Saturday, December 26, 2009

Culinary presents

I always get a few presents related to my cooking hobby. Here are the ones from this year:

1. A pastry brush, as a stocking stuffer. Neat! I've been needing one of those! My roommate and I have been using a tiny paint brush since we moved in to our first apartment three years ago, and, well, it's pretty inefficient.

2. Food Path: Cuisine Along the Grand Trunk Road from Kabul to Kolkata by Pushpesh Pant and Huma Mohsin. This is a really beautiful book with huge full-color photos and a lot of cultural and historical information along with the recipes. I'm looking forward to trying them out. A lot of them are meat-based, but they'll make for good exercises in substitution and adaptation.

3. A pressure cooker! Mom found one for 15 bucks at a yard sale, never used. I've been wanting one of these for a while. Raghavan Iyer swears by 'em and I am really looking forward to being able to cook unsoaked chickpeas in 48 minutes. Seriously! This modern world we live in! (Grandma was telling me they first came into vogue when she started out as a housewife, and whenever the ladies got together there was always a story about whose beans ended up on the ceiling. Heehee! It looks like there are enough safeties on this device that you'd have to do something pretty foolish to get yourself blown up, though.)

Other non-food highlights include the Monty Python's Flying Circus Collector's Edition, from Mom, and a subscription to the New Yorker, from my brother. Favorite presents I gave this year included a 15-year-old bottle of Laphroaig scotch for my dad (that was a joint purchase from me and Brian), hand-made portraits of a few of my friends' pets, a Yiddish alef-beyz book I've been working on for a few months for a friend who loves languages, and copies of my NaNoWriMo novel for the grandmas. (It is an economic year for handmade presents.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

French fight obesity with good food

The French are fighting their obesity teaching obesity patients how to cook.

Patients are told that it's okay to sit down to a three-course meal with family and friends, just not to snack and eat processed, packaged foods.

Although fighting obesity with good cooking may seem counterintuitive to some, I think they are approaching this problem very well. If you look at how obesity is spread out in America, you see that the areas with the worst problems are also the areas with the lowest incomes. Cheap food is the worst for us, but if you've grown up getting fed nothing but cheap food by your parents, you think that's all there is out there. (Cf. that poor Wal-Mart clerk who didn't know whether limes were a fruit or a vegetable...) If some of these poor malnourished people (and it is very possible to be obese and malnourished, as David Cross once pointed out) could learn to enjoy cooking and preparing great meals, they would spend more time thinking about, preparing, and savoring food, and less time eating mindlessly.

Now, you can argue that some people don't have enough money to cook well, but I think the idea that it takes a lot of money to have a cooking hobby is a flawed one. If you play your cards right you SAVE money by making your own food. I'm a poor college student and I often have next to nothing left of my paycheck after rent and electric bills, but I know how to go to Aldi, spend about twelve bucks and go away with more than I can carry, and get really good meals out of it. Most ingredients are not expensive, and many of those that are can be used sparingly or left out entirely. Anyone can cook! And I'm glad the French realize that.

Besides, anyone who's been to the Mediterranean can see that enjoying good home-cooked food doesn't make you fat...the Mallorquins were all rail thin, but my host parents overwhelmed me with food every night, and I didn't even have to endure their epic 2-hour 3-course lunches because I was in class. (Now, I DID gain a little weight in Mallorca, but I blame ensaimadas and chocolate a la taza for that!)

One thing, though -- if we follow this example in the US we have got to remember that Europe has something else we don't, which is public transit combined with a virtually big-box-free economy. Part of cooking dinner in Mallorca was walking to the market every day, getting your groceries, and walking back. You also walked from home to the metro (or bus stop), from the metro to work, work to the metro, the metro back home for lunch. Then back to the metro and back to work. And then back home for dinner. There's a lot more walking in everyday life. And I think trusting in public transit, plus trusting in our own two legs, could make all the difference for us...and our waistlines.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Gnocchi di patate

An Italian classic, these savory little potato dumplings are one of my all-time favorite things to eat. This is a perfect recipe for those long winter nights when you are feeling cold, hungry, and extra indulgent. I dare you to try not to eat way too many. Serve it with a nice crispy green salad so you don't feel TOO bad afterwards!

