Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Resolution: Cook More Fish

I love to eat all kinds of seafood and often order seafood in restaurants. At home, I frequently cook shrimp and salmon. But I shied away from cooking many other types of fish, mainly because I was not sure about my ability to choose well. This nagged at me, though, because it seemed as if I had given up before I even started. So I vowed to begin cooking more fresh fish. I've made a few great meals quickly and easily.

I lucked out when a fish market opened up in a nearby town. One day I went in, bought a piece of sole, and asked the owner, "How would you cook this?" He said that he would simply heat up some butter and olive oil, lightly flour the fillet and then cook it quickly without turning. Add a bit of salt and pepper plus a squeeze of lemon and I'd be done. So I tried it, and it was delicious. That emboldened me to branch out. Next time, I tried flounder and added some shallots and white wine to the pan juices. That too was excellent.

Now, when I go to a supermarket, I check out the fish, and I have found two local markets that always seem to have a variety of fresh fish that is reasonably priced. If I go in with a particular fish in mind, I'm apt to be disappointed, but if I keep an open mind and just select what looks good, I'm usually happy.

Last week I saw some gorgeous cod fillets, and when I asked the counterman, he said that they had just arrived. So I brought them home and looked up "cod recipes." I found many, and all suggested cooking fillets in a 400-degree oven for 18-20 minutes. Then it was just a matter of deciding how to flavor it. I went with a mayonnaise and parmesan topping, which I had enjoyed on chicken, and it was delicious. Next time, I'll add some breadcrumbs for some crunch.

Luckily, I had not looked up just plain codfish, because if I had, I would have learned about codfish worms, and that might have turned me off. The Internet is filled with questions about these parasites. However, once I did learn about them, I also learned that they are not a mark of inferior fish or unsafe fish handling; they are just a fact of life and pose no danger in cooked fish. So my resolution stands. Next year, I will cook more fish.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sticky Buns for Christmas

I did not grow up with sticky buns; instead, I had rugelah and babka. But when I was married, my husband really liked sticky buns, so I learned how to make them. Sticky buns are time consuming, because you have to make a yeast dough that rises, a simple filling, and then the sticky topping. The kitchen is usually trashed by all these steps, so it's nice to make this treat a day ahead. Although I seldom eat more than one myself, I still make these buns to give as gifts when I know someone likes them.

Recipes abound on the Internet, and these year I tried a new one. I liked the fact that it had a hint of orange in the dough. It worked well, so I'll probably make it again, although I will cut back on the sugar, since I found these extraordinarily sweet. Yesterday, though, I just followed instructions, although I did cook the buns in two round pans instead of one large rectangular one.

If you've ever made a pineapple upside-down cake, this is reminiscent because once you have made the various parts, you start assembling the food upside down; you place the topping in the pan first and then the buns. That way, when the pan is inverted, the topping is actually on top.

you can see a bit of topping on the left
One thing I liked about this recipe is that you make the dough, let it rise, form it, and then let it rise again in the refrigerator. You can have it stay in the fridge overnight and cook the buns up fresh for breakfast, although I let them rise for just a few hours so I could bake them, cool, them, and wrap them as a gift. The family I'm giving them to comes from Pennsylvania, where sticky buns arrived with the German immigrants.

For those of you who like sticky buns but don't really want to go to a lot of trouble, here's a tip I learned years ago. Buy Pillsbury cinammon rolls in a tube (the orange rolls are delicious) in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, but don't follow their directions. They tell you to add the frosting after baking. Instead, smear the frosting on before baking. It will turn into a sticky caramelized topping. You can even add nuts.

Merry Christmas, folks!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Bagel Famine of 1951

One of the shocks of my young life was moving to Massachusetts and discovering no bagels. I had grown up outside of New York City, where bagels were a staple, at least among Jewish families. These little breads even had their own trade union,  Bagel Bakers Local 338. According to Wikipedia, the members of this union were all Jewish, and their meetings were held in Yiddish.

Bagels at that time were hand-made but most were not made at home because the process is time consuming; instead, bagels were usually purchased from specialized bakeries or from Jewish delicatessens. For years, every time I left Massachusetts to visit my family, I would return with giant shopping bags filled with bagels, which I froze. I later learned that certain locales, such as Brookline, offered real bagels, but these places were far from where I was living.

I was not the only person perturbed by a lack of bagels. On December 16, 1951, Bagel Bakers Local 338 closed down all but two bagel bakeries during a NewYork labor dispute. What followed was the great bagel famine of 1951, dubbed that by no other than the New York Times. "Bagel Famine Threatens the City" read the headline. Not only were Jewish diners inconvenienced by this strike, but so were the delicatessens that supplied the lox that traditionally were served on bagels, as well as the truckers who delivered these foods.

The strike was settled rather quickly, but within two decades, the union lost its clout because of technology. A family named Lender began using machines to make bagels.  The good news was that bagels went mainstream and even started selling throughout Massachusetts; the bad news was that the bagels didn't really taste like the chewy old homemade ones.

History repeats itself, though, and today we are back to having specialized bakers create handmade bagels for those who crave them. Luckily, I have a friend who lives near one such bakery, and he knows of my fondness for this food. Occasionally I will arrive home to find a bag of bagels hanging from my doorbell (a real bell) or sitting on my porch. No note is needed, because I know only one person who delivers this special gift to my house, and luckily, the man knows his bagels.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Pears in Salad

Red Anjou Pear
As a kid, I was never a big fan of pears; something about the slightly gritty texture threw me off. As an adult, though, I am a real fan, although one bad pear will make me pear-averse for days. In the past, I ate pears mainly as a snack or as dessert, but more recently I have begun putting them into green salads.

This week, I made an arugula salad with pears, walnuts, and blue cheese, and it was so good that it was my entire meal. Today, the arugula looked limp, so I used mixed greens—mainly romaine—and left out the nuts, because I had eaten them all. I enjoyed this dish just as much as the first. There is something about the combination of creamy pears, blue cheese, scallions, and crunchy greens that steals my heart and delights my palate. I dress the salad simply: 2 parts oil, one part balsamic vinegar, a dash of garlic salt, regular salt, and a grind of pepper.

So far, I have used the juicier types of pears, such as Bartlett, Comice and a new type called Taylor Gold.  Next week, I'll try Anjou and Bosc pears. These are more commonly used for cooking, but who knows, maybe they too will be a good addition to salads.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Creamed Onions—Love 'Em or Not?

pearl onions used to make this dish
For me and one daughter, at least, Thanksgiving dinner would seem impoverished if it lacked creamed onions. My son, however, gamely tastes them each year and shudders slightly. Are creamed onions an acquired taste, I wonder. In a group of eight people, I mentioned that I was making this dish for Thanksgiving dinner, and half the people in the group chimed in that they loved it; the rest shook their heads and made yuk faces.

Oddly enough, my creamed onions don't even have cream in them. I make a white sauce using  a half-and-half combination of onion water and milk. I add this to a roux made of butter and flour. Then I add a bit of grated cheese. The crumb topping is made of buttered breadcrumbs with just a dash of grated Parmesan. Still, it is a richly flavored dish with numerous textures.

Creamed onions is the only dish that I make using pearl onions. In the past, I have tried these small orbs in other dishes and been less than satisfied. They seemed slippery and hard to eat. However, a quick browse through some online recipes made me think I should try again. Anyone out there have a favorite recipe to share?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Behold the Beautiful Cranberry

Although I bemoan summer's passing, I look forward to autumnal foods, especially cranberries. I love these ruby-colored fruits, both as a photographer and as a cook.  When I was a kid, we used to have two types of cranberry sauce on the table: jellied and whole berry. I prefer the whole-berry type, and unless I'm having a very large crowd, that's the only kind I serve on Thanksgiving.

