Friday, April 27, 2012

The system is working

This morning's newspaper had a story with this reassuring headline:  "Quick action averts huge mad cow scare" so I wondered what kind of action had taken place.

To recap, on Tuesday the USDA reported that a dairy cow in California had died of mad cow disease. But not to worry, this wasn't a beef cow, and neither people nor other animals catch mad cow from drinking milk, only from eating infected meat.  And apparently this cow had caught it from a "spontaneous" mutation, not from eating bad feed, which might mean other animals were also at risk.

So what was the quick action?  Turns out it was all spin.

The Associated Press article explained:  "With billions of dollars at risk, the USDA and other government officials responded quickly, explaining consumers never were at risk because none of the animal's meat was bound for the food supply."

And:  "Meat industry groups, food companies and the American Veterinary Medical Association quickly issued statements and updated their websites, seeking to reassure the public that the nation's meat supply is safe."

Apparently the spin was successful -- the story subsided and unsold hamburger is not rotting in the supermarkets, although some markets in Asia have stopped selling US beef.  The Associated Press quoted a guy who runs a feedlot in Nebraska as saying, "It looks like that system is working, and for those of us in the business, that's a relief."

So I wondered, exactly what system is working?  Not the mad cow inspection system, because we don't inspect all cattle for the disease.  After the last mad cow scare in 2003 USDA tested a lot of cattle, found only two more cases, and decided there was no problem so it would cut the testing program by 90 percent.  Now less than one percent of the meat supply is tested.

After the last scare some beef producers had the idea of testing all their own cattle before they were slaughtered, hoping that seal of approval would appeal to consumers even if it did raise the price 10 cents a pound.  It would also have allowed their meat to be sold in countries that ban untested beef.  Sounds like a good idea to me (free enterprise and all) but the USDA refused to permit it.

USDA said that allowing meatpackers to test their own animals would imply that the USDA testing program was inadequate, and we wouldn't want that to happen.  Bad spin, you know.  And the federal courts went with the USDA.

I guess it's the PR system that's working.  Not that we were in much doubt about that.  And Nebraska guy was totally correct: for those of them in the business, it was a relief.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

No-work chicken-in-the-pot

A houseful of people came over for dinner the other night and I didn't want to do any serious cooking.  So I decided to make my one-dish no-work chicken -- nice enough for company and fairly easy to make.  I always like dinner menus where you can get your preparation done early in the afternoon, then retreat to sew, play Killer Sudoku or read a book while the food cooks itself.  And occasionally I like recipes where you can open some cans instead of making everything from scratch, thus getting me out of the kitchen faster.

This dish can be done on the top of the stove in a dutch oven or in a crockpot (that way takes a bit longer and probably isn't quite as delicious, but it's pretty darn good).

I had seven people for dinner, three of whom are BIG MEN, and I started with just over two pounds of skinless, boneless chicken breasts.  I cut each one into three chunks so those of us who are not BIG MEN could take smaller servings.  I browned them in a bit of olive oil over high heat and removed them to a plate.

I cut four onions in half and then sliced them into long skinny threads, put them into the pot that the chicken had been in, and cooked them for a while on medium heat till the onions got translucent.  Had I felt ambitious I might have kept on till they started to caramelize and turn brown, but I didn't want to spend the whole day in the kitchen.

While the onions cooked I chopped up some garlic and threw it in with the onions.  How much garlic to use in any dish is always a very personal decision -- use as much as you and your guests can tolerate.  But remember that cooked garlic isn't anywhere near as strong as raw, so be brave.

Our rosemary plant has been looking healthy and starting its spring growth spurt, so I cut a foot-long sprig and buried it underneath the onions.  Dumped the chicken back into the pot and added a can of cream of chicken soup, about a half can of white wine, and a can of artichoke hearts, cut into quarters.  Ground some black pepper over the top.   After everything had warmed up and started to cook enthusiastically I turned the heat down so the liquid was barely moving, with languid bubbles every now and then.  And went away for three hours.

While I did other things the ingredients cooked together and made their own gravy, which we ate over mashed potatoes.  If you didn't want to do potatoes, you could serve a sturdy bread to sop up the gravy.

If you use a crockpot, you wouldn't bother with browning the chicken or the onions -- just dump everything into the pot and go off to work.  The dish might be a bit paler but it will taste just fine.  You might even put some quartered potatoes into the pot and let them cook with the chicken.  (I guess you could do that in the dutch oven, too, and save yourself the trouble of making mashed potatoes.)

If you aren't having lots of BIG MEN over for dinner, use just one package of chicken breasts, about one pound.  But still use one can each of soup and artichokes.  You'll end up with proportionally more vegetables and gravy but it won't change the taste, consistency or effect.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Garbage still life

Isn't this the most beautiful dish of garbage you've seen in a long time?

A big artichoke and two ears of corn apiece constitute a great dinner!

We like to dunk our artichoke leaves in a sauce, which we mix up by eye in a mason jar: approximately equal parts dijon mustard, olive oil, and lemon juice.  Shake well to make it smooth.  It stays in the fridge forever and can double in a pinch for salad dressing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nutmeg -- the inside story

On our last cruise we stopped in Grenada, the Caribbean island known for two things: Ronald Reagan invaded it in 1983, and it produces 20% of the world's nutmeg.

