Thursday, May 31, 2012

Little Cucumbers That Have Gone to Heaven

I grew up outside of New York City, which has the world's second-largest population of Jewish people after Israel. Jewish foods could be bought everywhere. My family is Jewish, and a treasured family ritual was our Sunday visit to the local deli, Sol and Sol's. I would stand beside my father while he discussed the fine distinctions among various types of cured meats or smoked fish. One of the owners would always pinch my cheek and hand me a little sample of something. So deli food is in my blood.

After I moved to Massachusetts in the mid-60s, I was horrified to discover that few locals even knew what a deli was. For years I muttered about the lack of good rye bread or real bagels. To compensate, I would buy large quantities of deli food whenever I drove to New Jersey to visit my family. I would return to Massachusetts, laden with large shopping bags stuffed with rye bread, bagels, rugelah, and babkas. I would also bring back pickles, since Massachusetts pickles were very different from the ones I grew up with. (As it turns out, there are two main kinds of pickles, one of which gets its tang from bacteria.) The bread stuffs went into the freezer, and the pickles went into the fridge.

I grew up eating kosher dills and half-sours. Until recently, I thought that a half-sour was made with vinegar, as many other pickles are. I figured they were taken out of the brine when half-done. But no, it turns out that half-sours are fermented in a low-salt brine. They contain no vinegar.

One food writer, John Thorne, described half-sours as "cucumbers still, not pickles—little cucumbers who [have] died and gone to heaven." I believe that is an apt description. A half-sour has the crunch and freshness of a firm little cucumber with a little bite. You can eat them in quantity. 

When I was a kid, many delis put out free bowls of half-sours for diners to munch on while they waited for their food. Rein's Deli, off Rt. 84 outside of Hartford, CT, still does this. When I visited some family members in Connecticut last week, I stopped by Rein's on my way home and filled a shopping bag with rye bread, rugelah, and half-sours. I guess some things never change.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Getting Others to Feed You

Strawberries, hearts of palm, chocolate nibs
Many many years ago, as part of a job interview,  I had to write a review for a book that I had written or hoped to write some day. I immediately made up a title and concept: With Fork in Hand—A Guide to Getting Others to Feed You.

Since that time, I've done well at this task. For years, I reviewed restaurants, getting paid to eat out and pay attention. Later, I wrote a newsletter for a restaurant and got paid in meals at that restaurant. More recently, I took photos for a caterer in exchange for a lovely dinner. This weekend, I took several hundred photos of a privately catered event as a favor to the chef. In return, I received tastings on the job as well as a large take-home package.

Luscious little key lime desserts
For someone who enjoys food, as I do, this type of event is close to bliss. Not only did I enjoy some wonderful food, but I also got a behind-the-scenes view of what it takes to produce spectacular meals  for 40. I saw the floor plans, the schedule, and the menu. I watched skilled cooks and service people chop, chill, stir, arrange, garnish, and serve. And now I have dozens of pictures for my own projects.

I used to think that I really liked to cook. Now I know the truth: I really like to eat. If I'm the best or only cook around, then I cook. However, if another good cook is willing to feed me, I'm ready to go.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Quick Flavor Boost

I had pesto in my freezer from last summer.

Recently, I was reading a recipe that called for pesto mayonnaise, which is just what it sounds like: pesto and mayonnaise. I made a little earlier today, using about equal portions of each, and slathered the mixture onto a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich. In addition to the pesto mayonnaise, I included a slice of sharp provalone cheese, grilled peppers and onions, a sliced tomato, and a toasted roll. I was surprised at how much of a flavor boost a single serving of pesto added. Next time I'm trying it on cold chicken.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

All-Purpose Foods

The frittata that I made the other day turned out to be very tasty, although next time I will add a bit of a slightly sharper cheese.  I enjoyed it for a few days and realized that it is one of those all-purpose foods that can be eaten at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I'm not exactly sure what makes a food fit for all meals, although eggs certainly help. My all-time favorite all-purpose food is Julia Child's Rapee Morvandelle. Her dish is similar to a frittata, but it also contains shredded potatoes and ham.

Does texture make a food fit for all meals? It probably contributes something, since I find that almost any creamed food works at all times of day. But then, I'm also happy eating pizza or Chinese food for breakfast, so clearly this question requires a bit more thought.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Leeks: Ignored No More

For some reason, I never cooked a leek before this year. I think they looked so much like overgrown scallions that I figured they would taste like scallions. Also, I kept hearing that they were notoriously hard to clean.

This spring, however, I have cooked many a leek, and I'm kicking myself for not doing so earlier. They are delicious, especially when paired with asparagus. They don't taste like scallions; they taste a bit sweeter, and they look wonderful, because they turn into tiny little half circles. Tonight I'm trying a new recipe for a frittata that combines the two vegetables. I've never made a frittata before, but it looks a lot like a crustless quiche, so I know I'll like it.

As for leeks being hard to clean, no. Split them lengthwise and submerge them in water and swish them around. Any dirt comes right off. Then just pat them dry and use in your recipe.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Strawberry Trivia

Who knew that the strawberry is not really a berry? It's a "receptacle." That's somewhat disappointing, or at least it sounds unappetizing. Then I learned that the seeds aren't really seeds; they're "achenes."These little structures contain the seeds, one inside of each.

Recently, I bought a quart of berries, which are not in season in Massachusetts. However, I was lured by their low price and their luscious appearance. Their taste was OK, but not great. However, after eating some whole, I sliced the rest and macerated them with a bit of sugar and some Triple Sec. Then I poured them over lemon sherbet. Turns out to be a good way to enjoy less-than-wonderful fruits.

If the berries had been better, I would have made strawberry shortcake. To me, that is an almost perfect food. (Shortcake assumes a biscuit-like cake, not an angelfood puck; whoever thought those were shortbread?) When I was younger, I can remember feasting on ripe berries and making an entire meal out of strawberry shortcake. In a few weeks, we'll have local berries. I can wait...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mushrooms Go Mainstream

I eat mushrooms frequently because I enjoy them, but lately I've been hearing about them in a medical context. Several of the people in my cancer support group were discussing the health benefits of mushrooms. Apparently, these fungi strengthen the immune system and are thought to be beneficial both to cancer patients and to people hoping to avoid cancer. Since I am slightly skeptical by nature, I wondered if these stories were on the crackpot fringe of alternative medicine, but they are not. Even the American Cancer Society has been following one type of mushroom.

Last month, the folks in my group were discussing a different type of mushroom, called turkey tails, which are also receiving attention for cancer patients. You know that these ideas have gone mainstream when you can buy the products online at amazon.

In my younger days, I mostly ate white button mushrooms. Nowadays I generally eat crimini or portobellos. These are the same types of mushrooms, Agaricus bisporus. The white button mushrooms are the youngest; the portobellos are the oldest. Since my kids gave me a grill, I have grilled mushrooms every week. Sometimes I marinate them; at other times, I just brush them with oil before grilling. They make great sandwiches when combined with grilled peppers and herbed goat cheese, and they are also wonderful in omelets or atop most meats.

Last month, I accompanied a friend to an Asian food market in Littleton and was dumfounded by the sheer variety of their dried mushrooms (also their noodles, but that's another story). Clearly, I have lots of experimenting to do.