Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Taking the Fun Out of It

I just read an article about those places where you go and spend an hour or two each week assembling the ingredients for meals for a week or two (or a month) and take them home. Apparently this trend started in Seattle (not far from where I am) and has caught on in a big way across the country. The thing is, I can’t really see why.

Perhaps I’m just one of the uninitiated here, but my understanding is that the process goes something like this:
- Go to food prep center and choose a dinner recipe for each night for the next two weeks (or duration of choice).
- I assume with staff’s help (else why would there be staff?), select the correct ingredients for the recipes chosen, making substitutions as necessary (accommodating allergies, food prejudices, etc).
- Perform prep work—slicing onions, chopping garlic, dicing peppers (OK, I’ll admit that this may be the part where I’m uninformed—it’s possible that what they’re having customers do is just dish out the correct amount of chopped onion from a bowl of pre-chopped onion that’s been set out by the aforementioned staff).
- Package everything up in takeout-type containers.
- Pay.
- Drive everything home and put it in the correct storage area in the kitchen.

For me, the whole meal preparation scenario goes something like this:
- Go to bookshelf and choose cookbooks/magazines from which to select meals.
- Make menu selections and grocery list at the same time.
- Go to grocery store and select ingredients (no staff to help me with selection/substitutions—hm, I think I can handle it on my own).
- Pay.
- Take everything home and put it away in the correct storage area in the kitchen.
- On the appropriate night, remove necessary ingredients for recipe, prep, and cook.

Savings? I see pretty much none.

However, to address the one area I might be fuzzy on—that there are Kitchen Fairies slicing and chopping in some hollow oak of a prep kitchen somewhere (doubtless ones who couldn’t get work on Food Network shows doing the same thing for the Rachel Rays and Paula Deens of the world). I submit that it’s a whole lot easier to scoop out a cup of chopped onion from a bowl of pre-chopped onions than it is to stand over a cutting board with an unlit match between my teeth chopping my own (that match thing really does work to keep your eyes from tearing, by the way—if you don’t breathe the fumes in through your nose, they’re far, far less likely to make you cry; you may shed a tear or two, but no need for waterproof mascara if you have the match in your teeth).

But I would say two things—one, do you really want to scoop your onions from a bowl that 20 other people (some with questionable hygienic habits) have scooped from before you? I know, I know, they make them wear plastic gloves, but non-food service professionals will still do things like rub their gloved hand across their brow (or worse, their nose) to scratch without realizing that they’ve just completely negated the purpose of the plastic gloves. For me, the answer is a resounding “No.” If I’m going to have icky bacteria and germs in my food, I at least want them to be ones from my own house and not from some random stranger who left them in the pepper strips ten minutes before I got there.

Then two, does everyone realize that if you’re really averse to chopping your own onions and peppers, slicing your own mushrooms, or chopping your own garlic, you can buy all of those things at the grocery store? And I don’t mean that tired old “tip” about getting things off the salad bar. You can buy chopped onion, and chopped or sliced peppers in the frozen food section, and the produce department carries pre-packaged pre-sliced mushrooms, and jarred chopped garlic. The quality is not really any less than stuff that was chopped ahead and put in a take-out container. Chopped onion starts to lose its finesse as soon as you chop it, so it’s really a moot point if you then freeze it, or stick it in a Styrofoam box for four or five days to sit in your fridge.

It also occurs to me that people who use these places still have to go to the grocery store for some things. I’m sure they don’t sell milk by the gallon, paper towel by the roll, or mustard by the bottle. Sure, you’d cut way back on your grocery shopping trips, but you’d still have to go once a month or so for some basics. It might mean you spend only forty-five minutes instead of two hours, but you’re still going to two “stores” to get what you need.

So I still don’t see the attraction.

