Friday, April 29, 2011

The first garden disaster

Farmer Ken started seeds indoors under lights, and two weeks ago decided they were big enough to put outside on the screened-in porch during the day, a necessary "hardening" step before they get transplanted into the garden.  But disaster struck twice.  First, it rained -- more than three inches -- and the plants nearly drowned before he realized they weren't protected by the roof.  So the next day he put them out in the sun to dry out.  That was fine, until the whole tray collapsed and landed upside down as he was carrying them back in.

The bok choy and the basil still look perky, but the poor tomato plants, having landed on their heads, were wounded.  Would they survive?  He planted them anyway, our attitude toward plants being that if they're not tough and motivated enough, they don't deserve to have a future.

Then we went away for ten days, during which it rained more than four inches, and came home to find that everybody is flourishing.  It's the first time we've grown bok choy, and we're looking forward to many meals.

Monday, April 25, 2011


So when you find yourself in a motel room after a long day on the road, and you're too tired to go out to dinner (besides, you had a big lunch), and you realize you have cheese and crackers and baby carrots and beer in the cooler, that seems like a pretty good argument for snacks in the room.

But wait -- how to cut the cheese? 

In the olden days, we used to travel equipped with corkscrew, church key, pocket knife, scissors and other useful accessories always in our cosmetic kits, but having lost too many of said accessories to airport security on various continents, we have gotten negligent.  It's just too much trouble to put tools into your kit when you're traveling by car, then take them out when you're going by plane.

Had it been just one of us alone in the motel, we probably would have just taken bites out of the cheese.  But we weren't quite that desperate.

The solution:

We had two room keys, so didn't have to find out whether cheese adversely affects the magnetic strip.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Beach food

We're on the Outer Banks this week, and our almost-going-away dinner featured local seafood.  I've never been one to require variety in my diet -- if something I love is in season, I'll eat it five meals in a row.  So confronted with fresh crabmeat, I doubled down, with crab bisque and a crab cake sandwich.

The others ate mahi-mahi, caught in the Gulf Stream, only 12 miles offshore.

And the five-year-old ate a hot dog -- or should I say a sea dog?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Favorite tools -- the microplane grater

When I was looking for carrot pictures to illustrate my last blog post, I came upon a photo of my carrot salad in process and realized that it featured one of my favorite kitchen tools, the microplane grater.  Can't remember how long I've owned this tool, but despite its age it's still as sharp as ever (just like me!!).

Supposedly the story behind the tool is that a woman needed to grate something and couldn't find her big old box grater, or maybe it was dirty.  So she frantically looked around the kitchen and saw ... a woodworking tool that her husband had just bought but hadn't put away yet.  It was clean, it was sharp ... and did a better job of grating than the old grater.  And a business was born.

I use the grater for ginger, as in the carrot salad, but mostly for parmesan cheese.  Which is the essential finishing touch for pasta, risotto, salad and many kinds of soup. 

I first learned about parmesan cheese when we moved to Syracuse NY, aka Sicily West, in the 1960s, and discovered real Italian food.  My friend Maria's mom first introduced me to grated cheese in the minestrone (Germans didn't do things like that, partly I guess because Germans didn't have nice hard cheese).  She also taught me the Italian mom's mantra that there is no food on earth, except maybe ice cream, that wouldn't benefit from a little cheese grated over the top.

I'm embarrassed to remember that when I first set up my own kitchen, I bought Kraft grated parmesan in the big round green cardboard box.  But I don't think there was an alternative -- I don't remember actual fresh parmesan cheese in stores until the 80s or 90s. (Should never have moved away from Sicily West -- plenty of the real stuff at Wegman's even in the olden days.) 

When I graduated to chunks of cheese, I would grate them in the Cuisinart.  But when I bought my microplane grater I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  You can grate only as much as you want!  You can take it to the table and everybody can do their own!  If at the end of the meal there's more food than cheese, you can just grate some more onto your plate!

I looked on the internet and realize to my dismay that the microplane I love has apparently been phased out.  Other models are similar, but not identical.  I'll have to take special care of mine so it lasts the rest of my life.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The garden comes to life -- tabouli time

It's that wonderful time of year when the garden is beginning to produce enough food to actually eat!  We've had bits of green for several weeks, but you don't want to pick those beautiful leaves prematurely.  After all, when rabbits do just that same thing, you get really mad.

