Saturday, October 30, 2010

The product police -- packaging department

Do you ever get the feeling that food manufacturers would be just as happy if your food spills or goes stale before you eat it all?  If ever there was a good place for a zip lock bag, it's inside a box of breakfast cereal or frozen waffles.  But no, that might add a penny to the (already inflated) cost.

I needed a new box of grits last week and paranoid as always, checked the price on the shelf before buying.  Discovered that it was 15 cents cheaper to buy a rectangular box than a cardboard cylinder with the same quantity.  And since I hadn't thrown out my old cardboard cylinder yet, this morning I decanted the new grits into the old box.  Ha!  It isn't every day you get to outwit the product police!

So what do people do who buy the rectangular box of grits?  As you can see, the top was so enthusiastically glued down that I had to tear it open.  I guess if you didn't save your cardboard cylinder box you could decant into a mason jar.  Which might even be a better idea than saving your cylinder, because it would protect against little vermin.  (Ever found your flour or Bisquick infested?  I have.  No fun.)

Anyway, the grits were great on this chilly morning of the first frost, served up in my official grits bowl, a heavy pottery number that holds the heat for a while.  I like mine runny enough so it would be hard to eat them with a fork, with butter and a tiny pinch of sea salt with pepper.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Food in heaven

What do they eat in heaven?  Yesterday I contemplated this question while we attended an orchestra performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, which concludes with a vocal rendition of a very old German poem.  The poem talks about how heaven is superior to earth, and how great it's going to be once we get there.

This symphony is bad for people on an empty stomach, because the singer enumerates what's great about heaven, and turns out most of it has to do with food.  On the vegetable menu are all kinds of greens, asparagus, string beans; the fruits include apples, pears and grapes.  Angels bake the bread, and the wine is free.

But the best part of heaven is all the meat.  And to remind us of how life has changed, the best aspect of the meat is not how it tastes but its abundance.  Lambs and cows are butchered "without thought or concern."  If you want roebuck or rabbit, just walk down the street and one will come running to you; on a fast day, all kinds of fishes will happily show up for your dining pleasure -- carp, pike, trout, dried cod and fresh anchovies. 

We don't always remember how hard our ancestors had to work for their daily bread.  You did have to think twice before you killed a lamb -- how many lambs would you have left to grow up and keep your flock going?  Even though fish and game might have been plentiful, you still had to go get them, and in Germany the streams and fields might have been owned by the local nobility and thus off-limits to the peasants.

So no wonder the poet thought dinner would be the best time of the day in heaven.  Now, of course, our visions of heavenly food have to do less with being able to sit down at a full table than with avoiding diabetes and triple bypass from all the glorious food at our fingertips.

When I get to heaven, I'm going to eat pork chops, she-crab soup, mashed potatoes, Michigan perch, watermelon, and tuna on rye from a New York deli with a half-sour pickle on the side.  For breakfast, my sister's cinnamon rolls and for dessert, oatmeal cookie dough and coconut ice cream.  For snacks, white cheddar cheese popcorn and a whole can of Durkee's onion rings eaten with a spoon.

What about you?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All-brown meals

Professional chefs think about presentation just as much as they do about ingredients and processes, which is a big reason why the food at a restaurant seems so much more delicious than the food at home.  By contrast, cooks like me tend to think about presentation as the plates are being dished out, and usually along the lines of "oh rats, this looks terrible, why didn't I cut up a carrot and put it alongside."

When my kids were at home and the daily meal was a daily event/chore, I would bring those plates to the table and announce ruefully "sorry, it's another one of Mom's Famous All-Brown Meals."  Last week this came up in conversation and I asked my son, now the official chef in his own family, what he remembered about Mom's Famous All-Brown Meals.  He said he remembered that they tasted just fine.  That's why I love him so much.

A variant, of course, was one of Mom's Famous All-White Meals -- such as chicken breast, mashed potatoes and cauliflower with a side of italian bread ("oh rats, this looks terrible, why didn't I buy broccoli instead"). 

Now that I have taken to buying whole wheat pasta, it's way too easy to whip out an all-brown meal if I don't plan ahead.  Quick, which plate do you want?

zucchetta, leftover chicken, parsley

eggplant, red pepper, parsley

eggplant, celery, olives, leftover pork

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My favorite homemade condiment...

…would have to be semi-pesto. I am fortunate that my husband the gardener grows basil, and in a good year we have enough that I can process and freeze enough to hold us through the winter in addition to many batches of pesto for immediate consumption.