Plus I would point out something that these places take out of the experience. You don’t get to browse in the grocery store. Yes, many shrug, but this is for me one of the highlights of the grocery shopping experience. My husband and I have had fights—fights!--over who gets to go to the grocery store. I have begged to be allowed to go after spending two or three days watching the kids—it’s a form of relaxation to me. I love to look around, see what’s new, get new ideas. I know so many people who hate going to the grocery store, but I love it. Grocery store stock represents society in a way that all of the museums, artistic performances, national landmarks, and historic buildings can never communicate. All humans require food, and what they eat on a daily basis gives far more insight into who they are than all of their other cultural icons combined, in my opinion.

When we travel, I always want to check out the grocery stores. I spent a week in Dublin on business a few years ago, and took a half a day to sightsee and shop. In driving from my company’s office back to my hotel, I got lost (the coworker I was traveling with had been doing all the driving up to that point), and wound up in some random southern suburb of the city in the parking lot of what was clearly an Irish Piggly-Wiggly. To this day I kick myself for not having thrown the car in park and gone inside to look around, instead of spending another half an hour finding my way back into the city and going to see Trinity College. In the first place, I’d been to Trinity College before, and in the second place, I’m sure the grocery store would have been infinitely more interesting than the courtyard of Trinity (not that it’s not beautiful and impressive, but it’s just grass and gravel, after all).

I’m not necessarily all that interested in going to the kind of places you see in photographs of France all the time—small local producers selling what they’ve grown on their own farms, etc. In France, I realize that’s the way people shop for food—supermarches, while gaining popularity, are still scorned by many. But in places where everyone goes to a regular ol’ grocery store to buy their food, that’s what I’m interested in. I want to see what the average person is buying, what they’re paying for things, what they’re being encouraged to consume by advertising.

Maybe if you aren’t the food-obsessed freak that I am, these prep kitchens are a godsend. If you hate going to the grocery store, I can see where they’d take the agony out of the experience. But for someone like me, who browses in the grocery store as a form of relaxation therapy and for clues to sorting out the puzzles of modern society, it would take all the joy out of the process.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Making Menus

Every week I sit down for upwards of an hour and make up menus and shopping lists for the following week. This sounds tedious and awful, but I love doing it. If it’s morning I sit down with a cup of coffee (any time after noon is fair game for wine, though) and several cookbooks and/or cooking magazines. I decide what we’ll be having and make lists of what we’ll need from the store. I get input from various family members (my husband’s contribution generally consists of “Whatever is fine” and my three-year-old always demands pizza on Friday nights). As strange as it sounds, this ritual is one of the highlights of my week. I know plenty of people who would rather be forced to sit through the Ice Capades every week, but I love doing this.

I have a notebook devoted to the task. On each page I have the days of the week with the dinner choice, and below that is a list of things to get at the grocery store. Generally they’re what we need for the dinner recipes, but I also include things that are running low, or that we need every week. Instead of a magnetic list on the refrigerator, I have my notebook (the refrigerator pad either manages to get torn off of its cardboard backer, or I can’t find a pen to write down what we need—and I’ve never managed to get a pen to stay on the fridge with a little magnet or something, like some clever types can).

I start by looking at the upcoming week and noting any special events. If we’re having dinner out, or my husband will be away on a business trip and it’s just me and the kids that night, I indicate that next to the day and plan accordingly. Then I write in any “standing” meals. As I mentioned, my older son demands pizza every Friday night, so I write that down right away.

Then the fun starts. Depending on my mood and the season, I pull out anywhere from two to a dozen cookbooks or cooking magazines. I do try to keep the number of different sources for dinner recipes to a minimum. Once I’ve chosen everything we’re having, I leave the appropriate books out on the counter, and I don’t like to have too big a pile hanging around all week.

My collection is vast (too vast, says my husband). The most common sources are current issues of the various cooking magazines I get. I have subscriptions to Cooking Light, Everyday Food and two Australian food magazines: Donna Hay Magazine and Delicious. magazine. I generally pull out the back issues of previous years from the same month for whatever magazine I’m currently using. This is usually dictated by whichever one has come most recently in the mail. Donna Hay Magazine, for instance, is only published six times a year, and because their seasons are the reverse of ours, I have to pull out the old November/December issues in order to get light recipes for summer evenings.

