramid: Try the Plate... Or the Pagoda

My Plate (Image: USDA)
Just when I finally came to terms with the fact that I should probably start paying more attention to the food pyramid, the USDA dumped it in favor of a plate (with a semi-detached dairy circle/glass).  They've also launched a new website choosemyplate.com with a very long list of guidelines to accompany "the plate".  I must admit that I haven't made it through all the guidelines yet.

I've been distracted by this link to other food pyramids  from around the world from the European Food Information Council.  Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the article to see the actual graphics.  It's riveting.

The Swiss pyramid councils citizens to eat sweets and fats "sparingly, with pleasure".

The German pyramid is 3D-- which sounds cool (especially if you're me)-- until you realize that it's wildly complicated.  There's even a plate on the bottom of the German food pyramid so you have to "pick up" the computer generated 2D graphic representation of the 3D pyramid to figure out what it says.  Impossible.

The Spanish have a wheel with water and two people running people in the center.  Awesome.  Running is the only form of exercise I find exciting, but only when I'm already in really good shape.

The French use stairs.  The Hungarians built a house.  And the Chinese have a pagoda.  The Estonians have a pyramid with a skateboarding dragon at the bottom of the pyramid and a demonic cat fishing with a carrot on a stick at the top.

Clearly a nation's food guideline graphic reveals a wealth of fascinating cultural information.  I wonder what  our simplistic plate linked to a maze of linked text say about us.  Does it say that Americans like to pretend things are easy even when they aren't?  Does it say that the U.S. government thinks Americans are stupid so they're keeping information to a minimum?  Or is it that we all already know what we SHOULD be eating without looking at some kind of lame graphic?

We know what we should eat.  We just don't want to do it.  I know I don't.  Not when I've been sleep-deprived for a year or I'm in an incredible amount of physical or emotional pain.  At these times, I want to eat nothing but fatty, salty, starchy foods.  My favorite bedtime snack is homemade bread and a glass of milk.

I eat healthy foods when I'm already feeling good, which luckily is most of the time.  But when I'm feeling bad for an extended period, you'll find my cupboards well-stocked with potato chips and my refrigerator stuffed with a wide selection of cheeses.

For the sake of my children, I try to eat the way I want my children to eat.  I know if they see me eat junk they'll want it too.  So we eat mostly healthy foods most of the time.  But we do make brownies or cookies together when we have a free afternoon.  And I'm still trying to find a recipe for homemade bread that doesn't take all day.  If you have one, I'd love to get a copy.  In the meantime, I'll try to remain focused on the words of the Swiss and eat fats and sweets sparingly, with pleasure.