Thursday, December 28, 2006

Triumphant Yogurt

I had a big success yesterday. I managed to make a batch of yogurt without burning the milk. Considering that the last three times I’ve tried to make yogurt I’ve managed to burn the hell out of the milk, this is a big step forward.

Since I believe I’m the only freak in my circle of friends who makes something that most people go out and buy for 89 cents a cup at the grocery store, perhaps a quick explanation of how yogurt is made would be in order.

You start with milk, obviously, the amount dictated by how much yogurt you want to make, and the type dictated by what kind. Skim milk, as I understand it, can’t be used to make yogurt—it’s too thin to start with, and the yogurt doesn’t thicken properly. However, either whole or some version of reduced fat milk works fine. I actually use whole milk, because I think it tastes better as yogurt.

You heat the milk until it’s just starting to froth, remove it from the stove, and let it cool to about 110 degrees. I understand this is when you can stick your finger in it and leave it there for 10 seconds, but I always use an instant read thermometer. Then you add yogurt starter. This can either be a couple of tablespoons of plain store-bought yogurt, or a true “starter,” which can also be bought at the grocery store. I’ve found the commercial starter to work better and much faster than the couple-of-tablespoons-of-yogurt method, but if you can’t find the starter, the other way does work. Either way, this is one of those cases where you dish out a little of the warm milk, stir the starter (whichever one you choose) into it, and stir the little bit back into the whole.

I’ve read that it’s possible to make yogurt with a glass jar, a gas oven with a pilot light, and maybe an old baby blanket or two, but since all my baby blankets are currently in use, I go with the yogurt maker. This is nothing more than a plastic tray that plugs in and has some kind of low wattage heating element in it. The milk gets portioned out into glass jars with lids, the jars go in the tray, a domed lid goes over the whole, and you wait. When I used to use a little yogurt as a starter, it could take upwards of 10 hours for the yogurt to get to the consistency I prefer (thick). With the starter, I find that it’s ready in 6 or so hours. Newer models I've seen have an actual timer on them that turns the unit off after the set amount of time. Naturally mine does not have this feature. A word of warning—if you let the yogurt sit in the maker for too long, it passes through the “thick” stage and goes back to a consistency that resembles the original milk of which it was made. I don’t know why, I just know it’s so.

Once the yogurt is done, it goes in the fridge, where it thickens up a little more and is ready to eat. Since I don’t like plain milk, I eat mine with cereal. It’s also very nice with honey and some toasted nuts.

You’ll notice there’s no sugar or sweetener in this yogurt. That’s correct. It’s plain unsweetened yogurt. It takes a little getting used to, but once you adjust to the somewhat tart flavor of it, the stuff sweetened with anything (sugar or artificial sweetener) will taste too sweet and chemically. I haven’t tried adding flavorings like vanilla, but I suppose it could be done. I guess you could also make it with chocolate milk, which would make an interesting chocolate yogurt that could be kind of dessert-y, since commercial chocolate milk has sugar in it. I have no idea if this would even work, but it might. I would suspect that if you used some form of cream—light or heavy—that you’d wind up with something the consistency of panna cotta, although it wouldn’t be anything you could eat on a regular basis, unless your cholesterol and triglyceride levels were dangerously low.

So there’s some experimentation to be done here, but first I had to conquer a problem that I’ve been having in the last six months or so. Namely, I put the milk on to heat, then wander off and get caught up in some other activity, and am only called back to my yogurt making when my husband yells something like “Is this milk supposed to be boiling all over the stovetop like this?” (what a comedian). By the time I ruin that much milk (about 48 ounces), I don’t have enough left to make another batch, so I’d be headed off to the store to buy more. That would usually mean taking a kid with me, which can be such a hassle that I usually just resolve to eat toast for breakfast instead.

Thus, yesterday’s events, in which I put milk on to heat, walked away from it three or four times to tend the baby, but still managed to remember it was on the stove, and get back to take it off at the appropriate time was quite a triumph. This morning I had a bowl of homemade yogurt with granola by way of a celebration.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Appliance Commandments

I have a friend who has a blender that’s facing execution. It doesn’t know it yet. She says she has to drop frozen fruit or ice in one piece at a time when making a smoothie or the blades jam, that it splatters everywhere when it’s turned on, and that the whole appliance (with lid on) won’t fit on the counter under her cabinets. To be fair to the blender, I don’t think any blender made for the home market will do what she wants it to do—namely, merrily whiz everything in it to a fare-the-well when flipped on, with all the ingredients having been put in while the thing was turned off. I think only commercial blenders (costing multiple hundreds of dollars) will do that. I think you’re always going to have to feed frozen stuff in a little at a time. However, this won’t save the current blender from outright expulsion, especially since it compounds its errors by having been given to her by her Very Annoying Mother-in-Law.

My friend’s blender battle makes me think of the appliances we currently have (some of them actually belonging to us, some of them—thank god—a permanent part of this rental house, so they will be staying here when we move). These appliances have broken several Appliance Commandments, and will not be joining us in our new home next year. Like my friend’s blender, they don’t know it yet. I’m just going to let them go blissfully along, annoying the crap out of me, and then mercilessly dump them. I will then chortle with glee, and direct them to make friends with a PC somewhere so they can read this catalog of their sins. After that I will phone the first psychologist listed in the phone book and make an appointment, so I can discuss my delusions regarding the anthropomorphic characteristics of appliances.

Toaster Oven
No toaster oven shall give the impression it is working when it is not. Our toaster oven has three knobs that control the various functions: Toast/Bake/Etc., Temperature, and Time. To toast, you set the first knob to Toast, the second to Broil (or maximum or whatever it’s called), and the third one to the amount of time you want the thing to run. The third knob then ticks away the time, and dings when it’s done. If, however, your husband has unplugged the toaster oven for some inexplicable reason, the Time knob will still tick away as though everything was toasting as expected, when in fact it is not. Do I even need to describe how annoying this is? Suffice to say our next toaster oven will have no such shortcoming.

This microwave has so many deficiencies that I really want to drop it off of a five story tower today. However, I don’t have the luxury of doing so, because that would mean having to go buy another one and that’s not in our budget right now. Instead I’ll relieve my feelings by whining about how crummy it is.

No microwave shall run a “cooling fan” after having only been used for thirty seconds. In fact, no microwave shall run a cooling fan, period. It’s a microwave—the whole idea is that they don’t generate heat as they run, and I can’t believe the motor gets that hot in just a few minutes. Why does it need a cooling fan? Especially one that runs so loudly that it practically ensures marital discord as my husband and I shout back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, and the one of us in the kitchen can’t hear a damned thing the other one is saying because the stupid microwave fan is whirring along like the reversers on the engine of a Boeing 757.

The plastic covering on the buttons of a microwave shall last more than six months. Those buttons have a sort of sheet of plastic over them (pretty redundant to me, since the buttons themselves are really just sheets of plastic over the sensors) that has split and started to curl back. I find this annoying for at least two reasons—first of all, the microwave is barely a year old, so it should have held up better; and second of all, every time I press the Stop/Reset button, it pricks my finger. Oh it doesn’t draw blood or anything, but it still kind of hurts.

No microwave shall randomly spark. Yes, our microwave randomly sparks as the built in turn table spins around. I’d be more worried about this, but I’m hoping that what’s happening is that this cheap piece of garbage is slowly self-destructing, and in another ten months or so it will just disintegrate into a little pile of dust. What’s probably happening is that my food, and me as I stand in front of it, are slowly being poisoned by radioactive waves. That’s my luck for you. I’ll be a twitching mass of radioactive goo on the floor and the microwave will be sitting on the counter, its cooling fan buzzing happily away. My husband will be in the living room shouting to me to ask if I’ve emptied the dishwasher and getting progressively more pissed off as he thinks I can’t hear him because of the microwave fan.

This is one of those appliances that won’t be joining us when we move on, so I’m a little more forgiving of its shortcomings because I know I won’t have to put up with them for much longer. However, no oven shall take 25 minutes to heat up. With this oven you have to plan an hour in advance because the preheating takes so long that it can be a significant part of food preparation. I’ve never had an oven that took longer than about 15 minutes to preheat.

Really my complaint about this refrigerator is my complaint about any stacked unit. The freezer is on top, the refrigerator is on the bottom, and in order to see the stuff in the back of the fridge, you have to bend over and touch your toes. What’s in the freezer, the part of the refrigerator we use least (or perhaps more accurately, spend less time hunting through for various items) is plainly visible and easily accessible. I suppose the commandment this refrigerator is breaking is, no refrigerator shall be poorly designed. Most of the refrigerators sold on planet Earth are, though, so it’s hard to do much more than hate this one and count the minutes until I can be away from it forever.

Technically the only commandment my mixer has broken is, no appliance shall break in a way that makes it frustrating to use, but does not justify full replacement. I have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer (not the one with the crank that allows you do to an ice bath—just the tip-up one). The Lock/Unlock lever is broken. It doesn’t stay in the Unlock position, but drifts back to the Lock position just enough to prevent me from flipping the beaters up. I actually have to hold the lever back while I use my other hand to lift the motor and beater unit. What’s irritating about this is that it’s not really enough of a problem to justify getting rid of the mixer and upgrading, nor is it really worth finding someplace to have it fixed, taking it there, and paying for the repair (who do you get to fix a mixer these days, anyway?). Unfortunately, until I (or someone else) burns out the motor, drops it in a sinkful of water, or otherwise renders this mixer unusable, I’m stuck with it. I can’t bring myself to get rid of an otherwise perfectly useful mixer over a minor issue like this one. It does bug me, though.

The rest of my appliances manage to function with sufficient efficiency to avoid being replaced. It’s a good thing, too, because when it comes to the dutiful behavior of appliances, I can really be merciless. One false step, and you’re out.

What My Mother Cooked

In comparison to my father, my mother was a great cook. At this distance across the years, it’s hard to know if that’s because my mother was such a very good cook, or because my father was such a very bad one, or something in between. I suspect the last.

I remember my mother being something of a “phase” or “fad” cook. Not that she followed popular trends in food and cooking, but that she had her own. Because she worked, we almost never had dinner as a family. And I never did drugs, or was a discipline problem or any of the other negative things that kids are supposed to be more likely to do if they don’t eat dinner with their parents. My grades were bad, but my therapist and I figured out the reason for that, and it had nothing to do with who I ate dinner with.