Sometimes I use cookbooks. I have several “quick” cookbooks that often get called into service—some of them are a little more upscale than others. A couple of them are the “can of soup and egg noodle casserole” variety, while others lean more toward fast recipes for homemade potstickers and the like.

I try to vary the kinds of things we have from day to day. I try, for instance, not to have something with an Asian flavor two days in a row. I also try to make sure we’re not having the same kind of meat two days in a row. Since we often make enough dinner to have the leftovers for lunch the next day, that would mean eating the same type of meat for four meals in a row.

Because I have a three-year-old, I have a picky eater. Don’t tell me about your two-year-old who likes falafel and pad thai. I’m lucky my kid will eat green beans and cheese and crackers. So I have to make things that I can either serve to all three of us, or that I can modify somewhat and serve to my son in a plainer form. If we’re having a chicken stir fry that uses chicken tenders, I can cut a few of them up, bread them, and make them into nuggets for him. He’ll eat pepper strips, and loves Asian dipping sauces. While the stir fry is cooking, I fry his nuggets. I try to make it so that his meals don’t require much more effort than ours to make, but I’m not always successful.

Sometimes we get contrary and insist that he’s going to just have to eat what we eat or go hungry. Usually this means he eats cheese and crackers, and applesauce for dinner. I’ve read that this is OK to do, but it never works the way it’s supposed to. He just happily eats his cheese and crackers and applesauce and ignores the bits of “our” meal that we put on his plate. I know what they say about serving a kid the same thing 15 times before he or she will try it, but honestly, I can’t stand to throw away whatever it is I’m trying to get him to eat the other 14 times I offer it to him. And if there are other kids around, he will eat what they eat. So I figure when he starts school he’ll be influenced by his friends, just as I was (I didn’t try cauliflower until I was 13 and it was served at a friend’s house, and then I loved it) and his horizons will expand, just as mine did. Until then I’m resigned to his eating hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. He eats a reasonable selection of vegetables and fruits, so I don’t think he’s going to die of some vitamin deficiency between now and age eight.

Still, I love poring over cookbooks and magazines, reading through the preparation, calculating how long it will take to get dinner on the table. I suppose it can be related to the female tendency toward nesting that has been both discussed and derided over the years, but I feel like this menu-making is part of my “job” as wife and mother. My feelings may also have to do with the fact that my own mother was a bit of a washout in this department. She worked full time, so my father was almost always the one to cook me dinner, and I have memories of really standout awful meals he prepared, mostly featuring canned beets and instant mashed potatoes. As an adult, when I became interested in food, I was determined that I would not follow in their footsteps.

The downside to all this is that we seldom have the same thing twice. Because I have so many sources, and am so excited to try so many different things, I suspect that as adults, my children will wind up being like an old coworker of mine. She had something like seven or eight recipes that she served in rotation. Her husband was a highly selective eater (he’s probably the only person I’ve ever heard of who doesn’t like pizza) so she had found a handful of things that both he and her kids would eat, and that’s what she made, over and over again. No doubt when my kids look back on their childhood they’re not going to have a “favorite” dish that mom used to make—meatloaf, or spaghetti, or turkey tetrazzini. They’ll look back on a jumble of casseroles, roasts, soups, and random other offerings and have no very clear idea what dinner “means” to them. Then again, they may say that to them, comfort food is applesauce and cheese and crackers. That’s certainly the direction in which we’re headed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

In Defense Of Recipes

I read an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer food section this week that I found rather annoying. To be fair, there are days when I find everything annoying, and this may well have been one of them. However, annoying or not, this article generated in me some strong feelings regarding its topic: recipes and their use (or, in this case, overuse).

