Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Evidence in the Case of the Mystery Fruit Tree

Daniel's Mystery Fruit Tree in Full Bloom, March 2011.
Mystery fruit from my backyard, June 2011.
Regular readers of this blog know that we've been engaged in a botanical mystery for the past year.  My friend Daniel has a tree with a fruit of unknown origin-- a fruit we've been calling The Mystery Fruit.  Several months after discussing Daniel's Mystery Fruit Tree, we discovered that I had my own Mystery Fruit Tree in my backyard and we wondered if it was the same kind of tree.  After careful examination of photographs of the fruit and pits from both trees, I can safely say that they are not the same kind of tree.  The pits from Daniel's tree have a much rougher surface and the fruit from his tree is larger and has a thicker and slightly furrier skin.  The trees also seem to produce fruit at different times of year.  My tree fruited in June.  Daniel's tree is producing fruit now.
Fruit from Daniel's Mystery Fruit Tree, November 2010.

Of course, all of this information just makes us more excited to solve both mysteries and we're hoping readers-- especially our friend Bharati-- can help.  At the end of this missive, I am reprinting the letter that Daniel wrote to Bharati via this blog updating her (and the rest of us) on the fruit situation this season.  If anyone has input or research suggestions for solving our botanical mysteries, we'd love to hear from you.
Mystery Fruit leaves and pits, October 2011.  Photo courtesy Daniel Marlos 2011.

Dear Susan,

Where we last left this story last season, your friend Bharati wanted to see a cross section of what I have been calling a Sliva or a Mystery Fruit.  Today was the first opportunity I had to get a photo in quite some time, and to my dismay, the tree was stripped of fruit.  There were not as many drupes this year and they were not yet ready when I checked two weeks ago.  While I am unable to provide Bharati with a cross section of the fruit, I can provide her with a photo of a pile of pits.  The squirrels sit on this stump and eat the fruits.  If you recall, that was the catalyst for my baking experiments last year.  There were a few pits on the stump and I gathered the others from around the stump.  There is a small branch with leaves from the tree included in the photo.  They appear more like peach pits than plum pits.

Daniel Marlos

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Oatmeal Bars: The Lazy Mom's Cookie

I almost hate to admit this, but I'm not a big fan of chocolate desserts.  This may be considered a character flaw by some, but I was grateful when my family's brownie phase was over.  When interest in chocolate desserts seemed to be waning, I used the opportunity to reintroduce my family to the oatmeal cookie.  My girls have always liked oatmeal cookies, but I didn't make them that often.   The last time my mother came to visit, I got her to make several batches of oatmeal cookies and I stashed them in the freezer so we could enjoy cookies long after she'd gone home.  I later realized that this created a demand for oatmeal cookies that I wasn't prepared for.
The last of my mother's oatmeal cookies, 2011.

I'm not much of a baker, which is to say that I don't especially like to bake.  As my Grandma Willie used to say, "I CAN bake, but I CHOOSE not to."  Of course, my Grandma Willie was an amazing baker and never said this about baking (just about other things she didn't like to do).  My grandmother regularly made dozens of cookies that were all exactly the same size and all at the perfect stage of doneness.  My mother also possesses this skill, but I most certainly do not.  I get irritated just thinking about monitoring batch after batch of cookies in the oven.  I have enough trouble monitoring two rambunctious little girls.

Because of my hatred for baking cookies, I have become a devoted fan of THE BAR.  For me, the only good thing about brownies is the fact that you make them in a 9x13 pan and cut them into bars.  I've been working on a number of kinds of bars that fill the cookie niche without the extra work of actually making cookies and this one is the biggest hit so far.
The Busy Mom's Oatmeal Bar, 2011.

The Busy Mom's Oatmeal Bar

  • 1 stick plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 
  • 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly ground if you can manage it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup raisins or craisins
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium speed until creamy.
  • Add eggs and vanilla and beat until combined.
  • Add flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and gently mix until combined.
  • Take out beater and remove bowl from mixing stand.  Add oatmeal and raisins (or craisins) and stir gently with spatula.
  • Place in greased 9x13 metal baking pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.  Be careful not to overbake.  This is the death of the oatmeal bar (or cookie) as far as I'm concerned.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Love New York

When the temperature in Southern California reaches 100 degrees in October, it's time to think about fleeing to New York.  At least temporarily.  Right now, New York has everything I love most about Fall... the changing leaves, people wearing cozy sweaters... and this weekend it also has the EAT ART event at the Brooklyn Museum.

I heard about the event from Tracy Candido, one of the organizers, and it sounds fantastic.  The evening starts with a tour of the Brooklyn Museum and is followed by a dinner inspired by the art on display.  Tracy is an amazing artist and food-lover who heads up the Community Cooking Club, so it's sure to be an exciting event.