However, on weekends my mother would cook. Not huge batches of things that we could reheat, but she’d make dinners for us to have as a family. What we actually ate tended to go in cycles. These must have been Sunday night dinners, because every Saturday night we got take out pizza from a place called the Chick’n Bucket. I think their quality must have gone downhill at some point, because when I got older it was Chinese food from a place just up the street that was, of all things, a kosher deli and a Chinese restaurant (Mr. L’s and Sun).

But what my mother made was more conventional food. For years and years steak and baked potato, with a green salad with a Dijon vinaigrette was a standing meal. The steaks were cooked on a big oval stainless steel platter of sorts, covered with foil for easy clean up. That platter was such a fixture in my childhood that when I moved out on my own and didn’t have it, I wasn’t sure just what else one would use to cook a steak. The potato was always served with butter and salt—never sour cream. The salad always had cherry tomatoes sliced in half, and Pepperidge Farm seasoned croutons in it. As much as I wish it were something else (macaroni and cheese, or chocolate chip cookies or something), I think this is probably my ultimate comfort food. I wish it were something else only because if I were asked to list my favorite foods based on taste, these things wouldn’t be high on the list. For instance, I much prefer mashed potatoes to baked. So be it.

Sometimes my mom would make a big pot of spaghetti and meat sauce and we’d have that for dinner. She didn’t make tomato sauce from scratch. She bought Ragu and “tarted it up,” as she used to say. She’d sauté onions and ground beef together, and then add the sauce and heat it up. She served it over plain old Muller’s spaghetti. I don’t remember ever getting a salad, or even garlic bread with it. It was spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner.

For awhile she made a honey and mustard glazed chicken that she found in a cookbook put out by the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, MD. I think it probably called for bone-in chicken breasts, but she made it with boneless skinless ones. This was when boneless skinless breasts were just becoming available, and there weren’t really that many recipes that used them. She must have modified this one to accommodate the boneless ones. This would also have been before honey mustard was available everywhere, including the 7-11, so mixing honey and mustard together and using it as a glaze for the chicken was novel. She always served this with plain white rice. I don’t recall what the vegetable was, but I’m sure there was one. It would have been an afterthought in our house, anyway. Vegetables pretty generally were.

She went through a fairly lengthy flirtation with something she called a Dutch Baby. The only reason I can see for this is that she had gotten a Le Creuset skillet that would accommodate such a thing. The skillet must have been 18” across, and was white enameled cast iron. The batter was a cross between a pancake batter and a popover batter. It made a huge puffy bready thing that was served with maple syrup and link sausages. The Breakfast For Dinner concept. I never understood why my mother was so taken with the Dutch Baby. Since then I’ve seen dozens of recipes for what is essentially a Dutch Baby, but it’s usually called a German pancake or something along those lines.

Welsh Rarebit over English muffins, again served with link sausages was another popular dinner that would show up regularly for a little while and then fade. My mother never made the rarebit sauce—it was always Stouffer’s out of a box. I have no idea if they even still make it (doubt it). My father used to tell a story about a recently divorced male friend who invited another recently divorced male friend over for dinner and served Stouffer’s Welsh Rarebit. The host dished up two plates of cheese sauce. His guest looked at it and said “Is this it? Isn’t there supposed to be something with it?” and the host said “This is all that was in the box…”

At some point on a business trip to New York City, my mother went to an Italian restaurant in the East Village and was served a pasta dish of sausage and tomatoes. When she got home she decided to replicate it, and the pasta with sausage and tomatoes phase began. Really it was very simple—cooked Italian sausage sliced up, sautéed with some onions and a can of diced tomatoes served with cooked penne and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. It was a nice change from Dutch Babies and frozen Welsh Rarebit, but even it got old after a few months.

For fancy dinners my mother always made Beef Stroganoff. I don’t know where she got the recipe, but she always served it over egg noodles, and usually with green beans on the side. Canned green beans, if I had to guess. My mother was a big fan of canned produce, favoring it over frozen. Or fresh, if memory serves.

What I do not remember my mother making is anything sweet. No cookies, cakes, pies. She had what she called a “fat tooth.” She could eat potato chips with French onion dip, Fritos with bean dip, hot dogs, and cheese and crackers by the pound, but she could leave the sweets alone. In fact, mostly I don’t remember her cooking and eating, so much as assembling and snacking. Her idea of a relaxing afternoon was to sit on the couch eating Sour Cream & Onion potato chips out of the bag and reading a book.

So that pretty well sums up the foods of my childhood. The only other thing I remember eating was hamburger patties with cheese on them (no bun), instant mashed potatoes, and canned beets, or a ham steak with a sweet sauce with raisins in it. Those were the meals my father provided on a regular basis.

I often wish as an adult that I’d been exposed to more foods as a child, because I might have discovered sooner many of the things I now love. But then I realize that that’s probably not the case, because our next door neighbors were Syrian, so I was introduced to some unusual dishes as a child (unusual for that time, anyway). Actually, the woman was an American who had married a Syrian Baptist minister. But she made all the traditional Middle Eastern foods that are now so overexposed—hummus, pitas, tabbouleh. I was served those things years before anyone could go buy a tub of roasted red pepper hummus at Safeway. And I didn’t like them. In fact, in many cases I refused to try them. So I guess I’m looking back from my adult palate, as it were, and wishing my childhood palate had gotten more of a chance to try different things, but it really wouldn’t have come to anything much, I don’t think. I would have turned up my nose at a greater variety of unusual foods, instead of at just a small selection of them.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Random Ramblings

Sometimes when I’m trying to think of a subject about which to blog, I look through notes I’ve made on potential topics. I’ll find one, and start trying to flesh it out, kneading it like so much bread dough (got to get a food analogy in here somewhere). Unfortunately, not every flash of insight is a full fledged blog entry. Thus, after writing half a dozen paragraphs, some of which are only marginally related to the central theme, I have to conclude that what I’ve done is overworked a delicate pie crust, rather than kneaded a worthwhile bread dough. So, because it’s the end of the year, and because I’m feeling frankly kind of lazy, this is a collection of all those “one-liners” that are just never going to make it as full fledged blog entries.

Why is there this assumption that if a celebrity eats at, or owns, a restaurant, it must be good? I’ve read countless comments about celebrities eating at restaurants, and the obvious implication is that this is a good place. It seems never to be mentioned that anyone can pay too much for mediocre food, and that celebrities didn’t necessarily get to be celebrities because they have good taste, or most importantly that good taste and money don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

In a similar vein, I find it annoying that sales of Pinot Noir (the most overrated grape in the wine world, in my personal opinion) skyrocketed after the movie “Sideways” came out. The American public is such a bunch of moronic sheep that just because a movie featured a variety of wine, they had to run out and buy it? God help us if a popular movie ever features grain alcohol.

Every summer I read features in magazines that offer salads and “no cook” recipes to keep us from having to turn on our ovens and “heat up the house.” In the first place, unless you live in an 800 square foot efficiency in New York City, the oven isn’t going to raise the temperature of the house that noticeably. In the second place, if you think it does make it that much warmer, compensate by turning the air conditioning down a little bit prior to beginning to cook. I personally have never noticed my house being made that much warmer by turning on my oven.

Why is it that restaurants on the water are often not very good? The real estate is pricey, yet often I’ve found that these places are some of the most mediocre you can find. Some of them are obvious dives where you walk in expecting the food to be just so-so. Maybe it’s because so many of them are in touristy areas, and food in tourist areas tends to be less than wonderful in many cases. Still, you’d think that someone would open a really good restaurant on the water somewhere in the world, or at least in this country.

Why do people bother making bacon on the stove? I’ve been to people’s houses and seen them doing it, and I just can’t figure it. I always make mine in the oven. There’s no splattery mess, and no smoke to deal with. And if the bacon fat is needed to sauté onions or something as a next step in a recipe, the correct amount can be spooned out and into a frying pan.

I’m sick of reading in magazines and cookbooks that making a certain recipe is “quicker than takeout” or “faster than calling for pizza.” What the people who write these comments seem to overlook is that if I call Pizza Hut for delivery, I don’t have to cook anything. Yes, sure, it may take the same 25 minutes to wait for pizza to be delivered as it does to make a given recipe, but while I’m waiting for pizza, I am sitting on the couch reading a book, not standing over a stove. And clean up from delivery pizza involves nothing more than putting dishes in the dishwasher, and tossing the box. No actual pans to wash.

It baffles me to think that there are people in the world who need a “recipe” for something like hamburgers. Flip through those recipe pamphlets that they sell at the supermarket checkout sometimes and see just how simplistic those “recipes” are. I’ve seen ones that had ingredient lists like:

1 lb ground beef, shaped into 4 patties
Hamburger buns
Cheese slices

And then proceed to instruct the reader to cook the hamburger patties and assemble a hamburger. It would seem to me that if any society in the world does not need instructions on how to make a hamburger, it would be ours.

This trend of celebrity chefs putting their ugly mugs on every possible product is getting out of hand. It was bad enough when Wolfgang Puck was selling frozen versions of his overprecious pizzas, but in the last two days I’ve been in two different grocery stores and seen Emeril’s face on both bell peppers (“Mardi Gras Peppers”—I didn’t know there were special ones just for Mardi Gras) and baby roma tomatoes. And of course, he’s all over the spice aisle with his overpriced spice blends. I have yet to see the olive oil that Rachel Ray is pedaling, but I have seen her on boxes of Triscuits and Wheat Thins, thus assuring that I won’t be buying either of those products until her unwelcome presence is removed.

I’d also like to know when it became necessary for celebrity chefs to have darling nicknames. I’ve complained about this before, but it seems like you can’t get near a stove these days (much less write a cookbook), unless you’re the Barefoot Contessa, or the Naked Chef. Of course, this isn’t a new trend—after all, the Galloping Gourmet and the Frugal Gourmet were both popular in the 1970s. But I think it’s worth noting that James Beard and Julia Child, who never adopted clever monikers, are still revered in the food world, whereas the Galloping Gourmet was despised by his contemporaries, and the Frugal Gourmet was found to have been a child molester. Draw your own conclusion.

