Saturday, December 28, 2013

Carrot salad -- the easiest recipe ever

In a comment on my last post, Kristin asked about my carrot salad.  I am almost embarrassed to provide this "recipe" because it is so simple.  But you do need a Cuisinart (or a box grater and knuckle guards).

I fix this at least three times a month.  It's so good, and so easy.  It brightens up the all-white meal or the boring brown-and-white plate of meat and potatoes.  It's suitable as a side dish for dinner, or as breakfast or lunch with a piece of buttered toast.  Or as a snack, if you're trying to avoid junk food.

So get a pound of carrots, more or less.  Wash them and take off the tops and tails.  Cut them into one-inch pieces.

Cut a chunk of fresh ginger root about the size of a walnut.  Put it into the Cuisinart with a handful of carrot pieces and zzzz it until everything has been cut into small pieces approximately the size of grains of rice.  If the pieces are a little bigger that's fine, but don't let them get so small they turn into mush.

Add the rest of the carrots and zzzz them till they're in small pieces too.  Then turn everything out into a big bowl.  Add some olive oil, just enough to moisten the salad, and some lemon juice.  Mix everything up and taste to see if there's enough dressing on the salad.  

If my parsley garden is yielding, I'll add some parsley to the salad just for color.  If I'm feeling ambitious I might add some thinly sliced cucumbers, celery or cabbage.  I've even been known to use the carrots as a base for other exotic ingredients, such as this successful experiment, but that's only to use up stuff that's lying around in the fridge, not to improve upon the basic recipe, which is pretty good just by itself.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Pie experiments

At Thanksgiving I wrote about augmenting my mincemeat pie with some apples, both to make the jar of mincemeat go farther and to cut its rich sweetness a bit.  One of my faithful readers, Sandy Ciolino, suggested that cranberries might serve the same purpose.

That sounded good to me, since I love tart foods and also since I had bought some cranberries that had never been used at Thanksgiving.  So the Christmas mincemeat pie had a layer of cranberries on the bottom.

The experiment was not an unqualified success.  A few people (but not my husband) thought too tart.  I used about two-thirds of a bag of cranberries (that would be about eight ounces, now that they have shrunk the package) and I think in the future I'd cut that to five or six ounces.

But the pie had a beautiful hint of red at the bottom and we're eating it with great relish, even through slightly puckered lips.

The pumpkin pie, on the other hand, was an unqualified success and disappeared very shortly afterwards.

Friday, December 20, 2013

In search of pork heaven

In my family pork is the food of the gods.  Although I usually make a turkey for our official feasts, pork gets served at other important times.  So when my son invited a guest for Christmas and we discussed what to serve, he opined that pork would probably be a good choice.  Well, actually he opined that sauerkraut would probably be a good choice.

She, like me, is a sauerkraut lover from a family where sauerkraut was reviled.  I'm always willing to serve sauerkraut, especially to impress my guests, but you have to have pork to go with it.

I could fix a lot of porkchops in two separate frying pans on the stove -- in fact, that's what I did on Thanksgiving Day for other pork-loving guests (don't worry, we had the official turkey the next day) -- but I'm looking for ways to minimize the last-minute fuss.  So I thought about my mother's old favorite, pork chops baked in milk.

How nice, I thought, to have the fancy dinner in the oven, needing nothing than to be taken out and borne to the table.  But this preparation is one that I haven't been successful at in a long time.  I never had a written recipe, Mom is dead, and pork has changed.  After the last attempt, a couple of months ago, I wondered if it was the fault of the milk -- skim doesn't give you much culinary enhancement.

So this week I decided on a dry run.  If it worked, that would be our Christmas dinner.  I bought a nice porkchop and a half-gallon of whole milk.  I looked online but didn't find any recipes that resembled Mom's; most of them involved canned soup and other adulterants.  So I just found a little dish that the meat fit snugly into, poured the milk on top and put it in the oven at 375, as the online recipes seemed to agree on.

I checked every now and then and decided to take it out after 35 minutes.  Notice the beautiful brown edges on the dish -- that's what the meat is supposed to look like.  But no beautiful brown on the chop, just a layer of whitish curds that tasted good but looked nasty.  And the meat was dry (not that I didn't eat it, but still... not ready for prime time).