Unfortunately Hurricanes Ivan (in 2004) and Emily (in 2005) devastated the island, wiping out almost all the nutmeg trees.  New trees have been planted, but it takes several years for them to reach full production.

So when we visited a nutmeg processing plant, the almost-empty warehouse was a sad reminder of a national economic and environmental tragedy.  

The farmer's load of nutmegs fills only a small corner of the sorting tray and you can barely detect anything in the big jute bag he takes to the weighing station.

On the tree, the nutmeg is a fleshy fruit the size of an egg.  The farmer opens the fruit, then peels away the red mace covering the inner seed.  The mace is delivered and weighed separately.

Now we're down to the nutmeg's protective shell, a thin, shiny, knobbly covering that isn't taken off till later.

First the nutmegs rest in shallow bins for a while to cure.

Then they're sorted by size (nobody was working these stations when we visited).

Eventually the shell is cracked to reveal the nutmeg, ready to be grated into your eggnog or over your applesauce.  (You do have a nutmeg grater, don't you?  A cute little appliance with a little compartment on top for the nutmeg.  No kitchen should be without one -- and a big bag of nutmegs hand-imported from Grenada is also nice.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Souvenirs of Sorrento

We visited Sorrento in the winter of 2003, our month in Italy overshadowed by the inexorable onset of  war.  While we did tourist stuff, millions of Europeans were marching in the streets to protest the bombing of Iraq, and the rainbow Peace flags hung from apartment balconies on every street.

But in Sorrento we had happier thoughts in mind as we strolled through a market street.  A kitchenware store had a table of sale items on the sidewalk and we spotted some nice pasta bowls for an amazing 1.25 euros apiece -- at the time, about $1.15.  We bought four and shlepped them back to the hotel, a long enough walk that we traded off carrying the bag once or twice along the way.

Before we made it home for good we carried those four bowls for about four miles, making our way between hotels and railroad stations and through airports.  With every step we had to remind ourselves that the pasta bowls were beautiful, a steal, and our only souvenirs of the trip.  We had invested not just the five bucks but a heck of a lot of sweat equity to bring them home.

But it was worth it!  They have become our default bowl for pasta, not to mention the occasional soup or other juicy entree.  I suspect they've been used at least once a week since we returned, and we never fail to think about our wonderful trip when we eat that last bit of food and reveal the red tomato.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wanna date, big boy?

My sister recently took a vacation that included both Las Vegas and San Diego, which means they drove past the Shields Date Farm in Indio CA.  And as she has done in the past, she had them ship us a big package of dates.

Talk about heaven on earth -- this package included four different varieties of dates, each one more delicious than the next.  When the package arrived, we tore it open and I had one date from the first box, then announced that I wasn't going to eat any more.  A few years ago I gave up discretionary sugar as a health measure, and dates seemed sweeter than sweet.

While my husband has been scarfing down these wonderful delicacies, I have been wondering whether I really have to abstain, so I checked out the nutritional value.  The good news is that dates are low in sodium, high in dietary fiber, zero in fat.  The bad news is that, as I suspected, they're high in sugar.

Dates have 73 grams of sugar for 100 grams of fruit.  By contrast, apples have only 12 grams of sugar in 100 grams of fruit, bananas have 20 grams, strawberries have 5, pineapple has 12, watermelon has 8, oranges have 10.

But that probably doesn't help us decide how much of a sugar hit we'd get from eating some fruit.  Try this:  one date has 16 grams of sugar (although I think the Shields dates must have more, since they're so big) and 66 calories.  By contrast, the average apple has 18 grams of sugar, 75 calories.   A banana has 24 grams of sugar, 100 calories.  And if you want to get really reckless, a 12-ounce Coke has 39 grams of sugar.

So I'm probably wise to cool it with the dates, maybe one a day.  But that one date is certainly worth it.  As always, thanks, Sis!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Pick a peck of peppers

A new product appeared in the grocery last week, with a special introductory price that you couldn't refuse.  It's a two-pound bag of little sweet peppers in three colors, calling out "eat me!" at the top of their little plant lungs.  The little ones were about half the price per pound of the large red peppers on the other side of the aisle, so I brought a bag home.

Two pounds of peppers go a long way.  And at the end of the week we bought another bag before the special price expired.  We ate some straight out of the bag.  We sliced some up to go into cole slaw.

 They showed up twice in pasta and twice as a cooked vegetable (once with carrots for a double-orange side). They showed up as the secret ingredient in crockpot chicken.

About halfway through the first bag of peppers I commented that it takes a whole lot longer to seed and cut up a dozen little peppers than one big one.  My husband had a brilliant idea: instead of using a knife, use the end of the vegetable peeler to just scrape the seeds and membranes out.  Indeed, that is much faster.

I suppose the usual special-introductory-price pattern will hold for these peppers -- in a week or two, after we're all hooked, the price will go way up. But meanwhile I plan to buy several more bags and stash them in the freezer.  Peppers are the only vegetable that can be frozen without blanching, and since they come in sealed bags I might just wait till they're thawing to wash them.