So there you have it. Some unrelated (or only slightly related) thoughts pulled from my notebook of potential blog subjects. I’m sure this same format will show up again someday when I have a new collection of snippets, and am not feeling like writing anything coherent (which implies that what I normally write is coherent, which is not always the case, of course).

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Food Dreams

Julie Powell hit the nail on the head with her essay in the December 10th issue of the New York Times Magazine. In “File of Dreams” she advances the theory that if you flip through someone’s recipe file, you see the person they want to be, rather than the person they are. The recipes they choose to save reflect how they perceive themselves. I have always felt this was true, although for myself the reflection can be seen more in cookbooks purchased, versus recipes clipped, because I really don’t clip recipes anymore (it just got too unwieldy).

I used to clip recipes, and in reviewing them I realize that they reflect less how I saw myself, and more where I was in the process of learning to cook. Sometimes they were recipes clipped directly from a magazine, or even a catalog (Williams-Sonoma, mostly), and taped onto index cards. These recipes are for not very exciting things, like pork roast braised in beer. I have no idea what I was thinking when I clipped them. I suspect the thought was more “That sounds pretty good” than “That would be a good thing to make for…” which is more where I am today.

Other times I copied recipes out onto the index cards and saved them, or photocopied recipes from cookbooks. Again, there appears not to be much of a pattern beyond what may have looked good at the time. Nothing is terribly complicated. I think because I was just learning, it was all new to me, so anything I chose was bound to be somewhat novel and exciting. I even copied a set of instructions on how to make a basic salad that included the “tip” to put the salad greens in a pillowcase and swing them over your head to get them to dry. What they neglected to say was that the pillowcase should be brand new (washed once, perhaps), and then devoted to drying greens. Otherwise you run the risk of serving lettuce with hair on it (this happened to me, only I didn’t actually serve the lettuce; I realized the problem in time and was able to rewash it and dry it in a salad spinner, like a normal person).

At the same time I was doing all this clipping and copying, I discovered the pleasure of simply reading cookbooks. I started with the Silver Palate Cookbook, and read it page by page. I was a college student at the time, and I can remember seeing the beginnings of what Julie Powell calls in her article “[the] mirror image…of who [I] wish[ed] [I] could be.” I read recipes for appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts and fantasized, in the way of young people with their lives ahead of them, about the events and occasions for which they would be appropriate. I read the sidebars (of which the Silver Palate cookbooks have a tremendous number) and pictured myself in the situations they describe—picnics at the beach, dinners in front of the fire, etc. I was the Hostess with the Mostess in my Silver Palate-inspired daydreams.

I began buying cookbooks, and my cookbooks show distinct trends in my cooking styles over the years. Some of them are clearly “entertaining” books, with recipes that don’t take under an hour to make, and involve all sorts of complicated ingredients and techniques. There are cookbooks that represent a trend of mine toward eating fancier meals, but that didn’t take as long to prepare—the title of one of the cookbooks, “Gourmet Meals in Minutes,” best sums up that phase. There are eating style trends—French, Italian, low fat. But always my musings were of what to serve in what setting, and to whom.

The Crabtree & Evelyn Cookbook is the one in my collection that is the most fantasy-generating. It has sections of menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, supper, and dinner. Each “chapter” is a different series of recipes for different occasions—tea after croquet, a post-theater supper, Christmas dinner (featuring roast goose), Dinner for a Favorite Uncle, etc. These are all unrealistically styled (no one serves slices of cake on little plates that they then balance on top of a small glass of port or something), and provide fuel for any number of entertaining fantasies. I’ve actually made a number of the recipes in this book, most memorably one of the picnic menus for my future husband when we were going to a concert at a local outdoor venue. But mostly this is a book to page through, and look at the pictures, and consider when corn and crab chowder might be most appropriate, or how the country breakfast menu with the ham frittata would be great to serve on a crisp fall Sunday morning.

I’ll probably never hostess enough events to use all of the recipes in all of the cookbooks I have. What’s more, we all seem to have a habit of serving the same things over and over. The old rule, of course, is never serve anything to guests you haven’t already tried out. But there are things I’d make for company that I’d never make for my family (because my family, consisting mostly of small children, wouldn’t eat it, whereas my company, which generally consists of adults, would). Besides, I think I’d have to entertain every night for the next ten years to make all the things I’ve fantasized about making. Maybe I need to make a New Year’s resolution to make one new entertaining-type meal per month, just to keep in practice. At the end of the New York Times article, Julie Powell does make one of those recipes she clipped out so long ago to fuel her entertaining dreams. It turns out well, actually. Maybe I should try that myself.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Party On

It’s the time of year when parties are thrown: office holiday parties, open houses, New Year’s parties. And as usual, I have something to say about the food that you so often find at these things, and how people need to start thinking of new things to serve. Recently I saw a bunch of suggestions on a listserv I’m on, and the number of people who repeated the same thing over and over was really surprising. The woman who asked for the ideas had compiled all the replies she got and sent them out to the whole listserv, with the thought that if any of the rest of us were pondering what to serve at a party, we could refer to this list. The only problem is that the list contained about five foods repeated 12 times each.

First everyone suggested olives. I personally don’t like olives, and I find them to be a boring thing to serve. I don’t care if the hostess has gone out and bought one of those cute little olive trays that holds them all in a straight line, and has set them out very artistically. They’re still olives and they’re still boring. Besides my not liking them, I think I find them to be so dull because they can be purchased at any supermarket at the “olive bar,” and therefore don’t require any real thought. My philosophy is, if you’re going to go to the trouble of having people over, put some thought into what you’ll serve them, and give them something that takes a little trouble. I don’t mean slave in your kitchen for days on end, but at least make something that your friends couldn’t go out and buy for themselves at their own local grocery store.

Hummus is another thing that’s much abused these days, and was much recommended on the list I saw. And again, part of my objection is that I don’t like it, and part is that it’s too easy to buy it. Hummus comes in tubs at every grocery store in the world, and all of it, to me, has a sandy texture that I don’t like. But even if I did like it, just how much hummus can one person eat? If you get invited to three or four parties in the month of December, and you get fed hummus at every one, that’s just tiresome. Mixing things up by serving baby carrots instead of the expected pita chips does nothing to enliven hummus as an offering.

The ultimate (to me) overdone party food is tortilla pinwheels. Naturally everyone who contributed to the list of ideas raved about this little gem. Just on the off chance you live in the in the middle of the Australian outback and haven’t seen another human being in 115 years, tortilla pinwheels are tortillas that are rolled up with some kind of filling (generally turkey, sometimes there’s some other lunch meat involved, or maybe some kind of condiment, or cream cheese) and sliced into one- to two-bite rounds. I think the thing about these is that they’re monumentally dull and uninteresting, but any time you read a recipe for them in a magazine, online, or in a book, it’s accompanied by someone’s gushing remark that these are the tastiest things ever, and that if you make them, everyone will beg you for the recipe.

This begging seems to be a common thread through many of the most repeated party food recipes. The idea that whatever it is will be so novel, so delicious, so irresistible, that every guest will be crawling around the party after you on their knees, sobbing and pleading for the ingredients that go in your incredible sweet and sour meatballs. As though they’ve never heard of the idea of mixing chili sauce and grape (or raspberry) jam, adding frozen meatballs, and heating them up in a crock pot. I suppose the people who publish or post these recipes feel that the image of everyone beseeching you for this particular recipe is a big selling point. Clearly it works, because these foods do seem to show up an awful lot.

Vegetables and dip made an appearance on the list too. Vegetables and dip are fine, but they’re not exactly something someone couldn’t come up with on their own. The original request, as I understood it, was for some different things to serve at a party. Anything that can be purchased already made in the produce department of the grocery store doesn’t exactly qualify as a unique recommendation. Fruit trays with some kind of sweet dip, and cheese and crackers are also not anything particularly cutting-edge.

The problem with party food is that you want things that can either be served in bulk (dips, cheese and crackers), or that can be made in bulk and reduced to individual servings very easily. I remember when I worked for a catering company, the catering director had managed to sell a client on serving some kind of flavored cream cheese piped into hollowed out cherry tomatoes. The party was for 150 people. It’s very time consuming to hollow out enough cherry tomatoes for 150 people, and even more time consuming to pipe cheese mixture into all of them. Above all, it’s almost impossible to transport cherry tomatoes with cheese mixture in them for 150 guests from the prep kitchen to a party site some distance away. Needless to say, cherry tomatoes have an unfortunate tendency to roll around, and after a 15 minute car trip, most of them were on their side, stuck to the parchment paper we’d used to line the trays on which they were being transported, or leaning drunkenly against one another with the cream cheese filling holding them fast.

But I know there are foods out there that can be easily made in quantity that aren’t cheese and crackers, vegetables and dip, hummus and pita chips, olives, and/or tortilla pinwheels. At the same time, I always get somewhat impatient when I see magazines encouraging people to make little deep fried things, or things that are really best served hot. I can speak from experience when I say that if you serve stuff like that, you’d better make sure that your kitchen can hold all your guests, because that’s where everyone is going to wind up. It’s certainly where you’ll be spending the whole party.

I read a magazine article (or maybe it was a blurb in a cookbook) that said that having guests over for hors d’oeuvers was easier than having them over for dinner. I vehemently disagree. It’s true that if you’re thinking of having 30 people over, giving them a complete dinner would be more of a challenge than offering them cheese and crackers, but to provide little nibbley things for 30 people that will be enough food to fill their stomachs and keep them from getting half crocked on the drinks you serve is not easier than making dinner for six. I think parties are fine if you can afford a caterer, but I go for smaller, more intimate groups so that no one can ever say, as they leave my house, “That was fun, but the food was so dull!”

Friday, December 08, 2006

Holiday Cookbook Recommendations (A Rather Lengthy Entry)

At this time of year, all the newspaper food sections offer cookbook gift ideas. Taking that idea, I offer my own favorites. They’re all still in print, although they’re not all shiny new this year. Generally the books recommended by the food editors are recently released, a review copy landed on their desk in the last 12 months, and they pick the best ones so their readers can ask Santa for them. These are just my favorite cookbooks from my own collection, which includes some things my mom bought years ago, along with the shiny new stuff.