So I guess we'll have a turkey.

And if anybody out there knows how to fix pork chops baked in milk, please let me know.  There will be a Christmas again next year, I hear.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The pie dilemma

One of my pet peeves with the food industry is that too often you are forced to buy two different items that don't match up.  For instance, hot dogs come eight to a package; hot dog buns come ten to a bag.

The same is true with thanksgiving pies.

They've done a pretty good job of getting a can of pumpkin to fill a standard pie plate, but a damn lousy job with mincemeat.

Yes, I'm a lover of mincemeat, even though conventional wisdom holds that nobody likes the stuff any more.  (I also love fruitcake, despite its identical reputation.)  But mincemeat has to be procured commercially, either in a big jar or in a tiny little package that you reconstitute with some boiling water.  I haven't seen one of those little packages in a decade, so now I buy the big jar.

The only problem: it only fills somewhere between a half and two-thirds of a pie plate.  My usual remedy is to cut up a couple of apples and put them in the bottom of the pie.  Not only does it eke out the innards to better fill the crust, it cuts the richness of the mincemeat a bit.

This Thanksgiving I did the usual routine: piecrust on the bottom, a layer of apples, then the jar of mincemeat.  And it was still looking pretty skimpy.  In fact, the piecrust extended a good two inches beyond the filling.  If I added the top crust as you always do, I'd either have a huge empty cavity inside the pie, or a crimped edge of crust two inches wide, or a boatload of leftover crust cut off to make everything fit right.

I made a radical decision -- no top crust!  I folded the extra crust over the edges of the mincemeat and stuck it in the oven.  To my delight, the filling didn't bubble up and escape over the top of the crust, but stayed where it belonged.  And there was plenty of crust per filling.

Next time, I may do this again.  Or I'll put in four apples instead of two.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Breakfast after Thanksgiving

So which makes the better breakfast?

In dish A, leftover stuffing and gravy.

In dish B, leftover mashed potatoes and gravy.

You will note the common ingredient, which makes anything taste better.  That's why we make gravy by the gallon when a turkey is anywhere in the vicinity.

I have a hard time choosing between the two, and plan to alternate breakfasts until I run out of something.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

I'm so thankful...

... that I can pick up some dinner right there at the gun store!  So convenient!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

This menu needs an editor

I've always wrestled with the moral dilemma -- is it OK to order food that's misspelled on the menu?

Tonight I just wondered about this item: does it mean that they serve cod on Friday or that it's cooked by Robinson Crusoe's assistant?

We debated for a while and decided to eat the ribs, which are delicious every night, not just Friday's.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

In memory of Lisa

One of the nicest things about participating in blogs -- as either an author or a follower -- is the opportunity to make friendships with people far away.  One of these people was Lisa Quintana, aka Michigoose, who had a couple of blogs that I read regularly (here and here), and who read my blogs regularly.  Both of us were avid commenters, developing dialogs as we read and responded to each other's posts.  Although I only met her once in person, I counted her as a real friend.

When Lisa died last month from breast cancer, there was an outpouring of love and fond memories on some email lists that she had also participated in, and some people from her local quilt guild organized a project in which friends would each make a 3x5 artist trading card to give to Lisa's husband and daughter.

I decided to focus on food, because Lisa was one of my earliest followers after I started this blog, and she frequently chimed in with anecdotes and ideas about the foods I wrote about.  She agreed with me that strawberry shortcake is best on a biscuit (not cake), that people shouldn't strip the husks off corn in the grocery store, that sauerkraut and potatoes are natural born partners, that Havarti cheese is good melted over all kinds of other food.  We agreed that our mothers were geniuses at making frugal food and tricking us into thinking it was a delicacy, that the food industry is too casual about mad cow disease, and that a box of dates from California is a wonderful present.

We agreed that great northern beans are great in every sense of the world (we were both born in Michigan, great northern bean capital of the world) and we both loved chicken salad, apples, fruitcake and mincemeat pie (but not all together).

I have been making daily collages all this year using 3x5 library card catalog cards, so it seemed natural to make one for Lisa's family.