I first learned this recipe from Liz Clark, a chef from my home county, when I took one of her cooking classes in middle school. I've been making it and adapting it ever since.

Gnocchi di patate


2 medium or 3 small potatoes
1 or 2 eggs
1-2 cups all-purpose flour (you can also try cake flour for a lighter-textured dumpling)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg (more or less depending on personal tastes -- I love the stuff myself)
About 1 cup of shredded parmesan cheese (none of that stuff in the green can, as Lynne Rossetto Kasper would say)
Olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Start heating up some water in a medium-sized saucepan and bring it to a boil. Wash and peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks. Place them in the boiling water and cook until easily pierced with a fork. Drain and mash. Put them into a large mixing bowl and let them cool down until they're lukewarm.

Add the salt and nutmeg to the mashed potatoes and mix. Then add one egg and begin gradually adding the flour, mixing it with a fork. Add the other egg, then more flour. Keep adding flour until the dough is elastic but not too sticky. How much flour you'll need all depends on the size of the potatoes and the eggs, so you'll just have to eyeball it.

Begin bringing a saucepan of water to a simmer. While it's heating up, dust a work surface lightly with flour and begin rolling balls of dough into roughly 3/4 inch diameter "snakes" with your hands. Ideally this will be easy, but if your dough is a little crumbly, don't worry -- you got a little too much flour in it, but just be gentle when you're rolling it out and it will still taste delicious in the end. (In the event it's too crumbly to work with you can add a little milk.)

Cut the dough snakes into one inch long segments with a knife, then carefully pick up each dumpling with your fingers and very gently roll it across the back of a fork to create a ridged pattern. (An extra dusting of flour can help if it's too sticky.)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a casserole dish by greasing it with some olive oil. Then, once the water is simmering but not boiling, drop the dumplings in batches of eight or ten into the hot water. The nice thing about dumplings is they'll tell you when they're done cooking: remove them from the water with a slotted spoon when they float to the top, and put them in the casserole dish. Repeat until you've got as many in the dish as you want. (Extra dumplings can keep in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for several months.) Then drizzle the dumplings with the melted butter and top them with the shredded parmesan cheese. Bake in the oven, uncovered, until the cheese is golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes and serve.

Additional thoughts:

*If you're worried about all the fat I guess you could leave out the melted butter and use less cheese. It'll still be good...just not as good.

*If you don't have time to bake them, they are quite good just tossed in a bowl with olive oil and parmesan right after they come out of the water. The baking brings out an extremely delicious flavor in the parmesan and adds an appealing crunch.

*I made a recipe for Hungarian "Shlishkes" from Gil Marks' Olive Trees and Honey, and the process was almost identical, except paprika was added instead of nutmeg. I liked the flavor and color so much that now I always do both.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Easy weeknight pasta

I make this a lot, especially when I don't have much time. Cook a half cup to a cup of pasta. While that's cooking, put some olive oil in a skillet. Use a garlic press or mortar and pestle to crush 2-3 cloves of garlic. Add that to the oil. Add a 2-4 teaspoons of Italian seasoning. Add salt and pepper to taste. Heat the skillet over low heat until the garlic just begins to sizzle, and turn it off immediately (remove it from the heat, if you use an electric stove). Pour over the cooked pasta and toss to coat. Top with shredded Parmesan cheese.

You can add tofu, chickpeas, lentils, or meat to make it a more complete meal. You should probably also serve it with salad or add chopped vegetables to it (sautee them together with the garlic until tender -- just be careful to keep the heat low, and keep stirring it so the garlic doesn't burn). It doesn't get old!

Produce is complicated

I was doing my Thanksgiving shopping today at Wal Mart (sorry -- I do have ideals, but I'm also poor) and the girl who checked us out (she was maybe 18, possibly older) didn't recognize fresh ginger, cilantro, romaine lettuce, fresh green chilis, or limes when she saw them, and had to spend a long time hunting through the Wal Mart-issued non-alphabetical pictorial produce chart, with our help, to find them. She also didn't know whether limes were a vegetable or a fruit.