A lot of them are huge collections of recipes. I love huge collections of recipes because I read cookbooks like novels, and I like long ones. Also, I find that the huge collections almost always have really good recipes in them, because they’re generally backed by a big name (Dean & DeLuca, Bon Appetit, etc) and those folks have the money to put into recipe testing. That’s not to say that shorter books don’t have good recipes too—they do and I have lots of them. However, often when we’re thinking “gift giving” we’re thinking something pretty substantial, and although a shorter, smaller book may cost the same as a great thumping tome, the great thumping tome is the gift that says “Makes a great doorstop!” No, that’s not it—sorry, it implies “Really Big Gift” and many people are afraid of looking like they didn’t go to enough trouble.

While it is “the thought that counts,” it’s also important that the thought we have is, “What would this person really like?” and honestly try to find something (even if it misses the mark), as opposed to the thought clearly having been, “I needed to get you something, and this step ladder was on sale at the hardware store, and I was there getting some keys made anyway...” So if you’re thinking of a cookbook for someone, I’ve listed some of my favorites below, with why I like them and what kind of cook I think they’d be suited for.

Here, in no particular order, are my suggestions.

The Silver Palate Cookbook, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, The New Basics: These books are all classics (avoid anything by Julee Rosso alone—Sheila Lukins was the real food authority, Rosso was the marketing gal who gave everything extra polish, and it shows in Rosso’s solo efforts; Lukins' solo efforts, however, are worth checking out). Although all three lean more toward “party” food than everyday offerings, the recipes have stood the test of time. I can remember claiming that their recipes relied too heavily on the black olive (which I did not, and still do not, like, and which, for the record, they don’t actually use that often in their recipes), but after revisiting these books in the last couple of years, I’ve decided I was an obnoxious seventeen-year-old twit, and just what did I know anyway? The recipes are excellent for special occasions, and weekends when there’s some extra time to cook. They have a good range of foods for different meals (breakfasts, lunches, etc.), and their ingredient combinations are interesting without being too out there. It doesn’t hurt that what was groundbreaking in the 1980s has come to be much more common today. When these books were first published, they were startling and even a tad unsettling, but now that you can practically buy dried porcini at the 7-11, their recipes just sound tasty. Most things are fairly time-consuming, but from a technique standpoint they’re accessible to someone with a reasonable knowledge of cooking. They don’t require any equipment more elaborate than a food processor, or a bundt pan.

If asked to rank these books, I’d say New Basics is the first choice, the original Silver Palate Cookbook, and then Silver Palate Good Times. But in truth they’re all great books, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Modern Classics I, New Food Fast, Off the Shelf, The Instant Cook: These are my favorite of the books written by Australian cook and food stylist Donna Hay. Some day I’m going to sit down with two similar recipes, one American and one Australian, and figure out just what the Australian ones have that make them different, but for now I can only say that they are. They tend to have more Asian influence (thanks to Australia’s geographic location, and population statistics—in fact, the very best Chinese food I’ve ever had in my life was in Sydney), but even the Italian- or English-inspired dishes have something different about them. They’re simpler, maybe. They use fewer ingredients, but they make every ingredient count. And Donna is the queen of this technique. The pictures in all of her books (one of each recipe, it’s worth noting) are stunning, and will send you rushing out to buy all-white place settings. The wonderful thing is that the look is achievable by anyone who undertakes the recipes. Follow the recipe and look at the picture of how it’s assembled. These books rarely call for fancy pans or equipment, but sometimes the sizing is a little off. For instance, in this country an 8” x 8” pan is the norm, but in Australia it would seem that 9” x 9” is more common. Still, it’s not an insurmountable problem. The ingredient lists in some cases may require a trek to your local Chinatown, or ethnic market, but unless you’re living in the middle of the Kansas wheat fields, 40 miles from the nearest gas station, it shouldn’t be impossible to find the things she calls for. On the plus side, once you know where to get an ingredient, you can just keep going back to that same place.

The one caveat is that, while these books are prepared for an American audience up to a point, they still use terms like “thick cream,” leaving one wondering if they mean what we call heavy or whipping cream, or if they’re referring to the superthick double cream that’s available only rarely in this country, but is readily available in Australia (answer: it’s generally the former). Because of this, and certain oddities of measurement (an Australian tablespoon is equivalent to four American teaspoons, not three, which changes your measurements all the way up the line), these books are probably best for people who already have a pretty good grasp on technique, and can see when an instruction looks like it’s not going to produce the desired results, and compensate for it. But the food is fantastic, and the books are gorgeous.

How to Cook Everything, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, The Minimalist Cooks at Home: These books are by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman (who has sadly fallen prey to the irksome trend of adopting a cute nickname like Ina Garten “The Barefoot Contessa,” or Jamie Oliver “The Naked Chef”; Bittman’s nickname is slightly more acceptable, since it really just comes from the title of his column, but it’s a cutesy nickname nonetheless). How to Cook Everything is, as the name suggests, a very comprehensive tome that does come across as, in the words of one reviewer, a more hip Joy of Cooking. It has a range of recipes that call for varying degrees of skill and experience, but none of them is beyond someone with a basic knowledge of cooking. Although How to Cook Everything isn’t a book with the “minimalist” concept behind it, it still doesn’t call for gadgetry or ingredients beyond what’s normally found in a standard American kitchen.

The two Minimalist books are both great for dinner ideas. The Minimalist Cooks Dinner actually limits itself to what can be prepared in about 30 to 45 minutes, whereas The Minimalist Cooks at Home has some recipes that are better suited to weekend entertaining-type cooking. Both are very accessible in terms of using commonly available ingredients, and in all three books, Bittman’s chatty I’m-right-here-with-you, it’s-supposed-to-look-like-that style makes them comforting to less skilled cooks.

The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook: Although I had to get past a couple of irritants in this book, it really is a great resource. Put out by the two men who founded Dean & DeLuca (along with cookbook author David Rosengarten), the specialty food store in SoHo, the recipes may be to us today what the Silver Palate ones must have been like in the 1980s—familiar dishes with a twist that may cause the reader to pause and think, “It sounds a little weird, but it just might be tasty.” The ingredients, while in some cases pricey, aren’t necessarily anything that couldn’t be found at a well-stocked supermarket in a decent sized metropolitan area. None of the recipes call for ultra sophisticated gadgets or gizmos. The recipes seem to lean toward Mediterranean-influenced selections (not surprising, since Dean and DeLuca initially concentrated on importing from that area), but offers some choices from other cuisines as well. This book is probably best for fairly experienced cooks, since a novice may look at the recipe titles, and sometimes lengthy ingredient lists, and be intimidated.

Just for the record, the two things that irritated me about this book were that the recipe introductions often refer to “we” or “us” (meaning Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca), when it’s printed in (literal) black and white on the cover that David Rosengarten actually wrote the text, with consultative input from the two men whose names appear in the title. The other thing that got a little tedious was the constant back-patting and credit grabbing for starting trends and introducing new food products to the American market. When you find out that they claim to be responsible for pasta salad, you have to ask yourself 1) if they really did us any favors, and 2) what that macaroni covered with mayonnaise that we all ate as kids at cookouts all summer long was. I’d have to classify it as pasta salad (if a fairly crude version thereof) and call bullshit on their claim that they “invented” pasta salad. Updated, maybe, but not invented.

Cooking 1-2-3: Rosanne Gold has managed to develop literally hundreds of recipes using three ingredients (not counting water, salt, and pepper), and has written several cookbooks, of which this is the most comprehensive. What’s amazing about these books is how good the food actually is. She does call for a few things that may be harder to find (break out your jar of za’atar—assuming you can find it; I’ve never been able to yet), and you may have to actually make something before you make the recipe itself (vanilla sugar, an herb-infused oil). But even so, it’s astonishing what can be accomplished with only three ingredients. These books are for pretty experienced cooks. Because she uses so few ingredients, technique comes much more into focus. The layering of flavors is much more critical, because there are so few components to lend dimension to the finished product. Occasionally I’ll cheat and use broth instead of water, just because I think it will add a little extra flavor that might be lacking otherwise. Also, these recipes can be very time-consuming. Mostly I find them to be great dinner party dishes, with the added conversation-starter tidbit that dinner contains only nine ingredients, or whatever. If you’re having guests who are food fiends, create a menu from these recipes. There’s also a Healthy 1-2-3 and a Low Carb 1-2-3, both of which are equally good, and despite being “healthy” actually have tasty choices.

The Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, James Beard’s American Cookery: I consider these two books to be James Beard’s best. The former is actually the book from which I learned to cook, and would be fabulous for anyone who’s not sure where to start with this whole food thing. Beard was a fanatic for good ingredients treated right, and guides the novice through everything from how to hold a knife, to how to make a sauce Béarnaise. Although it’s an outstanding book, I’d be hesitant to recommend it for more experienced cooks (unless one of their passions—like mine--is collecting primer-type cookbooks). Most experienced cooks already understand the difference between a braise and a roast, and are tired of reading it over and over.

American Cookery is a great companion to Theory and Practice, or a good book for someone who wants a greater understanding of what really constitutes “American food.” There’s no fusion cuisine here—you won’t find a recipe for pot stickers using common ingredients. But if you’re looking for a good recipe for pound cake, this is your source. The techniques involved are fairly easy (Beard wasn’t one for show-offy tricks, either), and the equipment basic. If you’re not a fan of offal (I am not), there are handful of recipes in this book that you’ll never make, and which may even cause you to curl your lip in disgust, but remember that there was a time when people ate everything that could be eaten, and this book reflects that. Although we no longer butcher our own meat, and therefore aren’t left wondering what on earth to do with tongue, sweetbreads, or a whole pig’s head, the men and women who settled this country did, and Beard has recorded what they did with them (no matter how unpalatable they may sound).

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone: Deborah Madison has written a definitive work on vegetarian cooking, and this book is enough to make the most determined carnivore think twice. The nice thing about the book is, almost everything in it could be a side dish to a meat-centric meal, as well as standing as a shining star on its own, or as part of a vegetarian feast. The focus, it’s worth noting, is on vegetarian—while there are a lot of recipes that are truly vegan, if you’re thinking of someone who’s really squeamish about eggs or dairy products, be aware that there are going to be things in this book that they can’t make. The ingredients she calls for are reasonable, maybe requiring a quick trip to an ethnic market, but the book is so extensive that there’s plenty to make even if you can’t (or don’t want to) pick up some of the more unusual spices. She does assume a certain familiarity with cooking, so this book is best for those who have some experience in the kitchen.