Rest in peace, good friend.  I understand the food is really good in heaven.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Reading the fine print

We all know that junk food is bad for the body, but sometimes it's exactly perfect for the soul.  And while I have a pretty high resistance to most forms of junk food, there are a few on my short list.  One of which is Pringles, although I'm contemplating removing it after what I discovered at the grocery store last week.

Since Pringles introduced "reduced fat" versions several years ago I have always bought them, rationalizing that it wasn't quite so junky as regular.  And sure enough, a casual glance at the package would lead you to believe that you're saving 25% of the calories compared to the regular.  Or something like that -- since fat is an essential ingredient in junk food, you would expect that reducing it by 25% would make a big difference.

But when you flip the can and read the back, you discover that you're only saving 7% of the calories, the difference between 150 and 140 for a serving.

So what's happening?  Yes, we've saved 20 calories worth of fat, along with 4 calories worth of sugar, but they've compensated by increasing the carbohydrates (adding 8 calories) and apparently some other rejiggering that you can't decode from the nutritional label.

I don't know why I was drawn to read the label before putting the can in my shopping cart, but after I did I put the can back on the shelf.  I don't like to feel like a dupe.  And by the way, reducing the fat from 9 grams to 7 isn't 25%, it's 22%.

Whatever happened to truth in advertising?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Whipped cream bunnies

I've seen many a big dollop of whipped cream on dessert plates in my decades of food consumption, but don't think I've ever seen a presentation where the whipped cream seemed to take center stage, while the dessert itself was backdrop.

Not only did this whipped cream overshadow the chocolate cake, it was decorated with a face and bunny ears!  And there were three of them having a meeting at our table!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Nice try, no cigar

Saw an ad in the Sunday magazine from Walmart, suggesting that you can "save over $1,000 per year when you eat at home."  Was intrigued; read on.

The pitch is to buy stuff at Walmart's grocery instead of eating out, thus allowing you to spend $20 to feed your family of four, instead of $42 in a restaurant.

Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?  Until you see what they have in mind for you to buy at the grocery.  It's not like you're going to actually make food.  Instead you buy a package of ready-to-heat stuffed shells ("Delicious oven-baked taste from the microwave.") for $6.48, a loaf of bread for $2.48, a pack of two servings of tiramisu for $2.67, and a gallon of green tea for $2.78.

Various thoughts come to mind when contemplating this menu.

First, I'm not sure exactly how the pictured food items add up to $20 -- on my calculator they add up to $14.41.  I think you're supposed to buy two packs of stuffed shells, since the Bertolli site says one serving/meal is 10 ounces, and the package shown in the ad is 25 ounces.  If so, that adds up to $20.89.  But let's don't quibble.

Second, is this a decent dinner?  No vegetables except the bit of tomato sauce to separate the cheese from the cheese.  Lots of cheese, not much fiber.  Cheese-on-cheese with a side of bread does not constitute a healthy diet.

Third, how do you divvy up two servings of tiramisu among your family of four?  I guess the kids go without dessert, or maybe there's an arithmetic contest to choose the two lucky eaters.

Fourth, why if you're trying to save money would you spend $2.78 for a gallon of green tea?   How about 50 cents for eight teabags, and an investment of five minutes for the water to boil?   Even better, drink water and buy $2.78 worth of carrots.

Fifth, why would you serve pre-made tea to your children, assuming that's who round out your family of four?  Caffeine is bad for kids (although there isn't all that much in this tea) and so are sugary drinks.  The tea shown in the Walmart ad has 70 calories in an eight-ounce serving, compared to 93 calories in Coke Classic.  (Perhaps this could be the arithmetic contest to dole out the dessert.)

Clearly Walmart is marketing to people who can't cook and don't care about nutrition.  Maybe if those folks bought this dinner they'd end up better off, both financially and nutritionally, than by going to a restaurant.  But not by much.

Walmart has been getting publicity for various efforts to improve nutrition, such as encouraging food manufacturers to reduce sodium, sugar and trans-fat in their products.  (Some observers say the company has ulterior motives, but let's take them at face value.)  Too bad they don't promote a really healthy $20 meal, perhaps one with some produce in it.

In fact, the next time I go to the grocery I may poke around and see what I can come up with for $20.  I bet it will be better than this microwave/plastic extravaganza.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The wilderness begins...

