Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The other shoe drops -- coconut macaroons

I wrote last week about S cookies, which require four egg yolks.  So what do you do with the four egg whites?  Make coconut macaroons, of course.

In preparation for my Christmas baking I visited the grocery and was surprised to see that I had some choices when it came to coconut.  I don't recall ever seeing unsweetened coconut available in a regular grocery, although I have found it in the bulk food section now and then.  Scrutiny of the labels made me confused and annoyed.

First, wouldn't you think that the sweetened variety would have more calories than the unsweetened? Not so, even though the sweetened had 5 more grams of sugar per serving.  Mysteriously, the sweetened had less fat and more sodium.  Who knows what goes on in food processing plants?

sweetened -- 70 calories -- 4.5 g fat, 5 g sugar, 30 mg sodium
unsweetened -- 70 calories -- 6 g fat, 0 g sugar, 0 mg sodium

Second, wouldn't you think there would be no price difference between the two, or if there were, the unsweetened would cost a bit less?  Not so.  You could get 7 ounces of sweetened for the same price as 5 ounces of unsweetened, even though the bags are cleverly sized to look identical.

But never mind.  Here's the world's easiest and best recipe for coconut macaroons, straight from my grandmother.

Coconut Macaroons

Beat 4 egg whites and 1 tsp vanilla until opaque and foamy.
Add 2 cups powdered sugar and beat some more.  Add 1/4 tsp salt.
Fold in 10 ounces coconut (any kind you want!)

Spoon into mounds on parchment paper or a greased cookie sheet.
10 minutes at 325°, then 10 minutes at 275°.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

S cookies -- Merry ChriSSSSSSSSSStmas!

My grandmother had two recipes that were obligatory at Christmas, and you had to make both of them because one of them used four egg whites and the other used four egg yolks.  Let's talk about the yolk side of the aisle first.

They're called S cookies because the traditional preparation is to roll the dough into finger-size snakes and then form them into S shapes.

But when my boys were little, the one whose name didn't start with S often wondered why his brother, whose did, got cookies named after him.  So sometimes we would make M cookies along with S cookies.

One year I got a brilliant idea.  We could use metal type to imprint letters into the cookie dough.  And since then we have rarely made the traditional S shapes.  The new way is easy enough for a four-year-old, who proved to be an excellent helper.

scrubbing the type beforehand

printing the type into the cookie

I don't usually either collect or cook from recipes, preferring the improvisational approach to life, but you can't do a lot of improvisation when baking (except for getting your Ss via letterpress instead of sculpture).  So here's the recipe:

S Cookies

1/2 pound butter
2 1/3 cups sugar
4 egg yolks
rind and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp lemon extract
4 to 4 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp salt

Cream everything together in electric mixer or cuisinart.

For traditional cookies, form dough into rolls about the size of your pinkie and bend them into Ss.  Bake on parchment paper; leave space between the cookies because they will rise and spread a bit.

For non-traditional cookies, use a bit more flour; form dough into rolls about 1 1/2 inch diameter, wrap in plastic and chill in refrigerator overnight.  Cut 1/4 inch slices off the roll and imprint with type, buttons, chopsticks or any other tool you like.  Bake on parchment paper; leave space between the cookies because they will rise and spread a bit.

Bake 13-14 minutes at 350°

Cookies will not get brown, except on the bottom; they will be a little wiggly when you take them out of the oven but will firm up as they cool.

at left, type cookies; on the right, traditional S shape, for demonstration purposes only

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Not at all cheesy

My sister's granddaughter Leslie Uhl, already in possession of the foodie credential CCP (Certified Cheese Professional), just won a lovely prize to go along with it.  She submitted the winning essay in a competition sponsored by the Comté Cheese Association, and won a free trip to France next summer to learn everything about Comté cheese that she doesn't know already.

If you have a minute to spare, click over [here] and read her essay.  As a professional writer I had to give her serious points for doing the job well.  For one thing, if you don't have a whole lot to say about the appointed subject, think of a related subject that you can discuss gracefully and amusingly -- clearly Leslie was much more comfortable writing about lowbrow Midwest comfort food than about the Montbéliarde Cattle and the master affinuers, so that's what she did, then neatly tied the two together in a bow.  Good work, Leslie!

Just to make this a learning experience, Comté cheese comes from the Franche-Comté region, immediately west of Switzerland.  And here's something I didn't know before my foray into Comté lore:  as a controlled appellation, the cheese has to pass inspection to be sold under that name.  Cheese that fails gets sold as Gruyère.  Since I like Gruyère just fine, I'd probably love Comté, and will have to keep my eyes open for it in the store.

Leslie works at Di Bruno Bros., a hallowed foodie mecca in Philadelphia.  I hope this honor gets her a nice raise!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Restaurant thumbs-up

Sometimes I like to order two appetizers in lieu of an entree, which can be awkward at a crowded table.  Somehow the two small plates occupy more space than one big one, one ends up being stuck into a corner, and you feel like you're eating off your lap at a buffet dinner.