Whole-berry sauce is one of the easiest foods to cook. Simply wash the berries and pick out the wrinkled weirdos. Then add about a cup of liquid, 3/4 cup of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat. Let simmer until all the berries burst, about 10 minutes. Then let cool.

I really like the combination of orange with cranberry, so I use orange juice for all or part of the liquid. I also add the orange zest, chopped up, to the berries as they start to cook. If I have a lemon, I might add a bit of that as well.

Cranberry-orange sauce is not only great with turkey, but also with pork, chicken, and biscuity types of breads, including scones. Because it's so easy to make, I usually keep some on hand for most of the autumn and winter. Many people swear that it helps keep them healthy, since the berries are high in fiber, Vitamin C, and other nutrients. Be that as it may, I like it for its look and tart-sweet flavor. It brightens up the table and the taste buds.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Comforting Cauliflower

For some reason, this time of year makes me crave cauliflower. I noticed that the last posting I did on cauliflower was early fall in 2012. Maybe the cold weather makes me want comfort foods. Cauliflower has all the ingredients of a good comfort food: it's bland, nearly colorless (I have not tried the purple, green, or yellow varieties and probably won't), and pairs well with other foods. Its meaty texture (if not overcooked) allows it to shine as a satisfying main course.

Last year, I gave readers the fastest recipe, one that I use often. This time I'm going to give you the most comforting recipe, cauliflower and cheese sauce. To my mind, roasting the vegetable first rather than boiling or steaming it gives it a superior texture. Break the head up into florets, toss them with a Tbsp. of olive oil, and bake at 425 for 20-30 minutes, turning once or twice. The florets should be lightly browned and tender. Then pour them into a shallow casserole or pan, and make a cream sauce using 2 Tbsp. butter, 2 Tbsp. flour, a cup of milk, and salt and pepper to taste. (Melt the butter, stir in the flour, let cook a minute, then remove from the heat and gradually beat in the milk. Return to the heat and stir until thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.) I usually add a bit of mustard and paprika as well.

After the cream sauce has thickened, add about 3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Stir until the cheese melts, then pour this sauce evenly over the cauliflower. Reduce the oven temperature to 400. Sprinkle 1/4 panko bread crumbs over the top and and bake until bubbly and hot. If the crumbs aren't browned, run them under a broiler for a few minutes. Be careful not to burn them, but toasting them lightly adds a nice crunch.

Serve either as a main course or as a side dish. Baking the sauce with the vegetable and crumbs adds a nice toasted cheese taste and texture to the dish, as well a satisfying crunch. I've never been a huge mac and cheese fan, but I think the reason is because I had this dish instead.

By the way, if you don't have the ingredients for cheese sauce, you can always substitute Stouffer's welsh rarebit, but you may want to thin it a bit with milk.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Youth Without Pasta

I never ate pasta as a youngster. "Pasta" did not exist as a food name. I ate noodles in chicken soup and in kugel; I ate macaroni with cheese; I ate spaghetti and meatballs; and that was about the extent of it. I never tried lasagna until I dated a man who loved the lasagna served at a restaurant near Amherst College. I never tasted homemade pasta until I joined a dinner group as an adult. And I avoided ravioli until recently, because I thought it was an invention of Chef Boyardee.

So many wasted years!

Although I still don't order pasta at restaurants (because I prefer to order complicated dishes that I don't usually eat), I have it often at home. This week, my daughter gave me some penne, chicken, and broccoli she had made.  A few days later, I made myself some chicken florentine ravioli with roasted tomato sauce. And last week I had fettuccine with shrimp, artichoke hearts, and peas.

These dishes have several features in common: they are relatively quick to make; they are inexpensive; they are very tasty and satisfying; they don't require a trip to the store for special ingredients. I always have something in my freezer or cupboard that I can pair with pasta. Also, pasta—like pizza—is a good way to use up odds and ends. Two mushrooms alone aren't good for much, but they make a great addition to most pasta sauces. So does a teaspoon of capers, or a few stalks of asparagus.

About once a month, I try some new pasta. Last month, it was Buitoni's Wild Mushroom Agnolotti. How bad could it be, I thought. Well, it was so good that I wrote them an unsolicited letter, extolling the virtues of this previously-unknown food. I had served it with a very simple tomato sauce plus some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It tasted as if I had slaved over the stove for hours. I wished I had bought more than one package.

No one knows for sure how many different types of pasta exist. Some sources say 10; some say 150; one said 600. If the last number is true, I'm going to have years of experimenting. I can hardly wait.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Versatile Cabbage

the type of cabbage I grew up with

A friend stopped by this week bearing a large, gorgeous head of cabbage. It was a gift bought at a Polish farm stand, where my friend had gone to buy sausage. Mine was one of the smaller cabbages, my friend said, and one of the few she could lift and carry easily. I was thrilled.

I grew up eating cabbage both raw and cooked. Raw cabbage was made into coleslaw, a dish I have yet to master, and sauerkraut. Cooked cabbage was served braised ( I published a recipe for braised red cabbage last year), steamed, or made into two similar dishes: sweet and sour cabbage soup and stuffed cabbage.

Both of these dishes came from my mother's side of the family. These relatives had come to the United States around the turn of century, to escape anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. The soup and stuffed cabbage were very tasty and used little meat, thus allowing a poor family to serve many people inexpensively. I haven't made my mother's soup in years, mainly because I prefer the stuffed cabbage, and the two dishes are similar, so why make both. When my mother made her soup, she used something called sour salt, an ingredient that I have seldom seen in anyone else's kitchen. Today, you can buy it online. I use lemon juice instead.

The recipe for stuffed cabbage is long and involved, so I won't print it. Instead, I will include a link to  a recipe similar to mine. One main difference is that after I have removed the larger outside leaves from the head of cabbage, I shred the inner leaves and make a bed of them for the cabbage rolls to lie on. (With a head of cabbage as large as my gift one, this might not work, so I may have leftover cabbage, which I can use in borscht.) Also, after the cabbage leaves have been separated from the head, and before rolling, cut out the thick vein from the stem end of the leaves to make rolling easier.

I adore good stuffed cabbage; it's one of those complete foods, containing vegetables, meat, and starch. This recipe makes quite a bit, but it does freeze well. Just leave plenty of time to make it. Steaming the entire head of cabbage, pulling off a few outer leaves and then repeating the process enough times to get 20 or so good-sized leaves takes quite a bit of time. Once that's done, though, everything moves relatively quickly.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Knives

When I was a kid, my father would begin many dinners by standing at the dining room table, brandishing a long knife and a sword-shaped sharpening steel. He would quickly run the blade along the steel and then proceed to carve the meat, while the rest of us watched impatiently.

Knives played a large part in our kitchen. We had a giant butcher block counter along one wall, as well as a large assortment of knives. Some of the knives had been handed down from my father's grandfather, and I have two of them still.

Although I have a food processor and use it for quantity cooking, I use it very infrequently. I actually enjoy cutting and chopping food. First, I select the correct knife for the task: paring, boning, slicing, chopping, or carving. Using the right knife is probably what makes the task enjoyable. It's hard to bone a chicken with a paring knife, and it would be impossible to slice ham well with a boning knife.

I never cut on hard surfaces but use my knives on a wooden board, despite some rather dire warnings from family members. (They feared I would poison everyone if I didn't use plastic, which they thought was more hygienic. Science is now on my side, and wood is considered perfectly safe if kept clean.) Afterwards, if the knife is one of my carbon steel ones, I wash it immediately and then dry it. Only my stainless steel knives with plastic handles go into the dishwasher.