Inside the chicken wire fence, the parsley is luxuriant.

  The mint is starting to come on, both inside and outside the fence.

The chives are still sparse but definitely growing, and can spare a half dozen shoots.  Sounds like tabouli time.

Some people put a lot of extra things in tabouli, like tomatoes, feta cheese, pine nuts, cucumbers and who knows what else.  I stick with the basics.  Soak some bulgur wheat in warm water for an hour or so, drain the extra water off, add parsley, mint and chives that have been shredded in the Cuisinart.  Dress with olive oil and lemon juice to your taste.

Good for breakfast, lunch and dinner (if you make enough to last that long).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rabbit food

I said some rude things about carrots a couple of weeks ago -- not carrots in general, just one particular bag of them, but still I'm worried that their feelings were hurt.  So let me set the record straight.

If I had to choose my favorite vegetable, carrots would sure be on the short list.  A carrot is one of those perfect packages of good stuff, nutritious and delicious.  It requires no preparation (other than to wash it, and cut or bite off the stem end) and no seasoning.  It's portable and won't make a mess if you eat it in the car or at your computer or sewing machine.

I'll often eat a couple of carrots for lunch, or afternoon snack, or even breakfast.  Add a piece of buttered toast and you have a whole meal!

When I was a kid, carrots were a major part of my mother's food repertoire.  Most frequently, they were served in advance of dinner.  When the rest of us would start whining that we were hungry, and the food wasn't ready yet, Mom would issue carrots to everybody to be eaten in the living room.  Not only did that mean one less thing to serve at the table, the carrots kept everybody satisfied and quiet and bought her another 15 minutes before dinner had to be served.

Sometimes Mom would fix grated carrots, which had no additional ingredients.  We'd make them on a big box grater and eat them in little dishes with spoons.  The carrots were so juicy that you could eat each mouthful in two parts -- first squeeze the juice with your tongue and slurp it down, then chew and swallow the solid bits.

These days I have adapted those delicious grated carrots to my more technologically advanced kitchen and my more sophisticated food tastes.  I chop them up in the Cuisinart and add olive oil, lemon juice, grated ginger, and maybe some parsley and call it carrot salad.  It's highly regarded enough in our family to make it onto the Thanksgiving table.

With the raw carrot so close to perfection, you might wonder why anybody would ever want to cook it.  And I generally don't, but here's a nifty way to do it if you need to.

Cut up the carrots into some sort of uniform slices, juliennes, coins or other pieces, or use baby carrots out of the bag.  Put a quarter cup or so of orange juice in a skillet and add as big a hunk of butter as you think your diet will permit.

Add the carrots, bring it to a boil, then turn down and simmer for a while, tasting every now and then. If you think of it, you could add a bit of spice such as cardamom, nutmeg, ginger (dried or fresh/grated) or black pepper, stirring it into the juice.

You can cook the carrots till they're very soft, or leave them al dente. Eventually the orange juice will cook away, leaving a syrupy glaze in the pan. If the rest of the dinner is ready before the orange juice has cooked down, remove the carrots to a dish, turn the heat up high and stir attentively while it reduces.

If you're feeling fancy, deglaze with Marsala wine and pour the sauce over the carrots.  If you're in a hurry, just scrape up the syrupy stuff with a spatula and put it over the carrots.

PS -- you can cook parsnips the same way, except they really need to be cooked toward the soft end of the spectrum.  Or have parsnips and carrots together.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Apples, the sybarite's version

I wrote recently about an unhappy experience with a bag of  "ready to eat" carrots (pre-washed, pre-sliced), and that got me to thinking about nice it is on occasion, in a totally sybaritic way, to have somebody else prepare your foods and maybe even pop those grapes directly in your mouth for you.  Actually, I was thinking about apples.

I am an apple lover and I can't begin to estimate how many hundreds if not thousands of apples I have eaten in my life, and probably half again that many that I have served to others.  And while I know it's possible to just crunch away on the whole fruit, if I'm at all within reach of a knife I will cut my apple apart and pare out the core and seeds before eating it.  If I'm bringing an apple for a picnic or brown-bag lunch, I'll usually pack the knife too.

My mother spoiled me as a kid by fixing my apples this way.  Even when she hit her 90s, if she knew you wanted an apple she'd get a knife and cut it up for you.  Oh, Mom -- you were so good to us!!