... in the Las Vegas airport.  We arrived at 5 pm with a bit more than two hours to kill before getting our shuttle to Utah.  We walked past some food stands near the gates, but didn't want to leave our suitcases endlessly circling on the baggage claim, so we went through security.  Thus stepping into a virtually food-free zone.

Outside of security, there was a sit-down restaurant, closed.  And a sandwich/deli counter, closed, despite the posted hours of operation.

This being a Wednesday, one might have expected at least 45 more minutes of "service."  But you have to wonder about an airport that has such variable schedules.  Does nobody go anywhere on Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday?

My husband, more desperate than I, tracked down a limp pre-wrapped sandwich at Starbuck's.  But I was undaunted.  After all, I began the vacation with three bags of junk food in my carry-on, for exactly these moments of impending starvation.

By the way, all three of my bags had popped open in flight.  Apparently pressurized cabins aren't all that pressurized.  So I didn't even have to use my teeth to open the bag.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Packing for vacation

This afternoon we're heading off into the wilderness.  Well, maybe not the total absence of civilization, but pretty close: we're off on a tour of the national parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Perhaps you note that the national parks are not open at the moment, thanks to the House of Representatives.  That's true, but the tour is still on, and we will be making our way across the wilds of the Kaiparowitz Plateau, whether the parks admit us or not.  In any case, we need sustenance.

And in our case, that means a couple of bags of junk food and a big plastic bottle of scotch.

The first time we took a cargo ship across an ocean we kind of by accident had a bag of junk food, which came in very handy on the days where the menu included tripe soup and blood sausage.  The second time we took a cargo ship across another ocean we made the cabbie stop on our way to the ship to buy three bags of Cheetos.  Those came in handy too, and by careful husbandry lasted us two-thirds of the way to New Zealand.

We're not planning on as extreme isolation as the middle of the Pacific, but who knows what will await us on the plateau.  So we're taking our own booze and our own junk food.  Just in case we're stranded on the airplane (no meals any more) or on the shuttle bus between Las Vegas and St. George, Utah. Or on a trail during an illicit hike in an officially closed national park.

Maybe our efforts will be laughably unnecessary.  Maybe the meals will be gourmet quality and leave us so happily stuffed that we'll need nothing to carry us through till tomorrow.  Maybe every night our motel will be next door to a magnificent grocery and a state liquor store.  But I wouldn't put money on it.  I will put money on Smartfood White Cheddar Cheese Popcorn.

Friday, September 27, 2013

What's with these low-cal fries?

Earlier this week there was a story in the paper about how Burger King is introducing a (sort of) low-cal french fry, 270 calories for a small serving, compared to 340 calories for its regular fries.  But what leaped out at me was the explanation -- "because of a new batter that doesn't absorb as much oil."

Say what?  Batter?

I always thought the basic ingredients in french fries were potatoes and oil.  So what's with this batter?

Googling reveals that fast food fries often do use a batter to improve texture.   The batter used by Burger King is apparently a slurry of starch, giving BK fries a hard shell and more crunch.  By contrast, McDonald's doesn't use a batter; its fries are dipped in a sugar solution to give that golden-brown color.

I guess it's too much to expect that industrial strength fast food would rely solely on ordinary ingredients and cooking techniques.  I rarely set foot in a fast food restaurant, so I have no dog in this fight (I used to love McDonald's fries but haven't eaten them in years) but was interested to read about BK's marketing strategy for its new low-cal item.

First, instead of using the fancy new batter for all its fries, BK will sell low-cal and high-cal fries as separate menu items.  (Even though BK says people won't be able to tell the difference.)

Second, BK will charge about 30 cents more for the low-cal fries (except for kids' meals, where you can get low-cal for the same price).

Third, in the advertising, instead of comparing the new low-cal fries to its own high-cal fries, which would mean 20 percent fewer calories, BK is going to compare them to McDonald's fries, for 30 percent fewer calories.

Fourth, BK's idea of a "small" serving is pretty big -- 128 grams (4 1/2 ounces) compared to McDonald's, 71 grams (2 1/2 ounces).