I tried using a drawer with slots for each knife, but I have way too many knives and I'm just not organized enough. So I keep them all higgelty-piggelty in a drawer. Although I keep them nice and sharp, I rarely cut myself.

A good knife lasts for years, and some of mine have lasted for generations. I have three or four favorites that I use every single day. A few, like my carving set, are used only once a year or so, but I welcome it like an old friend.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Brussel Sprouts are Newly Popular

Is any other vegetable cuter than a brussel sprout? I don't think so. Brussel sprouts look like miniature cabbages and are just the right size to pop into your mouth. However, for many years they were reviled as being smelly, strong-tasting, and just plain evil. Yet today, their popularity is surging.

What's changed? Well, for one thing, people have learned that these vegetables are healthful, packed with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. They are said to help lower cholesterol and perhaps even prevent certain cancers. Secondly, I think people have developed better ways of cooking this vegetable. When I was younger, brussel sprouts were boiled, and they emerged a bit soggy. Today, sprouts are often roasted, sometimes with bacon and maple syrup. These have a wonderful crunchy mouth-feel and sweet-salt taste.

If possible, choose small sprouts, since they tend to be sweeter. If you select them from a bin, try to get sprouts that are similar in size, because then they will cook evenly. If you buy prepackaged sprouts, cut large ones in half or even in quarters so they will cook faster.

If you haven't tried sprouts recently, do so. The internet is filled with good recipes, including the one I linked to above. Don't be surprised if you really like them. Just don't go overboard, like the poor Scot who overdosed on them last Christmas and wound up in the hospital. It seems that his prescription blood thinner interacted with the Vitamin K in his sprouts. The doctors said that anyone on blood thinner should be moderate in their consumption of leafy greens.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cooking for One

a recent lunch—no bread, no dessert, lots of salad
I didn't learn to cook as a kid; I never made much beyond brownies until I got married, and then I learned in a hurry. I was horrified by the prospect of having to spend the rest of my life eating my own food if I didn't know how to cook.

Luckily, I had cookbooks aplenty and a husband who would try almost anything, so I learned quickly. For years, I had a quotation on my kitchen wall from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook: "Bad cooking diminishes happiness and shortens life." That about sums up my philosophy.

Fast forward several decades to a point where I am living alone. At first, I didn't feel like cooking much. What's the point? I wondered. Then one day it strikes me: Who enjoys food more than I do? Why should I forgo that daily pleasure? So I started cooking again.

Cooking for one has little support. Several cookbooks are written for couples, figuring, I guess, that new partners and spouses need to feed each other. I think many folks assume that single folk just eat out or eat prepared foods.  So I don't see much about cooking for one person. (The exception is a great book I received this year called The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones.) I get tired of eating out at the sorts of modest places I can afford often; also, I don't like most prepackaged foods, except very occasionally. So I started cooking for one.

The first problem I ran into was waste; you can't find small sizes at discount stores, and supermarkets often package things for families. One solution is planning ahead, deciding beforehand what to do with the leftovers. Will you turn your roast chicken into sandwiches, chicken salad, and chicken soup, or will you freeze half of it? If you make chicken salad, you will need celery, and if you make soup, you will need carrots.

Another solution to excess food is to invite a friend for dinner, or drop off dinner at someone's house. Who doesn't enjoy receiving a home-cooked meal? Best, though, is to shop at places that feature unpackaged foods, such as farmer's markets, farm stands, and fish markets. I used to have trouble with salad greens, because I like variety and couldn't finish off several heads before one went bad. Now I can buy mixed greens at most places, so that's no longer an issue.

The advantages of cooking for one are legion. For example, I don't really have to worry about cost, because how much can one person eat? My most expensive extravagance is smoked salmon; a small package costs me about $5 and lasts for two breakfasts, pretty reasonable for a treat. Also, I can try any food or recipe without fear of arguments, snide comments, or horrified expressions. Curious about quinoa? I can make some. Ditto Korean hot sauce, oven roasted green beans, or anything else that strikes my fancy. If the food's no good, I had the fun of making it and no compunctions whatsoever about dumping uneaten portions. Finally, I can make a dish exactly the way I like it: soft scrambled eggs, juicy pink pork, vegetables galore, loads of garlic, and no desserts.

Deciding to actually cook for myself was a good choice. Not only do I eat well every single day, looking forward to almost every meal, but I also enjoy the act of preparing food. Making myself a 3-vegetable quiche or a delicious pot of soup is deeply satisfying. And I get to take pictures....

Friday, September 27, 2013

New Foods

none of these foods existed when I was a kid

Two of my neighbors dropped off gifts of fresh food this week. As I looked at them and the other fresh foods in my kitchen, I was struck by the fact that all the fruits and vegetables on my counter were new foods. None had been available when I was a kid.

Many of the foods that I now enjoy did not appear in markets when I began cooking in the 1960s. My favorite eating apple, Honeycrisp, hit the markets in the 1990s. My Delicata squash won awards in 2002.  The lovely little Fairy Tale eggplant won kudos in 2005. You get the idea. 

This insight made me begin mulling over my prejudice about genetically modified foods. I started thinking that creating new foods is nothing new; only the methods have changed. I do not know which eggplant parents created the little hybrid that I enjoy, yet I eat it freely and don't worry. However, I have an entirely different feeling about genetically modified foods, maybe because I've heard them referred to as "frankenfoods."

Apparently, many other people share my inarticulate concern; I just read that the so-called Monsanto Protection Act was removed from a government spending bill, largely because of public outcry.
Only time will tell whether the outcry is warranted or not. Will GM foods open a Pandora's box of problems, or will they save the planet? I plan to keep following this issue. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Apple Snob

I admit it—I'm an apple snob. I'm not snobby in the sense that I need expensive apples; I'm snobby in the sense that I need good apples. A lousy apple can turn me off this fruit for weeks, so I'm careful where I buy them. Since I live within minutes of several orchards, buying the fruit at the source is my favorite way to purchase. Next favorite is buying at a trusted local farmstand.

Massachusetts is not one of the great world producers of apples, but it sure enjoys its orchards and autumn apple festivals. New England grows a wide variety of apples, each with its special attributes. Some, like honeycrisp, are great for eating out of hand; others, like the many green varieties, are great for cooking; and still others, including the oddly named Tremlett's Bitter, are useful for cider. Some apples store well, while others lose flavor or texture once the season is past.

Most commercial apples are not grown from seed, because most apple trees cross-pollinate with other apple trees, so their seeds may not be true to type. Instead, branches from a desirable tree are grafted onto some hardy root stock, which is a time consuming process. Also, the trees usually don't produce fruit for several years, and they require careful pruning and pest control. Remember all this the next time you are surprised at the cost of some apples.

Yesterday I learned that an apple tree planted outside of Town Hall is a fameuse apple tree, which is one of the older types. It was a gift to the town from our Bicentennial Committee the year the town held its bicentennial. Our town was once home to several commercial orchards, so it was an appropriate gift. This variety was chosen because it a type of apple grown when our town was first founded.  The Town Hall tree is bursting with ripe fruit, so today I'm going down to try one; the taste is said to be memorable. Should be fun.

I had never heard of the fameuse before, so I looked it up. In doing so, I came across some apples that wowed me because of their names. New apples seem to have simple names, like Fuji or Jazz, but older types had some wonderfully fanciful names: Ashmead's Kernel; Peasegood's Nonesuch; Esopus Spitzenburg; Maiden's Blush; Allen's Everlasting; Westfield Seek-no-Further.