So I was fascinated to read an article in the New York Times magazine five years ago about food scientists who are beating their heads against the wall in the search for a way to make and sell sliced apples.  I guess for people whose moms aren't as generous as mine.  That article has stuck in my mind for all these years, and when I got to thinking about ready to eat foods I went back and re-read it.

I came away with the mixture of moral superiority and sadness that also hits you sometimes while watching reality TV shows.  Are people so spoiled and rushed that they can't cut their own apples, or cut up one for their kid and stick it in a plastic bag?  Are people such pathetic weenies that they can't eat a whole apple and figure out how to throw away the core?  (Apparently market research reveals that people find the cores disgusting and wasteful.)

And most of all, will a kid who eats apples only from plastic bags ever grow up to love apples in all their crisp, juicy glory?  Will she know the delicious hassle of the spray onto her glasses when she takes that first bite?  Will she have a clue about what Hamlet is talking about when he alludes to the worm in the apple?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Mainlining sugar

I once complimented my boss's wife at a dinner party on her delicious green salad.  "It's so simple," she confided, "just put a teaspoon of sugar in the dressing."

I don't know about other nations, but the U.S. is addicted to sugar, and you can tell by observing the overweight people all around us -- and maybe even those who are us.  And I don't use the term addiction in its purely metaphorical sense.  According to a recent story in the New York Times, "Researchers using brain imagining technology have ... found that foods high in sugar or fat activate the same reward system as cocaine and other drugs."

In addition to Alice's salad dressing, other recipes from my past include gratuitous sugar.  My mom used to put sugar in the spaghetti sauce; my mother-in-law used to put it in the chili.  I'm not counting the various baked goods that don't appear to be sweet -- bread? -- but still call for sugar.  And that's just the deliberate sugar added in the kitchen; how about all the sugar in processed foods that don't seem to need it? 

Here are some surprise sweeties from my cupboard, with details from the small print.

Peanut butter: 4 grams of sugar in 2 tablespoons; corn syrup solids are the second ingredient, after peanuts.

Beans:  3 grams of sugar in a half-cup; cane syrup is the third ingredient, after beans and water.

Hash:  1 gram of sugar in a cup ; the fourth ingredient, after beef, potatoes and water.

Black bean soup:  5 grams of sugar in a half-cup serving; the fourth ingredient, after water, beans and salt.

Minestrone:  3 grams of sugar in a half-cup serving; way at the bottom of the ingredient list as glucose syrup.

The presence of sugar in processed foods is one reason why U.S. sugar consumption has skyrocketed in recent decades.  As a lover of spreadsheets, I was fascinated at the information provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on sugar production and consumption. 

In 1966 Americans used 113 pounds of sugar per capita.  In 1999, the sweetest year in U.S. history, it was up to 151 pounds.  Since then, it's been slipping, down to 131 pounds in 2009. 

More striking is the dramatic rise of corn sugars as a player in this drama.  In 1966 only 14 pounds of the per capita sugar load came from corn -- just over 10 percent of the total.  By the mid-80s corn was providing more than half our total sugar, peaking in 1999 at 83 pounds, 55 percent of the total.  In 2009, the last year for which data is available, corn's share slipped a hairline below half.  Clearly the unfavorable publicity given to high-fructose corn syrup in the last decade is having an effect.

I find these figures alarming, and not just because they herald our growing obesity.  I'm also unhappy that my tax dollars are supporting this trend, because agricultural subsidies are integral to the corn industry.  Big Corn has been fighting back against the anti-corn-syrup movement with commercials in which they correctly point out that sugar is sugar no matter what form it comes in.  That's true nutritionally, but not economically; corn sugar is less expensive than beet and cane sugar.  And HFCS isn't the kind of stuff you buy on a supermarket shelf and use for grandma's cookie recipe; it's an industrial product used in highly processed foods.

So my inner paranoid shopper doesn't have to work too hard to infer that the presence of corn sweeteners on a label indicates a cheap (subsidized) thrill that's good for Big Food but bad for you and me.

As I've become more health-conscious I've stopped putting the sugar in my chili and spaghetti sauce, and can't say that we even notice the difference.  But I'm kind of annoyed that food processors are still doing it, and that I don't have an alternative except to make my own soup and hash and beans.  I'm not such a health nut that I'm willing to give up the convenience of canned and packaged goods entirely.  But I wish Big Food would reconsider that knee-jerk teaspoon of sugar.  I bet the hash would taste just as good without it.