JEEZ LOUISE. This is why there is a nutritional crisis going on in this country.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review: Blue Diamond Almond Milk

I blame the vegan cookbooks section at the Haunted Bookshop, which I was perusing for ideas this morning, for this impulse purchase. I'm always wishing I could be a vegan, but I love food and eating so much I would hate to cut off such a wide avenue of textures and tastes and smells. Especially cheese. There is absolutely no vegan cheese that is edible. Do not argue with me, vegans, for you have simply forgotten what true culinary bliss tastes like.

So although I know in my heart I could never truly go vegan, I'm always looking for ways I can substitute non-dairy items in my diet. I'm aware of how bad dairy farming is for the environment and I hate that I am a part of that, but at least I can be less huge of a part of it if I find a good milk substitute that I like.

I love soy milk, but the health risks associated with it scare me, especially as a woman. I still drink it once in a while as a treat (imagine!) but these reports have me frightened away from keeping it in my fridge at all times. Plus it's expensive.

Anyway, what I'm leading up to is that that's why I grabbed this carton of Blue Diamond Vanilla Flavored Unsweetened Almond Breeze from the produce aisle of Fareway today. The package made it sound nice. "Luscious Taste!" "Smooth and Creamy!" "The Preferred Taste Alternative!" It's very low in calories, and almonds are supposed to be full of vitamins. Also, since I spent last spring in Mallorca, I have a fond memory of seeing the almond fields blossoming in the sun. There's something so much more foresty and peaceful about an almond field than there is about a vast, deserted stretch of soybeans. They can keep sheep together in the same fields with the almond trees, and it seems to be a much more efficient deal. So if almond milk was as good as soy milk, I thought I might still have a chance at my perfect dairy replacement (it's still expensive, though - $2.49 a carton at Fareway).

Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. While there's nothing too unpleasant about the taste, it lacks the substance of soy milk. It's just white, opaque water with a vaguely nutty, slightly bitter flavor. It might be okay on cereal, but for drinking a cool glass of milk or making some nice hot chocolate, I'm going to stick with the regular kind. Also, I hear that the almond content in it is so slight by the time the milk is processed that you'd be better off just eating the almonds if you wanted to get the beneficial vitamins and fats from them. Not worth it to drink this. Almond Breeze is not for meeze.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Turmeric kills cancer cells, say experts

Good news for curry-eaters all over the world -- turmeric has been shown to destroy esophagial cancer cells. Eat up!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Egyptian Potato Soup

This is a very easy and delicious soup taken straight out of Olive Trees and Honey by Gil Marks, one of my favorite cookbooks (with, of course, a few modifications of my own). It's a nice light alternative to those creamy European-style potato soups (but not so light anymore after I garnish it with lots and lots of grated cheddar cheese).

Batata lamoun

Olive oil
3 large leeks or 3 onions, chopped [I used green onions as I didn't have any leeks on hand -- but since they're pretty small, some of them burned on me, as you can see, so you have to be careful.]
2-3 stalks celery with leaves, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced [As I always do, I doubled the amount of garlic. I can never have too much garlic.]
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped [I don't have a scale but I used about 5 or 6 small/medium potatoes and it's about the right amount.]
6 1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
About 2 teaspoons table salt or 1 tablespoon kosher salt
Ground white pepper to taste [White pepper has a really interesting fiery taste and you can find it at Asian stores, but feel free to use black pepper if you don't have it.]
About 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the leeks, celery, garlic and turmeric and
sauté until softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, water, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the potatoes are very soft, about 45 minutes. Leave as is, or, using a wooden spoon or potato masher, mash the potatoes. Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

New cookbook

I have an idea for a new cookbook. It's called, "That's Gross, Grandma!"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A quick salad

Threw together a salad tonight to go with some soup. (More on that later.) It got thumbs up from everyone involved in the dinner (i.e. me and Brian). Really tasty and I'll definitely make it again. You need:

-Mixed baby greens/spring mix/whatever. Greens should be tender and with a sharper taste - arugula and radicchio and stuff on that order.
-A handful or so of unsalted dry roasted peanuts, crushed. (I think I'll try this recipe again but with walnuts.)
-A cup or so of grapes, cut in half for forking ease.
-Olive oil.
-Lemon juice.
-Grated parmesan cheese.