Friday, September 6, 2013


your colors may vary
Last week, a neighbor brought me veggies from his farm: eggplant, peppers, summer squash, and tomatoes. The quantity was a bit daunting until I thought of ratatouille. Besides being the title of a delightful animated film, ratatouille is a summer vegetable stew made from all those late summer treats I mentioned. Additionally, it contains lots of garlic and often basil.

I had made this dish before, but my last batch was a bit watery for my tastes. In fact, a watery texture is one reason why I used to avoid many summer squashes. When I was younger, they were served to me steamed or boiled. Not only didn't they look very appetizing but they were also bland and limp. Then I discovered grilling and roasting summer squash, and my attitude towards these vegetables switched 180 degrees.

But back to the ratatouille. I looked at various recipes online and settled on one by Alice Waters, a California chef I had met years ago. What I liked about her recipe was that the vegetables were all cooked separately at first and then combined. Although this takes slightly longer than just throwing everything into a pot, the results are wonderful. The vegetables had wonderful textures. I served it the stew as a side dish that evening. The next day, I made an open faced sandwiches, serving veggies over crusty French bread that had been sliced lengthwise, toasted, and topped with melted provolone.

Because I received the vegetables as a gift, I did not think too much about colors. I had an abundance of yellow squash, pale purple fairy tale eggplant, and purple bell peppers, which lose most coloring during cooking . This meant that my completed dish was not as colorful as one would be if it were made with red bell peppers, green and yellow squashes, and regular dark eggplant. Were I buying vegetables for this dish, I would probably consider color. Still, I had several spectacular meals from this recipe, and I encourage you to try it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Summer Herbs

When I first moved to this house, I had a garden. I was trying to be thrifty and sensible, but as things turned out I was neither. I grew all sorts of vegetables and some cutting flowers. Over time, I realized that it was actually more economical to buy vegetables, since I always grew more than I could eat at one time. I couldn't store lettuce, and what I didn't eat went to seed. Even a single zucchini plant produced more squash than I could enjoy. I tried freezing the extra but did not like the texture. I canned tomatoes for years, but I was never convinced that they tasted any better than storebought.

Economical it was not. I bought tools, seeds, labels, fencing to keep out critters,  and companion plants to keep away bugs. I purchased little plastic greenhouses to start seeds indoors. If I factored in the hours spent planting and weeding and staking plants and mulching and drowning slugs, it really made little financial sense, and it was certainly not my idea of fun. So I stopped. Now I buy fresh produce at farmers' markets or a local farm stand, with one exception—herbs.

Growing most kitchen herbs is easy, inexpensive, and immensely satisfying. Each spring, I buy a few small plants for just a few dollars each. Then I let them grow. A single basil plant, for instance, will provide enough flavoring not only for a summerful of salads and spaghetti sauce but also for a freezer full of pesto. Parsley, thyme,  and sage are also simple to grow and provide a lovely lift to dishes. The herbs I cannot grow (dill, for instance—I've never had luck with that), I buy. I have never eaten better than I do now.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Classic Fruit Tart

your fruits may vary
Last year, I wrote about a quick and easy fruit tart that was pretty to look at and good to eat. It is a good dessert but not a great one, made as it is with premixed cookie dough. However, I make it at time because it is so quick and simple.

For my birthday last March, my daughter Kate made me a classic fruit tart, knowing I was not much of a cake eater. Her tart was absolutely delicious—it immediately became a favorite dessert—and Kate gave me the recipe. I tried it myself yesterday and realized it is not that much harder than the quick tart I've made for years; however, it requires different ingredients (and a tart pan, which I borrowed from same daughter) and a bit more time.

Essentially, it's a four-part process. You wash and dry the fruit first. Then you make a shortbread crust, fill it with a creamy filling, and decorate with fruit.

Start by making a shortbread crust: Place 1 c. all purpose flour, 1/3 c. confectioner's sugar,  and 1/8 tsp. salt into food processor. Pulse once or twice to combine. Then add 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces, and pulse until it starts to come together in clumps. If it doesn't clump, add 1-2 tsp. cold water. Grease an 8-9 inch tart pan with removable bottom, or spray with a nonstick cooking spray. Spread the pastry evenly in the pan and press into the bottom and sides, using your fingers or the back of a spoon. Pierce the bottom with a fork and place in the freezer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425, with rack in the center. When dough is chilled, place tart pan on a baking sheet and bake until golden, about 13-16 minutes. Remove and cool on a wire rack. (You can cover and store this for a day or so if the weather isn't humid.)

They day of serving, make the cream filling. Mix 1/2 c. room temperature mascarpone cheese with 1/2 c. cold heavy cream, 2 TBSP granulated sugar, and1/2 tsp. vanilla extract. Whip until soft peaks form. Spread into the baked and cooled crust. Now arrange the fruit on top. I really like berries of all sorts, but peaches, kiwis, bananas, plums, whatever you like, can be used.

I like to finish with a light jam glaze. It adds a nice shine, and it keeps the fruit from drying out in the fridge if the dessert has to wait a few hours. For a glaze, put a heaping 2 TBSP apricot jam in the microwave for 15-20 seconds on high until melted. Add a few drops of fruit juice or grand marnier to thin until spreadable. Then lightly brush the fruit with this. Refrigerate, lightly covered, until ready to serve.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Joys of Summer: Salad Greens

In my parents' home, "lettuce" meant iceberg lettuce, which was usually served in a wedge alongside cruets of oil and vinegar. This lettuce might also appear in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich or underneath a few slices of fresh tomato. It is the most common type of lettuce found in American homes. according to the Dept. of Agriculture.

Too bad, because iceberg lettuce is perhaps the least nutritious of the common lettuces, and also has the least taste, although it does have a satisfying crunch. But romaine also has crunch; it is equally crisp and much more nutritious and versatile—good in salads, on sandwiches, and in wraps. If I had to stick to just one kind of lettuce, romaine it would be.

In general, lettuce commonly comes in four main types : crisphead (iceberg, for instance), butterhead (Bibb lettuce, Boston lettuce), cos (romaine to most of us), and leaf lettuce (green leaf, red leaf).
Most supermarkets carry a variety of other salad greens besides lettuce. These include arugula, curly endive, which is also known as frisee and chicory, escarole, spinach, watercress, and that mix of baby greens known as mesclun. Most tasty green salads contain a mixture of lettuces, as well as bland and sharp other greens. Some of these other greens can have strong definite flavors; these work well in salads that contain fruits, bacon, or other powerful flavors. For example, both spinach and arugula pair  well with orange, onion, and avocado, or  with strawberry and goat-cheese.

If you are an iceberg lettuce fan, don't let me discourage you; it's great for lettuce wraps, sandwiches, and wedge salads. But try branching out a bit; most other lettuces are far more colorful than iceberg and also much tastier. The fact that they're also better for you is a plus but not reason alone to switch.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Artisan Cheeses: Never the Same Twice

a 5-inch round fresh from the farmer's market
There is no cheese I don't love. My refrigerator always contains at least three kind of cheese (cheddar, cottage cheese, blue cheese) and usually several other types as well. Recently, I have become enamored of a locally produced artisan cheese called Wheyside, named in honor of the Wayside Inn, a nearby landmark. The cheese is made by Nobscot Artisan Cheese, a neighborhood company that sells at my closest farmer's market, which is where I tasted their cheeses. Nobscot is committed to making cheese using milk from a local farmer. They have several different cheeses, but the Wheyside won me over immediately and continues to do so. I buy it regularly, and it's always delicious but never exactly the same twice.