The Best of Cooking Light: For anyone who’s trying to eat more healthfully, any of the Cooking Light books would be great. The annual recipe compilations are a bit of a gimmick if you already subscribe to the magazine, and the Best Of books are all recipes from the magazines, but if you know someone who doesn’t subscribe, and is trying to eat less fat and sodium, Cooking Light is a big help. My grandmother used to say, “Anyone can cook well with heavy cream,” and that’s true—because these recipes may call for less of ingredients that generally give structure or strength to a dish, it can be challenging to modify technique to compensate. However, it’s not impossible, and the results are worth it. Ingredients and equipment are both straightforward, and the choices are often old familiar favorites that have been updated and lightened, but not weirdly or excessively so.

The Bon Appetit Cookbook: This is the only one on my list that is shiny and new. Published in time for Christmas 2006, and to coincide with the magazine’s 50th anniversary, this is a collection (a BIG collection) of the best recipes from Bon Appetit over the past 50 years. All the bases are covered, from appetizers to desserts. Some of these things are “company” food, some are easy enough that they could be made for a weeknight dinner. Most of them are interesting without being alienating. You won’t find weird combinations of ingredients, or unheard of spices. The recipe introductions get a little repetitive, since for every recipe that calls for something like chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, they have to tell the reader what they are and where they can be found, but that part can always be skipped over. This is probably a better book for more experienced cooks, since some of the dishes seem like they might be nerve wracking to make, but it could also be a good stepping stone for someone who feels like they’ve mastered the basics and are ready for a challenge. There’s so much to make that the more confident cook could take on something more complex, where the less assured cook could find something that was just a little bit harder to make.

Counting My Blessings

This is the time of year when we all look back and reflect on those things for which we are grateful. That’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks (well, in part), and so it seems a fitting subject for an entry here. Off we go:

I’m grateful for my family—my husband (even if he does put the knives away wet, and doesn’t read my blog) is an absolute treasure. I’m the luckiest woman in the world to be married to a man who not only loves me for what I am (faults and all—not that I have any, mind you), loves our children, likes to eat and cook, but will also wash all the pots and pans. My kids are the best things that happened to me since I met my husband, and I can’t imagine life without any one of them, even if they do occasionally drive me up the wall (individually and collectively). Now if I could just get them to eat something besides chicken nuggets…but I’ve covered that ground before. The gratitude also extends to my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins that we’ve moved to be near, and to my husband's family as well.

I’m grateful that I have friends and family members who will listen to me drivel on endlessly, and even fuel the fire by engaging in dialogs, about food. Eating food, reading about food, and talking about food are some of my greatest pleasures. I’m lucky to have friends who feel the same.

I’m grateful for my job. Bless their hearts, they hired me when I was seven months pregnant, and I promised, swore that I would not go into labor early, but would be around until November 17th. After three weeks I was at home with a new baby (and sans appendix—hence the early labor), and they were scrambling to cover my work. But I’m eternally grateful to them, because my having a job means that I can buy all the food, kitchen crap, cookbooks, and other food-related items my little heart desires.

I’m grateful for my house. Yes it’s a rental, yes it has a hideous, badly designed kitchen, but as the old saying goes, I cried because I had a crummy kitchen until I met a woman who had no house (or something like that). It provides comfortable, if not lavish, shelter for us. We could do far worse, and many people have. I’m also grateful that we’ll be breaking ground on a new house in the early part of next year.

I’m grateful I can smell. This may seem weird, but as we’ve all read thousands of times, the ability to taste is largely dependent on our sense of smell. I probably ought to say I’m grateful for all of my senses, since they’re all involved in food consumption, and come in pretty handy in other parts of life as well.

I’m grateful that I don’t have any diseases or conditions that prevent me from eating and drinking anything I want. Ditto allergies. I may not want to eat eggplant, avocados, or sea urchins, but there’s nothing to prevent me from doing so if I did. If I could get rid of my conscience, I’d be able to eat and drink everything I wanted with absolutely no hesitation. As it is, there’s that little voice in the back of my mind that reminds me that, actually, birthday cake (even one’s own) is not really considered a suitable breakfast, even by those experts who claim that one can eat anything for breakfast, even cold pizza or soup, and that it’s eating something that counts.

I’m grateful that I live in a time when good food is readily available. I can go to my local Safeway and find baby arugula, frozen duck breasts, shrimp paste, and La Brea bread. I’m also grateful that I have a local Safeway, and don’t have to go to half a dozen shops every day and queue up to buy everything. If I had the time, and lived in a culture that supported it, I wouldn’t mind buying the ingredients for my meals every day, nor would I mind going to individual specialty shops to do it. But I don’t live in a culture that supports it, so to have to manage it would be difficult.

I’m grateful that I have food options. There’s a huge outcry in this country against fast food, and the “support local growers” chant grows louder with each passing day, but I must say that I’m happy I can get in my car and drive to McDonald’s and get something to eat on my way to wherever I’m going. And these days, McDonald’s even offers reasonably healthy foods—salads, yogurt, etc. Also, it’s worth noting that McDonald’s is now the fifth largest corporate purchaser of baby salad mix in this country. Doesn’t that say something about what their customers are eating? Sure, they may have a hamburger along with it, but they’re eating the salad. In the same vein, I’m grateful that there are processed foods available. Certainly I would far rather serve my family homemade culinary masterpieces, but when I get home at 6 and two of my kids need to be in bed by 6:45 (lest they morph into screaming, overtired monsters), being able to heat something up fast is a lifesaver. I clearly have a love-hate relationship with processed foods. A product of my generation, I guess--we were brought up on Swanson frozen dinners, but when we reached adulthood we were told that frozen dinners tasted like the box they came out of, and were urged to eat haricots verts and grilled monkfish instead. But that's another issue.

I’m grateful that I live in a time when my obsession with food is easily supportable. It could be argued that my obsession with food is a product of our society, and that may be true. But however it happened, cooking, eating, and food are an important part of my life, and our current cultural environment supports, and possibly even contributes to, my love of these things. Either way, I have easy access to what I love, and I’m thankful for that.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Picky, Picky, Picky

I’ve been thinking about kids and food a lot lately. All of my kids who are able to eat solid food (which would be 75% of them) are proving themselves to be picky eaters. The four year old is in the stage (which I’ve been assured is normal) of wanting to eat only chicken nuggets, pizza, or hot dogs. The twins are at that point where they look at anything unfamiliar on their plates like you’re trying to get them to eat fried moths or something, and refuse to touch it. And now I’ve read an article that suggests that having strict rules about eating, like saying no eating after dinner is over, can backfire and kids wind up sneaking food, or pigging out, when the opportunity presents itself.

When I think back to my own childhood, I know I was a picky eater. I drove my mom bananas (not that I’d eat them, you understand). For years I couldn’t go to a restaurant if there wasn’t a hamburger on the menu. I’d eat conventional things like spaghetti, hot dogs, pizza, and macaroni and cheese, but I wasn’t adventurous. And I didn’t eat much either. My mother used to tell a story about my going to stay with some friends in London overnight when we were there on vacation. I would have been about seven at the time. An old friend and her family were living there for a year or two, and they offered to have me stay with them while my parents went out to dinner. At the risk of sounding like I’m perpetuating a racial stereotype, my friend’s mom was a typical “Jewish mother”—“Eat, eat, eat!” she’d say. When my parents came to pick me up, my friend’s mother said “Mrs. L, a nice girl your daughter is, but a big eater your daughter is not!” Clearly I drove her bananas too.

I think things started to turn a corner for me when I was in high school. I had several friends who would eat real food, and they somehow convinced me (not intentionally, I’m sure) that weird foods like broccoli and cauliflower wouldn’t kill me. In fact, I can remember going all the way downtown to get cream of broccoli soup from a particular restaurant. And the same friend whose mother said I wasn’t a big eater turned me on to cauliflower (they had moved back to this country by then). It was really more a case of my being polite and not refusing to eat something (although she couldn’t get me to eat at home, my mother did manage to instill in me the idea that it’s very rude to say you don’t like something when you’re company—just eat a bite or two and get over it). But I loved it.

I don’t remember there being any “one bite” rules or anything like that. I think my mom had enough food issues from her own childhood (my grandmother was a “children starving in Armenia” type) that she refused to hassle me about my eating habits. If she’d combined that laid back attitude with having more fresh fruit and serving more different vegetables, I’d probably be OK now. I’d still be stuck with the white bread carbohydrate attachment, because that’s what we ate in 1981. Truly whole grain bread wasn’t available, and if you ate it, you were an Earth Biscuit. But if there had been apples and peaches and grapes hanging around along with the Oreos, I probably would have eaten them and would be more inclined to eat them now. But she did all her grocery shopping from a store that delivered—you called in your order, and they boxed it up and drove it to your house. That made buying fresh produce challenging. I ate canned green beans until I was old enough to refuse to eat them on the grounds that they were foul.

So now I have kids of my own and have to decide what route to go as far as food is concerned. Do I force them to take one bite? Research points to this as being mentally scarring. Kids who were forced to take one bite of meatloaf and stuffed peppers now say that they revenge themselves by picking sushi restaurants when they’re eating out with their parents, because the parents hate sushi and the kids (now adults) love it. Since I despise sushi with an intense passion, I’m thinking this is not a good way to go. Also, it doesn’t seem to do any good to force kids to take a bite of something—if they’re forced to try it, they’re predisposed to hate it.

Or do I just let them eat whatever they want, even if they want chicken nuggets four days in a row? I know that sooner or later their tastes will expand and they’ll try new things, but I really want to be able to sit down to a family meal, and I personally do not want to eat chicken nuggets four days in a row. And of course, with four kids they’re not all going to want the same thing—research suggests that people need a freedom of choice in what they eat. But how do you walk the line between giving your kids that “freedom of choice” and being the proverbial short order cook, making this kid nuggets, that kid pizza, and that other kid a grilled cheese? I have a little time before I have to truly worry about this (my younger children still go to bed early enough that anything that can be microwaved in under a minute is the dinner of choice), but I think it’s going to take me some time to mull this one over and work out a reasonable solution.