My jaundiced view of this whole campaign is that BK wants to have its fries and eat them too -- get credit for offering "healthy" food but not actually do anything to encourage people to eat it.  In fact, they're building in lots of incentives to keep eating high-cal.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sausage and grapes

I don't usually cook with recipes.  I do read food stories in the newspaper and in Fine Cooking, my favorite food magazine, more to get general concepts than specific directions.  But I was browsing through old columns in the New York Times and came upon a recipe that I tried immediately.

It was for a Tuscan dish called salsiccia all'uva (sausages and grapes) and it caught my eye because magnificent seedless white grapes were on special all week.  We'd already bought a big bag and scarfed it down, the best grapes we'd eaten in months.  So this recipe seemed to be karma.

Besides, it was about as simple as a recipe can possibly be: brown some Italian sausages, add a big heap of grapes and cook them in the same pan until they start to soften and collapse.  Squeeze some lemon over the top and serve.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out exactly as the recipe promised.  The key to this dish apparently was that some of the grapes would get brown, some would collapse into mush, others would stay relatively firm, thus giving a nice variety to the plate.  But though I cooked and cooked and cooked, none of the grapes ever got mushy.  In desperation I crushed a few of them with a spatula, but never got them to soften.

Experiences like this do nothing to induce me to follow recipes.  It was an interesting combination of foods but not one that I'm dying to make again.  If we find ourselves in a grape glut some time maybe I'll give it one more shot.  But I'll do it a little differently... maybe put the grapes in a tomato sauce and serve over pasta...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ahead of the trend again

I had to take some food to a dinner this week so I made a big dish of carrot salad.  Practically everybody will eat it, and it sure brightens up your plate!

But when I arrived and announced what I had brought, I didn't say "carrot salad."  Following the lead of the New York Times, my infallible guide to what's hip and trendy, I called it "carrot tartare."

It seems that anything raw has become h and t.  As Mark Bittman explains in the article, "tuna tartare has far surpassed beef in popularity, lamb tartare is fashionable and carrot tartare is expensive."

Well, mine wasn't, but then I don't operate a restaurant in Brooklyn.

I make my carrot salad tartare with a lot of carrots, a few thin-sliced cucumbers, and a dressing made of equal parts olive oil, dijon mustard and lemon juice.  As has happened so many times in the past, I reflect that if you do your own thing for a long time, it will eventually become fashionable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Close the window, please

Our fruit market has the habit of cutting windows in its corn, presumably so you can see whether the ear looks good.  I'm not sure what you might expect to see in a window that would cause you to not buy the corn -- in my experience, when corn is disappointing it's because the top inch or so hasn't developed its kernels fully, or if a worm has somehow gotten in there -- neither of which you'd be likely to see through the window.  I wonder how long it takes the guy in the back to cut all those needless holes.

But my big complaint: the windows prevent you from sticking the corn in the oven to roast, a technique I like if I'm already making chicken or baked potatoes or something else.   (I stick the ears in exactly as they come from the market, on a cookie sheet in case they leak, for about a half hour at 400, give or take, whatever temperature I'm using for the rest of the meal.)  

Once this year I really wanted to roast some corn with windows so I cobbled together some extra husks to cover the hole, tied on with some husk and pinned in place with toothpicks.  It sort of worked, although the part under the window was a lot more done than the rest of the ear.

So now I ask the guy at the market if he has any corn with no windows.  He always does, and I haven't found a bad ear yet.  If you ask me, cutting windows has no upside.  But I guess it's part of some marketing mystique.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Vegetable blues

This has been the worst summer for fruits and vegetables in my memory.  Our zucchetta has produced four fruits, one of which ripened while we were gone on vacation and became an almost-inedible baseball bat.  Another was soft at the flower end and I had to cut off a third of it.

Here's approximately 50% of our entire tomato crop for the year.  They tasted great.

Not just our own crops have been disappointing, but also those from the market.  The watermelons have had seeds, true, but only one or two have tasted really wonderful. The tomatoes have been insipid, even the beautiful red ones from the farmer's market.  I've ended up roasting or pan-caramelizing more than we've eaten raw.  No juicy tomato sandwiches; no wonderful fresh-tomato pasta sauces.  Even the heirloom tomato salad at the pricy new restaurant was on the so-so side.