That lack of uniformity is the real difference between artisan cheeses and mass-produced cheeses. While the mass producers strive for perfect consistency, artisan cheeses are quirkier. They are made by hand, following traditional techniques, and all sorts of factors can affect the final outcome: whether the cheese is made with raw or pasteurized milk, the weather, what the cows ate, the length of ripening, whether the cheese is washed in brine, cider, or something else, as well as mysterious factors.

Years ago, I read a book called The Cheese Book by Vivienne Marquis and Patricia Haskell. It recounted the story of the Borden's Liederkranz cheese factory, which moved to Ohio from NY. The owners were scrupulous about moving everything: the equipment, the method, the original culture and recipe. But the new cheese was unsatisfactory. Finally, some genius decided to smear some of the original Liederkranz cheese on the new factory walls. (I love picturing this, and I wonder how that idea was originally received by management and by the people working there.) Voila! Future batches were successful, because now the very air was correct, filled with the perfect beneficial bacteria.

If the Nobscot folks ever move their cheese works, I will send them this story. I don't want my Wheyside influenced by foreign microbes.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Planked Grilled Salmon

ready for cooking
Last year I grilled salmon for the first time and loved it. I followed a recipe given to me by my dentist, a fellow foodie. I wrote about this in an earlier blog posting. At the time, I mentioned that I wanted to try cooking the fish on a plank, since I had heard that it was delicious.

I finally tried it. Basically, you prepare the fish the same way you would for grilling, but instead of placing it on a hot oiled grill you place it on a plank that has been soaked in water. Then you cook it using indirect heat. In other words, you heat up the grill, turn off one side of it if it is a gas grill (for charcoal, you pile the coals on one side when you start the fire), and place the planked fish on the cooler side. Then you cover and cook. No turning is necessary, although you do have to allow extra time.

The result is a moist fish with a silky even texture. The color is uniform throughout, with no blackened or crisp places. When I ate the first piece hot, I missed the slightly charred taste and texture of fish grilled directly on the rack. However, when I ate cold leftovers, I was stunned by wonderful it was. The fish practically melted on my tongue. I ate it for two meals in a row.

I cooked this salmon on a maple plank, which a friend had given me. I'd also like to try a cedar plank, which imparts a bit of its own flavor to the food. Whichever I use, the next time I make this fish, I will cook one piece directly on the grill to eat hot, and then I will plank the rest to serve cold afterwards.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Joys of Summer: Lobster

I just returned from a few days in Maine, where I feasted on fresh lobster served by the water's edge. I chose the type (hard or soft shelled), the size, and the cooking method (boiled or baked). Then I sat at an outdoor table and waited while my lobster was plucked from the water, cooked, and brought to me with assorted eating implements. For many folks, this is the quintessential New England summer dinner.

I'm one of those people who eats every possible morsel; a friend once said I reminded him of the scene in Splash, where Darryl Hannah bites into the middle of the lobster's back and then proceeds to devour it from there. I not only enjoy the tail and claw meat, but I rip off the little skinny legs and chew on them; I open the carapace and root around inside. To me, picking the lobster apart and digging out the sweet meat is part of the whole experience and pleasure. Luckily, my dining companion felt the same way, because eating a lobster this way takes time and creates a giant mess. And you smell like lobster for hours, despite the little wet wipes that most places give you.

If time is an issue, I'm likely to order lobster roll instead of boiled lobster. To a New Englander, lobster roll means just one thing: lots of lobster meat held together either with a bit of mayonnaise or just melted butter (and sometimes celery) piled atop a hot dog roll that is split on top and lightly toasted. You can buy lobster rolls in many places, including supermarkets and fast food restaurants, but I really wouldn't bother. Wait until you get to a place that makes them to order and makes them well.

I confess that I have never actually cooked a lobster; I can't stand hearing their claws scratching on the kettle. But this doesn't stop me from enjoying them. I always wonder about the first person who ate a lobster. When you look at one raw, it looks pretty unappetizing—a bit like a giant greenish-brownish bug. I salute the person who first decided to try eating one.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cottage Cheese: A Bum Rap as Just a Diet Food

my favorite brand and type
Cottage cheese has a bad reputation, and I hope to change that. For some reason, it is seen primarily as a tasteless food eaten by long-suffering dieters. It is a good food for dieters, since it is high in nutrition and low in calories, but it is also a great staple for everyone else. Its blandness makes it extremely versatile: cottage cheese can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert.

Cottage cheese is a protein powerhouse, offering twice the protein of yogurt. A single serving of cottage cheese provides half of an adult's daily protein requirement. People on budgets should remember this.

Cottage cheese is the original curds and whey enjoyed by Little Miss Muffet of nursery rhyme fame. It is essentially just milk components and salt, and today the salt is negotiable. Cottage cheese can be bought in many different forms: small curd, large curd, low sodium, low fat, nonfat, and flavored with sweet (pineapple, jam) or savory(chives, garden vegetables) items. I buy mine plain, adding flavors depending on how I use it. I'm not a fan of the low-fat varieties, but you may feel differently.

In hot weather, I often add a glob of cottage cheese to a tossed green salad. It turns it into a complete meal without making it appreciably heavy. I also eat this cheese on toast, bagels, or English muffins in the morning. (Richard Nixon ate cottage cheese for breakfast every morning, but he put ketchup on his.) In winter, I usually add a dollop of cottage cheese to a baked potato. If I'm in need of comfort food, I enjoy it in noodle kugel, a dish unknown to most of my friends but luckily not to my children. (Noodle kugel is a slightly sweet noodle pudding familiar to most Jewish kids of Ashkenazi descent.)

Cottage cheese is also an ingredient in one of my favorite summer desserts, a light and refreshing cheese cake--more accurately a cheese pie, I guess. It's easy to make and is lighter and more custardy than typical cheesecakes.

Graham Cracker Crust--make or buy.
Preheat oven to 350.
Blend the following ingredients or beat well at high speed

  • 1 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 oz. cottage cheese
  • 6 oz. cream cheese
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

When thoroughly blended, pour into the crust and bake for 20 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes while you raise the oven temperature to 475.

Now mix 1 1/2 cups sour cream, 2 TBSP sugar, and 1/2 tsp vanilla together. Spread on pie and then bake in the hot oven for 5 minutes.

Chill thoroughly before eating.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Eggplant Surprise

these little eggplants are only 3-4 inches long

Silly me! I thought an eggplant was just an eggplant, a member of the nightshade family. Yes, I had seen a few types at my local farm stand, but they looked essentially similar, except for the white ones, which just look freaky. But that was before my farming neighbor stopped by with a little basket of Fairy Tale eggplants. These cute veggies look like more like small purple zucchinis than they do eggplants.

Before cooking these miniatures, I did a bit of research and was well rewarded. I learned that eggplants come in numerous varieties, and that the Fairy Tale eggplants I had received required very little cooking. They are less bitter and more tender than standard eggplants, and their skin melts in your mouth. However, they do not have a long shelf life and should be eaten soon after picking.

I read a few recipes and then decided to try one that looked quick and simple. It was wonderful. (While I was cooking the pepper, I threw in a few mushrooms and added them to the final mix.) I cooked the split eggplants in hot olive oil briefly, added them to the other ingredients, and then feasted on the results. I was so encouraged that I may even try a white eggplant next.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Beautiful Beets

golden beets, straight from the farmer's market

One of my daughters shuns beets, saying they taste like dirt. This always surprises me, since this daughter loves to cook and eats a wide variety of foods. But never beets. The other daughter enjoys this vegetable as I do. To me, beets taste sweet. I like all varieties, but for salads I especially like golden beets, because they don't discolor the greens.