Sadly, my frequent flyer miles won't get me to NYC by Saturday, but I'd love to be there.  If you're in New York (or have a larger stash of frequent flyer miles than I do), I hope you'll go.  And that you'll write to me and tell me all about it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fried Apples and Carol Penn-Romine's "I Hated Caroline Kennedy"

I rarely post links to other people's food writing, but this essay by Carol Penn-Romine really got to me.  Carol is a long-time friend to this blog (check out her ESD questionnaire) and a wonderful food writer who has raised an issue that has been on my mind for some time now.  How can parents convince their kids to eat food they think they hate?  Carol's essay is a good reminder that there are good ways and bad ways to tackle this tricky issue and that some ways that seem productive can end up biting you-- sometimes years later.

I've tried lots of different ways to try to convince my children to try new foods.  Sometimes I struggle to get them to eat foods I made precisely because I'm sure they'll love them.  Fried apples are a great example of this.  I made my girls fried apples because I wanted to share one of my childhood favorites with them.  I was sure they'd be an instant hit because my children eat apples almost every day of their lives.  They'd also recently developed a love of cinnamon thanks to a special culinary craft project spearheaded by my mother.  My youngest daughter did love them, but she'll eat almost anything.  My older daughter is a tougher nut to crack, especially where new foods are concerned.  She looked at them suspiciously, poked them around on her place, and steadfastly refused to eat them.

That is, until I told her the story of how much I'd loved them "when I was her age".  My daughter is still young enough to think I'm cool, or at least interesting, and she likes doing things that I did when I was little.  I know I need to milk this for as long as possible because the sad day will soon come when she'll refuse to do things/eat things/try things simply because I suggest that something is a good idea.

I also told my daughters that my grandmother had made fried apples for my mother (their grandmother) and she loved them.  Years later, my mother had made them for me and I loved them.  I told my girls how excited I was to be able to make fried apples for them and that I hoped they would love them as much as I did.  At this point, my oldest daughter gave in and tried a tiny bite.  She never admitted that she liked them, but I've made them several times since then and she's eaten them without saying a word.  This feels like a triumph.    I know better than to say a single word about it or to tell the story again... at least not yet.  But I do hold out hope that one day my daughters will use the same technique to convince their children to try a new food.  And that they will smile when they recognize the struggle that all mothers share to get their children to eat and eat well.
Fried apples simmering in my Grandma Willie's cast iron skillet, Oct. 10, 2011.

Grandma Willie's Fried Apples
as made for me by my mother Linda Lutz

  • 4 medium apples or 5 small apples, peeled, cored and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar, depending on sweetness of apples
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Place a medium-sized skillet on the stovetop and heat over medium heat.
  • Place butter, water, sugar and cinnamon in the pan and stir until it makes a syrup and turn down the heat to low.
  • Add the apple slices and stir gently to coat the apples.
  • Cover pan with a lid and cook over low heat for approximately 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety of apple you use.  You can choose any kind of apple, but the firmness of the apple will change the cooking time.  Ripe Yellow Delicious apples will cook in 15 minutes.  Firmer cooking apples like Jonathans or Staymans will take up to 30 minutes.
  • Check apples for doneness and sweetness.  Add more sugar at this point if necessary.
  • When the apples are soft, but not mushy, take off the lid and turn up the heat to medium.  Continue to cook until water begins to evaporate and remaining liquid becomes syrupy.
  • Cool apples slightly before serving.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Corn Pudding: My Year of Brethren Food

My second attempt at homemade corn pudding, 2011.
It's been a while since I've posted a recipe from the series:  My Year of Brethren Food.  And there's a very good, and very humbling reason for it.  I've discovered that I'm not a good enough cook to make food from my grandmother's Brethren cookbook without a lot of experimentation.  And by experimentation, I mean making mistakes.

Like many old cookbooks, my grandmother's cookbook was written for people, mostly women, who cooked daily and knew how to make most foods without a recipe.  That is to say that there are certain assumptions that these cookbooks expect people to know.  For instance, most cakes bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.  Often times, cake recipes in old cookbooks simply list the ingredients and assume that you will know to bake it in two cake pans in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  These recipes also assume you know what things should look like when they're done.  They rarely give advice like, "prick cake with a toothpick and if the toothpick comes out clean, your cake is done".  