The primary point of the article was that we as a society are far too reliant on recipes, and don't use our intuition enough in cooking. That we're too quick to throw up our hands and say "I can't make that" because we lack written instruction, rather than being willing to dig into our store of cooking knowledge and logic and figure out how to create the dish we're after. The columnist said she often received phone calls requesting a certain recipe, and that the caller insisted s/he must have the recipe because it was their family's favorite, that making it from memory wouldn't be good enough.

She refers to recipes as a crutch, and calls them "the speed dial of the culinary world." My first reaction was "So?" After all, what's wrong with using speed dial if you actually know how to use the telephone keypad? Certainly I can look up a number and dial it, but if I can just push a single button, why not? Yes, I can make Beef Stroganoff from memory, but if I have a combination of ingredients from a cookbook or magazine that I know is successful, and perhaps more importantly, tasty, why not use it?

It also occurred to me that I can get in touch with someone more easily if I have their exact number, just as I can make blueberry muffins more successfully if I have the ratio of the ingredients to one another. I know that blueberry muffins are flour, sugar, an egg, some oil, and things like baking powder and/or soda, and blueberries, but they'll turn out better if I know exact proportions. Just as I know that my grandmother's phone number is 2 twos, an eight, a four, a six, a one, and a five, I'm more likely to actually have my grandmother's phone ring if I know the correct sequence of numbers than if I just dial 8-4-6-1-5 and 2 twice, in random patterns and combinations.

The author suggests that when we use recipes, we fail to recognize basic concepts that appear over and over in those recipes. I disagree. I recognize the basic concepts I've learned over the years. I know, for instance, that white sauce is flour and butter, with a certain amount of milk or cream added. And I know that, in general, a 1:1 ratio of flour to butter works best, but I always have to look up how much milk to use (but do I know all the words to "American Pie"? Yes). And white sauce is not a food that lends itself to correction of mistakes easily--find out too late that you didn't use enough liquid, try to add some to the already-made sauce, and you will find yourself with the most unattractive soupy, lumpy mess you've ever encountered. It'll break your arm trying to beat the lumps out, and you'll never manage to do it (you'll wind up pouring it through a sieve instead--a nuisance and a mess, although it does work). So why not use a "recipe" and save yourself the headache?

Some things of course I eyeball. Mashed potatoes and rice spring to mind. But many times I've made slightly too runny mashed potatoes when I got overzealous with the milk and didn't realize how much I was putting in there (and the first person who says "Start with a little--you can always add more..." gets one on the beak). For rice I just put water in the pan, then use half as much rice. I've never made crunchy rice, but I can also say that I've never felt my rice was much of a success story, either. I might actually benefit from some of those techniques I've read that are "recipes" for rice that involve tea towels or steamers or some such thing.

She offers, as an example, a series of recipes she had provided for peach pie the previous week. She dismisses concerns over oven temperature, saying that it doesn't matter if you use 350, 375 or 400, so long as you follow the mandate that the crust be brown, and the filling thickened and bubbly. This argument works fairly well for peach pies, I suppose (and even for lots of other things), but for some things, temperature is very important, and timing is secondary. I recall a disaster of an almond cake (that used almond meal, which goes for over twelve bucks a pound at my grocery store, I might add) that resulted when I translated the temperature (incorrectly) from Celsius to Fahrenheit (OK, to be 100% fair, all I did was read a combination of the numbers given--the recipe provided both Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures, and I read the first number of the Fahrenheit one, and the last two of the Celsius number, resulting in an oven temperature of 360 instead of 320).

By the "peach pie" logic, it shouldn't have mattered that the oven was hotter than was called for, so long as I kept a close eye on this cake. In truth, the result was a thoroughly overdone, rubbery, almost burnt top, with a center that was just barely set. Although this was a cake--something that can be notoriously temperamental--the same thing could just as easily happen with any number of things. Casseroles in which the top burns before the center heats through properly because the oven is too hot. Biscuits that are cooked through but not golden brown on top because the oven temperature was too low.