Last week, I bought a bunch of golden beets at a local farmer's market, prompted only by their sheer beauty. I steamed them and have been eating them almost every day in various salads. I love beets in salad combined with goat cheese and also with citrus fruits. I often make a luncheon salad like this one, substituting oranges for the grapefruit, since I cannot eat the latter. 

My other favorite beet dish is borscht. There are dozens of recipes for borscht online, so I won't bother linking to any one. Suffice it to say, that I like borscht made with cabbage and carrots and flavored with lots of dill. In wintertime, my borscht is thick and hot and includes slivers of beef, while in summertime I serve it ice cold with a hot boiled potato and a dollop of sour cream. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bubble Bursting: Sun Tea

making sun tea

I have made sun tea for years and always felt good about it. Using the sun's natural energy, I could make a refreshing summertime drink that tasted delicious and was practically free. Furthermore, it was crystal clear and looked lovely. All I needed, I thought, was a sunny day.

Then, somewhere, I got an inkling that I didn't actually need the sun to make sun tea. I ignored that inkling, because what fun was that? Then I visited my daughter, who remarked in passing that you don't actually need sun to make sun tea. I could not ignore this, because I never ignore my daughter.

I came home and did a bit of Internet research and confirmed that the sun was not a requirement. In fact, the article that I read suggested that tea made in the refrigerator actually tasted better.  So the sun doesn't impart any sort of cosmic goodness into the drink? Apparently not.

I was slightly disappointed to learn this but even more upset to discover that sun tea can actually be bad for you. (When you research information on the Internet, you discover all sorts of related topics, and this one, sadly kept cropping up.) According to Snopes, sun tea can harbor icky bacteria unless you jump through all sorts of hoops first. That sort of takes the romance out of making sun tea.

So for now on, I'll make mine in the refrigerator. I just need to come up with a good name for it--a romantic name that speaks to my love of summer.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Vinegar Rinse: Keeping Berries Fresh

Raspberries in their vinegar rinse...
I have a local friend who has a large patch of raspberries. She calls me as soon as they start to ripen. I usually arrive within a day or so and pick my fill. My preference is to eat the berries fresh, sometimes with a dab of whipped cream. However, raspberries (and strawberries) have an unfortunate habit of molding within a day or two, so I usually wind up freezing about half the fruit. This is fine for jam, but it changes the texture of the berries, so I often don't enjoy eating them plain after the first day.

Last year, I read that mold can be retarded if the berries are washed in a dilute solution of vinegar and water. However, I didn't have the courage to try it at the time. It sounded awful; I feared the vinegar would ruin the delicate taste of the berries. This year, though, since the season is just starting, I decided to try it. If one batch were ruined, well--there will be others.


I used a few tablespoons of cider vinegar in a large bowl of water. I started timidly, dumping in just a few berries. Then I drained and tasted them. They tasted just fine. So then I dumped in the whole batch. I swished them around for a minute and then drained them all, first in a sieve and then on paper towels. Into the fridge they went.  The next day they came out slime free and still tasting fresh and sweet.

I feel as if I've gotten away with something.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Succulent Strawberries

Last week's newspaper reported that this was a grand year for strawberries. They were delicious and abundant. Oh goody! Fresh strawberries are one of the treats of spring.

My first batch of berries is usually eaten in the simplest possible way: I wash them, place several in a bowl, and then set out a plate containing a small pile of granulated sugar. Holding the berry by its stem, I dip it in the sugar and then eat it. Simple, satisfying, and tasty. My next way of eating is cut up the berries and macerate them with a bit of sugar, some triple sec, and some other berries, such as raspberries and blueberries. Sometimes I mash this up and serve it as a sauce over lemon sherbet.

As the season continues, I tend to branch out a bit. I like to add strawberries to salad, especially salads made with hearty greens such as spinach. I also like to add crushed strawberries to lemonade, partly because I like the look of it. If company is coming, I may make a showy but simple dessert, such as glazed strawberry pie. I generally start with a good purchased pie crust and then go from there. This pie has the advantage of combining fresh berries with cooked, plus a bit of cream cheese.

And let's not forget strawberry jam! Some people avoid making jam, fearing that it is difficult. However, with modern pectin, jam is relatively fool-proof. It's also fun to make. However, it does require some time, and it makes a mess of the kitchen. (I have never owned a magnetic lid-grabber, by the way. I use my washed hands.) I usually cut the sugar a bit and often add a 1/2 cup of blueberries to make the color more interesting. If you want to cut the sugar out entirely, or use a lot less than the recipe calls for, look for the special no-sugar-needed variety.

I package my jam in 8-oz. jelly jars and add pretty labels. If I really want to make a splash, I'll cut out a round of fabric using pinking shears and use this to cover the metal lid. A ribbon will hold it in place. Thus wrapped, jam makes great house gifts if you're visiting friends over the summer.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


For most of the year, I'm cold, so the thought of an icy beverage appeals to me only during hot weather. However, almost as soon as the weather turns warm, I start thinking about sangria. After lemonade and ice tea, it is my most frequently prepared drink.

When I saw sangria, I always mean red sangria. I've tasted white variety, but it never appeals to me. Yes, it tastes OK, but it just doesn't LOOK right. I like sangria to be vibrant red, so I never make the pale type. I also like it in a stemmed glass with a big bowl.

The recipe I use is very simple:

Peel one orange with a vegetable peeler, and mash the peel into 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar. I mash it using the back of a spoon. This releases the oils and permeates the sugar with them. Slice up the rest of the orange and reserve the slices.

Then mix 1/2 cup triple sec, 2 cups orange juice, and one bottle hearty red wine (zinfandel, burgundy, cabernet) and add the peel and sugar. Stir well and add the orange slices. Chill thoroughly. Then serve over lots of ice.

You can add other fruits if you have them, and some people even like a bit of club soda. I've never tried the soda—why mess with perfection?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Kitchen Gadgets

This gadget is a keeper!

I am always suspicious of kitchen gadgets. Many are not worth the space they take up. Others work wonderfully, like this strawberry huller, and I am delighted to have them.

The perfect gadget is never a one-size-fits all. A tool may be very useful to one person, but not to another. An egg separator is the perfect example of this. I grew up separating eggs by cracking them in half, and pouring the yolk back and forth from one half shell to the other, letting the white drip into a bowl below.  Sometimes I just pour the egg into my well-washed hand and let the white drip out through my fingers. Both of these methods work well for me.

Then someone gave me an egg separator. It works a bit like the second method I mentioned earlier; this gadget is a plastic bowl-shaped object with open slits around a center receptacle. In theory, the yolk fits neatly into the receptacle, and the whites drip out the slits. However, if the yolk is large or double, it gets torn open. Also, you have an extra tool to wash. And it's a pain to use.

Other not-so-great gadgets include an egg piercer, which insisted on piercing my finger; a garlic press that was almost impossible to clean; a grapefruit knife that was designed only for right-handed people; a cake tester made of wire (what's wrong with a broom straw?); and a lettuce crisper, which took up a huge amount of refrigerator space and was no improvement over my usual method, which is to wash the lettuce, wrap it in a clean towel, swing it around a few times to get rid of the excess moisture, and then chill it for an hour or so.