So I was pleased to order two appetizers and have them arrive on rectangular plates, which fit perfectly in front of me!  And the food was excellent, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Good ideas at the grocery

I bought the last bag of beans on the supermarket shelf last week -- or rather, the last bag of beans that looked like all the bags of beans I've been buying for 50 years.  I also bought a couple of new bags of beans, featuring zip tops.

What a great idea!  For 50 years my cupboards have been full of half bags of beans, rolled up and secured with rubber bands or bulldog clips.  How much simpler to acknowledge that people don't always use the full bag in one recipe, and provide a closable package.

So far great northern beans seem to be the only variety in the new packaging, but I can hope that it will be phased in to the other kinds one of these days.  Now if we could also get zip tops for rice, flour, sugar and lots of other staples.

And cereal.  I would think I died and went to heaven if I didn't have to wrestle with those cereal bags, difficult to open without tearing, difficult to reclose even if you didn't tear them.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eat your vegetables bait and switch

At the grocery this week and a new kind of pasta caught my eye -- instead of just tinting your tricolor pasta in different colors, they promise a full serving of vegetables.

But wait -- you have to eat 4 ounces of pasta to get that serving of vegetables.  That's a lot of pasta, as I know well because I weigh my pasta before cooking (I use between 4.5 and 5 ounces for two adults, when that's the only entree).  In fact, the "official" serving is just 2 ounces, as you can tell on the side of the box.

And here's another brand, same concept, same misleading display on the front of the box.

So why the bait and switch?  Why not just say "a half serving of vegetables in each serving of pasta"? That's good right there.

If your intention is to make it easy and appealing for people to eat more vegetables, then making them think they're getting more than they really are seems counterproductive.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Asian gourds make me famous

My last post showed some truly humongous Asian gourds hanging from the patio rafters at my neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant.  A couple of weeks later I was surprised to find almost the identical photo in our local magazine, in the monthly feature that shows a strange place and challenges you to identify where it was taken.

I immediately sent them an email identifying the restaurant.  And it turns out that I was the first with the correct answer.

I wish I could say that I got a free meal out of it, or even a free magazine.  But I did become famous, at least to everybody who read the very teeny type on page 15 of the November issue of Louisville magazine.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the patio

The first time all summer we've sat on the outside deck/patio at our neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant, and what did we find but more than a dozen huge Asian gourds growing from the roof trellis!

Most of them were about a yard long.  We were discussing how strong the stems would have to be to support the weight (they had also been tied up with string) and the waiter, overhearing, showed us how you could use them as punching bags without breaking them loose.

He said the gourds often appeared in the employee meals and didn't taste like anything.  He also volunteered that he wasn't fond of the fish heads that also are prominent on the employee menu.

Neither item was on the customer menu.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Grocery shopping for dummies

Our grocery store has a great olive and antipasto bar, where you can buy a wide variety of delicacies like roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated artichokes, dolmas, and of course, a dozen different kinds of olives, $7.99 a pound.  Grab a plastic box, dish out your choice of goodies, pop the top on the box.

Doesn't sound too hard or time-consuming, does it?  So it's a surprise to find that six feet away you can buy pre-packaged boxes of the same delicacies, not exactly as many as you might have dished out yourself, and not customized to pop in a couple of roasted garlic cloves on top of the tomatoes in case you're going to use them for pasta.

But hey, you save the 55 seconds of spooning out the food and putting a lid on the box, so it's worth an extra buck a pound, right?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

In praise of continuity

How many times have you showed up at one of your regular restaurants only to find that they have a new menu?  I usually hate that.  Either they have raised all the prices, or they have taken away my favorite item, or both.  I find that the disappointment of losing what I loved far outweighs the occasional thrill of a new dish.  And it takes so long to study the new menu and find out just what they've done.  But maybe I'm just old and crabby.

So it made me happy to discover a restaurant where menu continuity is important.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Happy Birthday!

Forty-nine years ago this month I went to the New York State Fair with my mother and my sister, as we always did.  Maybe it was forty-nine years ago today, because today is my sister's birthday and that would have been a nice way to celebrate.  But anyway.

At the fair we succumbed to the spiel of one of the vendors in the crap-for-sale building.  We each bought what was described as a Magic Knife, which could cut effortlessly through frozen food, copper pipe, solid granite, etc. not to mention bread and tomatoes.  I seem to recall that we paid $3 apiece for the knives.

It did in fact do pretty well on the frozen food, although these days I don't even own frozen green beans so I don't need to cut a package in two. It did really well on the bread and tomatoes, and it followed me to twelve different homes on two continents.  It's never been sharpened.  In one of those homes it had a mishap involving direct heat and got a little melt mark on its handle, which hasn't slowed it down.  And it's still cutting, but my husband thinks not as well as it used to; the magic is wearing off.