(that's crabmeat and bacon on top, lemon aioli on the plate; magnificent even with so-so tomatoes)

We've had some disappointing peaches on and off all summer, so much that I'm afraid to buy more than two or three at a time.  Last week we bought three.  The first one was magnificent -- the best I'd eaten all summer.  The second and the third were mediocre.

On the bright side, the corn has been superb all year.  I think they must have made some permanent breeding improvements in the last five years, because no matter where it comes from, the corn seems to be consistently excellent throughout the season.  Thank heaven something is turning out reliably delicious.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Desperation defense

It has been a perfectly terrible year for our home garden, and we've heard the same from others.  Critters have practically destroyed our tomatoes (we've had two or three all year, and only one was really good).  Our zucchetta, previously so prolific that in August I used to never leave the house without a plastic bag full of squash to foist upon friends, neighbors and homeless people encountered in the street, has given us about three fruits all year.  Even our basil has been hit by a blight, and the big batch of pesto I processed a couple of weeks ago will be it.

In the midst of lamenting our bad luck, we commented the other night that it's a good thing we're not dependent upon our crops to get us through the winter, because we'd starve before Thanksgiving.

We tried to protect the tomatoes from the critters (deer, chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, all have been seen on our property and we don't know what all is feasting on our stuff) but to no avail.  We encased a ripening tomato in a plastic onion bag and the critter ate through the plastic to get a nice bite of tomato.  We've pretty much given up on everything and are about to just rip the plants out and put the whole garden into arugula for fall (our critters hate arugula).

On my walk the other day I encountered a gardener who apparently shares our frustration, but unlike us, isn't ready to give up yet.  Here's how he's protecting his tomatoes.

I say, good luck.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Eating with your eyes

So you may recall I'm a nut on watermelon -- that, corn, and tomatoes are what say summer to me.  You may also recall that I like my watermelons with seeds, none of this wimpy seedless stuff, and by the way I like big, big melons, none of this wimpy "personal size."  We've gotten some decent melons this year (mostly from the farmer's market), plus some mediocre ones (from the supermarket).  To my delight, they've all had seeds.

But last week, we were late to the market and our two favorite farmers were both out of melons.  One suggested we go across the way and see if this other guy still had one.  He did, but guess what -- it was yellow!

I don't think I'd ever eaten a yellow watermelon before, although I've seen them in seed catalogs.  Under cross-examination I would have to say that it tasted pretty much like a red melon, and was as sweet as you could expect, and had that wonderful cold, juicy texture.  So why do I think it's not entirely as good as a red one? I must eat with my eyes as well as my stomach.

And by the way, I got my wish for seeds -- in spades!  I think the yellow melon has half again as many seeds as a red one.  Or maybe they're just more apparent against the lighter background.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Faux fondue

On our recent vacation to France we saw a lot of restaurants specializing in fondue, that delicious bubbly cheese genre that peaked in the US 40 years ago and hasn't been seen much on this side of the Atlantic ever since.  But our guides said it's enjoying a trendy revival in Paris these days.

As we walked along one crowded sidewalk we threaded our way past this table full of fondue.  You'll notice there are no diners at the table -- that's because the food is plastic.

It does look pretty good, nevertheless.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A dessert we didn't try

Le Grand Vefour, one of the most famous of Parisian spots, was opened in 1784 and everybody who was anybody over the centuries, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had to eat there.  But not us.  The cheapest prix fixe menu is 98 euros (about $130).

I was intrigued by one of the 34 euro desserts -- creme brulee with artichokes and bean jam.  Maybe I'll try to make that at home.

Or maybe not.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The best fish ever

I'm a fish lover, and have had some magnificent piscine meals in various places around the globe.  But for comfort fish, there's only one choice: Michigan perch.  (I guess maybe Wisconsin perch are almost as good.)

So on our way to northern Michigan last month I was happy that we took the culinary detour to Kern's Sausage in Frankenmuth, because that meant we'd have to drive past Berger's Restaurant in Bay City, home of the ur-comfort fish.  Ur-, because not only does Berger's make great perch, it's the restaurant where my family has been going for decades.

It used to be a roadhouse -- a grim little cement-block building with a wall down the middle -- low-end bar on the left, slightly more fastidious dining room on the right.  Knotty pine walls (heck, this is Michigan) and mismatched tables and chairs.  And the best perch in the world.