As well, those oven temperatures and cooking times are given to us as a convenience. Yes, I could cook my dinner at 425 instead of 350, but that would mean that after the first half of the cooking time, I'd have to be looking in on it every five to ten minutes to make sure it wasn't getting too done. Some of us want to be able to put dinner (or a pie, or a loaf of bread) in the oven and know that we can forget about it until the last ten or so minutes of cooking time, at which time it's always prudent to start checking for doneness. I don't want to be a slave to my meal.

She concludes that we're paying so much attention to the recipe that "technique eludes us," and that we "lack a general understanding of how ingredients function." I won't dispute the point--I'm sure it's true for many people. But I will point out that I learned technique and how ingredients function through years of experience, and by using recipes. I didn't have to learn the hard way that if you're combining a bunch of wet ingredients, and you decide to just toss them all together in a measuring cup (because the instructions say to add them all to the dry ingredients at the same time), and two of those ingredients are milk and lemon juice, that if you put those two things in the same container, the lemon juice will curdle the milk (although I confess I have done this). I didn't have to ruin a Beef Stroganoff by adding the sour cream to the sauce on the stove and accidentally letting it boil and finding out that sour cream breaks when it's heated to a boil (I haven't done this). Today I know these things. Fifteen years ago, I did not.

As for the readers calling her to beg for a recipe, who knows how long they've been cooking? These days cooking is a very popular activity, but when I was a child, many of my friends (and, for that matter, I myself) had working mothers who didn't have time to cook. My mother learned to cook by watching my grandmother, reading a few "basic" kids' cookbooks that were given to her, and experimenting. I learned to cook by reading cookbooks and experimenting only. There wasn't anyone for me to observe in the kitchen who was particularly skilled at cooking (my dad did a lot of the cooking and...well, that's another story).

I learned certain fundamentals from reading recipes, and from following those recipes a few times until I was comfortable with the concepts. I have recipes I still follow to this day. Yes, I may add a little more of this, not include that, but I follow the spirit of the recipe. As I've said before, I am not a creative cook--I need recipes to offer me ideas, and correct proportions of ingredients. I could probably get through a week, or even a month, of cooking sans recipes, but that's because for so many years I did use them as a "crutch," if you must. But they were like the crutches used by people who are healing, to support them until their hurt foot can bear their weight again; not like the ones used by people who are, for whatever reason, chronically unable to walk unaided. I can cook unaided if necessary, but I prefer to lean a little on my recipes. I don't lean as heavily now as I did ten years ago, but it's nice to know they're there to support me if and when I want them.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

We Don't Need Another Pita Chip Recipe

I am an avid, some might say obsessive, reader of cookbooks. I pore over them the way some people read novels. I’m always interested in the new ones that are coming out, whatever their genre. I read newspaper and magazine reviews, skim through tables of contents in bookstores, and read online responses from other readers. I love to cook from cookbooks, and I am a great admirer of those who are creative enough to actually make a living developing recipes I state right now that I am not. I would starve trying to develop recipes. When it comes to combining foods, I confess I am not particularly original in my thinking. This does not, however, stop me from criticizing those who are.

One thing I’ve found over the years is that there are some recipes that are repeated so often that they’ve become clich├ęd. It’s not possible to pick up a cookbook that doesn’t contain a recipe for vinaigrette dressing, garlic mashed potatoes and brownies. And, as one reviewer said, when reviewing a new “comprehensive” cookbook “Does the world really need another recipe for basic vinaigrette?”

And so, to put a stop to the endless repetition of recipes for which we all already have a thousand variations, I set forth my list of items for which we, the cookbook readers and users of the world, do not need any more guidance in preparing. Cookbook authors, cooking magazine editors and recipe developers, please take note.