To make pesto, of course, you combine basil, nuts (classically, pine nuts, but walnuts are fine too), garlic, parmesan cheese and olive oil -– classically, with a mortar and pestle, but the Cuisinart is my utensil of choice. To serve on pasta or vegetables, thin the pesto down with some of the hot cooking water.

What I call semi-pesto omits all the ingredients that might go rancid, leaving only the basil and the olive oil. I process this down to a puree, pack it into half-cup tupperwares, make a nice smooth surface and pour a little more olive oil on top to seal it. Most of it goes into the freezer, where it will keep for years, and one pack at a time stays in the fridge to be used a spoonful at a time.

Here are some of the ways to use semi-pesto to add flavor:
  • Stir into soup or any tomato-based sauce.
  • Add to omelet or quiche.
  • Add to mayonnaise or butter, to use on bread, vegetables, fish, etc.
  • Spread on bread instead of butter.
  • Combine with cream cheese or ricotta for a dip or spread.
  • Add to salad dressing.
And of course, you can add the garlic, nuts and cheese to make full pesto.  If you don't have enough for your dinner, augment with parsley.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


One of the joys of autumn is the apple harvest.  Recently I was blessed with a huge bag of apples given to me by somebody who grows them on his farm, fresh from the trees, unpesticided, and delicious (and I don't mean Red Delicious, which aren't).

We ate one or two but I had the urge for applesauce.  The hard part of the job, of course, is not the cooking but the cutting.  Surprisingly, I only discovered the efficient way to cut and core apples within the last couple of years.  As a kid, I was taught to slice the apple into quarters from pole to pole, then cut out a triangular wedge from each quarter to remove the seeds and core.  That was neat but time-consuming, requiring eleven cuts per apple, eight of them fairly small and fiddly. 

Can't remember where I learned this better method.  Instead of slicing through the poles, you move the knife a half inch out from the center and slice top to bottom, missing the core entirely.  Then you rotate the apple and do it three more times.  You end up with four asymmetrical slices of apple plus a square core section that you throw away.  You do lose a little of the meat, but it's a small price to pay for the speed of the processing.

I cut the cored apples into chunks, not so much to get bite-size bits (it will end up as sauce anyway) as to cut the peel into small sections that won't choke you in the finished product.  I put everything into a big soup pot, add a half cup of water, cover the pot and put it all on to cook for a half hour or so on low heat.  The water keeps the apples from sticking to the bottom of the pot in the beginning, but after a few minutes enough juice is produced that you don't need to worry about it any more.

I also like to add some spice, such as cinnamon, ginger or cardamom, but never sugar.  Fresh ginger is particularly nice, grated, but it's OK to use it ground from the bottle. 

The best applesauce I ever made came about because I got involved in some engrossing task outside smell range of the kitchen and totally forgot about my pot on the stove.   When I finally remembered and ran back to check on the sauce, it was within a hair of burning but hadn't actually crossed the line.  Instead, it had caramelized and cooked down to a thick, dark brown concoction that was almost like apple butter.  It was so rich that I served it in tiny dishes instead of hearty bowls.  Since then I've tried to duplicate the process but have never gotten close to the glory of that accident.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I coulda hadda V-8

Responding to my recent post on stealth sodium, Joan mentioned tomato juice, listed as an ingredient in tomato sauce, and said parenthetically, "does that contain sodium?"

Well, Joan, is the Pope Catholic? 

I was both dismayed and outraged to check the sodium content of two cans of tomato juice that I found on my premises.  Dismayed, because the single-serving can of Campbell's tomato juice that I keep in the fridge contains 980 mg of sodium -- two-thirds of your daily quota right there.  Outraged, because comparing the two cans of juice -- different sizes, different brands -- was impossible without my calculator.



What I found in my own kitchen was the 11.5-ounce can of Campbell's and a 46-ounce can of Kroger's.  Both listed the same ingredients: water, tomato paste, salt and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). 

For many years I have been buying Kroger or some other relatively cheap brand of tomato juice for making gazpacho, and the more expensive Campbell's, in single-serving cans, to drink.  I always thought cheap tomato juice was blah, not fit to drink unless doctored it up with a schluck of worcestershire sauce.  I would use the cheaper juice for bloody marys, where it was doctored not only with worcestershire but tabasco, lemon, pepper and vodka, and after the first sip who even noticed the quality of the underlying juice. 

But I would pop for the more expensive Campbell's if I wanted to drink it straight -- for instance at the office on those days when lunch never happened (I kept a couple of cans in the communal fridge), or on the road when I needed a refreshing drink and preferred something healthier than Coke.  Not all roadside stops carry juice, but it happened often enough that I always looked.  That prejudice carried over into my retirement, and I still buy Campbell's in single-serving cans as a snack that seems more nutritious than a lot of alternatives.