My father and my grandmother always made a big point of ordering their perch with bones in it, loudly maintaining that the fish was much better that way.  The rest of us made a big point of ordering ours with no bones, having experience with the two million tiny bones per fish.  (The bone lovers occasionally had to grab one of the handy slices of rye bread to wash down a bone caught in the throat.)

A while back the roadhouse closed, having gotten just too decrepit for words, and maybe something having to do with widening the road.  But then it reopened in a fancy new building, looking like any Denny's or Perkins or other "family restaurant" you could name.  It lost the ambience, but thankfully the fish is just as good as ever.  They don't offer the option of perch with bones in it, but that's OK because both my father and grandmother are dead.  And not from getting bones stuck in their throats, either.

So the next time you're driving I-75 between Saginaw and Bay City, you MUST MUST MUST stop at Berger's for perch.  Get off at exit 160, head back south toward Saginaw for few hundred yards and it's there on the left.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The wurst thing about our vacation...

When I was a kid my father was co-owner of a weekly newspaper in a small town in Michigan, settled almost a century previously by Germans from northern Bavaria.  The town, called Frankenmuth ("courage of Franconia"), had clung to its German heritage -- I remember walking down the main drag with Dad and him greeting some people in English, some in German.  When Dad and some other ambitious young guys came home from World War 2 they were eager to wrest the reins of government away from the old men and pull the sleepy town into the twentieth century.

Dad had a brilliant idea -- what if the town capitalized on its German roots and imitated Bavarian architecture and ambience?  It already had a couple of old hotels that were well-known for their chicken dinners, and perhaps even more tourists could be lured to visit with some picturesque infrastructure.  He and his pals persuaded the local bank to go Bavarian for its new branch, and the rest is history.  Today Frankenmuth is the #1 tourist attraction in Michigan, with 3 million visitors each year.

We've only been back to Michigan three times in the last several years -- two visits to put my parents into the cemetery, and then a family reunion this summer.  But when we do, we always stop in Frankenmuth, if not for a chicken dinner then for a cooler full of goodies from Kern's Sausage, which makes the best wurst I've eaten on this side of the Atlantic.

Here's some of what we brought home.  The pale skinny ones with toothpicks stuck in the end are weisswurst; without toothpicks are bockwurst, both made with pork and veal.  I confess I can't really tell them apart, but that's OK because I love them both.  The fat red ones are knackwurst, beef and pork.

The next morning, my husband had a doctor's appointment and figured that he would be read the riot act for high cholesterol.  But no -- he had the lowest readings in years!  I always knew great sausage was delicious, but now I guess it's also therapeutic.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bad ideas in marketing

The fancy cheese counter at our supermarket has a basket of small pieces of different cheeses, so you can try something new at (sort of) low cost.

Good idea.

So I checked out the basket to see if I found something worth trying.

And found this.

Thanks a lot. For $21.99 a pound I'll wait till you tell me what I'm buying.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Janet's desserts

When you don't eat sugar, as I don't, it's fun to have dinner companions who love dessert.  That way you get to not only read the dessert menu, you get to see all kinds of delicious goodies in the flesh.

Our friend Janet, who was with us in Paris, is one of those lucky people who can eat dessert all the time and still be slim and fit.  As the week began she was on an apple kick, and I documented three of her treats.

A plain dish of apples, except with some subtle glaze to make it special:

An apple tart:

Most beautiful of all, this extravaganza of pastry, apples, ice cream and chocolate:

After we split up, Janet found one last dessert that she called the best of the whole trip.  Profiteroles -- three cream puffs filled with ice cream, surrounded by whipped cream, and a pot of hot chocolate to pour over the top.  Too bad the portion was so small.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bad manners at the market

I don't like to say bad things about the state of my birth, but while visiting there earlier this month I was grossed out at the supermarket.

For some reason it's the custom in northern Michigan to strip the husks from your corn right there at the market.  Although they place a crate or two on the floor for the debris, when the crates get full it's apparently acceptable to just leave your organic waste on the display table, right on top of the corn.

By the end of the afternoon, you need an extra five minutes to root around underneath the cornhusks to find intact ears to buy.