And then there’s the sugar issue. My older son evidently inherited both mine and my husband’s sweet tooth, which means he would eat candy, cookies, ice cream, cake, and just plain sugar straight all day long if I’d let him. How do we balance letting him have a few treats now and then, with his seemingly insatiable sugar craving? In truth, he will turn down dessert if he’s too full, so it’s not as though he’s beyond saving. But we don’t want to be so restrictive that it turns into a defiance game—I’m going to eat all these candy bars because I CAN. And you can’t stop me! It’s like the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about how he’d call his mom and tell her he’d eaten a whole pint of ice cream and ruined his appetite, but that he didn’t care, because he had realized that if you ruin one appetite, there’s always another one coming!

So for now we offer the older child different foods (“Would you like to try some of this casserole?”) and he refuses. We put different things on the twins’ high chair trays, and they ignore them. Sooner or later they’ll spend enough time with friends who have eating habits that may be just as limited as their own, but who will at least eat different limited things, and they’ll start to broaden their horizons. I think part of that comes from the realization that the chicken parmigiano that they’re so ludicrously afraid of is nothing more than a breaded chicken breast (like chicken nuggets!) with tomato sauce (like spaghetti!) and mozzarella cheese (like pizza!) on it. It’s learning that the variety of foods that we eat is really very limited, and that most things are just different combinations of familiar foods. Once they figure out what the primary components are, they can know if they’ll like it or not, or if they can eat around the things they don’t like (just pick out the mushrooms, as my mom used to tell me).

I just don’t want to raise four kids with the same food hang-ups that I have or that my mom had. I’d like to break the chain with this generation.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Dry Spell

I seem to be experiencing a food dry spell. It’s kind of like being frigid or impotent, only the problem isn’t sexual, it’s culinary. I go through periods when I just can’t think of anything good to eat. This can last months (as it has in this case). I mentally run through everything I can think of to eat—both “good” things and just plain crap—and none of it appeals. That’s not to say I stop eating during these periods, I just feel like there’s an empty space in me that’s not being filled. I’m taking in nourishment, but it’s not nourishing my spirit. Whenever this happens, I’m always reminded of the scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” where Cameron is lying in bed, taking his blood pressure readings and his temperature, and Ferris calls him up to come over and play hooky. Cameron refuses on the grounds that he’s too sick, hangs up the phone, and mutters to himself “I’m dying.” The phone immediately rings, and it’s Ferris, who says “You’re not dying; you just can’t think of anything good to do.”

Often my attempt to shake myself out of these episodes involves the purchase of cookbooks. I’ve tried that this time, and it doesn’t seem to be working (eight really huge cookbooks later). My hope is that something in these cookbooks will appeal to me and send me to the kitchen newly inspired. I see lots of things I’d like to make, but so far nothing has grabbed me in quite the right way. I’m going to have to stop buying cookbooks, though, because I don’t have room for any more.

Sometimes I wind up eating out. This used to happen a lot when we were first married. I’d plan menus for several months running, and then my creativity would just dry up. No matter how many books, magazines, or websites I turned to for inspiration, I just couldn’t get into the groove. So we’d find ourselves eating in restaurants instead. Not always fast food, and not always high end fancy places either—usually a local Thai or Indian place, but we always ordered fattening things, and then were left with nothing to take for lunch the next day, so we’d have to have lunch out too. Now that we have four kids, this solution isn’t practical, either from a financial or a schedule standpoint. All of our kids go to bed fairly early, so by the time we finish work and pick them up at daycare, we would have about 20 minutes to get them to a restaurant, get them fed, and get them home and in bed before the meltdowns started.

Another technique that I’ve employed in the past is to buy a whole bunch of specialty ingredients, in the hopes that they will inspire me. Sometimes it’s a nationality that takes my fancy—Asian, Latin American—and other times it’s produce or meats. I’ll buy winter squashes or a pork roast with the idea that I’m going to make squash soup or puree, or slow cook the roast and make pulled pork sandwiches. Most of the time I don’t use any of the ingredients. They sit on my shelves and collect a lush coat of dust, or the produce rots in the vegetable drawer and gets thrown out.

I think my current (quite lengthy) rough patch is caused in part by the kitchen I have. We’re living in a rented house, and the kitchen is just not mine. There’s too much about it I don’t like. It lacks atmosphere; I don’t like to be in it. It’s got brown everything, and the layout is too wide open. The stove, sink and refrigerator are clumped in one corner of the room, and the rest of the space is taken up with counters that are practically unusable because of the positioning of various cabinets. The distance between a useful countertop and the stove is around 8 feet. The execution of any recipe involves walking at least a quarter of a mile, by a conservative estimate. We’re building a house of our own, which will have a kitchen I do like, but that’s a ways down the road. I never realized until we moved into this house just how much influence a kitchen can have on one’s willingness to cook.

I think it’s less décor than it is layout. Many years ago, when I first started cooking, I lived in a house with a similarly hideously brown kitchen, but the layout was good. I wonder, though, if the fact that I was new to cooking and therefore excited about it had anything to do with that willingness to cook in that ugly kitchen so long ago. Would I, given the same kitchen today, be as enthusiastic as I was when it was all new? Or would I feel as I do now, that there’s lots of good stuff to make, but I just can’t find the motivation to spend time in that horrible space?

I keep trying to think of all the things I cooked in my old kitchen, but I can’t remember much of anything except a casserole that’s an old stand-by that I’ve made here (it turned out fine, but didn’t work to break my funk), and some mushroom crepes that made my husband very sick, and so are right out. But I’ll keep working on it. It’s very hard to be food obsessed and feel like you’re culinarily frigid.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Christmas Cookies

This year we've decided not to make our usual number of Christmas cookies. We're going to make maybe three or four batches, and leave it at that. In years past we've made up to 150 dozen cookies to share with our friends, family and coworkers. Yes, we are insane. Between the day after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas our breakfast used to consist of breakfast + a cookie or two. And we still had hundreds to give away.

The tradition was one my husband started years ago when he worked for a fairly small company. He didn't really like his coworkers that much, so he didn't care about attending the annual holiday party. But at the same time, he didn't want to look like the original bad elf. So he would say that he had something else he needed to do at that time (the party was always held right after work on a weekday) and leave a huge tray of cookies for everyone to enjoy.

The selection was pretty run of the mill--oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, chocolate chip. He'd also send a tin of these to his parents (his dad liked the oatmeal raisin, his mom liked the peanut butter and they'd serve the chocolate chip at holiday gatherings).

Then he married me, and things got really out of hand.

I joined in the annual cookie orgy, and with two of us cooking (and a larger kitchen and more storage space) we could make more varieties. We still stuck with the tried-and-trues as our “core” offering, but we added many, many others, choosing a couple of new recipes each year. There were the bar cookies my grandmother called "magic cookies" (no idea why). They're made with German chocolate cake mix, melted caramels, chocolate chips and walnuts. The recipe came out of a package of Kraft caramels, and Kraft refers to them as Favorite Caramel Chocolate Nut Bars (wonder how they thought of that name?). There were sugar cookies, lemon bars, Mexican wedding cakes and orange balls. The selection changed every year, and we'd spend hours choosing and then calculating how many pounds of this or packages of that we were going to need to make them all. On average we'd make at least four batches of each variety, and we'd each make at least four varieties.

One memorable year we had been to visit my family in the Pacific Northwest in the fall, and had bought a huge bag of unshelled hazelnuts. I found a recipe for raspberry bars with a hazelnut shortbread crust, and it seemed like a great idea. It was not. If there's anything more tedious, time consuming and downright dull than shelling 10 pounds of hazelnuts, I'm not sure what it is. The cookies were fantastic (they damned well better have been), but I swore never to make them again because of the work involved. And for those who suggest buying shelled hazelnuts instead, I would say that unless one comes into a significant inheritance, or wins the lottery, this is NOT an option.

One choice that proved to be very popular but sounded just downright weird when I decided to make it was a cookie made with ground up Werther's butterscotch candies. The cookies spread to an incredible degree, and they're not recommended for anyone with extensive dental work about which they actually care, but they're a nice addition to a holiday cookie platter. The candy melts into the cookie dough and makes a very crisp, melty, almost lacy cookie. Broken up it would probably make a fantastic ice cream topping (although if you undercook them they're too chewy to break up, so they'd have to be slightly overdone).

We dismissed such obvious choices as the peanut butter cookies with a Hershey's kiss jammed in the middle of it, or anything with broken up starlight mints. Anything that appeared in a holiday candy or butter ad was right out. They're the kind of thing that anyone can make. We go for the unusual or, in the case of "the usual," the particularly good version.

Truthfully, most of the recipes we use come from pretty mundane sources. But they're really good versions. The oatmeal raisin recipe comes from the canister of oats. The peanut butter recipe is from The Joy of Cooking. The bag of morsels supplies the chocolate chip recipe. We do have two or three cookbooks that have been a source of some good selections over the years. The Rombauers put out a "Joy of Christmas Cookies" that has some good ones in it, and Nancy Baggett's All-American Cookie Book has lots of interesting recipes, along with lots of background information on the history of different types of cookies.

Starting in mid-September we'd start buying non-perishable baking supplies when they were on sale. Flour, sugar (both brown and white), chocolate chips, caramels, peanut butter, raisins. Then starting after Halloween we'd start buying things like margarine and nuts on sale. We never used butter (see unshelled hazelnut comment above), and besides, margarine keeps almost indefinitely (probably because it's one molecule away from plastic--but it makes decent cookies). Then we'd start making dough and freezing it. Chocolate chip, oatmeal and peanut butter dough all freeze exceptionally well. Right after Thanksgiving we'd thaw the dough and start baking off cookies.

We were fortunate (in a strange way) to have a finished but unheated attic. The closed staircase got to a temperature that rivaled the refrigerator for keeping the cookies fresh for several weeks. We'd pack them in tins between layers of waxed paper and put them on the stairs. Every holiday season we'd acquire a few more tins, mostly from gifts sent to our offices. In the end we probably had 25 tins and every year they were all filled to capacity. We also used Ziplock bags for sturdy round cookies that could be packed in rows, like peanut butter.
About a week before Christmas, we'd load up enormous platters (the ones that most people use to hold their 22 pound turkeys) and take them into work. The cookies would stay for about two days, by which time they were almost always gone. There were even people who would email or call me because they weren't going to be in the office on "cookie platter day" and ask me to make them up separate small plates for when they got back. In fact, when I left my last job I got many very distressed emails because my last day was Halloween--no cookies. But, as I said, this year we've come to our senses and besides, we now have four children.