Good gadgets, though, make food preparation easier. I'm going to list a few that I like. Your list will be different:

  • the above mentioned strawberry huller works beautifully, removing the entire hull neatly and cleanly, which is a real help is you are cleaning and chopping a large number of berries
  • a shrimp deveining knife makes removing the shells and dark vein simple
  • a hand juicer that fits on top of a measuring cup, for measuring small amounts of citrus juice juice
  • a good garlic press that can be cleaned
  • a garlic peeler, which is simply a sticky tube that removes the papery outer shell and is very useful when I'm peeling lots of garlic
  • a micro plane, which can be used for cheese, chocolate, or fruit zest
  • silicone egg poachers, which float in the water and keep the eggs tidy and dry
  • a salad spinner, which does dual duty; you can use the bowl to wash the lettuce; then it quickly removes excess water from the leaves. (Also, it doesn't need washing; only rinsing.)
What are your favorite and least-favorite gadgets?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Food Fight!

This time of year, the battle lines are drawn between the two strawberry shortcake factions: those who want the dessert served with real biscuit-like shortcake,  and those who want it served atop sponge cake. Both camps are fierce in their loyalties, although I think that the name "shortcake" actually weights the argument in favor of the biscuits.

In the context of food, short means crumbly or friable. Dough that is short contains a lot of fat, or shortening. The biscuits are crusty on the outside but crumbly when attacked with a fork. Spongecake, on the other hand, is not crusty and not crumbly. It just soaks up the juice and turns to mush.

To my mind, strawberry shortcake is best when ripe strawberries are sliced and dusted with sugar, then set aside to macerate. Meantime, the shortcake is prepared, using lots of butter and maybe even some cream. After the shortcake has baked and cooled somewhat, it is sliced in half horizontally. The bottom layer is covered with strawberries and whipped cream (real whipped cream, not CoolWhip), the top layer is set on this and more berries and cream added. The result is a grand mixture of crunchy creamy tangy juicy goodness.

When spongecake is used, though, especially those little preshaped cakes with little rims, the result is an overly sweet dessert with no crunch and little tang. I can't imagine why anyone would prefer this, despite the fact that this group includes some of my friends. It's a subject we never discuss.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Little Limes Pack Loads of Flavor

a Persian lime
I admit that I have never had either a mojito or  a margarita, two of the more popular uses for limes. Still, I keep them on hand, because they are wonderful in Mexican foods, Thai dishes, and summer recipes. Although frequently mentioned with lemons, they have an aroma and taste that is distinctly different from that of lemons.

As far as I'm concerned, limes are a necessary ingredient to good guacamole, as is cilantro. (Limes and cilantro have an affinity for each other, and are often found together in marinades.) I use limes in fish recipes, with chicken, and in numerous warm-weather drinks. One average lime creates about a teaspoon of juice.

Limes have been around for a long time. British sailors used them to combat scurvy, which is why they were sometimes called Limeys. They are available year round, although the height of the season is from now through October. Americans mainly use two types of limes: Persian limes and Key limes. Persian limes are sweeter and larger and much easier to find.

One odd thing to beware of with limes is that they have a chemical that can cause a bad skin condition in some people. The juice alone doesn't cause the problem—it's the combination of sunlight and lime that can make some folks break out in a blistery rash. So if you make a recipe using many limes, wash up carefully and use sunscreen for the next day or so.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lovely Lox

This is lox, not smoked salmon.

My Uncle Harry said he ate smoked fish for breakfast every day of his life. I envy him. When I was growing up, smoked fish was a regular part of my diet. Mainly we ate salmon, whitefish, and sable. (Sable is a type of black cod.) Today, I have it seldom, mainly because of the expense. Still, every few months I treat myself to a quarter pound of lox, which translates into two glorious breakfasts.

Although most people consider lox and smoked salmon to be synonymous, they are not. Lox is actually brined, with the exception of Nova lox, which is lightly brined and then cold smoked. Lox is moist and translucent; smoked salmon is dryer, thicker, and opaque.  (Gravlox is still another form of cured salmon, but this food is Nordic in origin.)

In my birth family, there were long discussions about which type of lox was tastiest: Nova or belly lox. Frankly, I don't care. I love them both. According to some, lox is an aphrodisiac, which might explain its popularity in my family. I don't think I have ever attended a Jewish celebration or funeral where lox was not offered.

Lox is traditionally served with bagels, cream cheese, red onion, and capers. I also like it on crackers and with cottage cheese or scrambled eggs. The saltiness pairs well with bland foods. For years, I avoided buying lox because it cost so much, but my British friend Pat started a tradition of serving lox and bagels on Christmas morning. I have continued her tradition to this day, and have even expanded it somewhat. Compared to many other fish, lox no longer seems as extravagant as it once did, and a little goes a long way.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Chicken Chicken Chicken

I once heard someone describe eternity as a ham and two people. For many, a roasting chicken and one person would be an eternity, but for me it's a joy. I seldom buy chicken pieces because I really like the variations I can make using leftovers from a roaster.

First, I enjoy the roast itself. If I'm making it for myself, I usually don't make gravy. I enjoy the juicy meat with a sweet potato or double-baked white potato, and have a simple salad on the side. Then, depending on the weather and my mood, I usually make at least two of the following dishes:
  • creamed chicken and mushrooms
  • chicken club sandwiches
  • chicken panini with artichokes, red peppers, and some sort of cheese
  • curried chicken salad with cashews and apricots
  • Cobb salad
After that, I finish up by making a rich chicken soup. I make a stock using the chicken, onion, celery, and carrots. After that cooks for a while, I strain the broth, pick all the chicken off the bones and throw the meat back in the broth. I throw out the exhausted veggies. Then I neatly chop another onion, more celery and carrots, and a parsnip if I have one. I put those in the soup and let it all cook together for a while longer.

Now I add salt and pepper. Shortly before serving, I throw in some chopped parsley and a handful of noodles. I usually don't eat the soup right away. Instead, I freeze it in small batches. It's very flavorful and probably healthful. Makes a perfect quick meal on those days I have no urge to cook.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Color & Texture

Yesterday I made more potato salad than I planned. The potatoes were larger than I first thought. I figured it would be a nice warm weather treat. (The day was unaccountably cold and raw, but I tried to ignore that detail.) I had some for last night's dinner and this afternoon's lunch, but I craved something colorful and crunchy to serve with it. So I made a chopped salad, and since many summer vegetables are not yet ripe, I made a few substitutions.

I wanted a Mexican flavor, so I loosely based my recipe on the corn and black bean salads I make when corn is in season. I didn't have fresh corn, so I used canned. I didn't have black beans, so I used kidney. Then I added a whole lot of chopped onions, green peppers, grape tomatoes, and cilantro. I made a dressing by whisking together lime juice, olive oil, cumin, chipotle, garlic, salt and pepper, a splash of balsamic vinegar,  and a dash of hot sauce. I mixed it all together and let it chill for a few hours. It was delicious.

Although I love green salads, I enjoy other types as well. I often chop up vegetables and throw them together with some sort of dressing. The secret to these chopped salads, I think, is to mix colors, tastes, and textures. So rather than thinking of specific foods, I think crunchy, tangy, smooth, chewy, or bland. I try to mix and match. So I might mix bland cucumbers with tangy garlic and yogurt, or sweet corn with spicy dressing, or sweet watermelon with sharp onions and salty feta, or chopped tomatoes with black kalamata olives.

Not only do I get a variety of vegetables that way, but I also get to decorate my plate.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Spring Spritzer

Cranberry-Orange Spritzer

Usually when I think of spring drinks, I think of lemonade or orangeade. Maybe even iced tea. I'm not usually a consumer of hard liquor. Or so I thought....