Just toss the greens, the peanuts, and the grapes together. Drizzle enough olive oil to just lightly coat everything. Add lemon juice, pepper, and parmesan to taste. Couldn't be simpler, and it's REALLY good.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fine dining

Fine dining: Is it worth it? Is it worth 75 more of your dollars to have the chef shake your hand when you walk in and not leave you alone for the rest of the night? Is it worth it to have little paper doilies underneath the lemon wedges on a platter they bring out for your ice water? To have the suit-jacketed owner lurk unctuously about your table and recommend the shrimp cocktail? To have two forks to choose between? I think not.

Food: How good can it be? Is the $35 entree really that much tastier than your favorite comfort food or mom-n'-pop ethnic restaurant? Are you paying for stuff tasting better, or are you paying for poor lighting, artistic presentations and too many modifiers in ingredient names (lightly pinkened baby Chilean portobello mushrooms braised in summer red Mallorquín grape wine served with a delicate sprig of tenderly seared sesame-crusted plantation mint)? Yes, chefs create unique specialties -- but so do cooks, without knowing that they're doing it. A good cook chips away at a recipe with his own changes over time until it becomes something completely different. All new dishes must be a variation on some well-known theme -- so what is the difference between a chef and a cook, really? Is there an answer to this question?

And where does creamed corn figure into the workings of the universe?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Redwall quandaries

I'm reading the Redwall books by Brian Jacques right now, which have their flaws but are really great reading all the same. If you like food, they're worth reading just for all of the mousewatering - uh, mouthwatering recipes the forest creatures come up with (there's even a Redwall cookbook which I'd really love to have).

Here are my only questions:

1) Where are they getting the milk for all of the butter, cream, and cheese that they eat? There's no way a mouse can milk a goat, and given the amount of interspecies tension in these books, I doubt a goat would allow it. Goats are probably one of those Warlike Creatures the mice are xenophobic about. Are they stealing from human farmers? "Goatsmilk cheese" has been referenced at least once, but is there some other animal they're milking? Are they milking badgers? This, like "What was the noodle incident?", is one of those questions I guess you're just not supposed to ask an author.

2) Why do the Redwall mice get to be so damned self-righteous about never harming another creature on one page, and then go fishing the next? Why are weasels which prey on land animals evil, but otters which prey on sea creatures good? (HINT: It's because otters are cute.) I'm a bit of a hypocrite in saying this, because I don't eat meat of the land or the air but do scoff the occasional shrimp -- but I feel bad about it afterwards, and I'm not self-righteous about it. And I have an evolutionary reason for wanting a little fish in my diet, especially if you go with the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Mice and hares and moles don't even EAT fish in the wild! (Of course, neither do they wield swords, play musical instruments or wear habits.) Also, what about the badgers? Badgers are in the weasel family and eat mice, frogs and birds. Don't Constance and Mother Mellus and Lord Rawnblade ever look at those mice a little too hungrily when the mouse chef is a little too tardy in bringing out the hazelnut bread and redcurrant tart? This is another one of those questions you're not supposed to ask. I think it may be a cultural thing, as it seems like Europeans tend to think of "fish" and "meat" as two different categories more often than Americans do. This was certainly true in Spain, where I decided to abandon my dietary isms for a semester to make it easy on my host parents. (Actually, one time I said "I'm really going to miss Spanish ham when I go back to the US and stop eating meat." "Why can't you eat ham?" they said. "Well -- I'm not going to eat meat anymore after I leave," I said. "But ham isn't meat! Ham is ham!" they replied. Same with sausage and sobrassada. I had a hard time figuring out their definition of meat after that.)