Vinaigrette Dressing: By now, most of the literate world knows how to make a vinaigrette dressing. Vinegar or lemon juice, oil of some kind, salt, pepper. We know how to make a Dijon vinaigrette too, by adding a little Dijon mustard. We know about adding garlic, swapping out balsamic vinegar, using ginger and sesame oil to give it an “Asian twist,” using fresh herbs, and pretty much anything else you can think of. I’ve never been at a restaurant or a dinner at anyone’s house where someone said “This is the most fabulous vinaigrette I’ve ever had! How EVER did you make it?!?” Of course if you’re recommending a particular vinaigrette to go on a salad for which you’re providing the recipe, it’s only appropriate to provide the recipe for said vinaigrette, but it is just no longer necessary to print a recipe for vinaigrette alone and suggest that it might be wonderful over mixed greens. This is not a new idea.

Mashed Potatoes: Pretty much every variation on mashed potatoes has been done. If there is a combination of potatoes and something else that hasn’t been tried, ask yourself if there is perhaps not a reason for this. Ask yourself this before you put salsa in mashed potatoes and cue the trumpet fanfare. Potatoes mashed with milk, cream, half and half, broth, sour cream, roasted garlic, garlic that has been boiled with the potatoes, celery root, sweet potatoes, any kind of cheese and/or crumbled bacon have all been revealed to the world. We’re all pretty savvy about putting butter and salt in our potatoes. We even know the trick of using white pepper instead of black, to avoid those unsightly little flecks. Let’s move on.

Pita Chips: There’s not a diet magazine, cookbook, website, flyer or pamphlet in the whole world that does not proclaim that you can make your own pita chips! With a fraction of the fat of store bought ones! These sources then proceed to instruct us on how to cut a pita in half, cut the halves into triangles, lay them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 until crisp. How far below “functional” does one’s IQ have to be to need a “recipe” for pita chips? And yes, yes, offering suggestions about how to brush them with a little olive oil, scatter them with sea salt, sprinkle them with paprika and all those other add ons are nice, but the average hamster could elaborate on the idea of a cut, toasted pita bread and come up with any of these variations. This same rant also applies to home made baked tortilla chips, a related, equally done-to-death recipe.

Oven Fries/Oven Roasted Potato Wedges: In the same vein, it doesn’t take much intelligence to slice a potato into wedges or “fry shapes,” put it on a baking pan (either tossed with some kind of oil or not), and bake it until it’s done. Herbs are nice. So is salt and pepper. No more recipes for oven fries, please.

Hummus: Speaking perhaps only for myself, I have a hummus recipe I like, so the culinary world can stop trying to sell me on another version of it. The version I love comes from an old Weight Watchers magazine and calls for chickpeas, roasted garlic, silken tofu, a splash of olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper. I have been rather sniffly informed by a friend of Middle Eastern descent that the “dip” for which I have a recipe is not hummus. I will concede the point, as I recognize that classic hummus contains no tofu (nor roasted garlic either), but I will say that the tofu makes it much smoother than any other version I’ve had. Most hummus has a texture that reminds me of chickpeas blended with pea gravel or builders sand. As I tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’m happy with what I have, thank you.

Roasted Corn on the Cob: I have a personal bias here that makes me somewhat more caustic about roasted corn on the cob. I hate corn on the cob, and I don’t like grilled food. Corn on the cob gets jammed up in my teeth, it’s messy to eat and it’s just not that great. I don’t care if it says “summer” as nothing else can. I don’t need a starchy vegetable to remind me what season it is. I have a calendar, and full use of all of my sensory organs, so I can pretty much tell what season it is on my own. It doesn’t help that every time we go to the grocery store with the intention of buying corn on the cob (at the request of my husband, grudgingly agreed to by me on the condition that I’m not actually expected to eat any of it) we walk out with three times as many ears as we need, and no more than two ears will fit in our already overfull, undersized fridge. No matter how many times I point out that HE will be the only one eating it (or he and our two guests, or whatever), my husband always insists on buying at least three ears of corn for each person, including me. The result of this overpurchasing is that the stuff sits on our counter in the plastic bags from the store (because of the aforementioned fridge issues) and, likely as not, half rots before we can serve it. This necessitates another trip to the store the day of the intended corn consumption to purchase still more ears of corn.