I have always believed that corn will dry out as soon as you husk it, so I don't understand why the compulsion to do it hours before dinner at the market.  And of course, stripping it early precludes roasting the corn in its husk over the campfire coals.

Most important, it's nasty to find your nice fresh food under a layer of garbage. Yuk.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Soup at the cathedral

Our guidebook informed us that despite the rich culinary heritage of France, nothing has ever emanated from Paris except onion soup.  Which we did not see on any menus.

Finally on our last day we ventured outside the city to Chartres.  And in a wonderful cafe in front of the cathedral we found (and ordered) onion soup.  Also a bowl of fish soup with the yellowest rouille I've ever seen.  Both were excellent.

If you're in Chartres, go to La Serpente, just outside the southeast door of the cathedral (around to the right from the main entrance).  Great food, inexpensive, and you can't beat the view.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The official birthday cake

When I was a kid we lived in Michigan, and even after we moved away, I was frequently there on my early-July birthday, visiting grandparents.  Every year my "birthday cake" consisted of strawberry shortcake because the strawberry season was still hanging on and who wouldn't prefer a strawberry shortcake to a boring old cake??

For the last four decades, however, we've lived considerably farther south, where strawberry season runs from late May into early June.  So no strawberry shortcake as a birthday treat.  It became a nostalgia trip, mentioned wistfully in the same breath as Northern Spy apples (now becoming extinct), northern fall foliage (I've only managed one decent leaf-peeping trip in 40 years), and walking to school in the snow uphill both ways.

But something wonderful happened this year -- I got to be in northern Michigan for my birthday!

My absolute favorite baked good to sit underneath the berries is a rich biscuit, but angel food is certainly acceptable.

In the olden days there would probably have been whipped cream on top of this concoction, but who needs it?  Life is sweet.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cochon times two

Our first week in Paris we ate at a lovely restaurant with a limited menu for our large group, and we both ordered the medallions of pork with dark cherries.  The meat was fixed with a rich sauce and perched on top of smooth, rich mashed potatoes.

At the end of our visit we decided this restaurant, Le CafĂ© Bonal on Boulevard Voltaire, was our favorite of the trip and chose it for our last hurrah.  This time, with the whole menu to pick from, I ordered the same pork dish as I had the previous week.  It was just as good, but with a whole lot more cherry sauce than the first time!  (I liked the first version best; the potatoes had more chance to shine through.)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

One more thing to worry about at the grocery

With most vegetables, there's a definite difference in quality from one day to another.  How many times have we declined to buy the cucumbers because they were shriveled, the artichokes because they looked dried out, or the avocados because they had black spots and seemed way too soft?  How many times have we crowed over getting the sweet and beautiful corn, the best tomatoes of the season, the smooth and glossy eggplant?

And then there's parsley.  It just sits there, the same from one month to the next.  Have you ever detected any qualitative difference among the many bunches of parsley you have bought in your lifetime?

I hadn't -- until this week.

We bought a bunch at the farmer's market so I could make tabouli, which I did.  While I was whizzing it around in the Cuisinart I thought it smelled more like grass than like parsley, but I had already soaked the bulgur and so I proceeded with the recipe.

And sure enough, it also tasted more like grass than like parsley.

What a disappointment.  And now I have to worry about something else in my shopping -- sniffing the parsley to make sure it's OK.  Who knew.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Salade, the French way

If there was anything to be slightly disappointed with in our recent trip to France, it was the salad.  I guess we're spoiled in the US with the huge variety of produce and imaginative combinations suggested by restaurants, television and food writing.  But both in Germany (where we spent a month in 2010) and in France we have noted the sameness of the side salads.  Lettuce, maybe some tomatoes.  Perfectly adequate, but less than inspiring.

Big salads, including protein and various other ingredients, are on many menus as main courses, but if you've ordered a meat or fish you'll often just get a small portion of greens to go with.  You'll often find the salad on the same plate as your entree, underneath it, on top of it, or piled in the middle.  Mmmm, salad with basil-Parmesan cream sauce!

Sometimes you'll order a special salad as a starter course and find the fancy ingredients on top of the same old greens.

Here's one salad that was delightfully different.