Today I was helping a friend by taking pictures of the new drinks that she was offering in her restaurant. Most looked lovely but had too much alcohol for my tastes. But this one was perfect. I'm not even sure what was in it, although I was told it contained a lemon vodka, and judging by its name also contained cranberry juice and a hint of orange.  It was light, refreshing, and incredibly tasty. I know the world is mad for cocktails and mixed drinks right now; if this is a sample of what the new drinks are like, I can understand their popularity.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lighter Lunches: Fruit & Cheese

When New England enjoys its first warm days, I happily anticipate the foods of summer that will soon arrive. However, in the meantime I start changing my diet by fixing myself lighter meals. One of my favorites is fruit and cheese, paired with some sort of substantial bread.

Today, I had a juicy pear, sliced, made into a sandwich on French bread with melted brie. For eye appeal and crunch, I added a handful of fresh watercress. It made a perfect spring meal.

Pears and brie are just one of several well-known combinations. Apples and cheddar are another. But have you ever tried melon and goat cheese? How about figs and goat cheese, with a dab of honey thrown in? Strawberries, grapes, and peaches also pair up well with mild cheeses.

To really enjoy the combined flavors and textures, make sure that your cheese is at room temperature and your fruit just slightly chilled. Serve on a bread with some substance, otherwise the juice from the fruit will turn your bread to mush.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Kosher Coke

photo by Mark H. Anbinder on flickr
Live and learn.

Passover is finished, and only today do I learn that the Coca-Cola company makes kosher Coke.  Although I'm a seltzer gal myself, as opposed to sweetened drinks, other family members drink Coke and I usually have some on hand. When I was growing up, soft drinks were often served at various relatives' homes, and I never gave it a second thought. Modern Coke, though, is different from the drinks I grew up with.

In 1985, Coke changed its formula and replaced sugar with high fructose corn syrup. Most other soft drink manufacturers followed suit. Certain Coke fans were upset, but not as upset as observant Jews, who were now unable to drink Coke during Passover. At this holiday, certain cereals and grains are forbidden, including corn and thus corn syrup. So Coke was out.

Enter Rabbi Tobias Geffen, a Lithuanian-born Orthodox rabbi living in Atlanta, where huge quantities of Coke are bottled. To make a long story short, Geffen persuaded officials at the Coca-Cola company to create a kosher form of the popular beverage. They did, and you might still find some on the shelves this week. You can distinguish kosher Coke by its bright yellow bottle cap (it is almost exclusively found in bottles).

However, be warned that kosher Coke is available mainly in large cities, such as New York and Boston. This year, it is not available at all in California.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sardines, Anyone?

Why do so few people eat canned sardines? Almost no one I know does, and in fact, many screw up their faces at the thought. Yet sardines are inexpensive, tasty, and extremely nutritious. They are just loaded with B vitamins, omega-3 oils, and calcium. A NY Times article quoted one nutritionist, who said that sardines were "health food in a can." Everyone  seems to be gobbling down kale and salmon these days, so why not sardines?

I think one of the problems is that they look like small beheaded fish, which they are, while other forms of fish are more aesthetically pleasing.

I grew up eating sardines, so perhaps that's why I don't turn up my nose at them. I usually have a few cans on hand. My preference is for those packed in olive oil or mustard. These fish tend to be somewhat oily, so I usually pair them with something crunchy, such as toast or crispbread (Ryvita and Wasa are favorites). I smear the bread with a dab of mayonnaise, lay down a few sardines, mash them with a fork to make them stick, then add something to cut the oily taste, such as chopped raw onion and a slice of raw tomato. Some need a bit of salt as well.

Go ahead.Try some. Don't be afraid of a little fish.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Importance of Bread

what my mother refered to as goyishe bread
One of the surprises I received when I first moved to Massachusetts was the bread—the entire state seemed devoid of good bread. (Remember, this was in the 60s.) This was a shock because I had grown up in an area that had dense bagels, chewy rye bread, dark pumpernickle, and crusty French bread. Later, I learned that Brookline had decent bread, but by then I had set up my own personal importation procedure. Every time I went down to New Jersey or New York, I would visit my favorite bakery and return with shopping bags full of bread and other baked goods.

Then I got on a breadmaking kick myself. My husband loved oatmeal bread, for example, so I learned how to make that. I liked whole wheat bread and learned how to make that. The kids liked white bread, so I learned how to make that. We all liked various muffins, and I learned how to make dozens of different types. Soon I was baking most of the breads we ate. About 20 years ago, When Pigs Fly opened up, good bread became available in more locations around me. Gradually, other good bakeries also opened, and I stopped my incessant baking.

I am surprised at how much this all matters to me considering the fact that I'm not a big bread eater. My mother, for example, felt as if she hadn't really eaten if she didn't include bread in any meal. I don't feel that way. Still, when I do eat bread, I want it to be good. To my mind, a slice of crunchy whole wheat toast with chunky peanut butter makes a great breakfast—high in protein, fiber, and taste. Good rye bread is essential to certain sandwiches. And lox and cream cheese just doesn't taste right if it's not on a good bagel (those other bagels were referred to as goyishe, i.e. not Jewish, bagels by my mom, who grew up in an Orthodox household. )

So while I don't  eat a lot of bread, I do accept its importance in the scheme of things. I understand why breaking bread is synonymous with nurturing both body and soul. Whether I'm eating a wrap, or focaccia, or pita or pizza, I want the bread to be more than a vehicle for other ingredients; it needs to be good by itself before I consider it good with anything else.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Trip Down Memory Lane

Simple Simon and the Pieman
If you are an adult of a certain age, chances are you see the sign above and immediately think "Howard Johnson's." For much of the twentieth century, Howard Johnson's was a common roadside sight. Now, I think there are just two left in the United States.

I was reminded of my visits to Howard Johnson's this week when I wandered through the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. What a trip back in time! I had forgotten this logo, although I did remember that HoJo's offered 28 flavors.

Part of the fun of the Culinary Arts Museum was seeing parts of my own culinary history that I hadn't thought about in years. Pez dispensers, for instance, were released in this country when I was a little kid, and they delighted me and most kids my age. Carnival food, railroad food, and early airplane food were all distinctive in their day, and the museum reminded me of this.

If you are in New England and enjoy all aspects of food, this is a great place to visit. Check them out online if you can't visit in person. There's a link above.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I Love Lentils

lentils commonly come in three colors: green, brown, and red
Writing this blog has been fun, but it has made me realize how often I cook the same or similar foods. Half a cup of leftovers? Make a pizza or a quiche. Leftover chicken? Make chicken salad, creamed chicken, and chicken soup.

One other soup I make frequently is red lentil soup. It's quick to make, pretty to see, and very tasty and satisfying. I used to make it using brown lentils and sausage of some sort, but now I make red lentil soup almost exclusively. It has no meat, but it does have chicken broth. (Brown lentils cook quickly and are the softest; they can turn to mush if you're not careful. Red lentils are the sweetest and cook even faster. Green lentils stay firm and are good for salads or cold dishes.)

I can feel virtuous eating my lentil soup, because lentils are incredibly healthful. They are packed with protein, fiber, and iron. A cup of lentils contains as much protein as 3 large eggs, with almost no fat. It is one of the oldest cultivated food, and no wonder. It's hearty, easy to eat, and versatile.

A friend gave me this soup recipe more than a decade ago, and I have eaten it regularly ever since.
  • 2 TBSP oil
  • 1large onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 tsp cumin
  • 4 carrots, diced small
  • 1 sweet red pepper, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups washed red lentils
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • parsley and chopped green onions are optional
Saute the onion, garlic, carrots, and pepper until soft.
Add cumin, lentils, and broth. Simmer until the lentils are soft, which should take about an hour. If you'd like, garnish with chopped fresh parsley and chopped green onions.

This freezes beautifully, so whatever I don't eat the first day or so, I freeze in meal-sized containers. Served with bread or crackers and a green salad, it's a fast feast.