I don't know who inherited Mom's Magic Knife when she died but unfortunately it wasn't me.  Every time she and I bought identical things at the same time, mine would fall apart much faster than hers.  So if I had her knife we wouldn't be complaining about it going dull.

Meanwhile it still cuts bread pretty well, if not really well.  And I have no intention of ever parting with it.  So happy birthday to Bethany and to M.K.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Watermelon dud

Ever seen a watermelon this pale?

No, it isn't a new variety, just a regular seeded melon that was picked way too soon.  The texture was excellent, cool and crisp -- but it tasted of water, not of melon.

This is the first time I've ever encountered a totally unripe melon in decades of consumption.  But after we suffered through a week without watermelon, at the next market day the farmer gave us a free replacement.  She had no clue as to why the melon was unripe.  The new one is fine -- a happy ending.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

No-knead bread -- not there yet

During our family reunion week in July, my sister-in-law whipped up a batch of bread dough, as has been her hobby for the last couple of years.  It tasted so good -- and looked so easy -- that Zoe and I decided we needed to try it at home.

In the early years of my marriage I made all our bread, but the old-fashioned way, with kneading.  I always thought kneading was the best part of breadmaking; I liked the zen and the rhythm and feeling the dough change under your hands.  But in the last couple of years I have been reading about the new approach, in which you don't have to knead at all.  This recipe originated with Jim Lahey, a New York baker, and was made famous by Mark Bittman in the New York Times.  And it's the approach that my sister-in-law has been using to huge success.

So we decided to try the recipe.  It calls for only a quarter-teaspoon of yeast (compared to more than 2 teaspoons in my old faithful recipe) but you let it rise overnight, at least 12 hours and preferably 18.  Hardly any work to stir up a batch of dough and set it aside on a corner, and sure enough, the next day it had little bubbles all over, just as the recipe said.

But then our paths diverged.  The recipe said, "using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball."

That sounded like a quarter-cup or less of flour would be plenty, so we put that on the counter and turned the dough onto it.  Zoe was elected to "shape the dough into a ball."  It was kind of like "shaping" chocolate pudding into a ball.  We sprinkled more flour onto the dough and over her hands but it took five minutes to scrape the goo off her hands and back into the dough.

Next we were supposed to turn the dough onto a tea towel to rise.  This would allow us to use the towel as a support to flip the dough into a covered pot to bake.  Two problems: the dough didn't rise very much, and when we tried to "flip" it into the pot, it stayed stuck to the tea towel.  We pulled out our trusty butter knife again to scrape the dough off the towel (which incidentally put holes into the towel).

The bread turned out quite nice, although it wasn't as good the next day as it had been straight out of the oven.

I think I'll give this method a few more tries, but with serious modifications to the process.  For instance, I think I'll eliminate the tea towel and put the dough into a greased bowl for its second rising, just as I used to do with my old-fashioned kneaded bread.  That way it can be turned into the pot with a flick of the wrist.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Per directions?

When you buy Italian sausage to put into red sauce for pasta, it's going to simmer gently all afternoon, so you can feel confident that it will be cooked through by dinnertime.  But sometimes you just want to slap that sausage onto a plate as soon as you can, and it might be helpful to know how long that should take.

No such luck with this package.  On the front, not a hint.  On the back, a recipe that calls for the sausage to be cooked (so I infer that it isn't cooked already), and helpfully directs you to cook it "per directions" -- which are nowhere to be found.

I grew up in the days when pork had to be cooked a long time, and I have always been hypersensitive to that issue because when I was a kid, some people we knew became extremely ill with trichinosis, not even from eating pork, but from eating hamburger; the butcher had put their beef through the grinder without cleaning it properly after some pork.  

According to the CDC, trichinosis has been almost wiped out, because pigs no longer eat raw meat scraps (that's now illegal), but you do have to cook pork to kill salmonella and E. coli bacteria.  And how long might that take for your Italian sausage?  The Johnsonville people are no help.

Thanks a lot.  Don't worry if you come to eat at my house, because I always cook pork forever, but some people may regret the lack of info.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Most adorable airline souvenir

So here's my nomination -- a tiny plastic airplane!  You turn the propeller to shake either salt or pepper.  What could be cuter?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Say what?

You discover all kinds of interesting things if you go to the grocery store without a list and just poke around.  I began my visit by picking up a wedge of parmesan cheese in the cooler by the deli counter.  Later I found myself in the back of the store with the low-rent cheese and what did I find but the apparently identical product.

Except they had different bar code numbers, and the one in the front of the store was $1.80 more expensive!