I admire people who know so much about cooking that they don't need recipes and I admit that I like to cook without recipes myself.  For me, this is less about skill and more about laziness.  Most of the time, I just can't be bothered to find a recipe when I cook dinner.  I stock my refrigerator and pantry with ingredients I know my family likes and when dinnertime rolls around I see what I can find and whip something together.  Even though I now plan a weekly menu to make sure I have the ingredients to make a week's worth of dinners, I usually am thinking in general terms.  Something like, "Monday-- pasta."  Then I check the shelves for penne, check the backyard to take stock of the herb and tomato supply, then decide what I need to buy at the market-- maybe some more tomatoes, garlic, see if we still have parmesan.  I worry

For some time, I'd been pretty worn out by the details of my daily life and not ready to embark on a new food project.  That is, until the corn came in.  This is an expression my grandmother would have used to describe the ripening of corn in her garden and I always think about the arrival of fresh corn at my farmer's market in this way.  We tried to grow some miniature corn in our garden this year without much success and we rely on our farmer's market to supply us with fresh corn throughout the summer.

My girls love to choose their own ears of corn, shuck corn, and eat corn.  I love to see their love of good, fresh food (especially corn) and I'm a sucker for letting them rummage through the giant piles of corn at the farmer's stall.  Unfortunately, allowing my girls to go hog-wild at the farmer's market tends to lead to an overabundance of fresh corn at our house.  This creates a storage problem, as well as a consumption problem.  As much as we all love eating corn on the cob, there's only so much we can eat before it goes starchy in our refrigerator.  I'm a firm believer that fresh corn needs to be eaten as soon as it's picked and I needed to come up with a recipe to use up all our fresh corn while it was still sweet.  

I started using up our corn supply by making the tomato-and-corn soup I prepared for my husband the first time I ever cooked dinner for him.  It was great, but the girls didn't go for it.  Too much tomato, not enough corn.  So I moved on to corn pudding.  I knew the kids loved my mother's version of corn pudding so I figured I could probably come up with a recipe of my own that they'd love just as much.

My mother's version of corn pudding uses canned corn-- one can of creamed corn and one can of whole kernel corn.  When I started looking online for corn pudding recipes to supplement the recipes  from my grandmother's cookbook, I was shocked to find that most recipes I came across used canned corn.  Not that there's anything wrong with this.  I love this kind of corn pudding.  But I wanted to make corn pudding that used all the delicious fresh corn that my children begged me to buy at the farmer's market.  

I started this project, as I often do, by consulting my grandmother's Inglenook Cookbook.  Page 196 has two recipes for corn pudding.  The first recipe called for cornmeal, but no fresh corn.  The second recipe was called "Green Corn Pudding" and seemed like it would be a good starting point.  The recipe had only eight ingredients and was a mere three sentences long.  It was, however, missing three key ingredients that I knew I wanted to include in my corn pudding:  sour cream, corn meal, and nutmeg.

I've been a nut for nutmeg ever since my mother bought me a nutmeg grinder for Christmas several years ago.  I put nutmeg in greens, cookies, and anything else I can think of.  I also knew my recipe needed to contain cornmeal because a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix is the basis my mother's recipe for corn pudding and I was sure I'd miss that bit of crunch and texture that cornmeal provides.  I probably don't need to tell you why I wanted to use the sour cream, but I will.  Sour cream makes everything better.

Annabel stirs the corn pudding, 2011.
I made several versions of corn pudding before I came up with a recipe that my family really loved.  My daughters helped me make the first version, which wasn't a great success.  We ate it, but thought it was a little too dense and too mealy.  (I reduced the amount of cornmeal in the second attempt.)  And it wasn't sweet enough for our taste buds, so I added a bit of sugar to my next version.  I'm proud to say that my second attempt was an instant hit.  I'd made it a few days before my parents showed up for a visit, which was nice because they are real authorities on the subject of corn.  My parents grow rows of sweet corn in their garden and love it more than any people I know, so when my father tried to steal a second scoop of corn pudding away from my daughter, I knew I'd created a winning recipe.

Corn Pudding
by Susan Lutz

  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 1/4 cup corn meal
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • pinch of nutmeg (freshly ground, if you can manage it)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup sour cream or Mexican crema
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
  • 4 cups fresh corn, cut from the cob with a sharp knife
Note:  In the Inglenook Cookbook, Sister Nannie H. Strayer from Johnstown, PA suggests that corn for corn pudding "should be fresh plucked and carefully taken from the cob, either by running a sharp knife down the center of the rows or by shaving the tips off and then pressing the pulp out with a blunt knife."  I use the latter technique.


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Place dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir to combine.
  • Add wet ingredients and stir until mixture forms a thick batter.
  • Add corn and gently fold into batter.
  • Place mixture in a greased 9 x 11 pan. (I used a cast iron version, but glass or metal baking pans will work just fine.)
  • Bake at 375 degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes.  Let cool slightly before serving.