When I tried to compare the expensive, delicious Campbell's with the cheaper, less tasty Kroger's, it took a few math skills.  Campbell's shows the serving size as "1 can"-- 11.5 ounces -- while Kroger's shows it as "8 ounces."  

Have you ever gotten the suspicion that food manufacturers, required to provide nutrition info on the labels, or grocery stores, encouraged to supply unit pricing info on the shelves, don't really want to do it?  How many times have you tried to compare products in the store and found that one shows unit price per ounce, another shows unit price per pound, and another shows unit price per square inch or something else difficult or impossible to compare to the others? 

At first glance, I thought the Campbell's was way saltier than the Kroger's, but after I hauled out my trusty calculator I found they were virtually identical.  By converting the Campbell's to an 8-ounce serving, I found the sodium was 686 mg in Campbell's and 680 mg in Kroger.  The calories were practically the same too. 

As a kid I never drank tomato juice -- we were a V-8 family.  In adulthood V-8 began to strike me as sludgy and over-engineered, and I switched to plain tomato juice.  But a brief visit to Campbell's website makes me wonder if I should reconsider that decision.  Eight ounces of V-8 has only 420 mg of sodium, and there's a product called Low Sodium V-8 with only 140 mg!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Stealth sodium

Other than a visceral understanding that too much sodium is bad for you, until very recently I didn't know very much about the specifics, and I can't really say why I suddenly got hungry for a little more info.  Decided I needed a research project to learn more about the basics, and then to look a little more closely at how much sodium we eat and whether I should make some changes to my shopping and cooking habits.

The first thing I realized, after a while on Google, is that there's no simple rule for how much sodium is too much.  While the Food and Drug Administration has detailed guidelines on how much Vitamin C and many other nutrients you need, they are remarkably silent on the subject of sodium.  Being a political paranoid, I am willing to believe that the processed food industry has bought sufficient presence in the decision-making circles of the nutrition establishment that you are unlikely to see any rigorous guidance on this subject from the government any time soon.

First, to orient you, a teaspoon of salt has 2300 mg of sodium.

You need to have 500 mg of sodium every day for your body to work properly, but not a whole lot more.  The Committee on Dietary Allowances of the National Academy of Sciences, which I believe to be a relatively trustworthy body, has set the "Estimated Safe and Adequate Daily Intake" as between 1100 and 3300 mg a day.  But the very fact that this "estimate" covers such a huge range makes you a little suspicious. 

The American Heart Association promotes the "DASH diet" -- which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension -- with a much clearer recommendation: eat less than 1500 mg of sodium per day.  I feel a little more confident with this figure, simply because it's an actual figure rather than a wide range, and decided that this will be my general guideline/target as I assess my own sodium consumption.

Whatever target you set, it's clear that most Americans are way, way over the top -- on average, somewhere between 2300 and 6900 mg per day.  (Again, the wide range makes you suspicious that somebody doesn't really want to find out how bad the situation is.)

In general, 75% of that sodium comes from processed foods.  The major sources: soups, condiments, canned foods, prepared mixes, salty junk food and tomato sauce.  I was taken aback to see that last item -- can we possibly eat enough tomato sauce to rank up there with every other variety of canned food put together?  But then I realized that people eat lots of pizza, lots of pasta, lots of Manwich, and maybe that does really add up (or maybe there's just one helluva lot of sodium in the stuff).

I think that my household is probably on the low end of the sodium spectrum, at least when we eat at home.  We eat mostly fresh vegetables rather than canned, don't add salt to any food except for beans and bean soups, buy low sodium products when we have a choice, and generally make meals from scratch rather than buying commercially prepared food.
I don't want to become obsessive about sodium.  Both of us maintain our blood pressure in the acceptable range, and I enjoy the occasional bag of junk food as much as the next person.  But I can keep track of that and keep my potato chip intake to a reasonable level.  I'm also aware that when we eat out we may be getting more salt than I would ever cook with at home.  What annoys me is the stealth sodium -- the stuff that sneaks in when I think we're eating healthy food.

So I decided to pay attention to sodium in my own kitchen for a while and see what I find.

Just to start, here's my snack from yesterday, 2 TB of red pepper hummus (120 mg) and 17 wheat thin crackers (180 mg).  That doesn't sound too bad (although I didn't do the obvious exercise of adding up everything else I ate that day).  I'll continue to keep my eyes open and see what I discover.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More food porn from Japan

Don't you just love looking at pictures of strange and gorgeous food?  For me, a pile of fruit and vegetables is far more beautiful than a cake.  Here's more porn from the food department of Takashimaya, the big department store in Kyoto.  This area takes up almost the entire basement of the huge store, with ready-to-eat food as well as fruits, vegetables and fish to take home. 