Guess which one I put back and which one I bought.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Great ideas in sommeliership

The waitress opened our bottle of wine, then cut the cap and flipped it over to hold the cork.  What a sharp presentation!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Gelato for old people?

Two weeks in Italy with teenagers meant a lot of gelato (for them; the grownups mainly watched). After lunch, after dinner, while walking around in the sun in the afternoon.

One night they each ordered gelato frozen into a hollowed-out lemon.  After the kids polished off the gelato, my sister and I each got a just-starting-to-thaw-out lemon peel to eat -- magnifico!

Even if you mainly watched, it was fun to see the different flavors and note how the cold stuff is piled into its containers in a different way than you would see ice cream on display at home.

The last night, Zoe pointed out a flavor that nobody, teens or grownups alike, wanted to even have a taste of.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Farm stand, British style

Cornwall, in the southeastern part of England, has a surprisingly balmy climate, washed by the Gulf Stream.  On our vacation this spring we visited two magnificent gardens, and found this tiny self-service market in the village nearby.  (I thought 1 pound -- $1.67 -- was a bit steep for a little bunch of green onions, considering the low overhead, but it's an expensive country.)

Monday, July 7, 2014

A passage to India

I'm not much on semi-prepared foods -- stuff like Ragu spaghetti sauce.  I have always figured if you're going to make good spaghetti you need to make your own sauce, and my record is clear: I've never used a jar of that stuff in my life.

But that's Italian, my adopted heritage cuisine.  When it comes to other, more exotic ethnicities I'm open to all the help I can get.  I've recently started buying Indian simmer sauces and find them an easy way to get dinner on the table with a minimum of work.  (Even though I think the name "simmer sauce" is way too marketing-adorable for ordinary people to utter.)

Take the skin off a pack of chicken thighs, brown them (optional, I guess), then pour the sauce over.  I had some fresh ginger, so I minced up a good chunk of it and added it for more pep.  It simmered for a half hour or so, then I added cauliflower, ubiquitous on Indian menus.  Made plain white rice in the rice cooker.

The best part was what happened to the cauliflower -- bright delicate orange on the flowers, paler gold on the stalks.  I don't know what a real Indian would think of this dish but we give it an A for fast, easy and good.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Duo desserts

At the fancy restaurant, I was struck by how many of the dessert options were really two desserts.

Wouldn't a slice of cherry pie be totally delicious?  (It was -- I got a taste -- actually I got two tastes because the two people who shared the dessert couldn't eat it all.)  Do you really need a bowl of ice cream too?  Of course, maybe then they couldn't charge $9.

My husband ordered the banana confection and gave me a taste.  I wished I could have tasted just the banana bread pudding, minus the chocolate sauce, or maybe just the pistachio short bread.  Too many ingredients for me.

 OK, so I'm just a sour cherry.  But if restaurants would offer small desserts with just one delicious flavor, I would probably order more of them.  As it is, I only watch.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Tomatoes arrive!

They've been holding the farmers market for several weeks already but unless there are local vegetables to be had why bother?  The farm-raised eggs, the local bison, the flowers and jams and the coffee-and-omelet special aren't on my shopping list, no matter what the season.  But last week we thought maybe there would be tomatoes.

There were!

And they tasted like actual ripe tomatoes!  Maybe not as deep red and magnificent as in August, but definitely worth savoring in the first tomato sandwich of the year.  I hope they'll be good all summer.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A beautiful gift

My fiber and textile art group recently had a full week of workshops with an internationally known teacher, who stayed at my house.  One of the workshop participants decided to bring a gift for the two of us -- a dozen eggs from her personal chicken flock.

I have never seen a more beautiful box of eggs -- ranging from white through browns and even some green!

And they tasted good too.  Thanks, Linda!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Buyer beware

I am a huge fan of Smartfoodwhite cheddar cheese popcorn.  No kidding, it has saved my life on more than one occasion, once being when I was on a two-stop flight home from Los Angeles, trapping me on the snack-free airplane for almost six hours.  I was late and had to rush through the airport early in the morning without breakfast, and contemplated starvation until I remembered a pack of Smartfood in the goodie bag from my convention.

Another time being when we landed hungry in Las Vegas at 4:30 pm, needing to eat before we boarded a shuttle for a two-hour trip into the boonies, and found all the restaurants outside security closed for the day.  Fortunately I had packed Smartfood in anticipation of needing snacks in the wilderness, hardly expecting that the wilderness would begin in the airport.

I could go on and on about how I love this stuff.  So when I was in the grocery and discovered that they have come up with a low-cal version, I had to try it.

Well, dear reader, do not make the same mistake. Low-cal Smartfood is Dumbfood in my book, only slightly more appetizing than styrofoam.  Nice texture, no flavor.

It's the opposite of the movies, where the white hats are the good guys. With Smartfood the white bag is the bad guy.  Save up your calories until you can afford a black bag of the real stuff.