So this year we'll make a few batches for ourselves and our kids and whatever friends or family happen by during the holidays, but the cookie frenzy is over. And I think we'll enjoy our cookies even more without the pressure of having to make dozens and dozens against a deadline. Those cookies were part of what makes the holidays so hectic. Baking cookies should be fun, not mandatory. When things stop being fun, we should stop doing them. Making hundreds of cookies used to be fun, partly to share the pleasure with our friends, and in part to see the looks on people's faces when we walked into the office with those enormous platters, but the thrill is gone. Now we'll enjoy the looks on our children's faces when they taste those Favorite Caramel Chocolate Nut Bars for the first time. I'm sure it'll be just as much fun, and even more rewarding.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stuff It

At our family Thanksgiving, the general consensus was that it was the stuffing that really makes the meal every year. There was a lone dissenting voice in favor of the sweet potatoes as being the vehicle that carried the essence of the meal and evoked the Thanksgiving feeling. But the stuffing won out by popular vote.

The stuffing my aunt made was pretty close to perfect. I might complain that the onion and celery weren’t chopped finely enough, and that it didn’t have any sausage in it, but it had good flavor, at least. And if I had been making stuffing enough for 15 people, I might have cut some corners in chopping the vegetables too. It was a little mushy and wet, but that had more to do with what part of the stuffing I got—I like to get mine from the casserole that’s cooked with the bird, as opposed to that which is cooked in the bird. That bit of browned crispness on top of it, softened with the gravy, is an experience I look forward to all year. This year I didn’t get it, but since my husband likes to make a separate bird for us as a family, I’ll get it in a few days.

My husband likes Thanksgiving leftovers and misses them when we have the meal at someone else’s house. So on the years when we’re invited out for dinner, he likes to buy a turkey and all the other ingredients and make a second Thanksgiving meal on the Saturday or Sunday of that weekend for us to have all to ourselves. Then we get the bird, stuffing, side dishes, rolls, and dessert exactly as we want them. Oh yes, and we get the leftovers.

I have heard of people eating cold stuffing for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving, and I can’t say I agree with this tendency. I do like stuffing for breakfast the next morning, but reheat mine, please. Oh, and don’t forget the gravy.

When it comes to stuffing recipes, everyone has their own ideas and naturally, I think mine are the right ones. Stuffing made with fresh bread generally disappoints me. Even day old bread doesn’t do it. It has to be dry as dust with every possible hydrogen-and-two-oxygen-molecule wrung from it, preferably by commercial equipment. Fresh bread (or day old fresh bread) is too moist for stuffing. It comes out like a damp sponge with herb seasoning. Corn bread isn’t the right stuff either. Although it’s naturally somewhat dry and crumbly, it doesn’t take well to the seasonings I like in my stuffing, and is therefore right out. I confess that I am perfectly content with Pepperidge Farm bagged stuffing. Add some seasoning and dampen it with some chicken broth and melted butter and holiday satisfaction is just a short turn in a 350 degree oven away.

As to what seasonings are used, I have very strong opinions and won’t budge. No weird stuff, say I. And by weird I mean nuts, dried (or worse, fresh) fruit, wild rice and/or things like oysters. Would you make stuffing out of fruitcake or Uncle Ben’s? Would you put tuna fish in stuffing? Then why would you put dried fruit, nuts, rice or oysters in bread stuffing? I have a friend who maintains that what everyone really wants is mushy bread drowned in gravy. Well, pretty much, yes. But if that was really all I wanted, I could go out and buy a loaf of Wonder bread and a jar of Heinz gravy and have “stuffing.” I want mushy bread with lots of seasoning and some sausage that has some crispy bits drowned in homemade gravy. That’s what I want.

If using the aforementioned Pepperidge Farm bagged stuffing (the blue bag, please), you actually don’t need to add herbs. There are herbs already in the mix and they’re perfect. However, if you want to make the stuffing from scratch (and have dried out your bread sufficiently), then this is one place that dried herbs are superior to fresh. Because the goal is to have the stuffing be as dry as possible before moistening it with the butter and broth, fresh herbs just don’t work texturally, and their flavor is too tentative unless you use whole cups of fresh sage, in which case you’re changing the texture of the stuffing and making it as much herb as bread. You really need the dusty, powerful dried ones (I’ll skip the rant on throwing out spices that are so old they’re turning yellow…we’ve all read it before). Since I always buy the Pepperidge Farm blue bag stuffing, I can’t really dictate what herbs go in there—thyme and sage for sure, but beyond that I can’t really say. I just stick with the bagged stuff and let the food snobs make the most of it.

Other than herbs, stuffing needs both onion and celery. These need to be chopped pretty finely. I’ve had many stuffings in which the onion and celery both were in pretty big chunks (such as that I had this year). Doing this means that the vegetables upstage the stuffing itself—not the idea of these ingredients. It’s hard when making for many people, but it’s really critical to the integrity of the stuffing that the pieces be smallish. I used to be convinced that my father thought that “diced” vegetables meant that the pieces were the size of actual dice.

Beyond butter or chicken broth (or a combination of the two) being used to moisten the stuffing until it just holds together, the other essential ingredient is a little cooked pork sausage. Not much—I used to use lots more, but sausage has an unpleasant effect on my husband, and I realized that it was pretty fatty stuff to be using too generously. But a little bit adds a wonderful savory flavor and a meaty component that works perfectly with the bready stuffing.

Once the ingredients are settled, preparation method is the other controversial topic. Some people insist that the stuffing has to be cooked in the bird. Others (mostly employees of the US Department of Agriculture, I’d imagine) cringe at the very idea, visions of Salmonella dancing in their heads. Although we’ve been being warned against stuffing turkeys for at least 10 years now, people are still doing it. It does add flavor to the stuffing in a way that a casserole in the oven never can, but it can also make the stuffing mushy and pasty. It’s not really possible to avoid it, but I think there needs to be some stuffing cooked in a casserole as well, so that there’s more crispy surface for those of us who want it. Otherwise the only crisp bits are those at the very back of the bird—hardly enough to go around.

We used to have a friend whose mother made something their family called stuffing balls. She’d take prepared stuffing and mold it into balls in her hands (not too firmly compressed—just enough to hold together) and then bake them in a 350 degree oven until hot and crisp. Thanksgiving was always at the mother’s house, and the stuffing balls were an annual tradition. Then came the year that our friend’s mom decided she was too tired to do the full family Thanksgiving at her house (this friend was the youngest of eight children, so his mother was both older and pretty tired by that time).

His sister-in-law offered to have the family to her house. This was nothing short of catastrophe to our friend and his wife—this sister-in-law was already pretty much a family pariah for a number of reasons (some food-related, some not), and had once served a pasta dish that included shrimp in whipped cream. Not shrimp in heavy cream sauce—shrimp in heavy cream that had been whipped (and, if memory serves, also sweetened). My friend and his wife (and all the other siblings and their respective spouses, with the possible exception of the hostess sister-in-law) begged the mother to make stuffing balls. I can’t recall if she did or not, but I remember thinking at the time that I understood perfectly their panic. Stuffing is what Thanksgiving is all about.

Turkey, after all, is pretty much turkey. Oh sure, you can baste it with various things—lemon juice, orange juice, chicken broth—or you can jam herbs under the skin or any of a number of other things, but basically it’s just turkey when you slice it up and serve it. And of course, most people have some version of sweet potatoes along with the meal, but so many people don’t like sweet potatoes that they become less controversial. Those who don’t eat them don’t care what recipe you use. Mini marshmallows? Brown sugar? Apple pie spice? If they’re not going to eat them in the first place, it’s all the same to them what you put in there.

Just about everyone likes stuffing, and just about everyone thinks their stuffing (or their mother’s stuffing, or the stuffing they’ve been eating every year since they were four) is the very best one. And for many people (me included) a Thanksgiving dinner without the “right” stuffing is a just a turkey dinner.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Thanksgiving has snuck up on me this year. In part I think that’s because I’ve been pretty preoccupied with a new baby and three other kids, and in part it’s because I’m not contributing anything to the Thanksgiving meal this year except a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread (which I’ve been instructed to purchase). My cousin, who is having Thanksgiving at her house this year, decreed that any family with a baby younger than one month old was not required to provide anything substantial. I had to beg to be allowed to bring bread.

However, now that I’m fully in the throes of Thanksgiving, I’ve been reading holiday magazines and looking at holiday recipes (it helps to pass the time between feedings). These days I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving, but I remember as a kid feeling that it was a wasted holiday. After all, there were no presents, no candy or costumes, no fireworks, you didn’t even get to stay up until midnight. Thanksgiving was a “talking” holiday.

Talking holidays were the ones where the grownups sat around talking for hours, and us kids were bored because we didn’t care about the conversation, and after awhile we didn’t even want to play with each other. We just wanted to go home and watch TV. Memorial Day and Labor Day were also talking holidays. The only holidays more pointless and less fun than talking holidays were the ones like Washington’s Birthday (as it was then—not President’s Day) and Veteran’s Day—they were only good for a day off from school.

Now that I’m a grown up myself, I find that Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Besides the talking, which I now enjoy, I’ve developed a greater interest in food and Thanksgiving, as we all know, is all about the food. Because of this, I read the aforementioned holiday cooking magazines and cookbooks quite avidly, and I’ve noticed some things that I find tedious or unappealing, or both.

I just read Mark Bittman’s column in the New York Times last week in which he gave a sort of formula for stuffing or dressing. He claimed (rightly) that it was dressing rather than stuffing because he liked it cooked alongside the turkey, rather than in it. He feels that cooking it inside the bird makes it soggy and overly mushy. That happens to be how I like my stuffing, but I also like some of what’s cooked in a casserole with the turkey, so I can get that crisp top and drown it with gravy.

In any event, his “formula” called for bread, fat (he recommended butter), nuts for crunch, and something interesting as an add-in, such as apple, chestnuts, or sausage. Let me say right now that I always use Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, so I’m sure there are plenty of food professionals out there who would scorn my opinion as that of a philistine. However, I must protest a couple of Mr. Bittman’s suggestions. First, nuts do not belong in stuffing. I don’t care for nut breads, either. The contrast between the very firm crunch of the nut and the mush of the bread is just too much contrast for me. Second, while I heartily agree that sausage is excellent in stuffing, I can’t bear weird ingredients like apple, dried fruit, chestnuts, or oysters. Stuffing is supposed to be savory—keep the dried fruit out of it.