Many vegetables packed in what looks like sand but I assume is salt, to pickle them to some degree.

Lots of smoked fish in various sizes.

Gobo in Japanese, burdock root in English -- it's a relative of the carrot.  I've always loved "kimpira gobo" in my Japanese restaurant at home, a concoction that resembles grated, sauteed carrot.  My friend Zuki tells me that in her family gobo was "peasant food" -- maybe that's why I couldn't find any to eat while I was in Japan, but here's the raw material.

I have no idea what this stuff is, but it costs about six dollars a package -- must be pretty special!

Friday, October 1, 2010

My pasta plan -- so how about the pasta?

In writing about my pasta plan, I neglected to discuss one important element -- the pasta.  For many years I cooked pasta the way I suspect most other people do. Got a huge pot of water going, and when it was boiling, dumped in some dry pasta, stirred it frequently so the pasta wouldn't stick together, then drained it through a colander or sieve in the sink, hoping to avoid steam burns on my arms or inadvertently flipping the sieve and losing the pasta down the drain.

A few years ago I finally remedied the sink situation by buying one of those dedicated pasta pots with a perforated insert.  Just lift up the inner pot and the pasta comes out of the water to drain.  I can't figure out why the designers couldn't go the last mile, however, and build in a doodad to hold the inner pot in place.  Instead I have to perch it precariously on an angle atop the big pot, hoping the whole thing won't fall back and send a tsunami of hot water over my stove.

This method has the obvious advantages of being intuitive and effective, especially with the special pasta pot.  

But a couple of years ago I read an article that changed my cooking life.  It suggested that you could cook the pasta right in the same pot as your sauce.  Well, duh. Works for rice, why not pasta?  Why didn't I think of that?  I tried it once and was hooked.

Let me count the reasons.  First, it takes less time -- no gallons of water to boil first.  Second, it doesn't heat up the kitchen as much as those boiling gallons.  Third, fewer pots to wash.  But best of all, the flavor of the sauce infuses the pasta, so every given mouthful tastes great; you don't have your nice sauce sitting on top of a pile of bland starch. 

Here's how to do it.  Use a big Dutch oven pan so there's plenty of room for as many dishes of pasta as you need to make.  Start your sauce and put in all the flavor and liquid ingredients.  Now do some mental arithmetic, decide how long your solid ingredients need to cook and stage them up on order of cooking time.  The pasta will take ten to fifteen minutes.  If the solids can cook longer than that, put them in now; if you have any last-minute ingredients, hold them back till the pasta is almost cooked. 

Fifteen minutes before dinnertime, add liquid to your sauce, bring everything to a boil, dump in the dry pasta and stir it around so it doesn't clump together.  Add more liquid as needed to almost cover the pasta, then turn down the heat so it's simmering nicely but not boiling violently.  Put a lid on the pot.  In ten to twelve minutes start checking to see if the pasta is done. 

Yes, but what liquid?

Just about anything that is there and sounds appetizing.  Red or white wine, chicken broth, vegetable broth, tomato juice (or, in summer, the actual watery juice that drains out of fresh tomatoes when you cut them), water from cooking vegetables, even plain water.

How much liquid?  

The general pasta plan calls for at least a half cup of liquid per person in the bowl, but since the dry pasta absorbs a lot of liquid as it cooks, you'll need to start with considerably more.  Exact measuring is an unnecessary complication, so I gauge my liquid by the seat of the pants.  I start with enough liquid to pretty much cover the dry pasta in the pot, which probably is about one cup per serving.  Then I heat more water in my electric kettle in case I need to add more liquid to the pasta pot.  (You could add room temperature water, of course, but that would slow down the cooking.) The pasta doesn't have to be totally underwater to cook properly, but it needs to have access to water so it can plump up. 

Any rules for the pasta?

I measure pasta by weight -- five ounces works nicely for two of us, a little less with a lot of side items on the menu.  I think cut pasta shapes like penne and rotini work better than long noodles.  Spaghetti or fettucini are OK if you stir frequently and if your sauce is mostly liquid.  At all costs avoid delicate pasta like angel hair, especially in a dense sauce.  It will just clump together and make an unappetizing glob.  (Thank you, my dear friends who ate it anyway -- you know who you are.)

The picture at the top is whole wheat penne cooked in red wine with the last of the zucchetta added about three minutes before serving, some leftover chickcn and fresh parsley on top.  We grated parmesan cheese on right after the photo was made.  One pot, about twenty minutes start to finish.