I think the real problem is that I'm sore about the libelous nature of these books because I've had both rats and mice as pets. My mouse was stupid, dirty and incredibly smelly for its size. The many rats I've had, by contrast, were sweet, engaging, clever and much cleaner in comparison. And let's not talk about my love of the family mustelidae and its condemnation (except for otters and badgers) in the Redwall universe. I get that he's just using the different species as ways to represent different types of people, but it strikes me as too easy, which is the same thing that bothers me about the Harry Potter books -- characters should have to do something to be evil, instead of just being labeled as "Slytherin" or "Rat" and acting accordingly. Ah well. They're both still really fun to read!

Monday, October 12, 2009

How fish becomes fish food

I spent the last semester of my senior year in Mallorca to improve my Spanish, and it also ended up broadening my culinary horizons. Like, I learned how to make salad. This would be a pretty obvious thing for most people, but I've always hated salad with dressing and ordered just the dry leaves, leaving waiters dumbfounded and weirdly suspicious. It turns out that I just didn't like those commercial, creamy, too-salty dressings, or maybe it just bugged me that I didn't know what was in them, but I DO like salads with dressing now. I keep oil and vinegar dispensers (bought there, with "Aceite" and "Vinagre" printed on them -- oh, aren't I so hip and cosmopolitan!) on my kitchen table -- some leaves, a little oil and balsamic, salt, pepper, maybe some Italian seasonings, and whatever else you want in there, and you have a salad with very little effort. My host mom would put all sorts of stuff in, like apples and nuts and seeds; I loved her creativity. Salad is so much more a part of the meal there (as is soup, bread, and dessert -- how do working señoras find the time and energy? I think reasonable working hours and the sacred tradition of siesta have a lot to do with it), and they go a long, long way beyond romaine and cherry tomatoes with something pale and slimy out of a bottle.

Anyway, another eye-opening experience was the seafood. Stateside, I'm a "vegetarian," but I do eat the occasional bit of fish when I go out. Sometimes I'd buy those bags of frozen fish at Aldi for $3.99 and sautée or bake them and serve them to myself alongside some pasta, and they tasted fine. Well, I'm here to tell you, if you live in a landlocked state like I do, don't EVER spend any time on an island because it will ruin fish for you forever. The fish that I ate at my host house was probably fished out of the Mediterranean a day or two before, and it had a succulence and a mildness and a depth of flavor that I've never experienced. If I were a Mallorquín, I'd probably be horrified if I were served something that had been frozen for months. It's just not the same at all.

I returned from Mallorca on June 17th, and today was the first day I ate fish since I came back from there. I thought I'd give my palate a lot of time to forget what island fish tasted like. Tonight I cooked myself up a frozen Tilapia fillet, thinking I'd be able to say "Oh well" and accept what my landlocked status handed me.

ACK, PPTH, PTUI! Horrible! Dreadful! It tasted exactly like the smell I get when I open the can of freeze-dried krill I keep on the top of my turtle tank to give him an occasional fishy treat. (Some treat!) Stale, old, and saturated with "that fish taste" which I think is the reason some people can't stand fish. Disgraceful. Is this what islanders who come inland think we like to eat? No wonder Mallorquins are a bit reserved...who'd want to talk to anyone who thought THAT tasted good?

So from now on, I buy my fish -- if I do at all -- from the Co-Op and at least get something that came out of a nearby river. Life is too short. If you want an easy dinner from the supermarket, save yourself $3.69 and get a package of Ramen Noodles. You'll feel better afterward.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cheese peppers appetizer

Okay, so I made this a long time ago and I can't remember exactly how, and I'm sorry for the poor image quality, but I was just scrambling for a first post for my blog that I could make without actually having to make anything new. But basically I just cut these peppers in half (the red ones are sweet, the green ones are mildly hot ancho poblano chiles), removed the "bones" (the white parts) and seeds, and filled them with a mixture of: feta cheese, cumin seeds, fresh mint leaves, pepper, salt....and I can't even remember what else, but it wasn't too much more. I put it all in a mortar and pestle and crushed it all so that the mint and cumin would be pulverized a little and its flavor would be released. I added the carrot sticks for health and color. Then I drizzled it all with a little olive oil and pepper. I know it sounds weird, but all present at the dinner (i.e. me and Brian) agreed that it tasted AWESOME.

Man, guys, I'm sorry this first post is so lame and indefinite. I promise I'll have something better for you soon.