Also in my reading, I’ve come across several suggestions for stuffing not made with bread at all. Often recommended are things like wild rice, bulger, barley, and even quinoa. Any of these might be fine on any other day, but on Thanksgiving bread stuffing is the only way to go. If I were served one of those grain-based stuffings instead of bread stuffing, I’d feel like there was a huge hole in my Thanksgiving holiday.

Another suggestion I’ve read many times is for potatoes other than mashed. This is just wrong. Au gratin potatoes, twice baked potatoes, any of these preparations is, again, fine for a non-holiday meal. But Thanksgiving calls for mashed potatoes. After all, mashed potatoes and gravy is a classic. Who ever heard of au gratin potatoes and gravy? Ick.

And then I must protest the thousands of “new” ways to prepare turkey. I don’t mean the dozens of variations on herbs, rubs, and basting liquids. I mean all the ways they encourage cooking a turkey besides simply roasting it. What’s wrong with roasting it? We’ve been doing that for hundreds of years now, and it’s always worked fine for me.

But no, now we’re urged to deep fry it, or grill it, or smoke it. A friend of mine’s mother-in-law smoked their turkey one year, and my friend said it was the most disgusting thing she’d ever tasted. I can’t say if that’s because the mother-in-law is generally a pretty poor cook, or if smoked whole turkey is just a bad idea. I had deep fried turkey at a wedding one time (don’t ask—I’m not sure why), and it was fine, but boring. It tasted OK, but it was just turkey with deep fried coating on it. I really couldn’t see the point.

The other fad, which seems to show no signs of faltering or fading, is brining a turkey. That is, soaking it in a bath of salt water with some spice in it for a couple of days. Again, the appeal of this eludes me. The same chefs and food writers who scorn commercial turkeys (like Butterball) because they’re injected with salty water are perfectly OK soaking an organic free-range turkey in a similar salt water solution for a day or two before cooking. Seems to me it amounts to the same thing in the end.

I freely admit that I’m a Thanksgiving traditionalist and don’t want to deviate from the familiar. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, a vegetable or two, some rolls and butter, and a little dessert are all I ask for. I don’t require sweet potatoes. I can take them or leave them. And I prefer my turkey roasted, and wish all of those faddish ways of cooking turkey would go away. I guess some people get tired of the same meal year after year, but since it’s 364 days from one Thanksgiving to the next, I actually look forward to the same thing we had last year.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

That's Disgusting! (But I Love It)

Having had this baby, I’m now trying to make an effort to eat a little better. Early on in my pregnancy, I was so sick that the doctor told me that pretty much anything I could get in my stomach and keep there was fine. Then toward the end, I had a kind of a similar problem that turned out to be appendicitis (for which reason the baby was born a month early). Anyway, now that all those problems are behind me, I need to make a move in the right direction and try to start eating a little better.

Because of this (and because other people in our house need to eat), we were at the grocery store the other day. And as I wandered the aisles (as I am apt to do at the grocery store, going up and down and just browsing), I realized that there are lots of foods that I just adore, but that I wouldn’t admit to liking publicly on a bet. (Although isn’t that what I’m doing in this blog? Oh well, so much for winning that bet.)

I bought two boxes of chicken flavored rice-a-roni. I still remember the jingle they had when I was a kid and the stuff was pretty new—“Rice-a-roni: the San Francisco treat/Rice-a-roni: the flavor can’t be beat/One pan, no boiling, cooking ease/A flavor that is sure to please/Rice-a-roni: the San Francisco treat!” Of course you do bring the water in rice-a-roni to a boil, but really, who cares? I suppose in some way it violates the truth in advertising laws, but I’m not a lawyer. I remember making this stuff as a kid and thinking that it took the vermicelli hours to brown, so anxious was I to dig in to a plate of rice cooked in powdered chicken bouillon.

In fact, pretty much anything cooked with excessively fake chicken flavored anything is high on my list of favorites. Chicken flavored Stove Top stuffing comes to mind. Soggy bread with super salty chicken flavoring in it. Yum. Their big push when I was a kid was “Stove Top instead of potatoes.” Even when we started hearing that meat should be more of a flavoring or a condiment than the center of a meal, (and suggesting that meat be a condiment has to be about the most half-assed idea any nutritionist has ever come up with—stupider, even, than suggesting that we eat baby carrots instead of potato chips when we crave “something crunchy”) Stove Top was still plainly in favor of the meat/vegetable/starch meal configuration.

Sometimes the starchy thing is the whole meal. Kraft macaroni and cheese is a lunch. NOT that horrible thing with the packet of Velveeta. The even worse one with the packet of cheese powder that you mix with milk and margarine (don’t waste butter on it) and it makes a “cheese sauce.” I’ve come to realize that the world can be divided into two groups of people: Velveeta packet people, and powder people. Well, technically it can be divided into three groups, with the third group being headed by my aunt, who wouldn’t eat boxed macaroni and cheese if you offered her the contents of Fort Knox, a lifetime of perfect health, and eternal salvation too. But Kraft macaroni and cheese eaters can defend their packet vs. powder positions fairly vehemently, from what I’ve found.

Although I haven’t had it since I was about 12 years old, I’m pretty sure I’d still adore Oscar Mayer bologna on white bread with mayonnaise or mustard. It used to be a staple lunch of mine in elementary school. I think there’s a law that if you put lettuce on that sandwich, it must be iceberg, and you must serve the sandwich with Ruffles potato chips, and Oreos for dessert. Or possibly Chips Ahoy! which are the only chocolate chip cookie I think I’ve ever eaten where the bag tastes better than the contents. The thing about Oscar Mayer bologna is that you have to peel the plasticy ring off the outside before you make the sandwich. God knows what that plasticy ring is—plastic, most likely, since I highly doubt they go to the expense of making Oscar Mayer bologna in actual pork intestines and slicing it up.

Another great lunch is Chef-Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs. When I was a kid I’d also eat the ravioli, but now those don’t appeal, somehow. But the spaghetti and meatballs I can still eat. That supersweet tomato sauce. Those meatballs made of god knows what kind of meat. The noodles that have been in the can so long that they practically dissolve in your mouth. Clearly the people at Chef Boyardee are under the impression that "al dente" is the guy who runs the auto parts shop down the block. Bought two cans of that, too, I’m ashamed to admit.

As we moved around the grocery store, we stopped to get milk, and of course came up against the most tempting, yet embarrassing, display of all: Hostess cakes. It was all I could do to stop myself from grabbing a box of cupcakes AND a box of the new caramel HoHos. Plus now Hostess makes Zingers, which are pretty much just HoHos and cupcakes in a different shape, but which were made by Dolley Madison when I was a kid. They always sponsored the Charlie Brown specials on TV every fall and winter (unless Peter Paul beat them to it). And for years the packages of Zingers had Peanuts characters on them. They’re a little different now that Hostess makes them—something in the texture has changed, probably because what Hostess bought was the rights to the name, not the actual recipe for the cakes. Still, I’d eat a Zinger any day (chocolate or vanilla—I’ve never cared for the strawberry ones with flaked coconut on them).

There are other ghastly foods that come to mind, but many of them have vanished. I used to eat Pepperidge Farm frozen blueberry muffins, but they’ve disappeared. Microwaved for a few seconds, and spread with Fleischman’s margarine (again, no wasting butter on them), they were fantastic. Stouffer’s used to make both a frozen vegetarian lasagna (spinach and shredded carrots), and a broccoli with cheese sauce that came in a plastic bag that you thawed in boiling water. I think they still make the lasagna, but like everything these days, it’s had to be reformulated to go in the microwave, so it tastes different. The broccoli with cheese sauce just disappeared off the face of the earth. For awhile Green Giant made one (and may still, for all I know), but the broccoli was in little pieces—Stouffer’s were big spears—and the cheese sauce was American-y tasting, where Stouffer’s was more of a cheddar flavor.

Of course, all of these things are highly processed, loaded with sodium, fat, sugar and preservatives. And when you come down to it, they’re horrible in comparison to the “real” thing (a Hostess cupcake versus a homemade chocolate cake, or broccoli with homemade cheese sauce), but they’re what I grew up with, so they’re what I love. I like to think my kids won’t have an affinity for that kind of thing when they get older, but I’m sure they will. It’s the nature of American food society. Italians grow up longing for a nice plate of pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, and Americans grow up revering Chef Boyardee.

It’s a sad truth, but one we’re not going to escape any time soon. Until we as a society have a more refined palate, we’re going to have kids growing up thinking Hostess cakes are terrific. And that refined palate is only going to be developed if we have more time to cook and devote to food in general, which seems unlikely at this point. Part of our problem seems to be that as a society we want to appear to be familiar with good food, but we don’t want to take the time to make good food. We’ll spend $175 for two on a really good restaurant meal which we could have made at home for a quarter of the price, and served three more people into the bargain. And it’s not about buying organic this or free range that, it’s about just buying real food instead of cans and jars and things that are halfway made already. I’m as guilty as the next person of giving my kids frozen chicken nuggets, but I also feel guilty doing it.

It also doesn’t help that in this country, it is cheaper to buy a bag of frozen chicken nuggets at Costco than it is to buy frozen chicken tenders (or unfrozen chicken breasts), bread them and fry (or bake) them yourself. When you’re up against that kind of convenience plus the cost savings, it almost seems foolhardy to make chicken nuggets. And the ones from Costco are baked, not fried, and don’t have a whole lot of ingredients that look like nothing more than cancer-causing initials. This drives me crazy, but it’s difficult to justify making chicken nuggets when the alternative doesn’t seem too horrible, at least in the short term.

Clearly, I’m as much of a victim of agribusiness as the rest of the world, I just wish the rest of the world would realize their victimization. I think it’s OK to like the crap as long as you recognize it as crap, and try to reduce your crap intake, improve your palate, and step up to better things. I doubt there will ever be a day when I’ll truly turn up my nose at a Zinger, but I like to think there’ll be a day when I’ll eat the Zinger and know that it’ll be a long, long time before I ever eat another one, and that between Zingers I’ll be eating really good homemade chocolate cake.