I’m sorry—I seem to have gone off on a tangent about quantity of corn, versus the original intent of talking about why roasted corn on the cob recipes are excessively abundant. Well, it seems that absolutely anyone who insists on including a chapter on “grilling” in his or her cookbook (or even just a chapter on vegetables) feels the need to remind the world yet again the best method for roasting corn on the cob in the husk. People who like corn on the cob roasted in the husk know how to do it. Those of us who do not will never like it, so it’s just wasted space.

Caesar Salad: Like roasted corn on the cob, people who love Caesar salad know how to make it. People who don’t won’t make it. Offering suggestions like serving it with grilled chicken or shrimp is not new or clever. They’re on every menu in every restaurant in North America. Anything you can get at your average Wendy’s is not something that we need instructions for making at home.

Chicken Broth or Stock: The only really useful recipe for chicken broth I ever saw was in a cooking magazine that had you use a whole chicken to make the stock. Then you picked the meat off of the bones, and out of the stock, and made things with the meat and the stock combined. Chicken soup (another overprinted recipe) was one of them, but so was a very tasty chicken a la king that caused me no end of grief and heartache when I made it twice within a two month period and was told by my then-fairly-new husband that he didn’t, um, really like chicken a la king that much, in spite of having said it was “really good” when I’d made it the first time. Chicken broth recipes vary only a little from one to another, and this is a textbook case of “seen one, seen ‘em all.” Until they can come up with a unique twist on chicken broth, I would respectfully request that the cookbook authors of the world cease including recipes for it.

Brownies: In addition to there being far too many recipes for brownies in the world, there are too many introductory paragraphs theorizing how brownies came to be. Really, does it matter? We have them now. They’re wonderful. They make a fantastic base for a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a slathering of chocolate or caramel sauce, a huge pile of whipped cream, some chopped nuts and a cherry (got to get in those servings of fruit!). Also, the debate over nuts versus no nuts is tired. If you like them, put them in; if you don’t, don’t. If you write recipes for a living, just put “optional” in parentheses next to the quantity of nuts and let it go at that. The chances that you’re going to change a person’s mind on nuts or no nuts in brownies in your 75 word introductory blurb is almost nil. Don’t bother.

There are probably a dozen more recipes I could think of that fall into the category of overprinted and overexposed, but instead, here are a few things for which I’d like to see more good recipes. Things that are easy to make, good for you and readily available, and should have more recipe development focused on them, in my opinion.

Duck Breasts: These are becoming more and more available (unless you shop at either of the two grocery stores in my town, in which case you’d conclude by their scarcity that they were more precious than rubies). They’re yummy, can be used in healthful recipes (despite all that fat), and because they’re not everywhere all the time, they make even the most mundane of meals feel like a special occasion. Duck breasts are to our age what lamb was to the previous generation—something that you got only on special occasions, and often ordered in restaurants because it was somewhat daunting to make at home.

Cabbage and Brussels Sprouts: I group these together because they’re closely related in flavor. Most recipes for cabbage are for cole slaw, and most recipes for Brussels sprouts are cooked with bacon. Both preparations are good, but let’s branch out a bit, shall we?

Zucchini: steamed (with or without herbs) and bread are both old and tired. We need some new blood, like the zucchini slaw that Sara Foster provides a recipe for in her Fresh Every Day cookbook. Now that’s a good idea.

Oriental Greens: Admittedly, I haven’t checked out all the oriental cookbooks available, but my Australian ones provide an admirable selection of treatments for oriental greens such as baby bok choy, gai larn, chow sum. American cookbook authors should take a lesson and stop abusing spinach, kale and swiss chard. What fun things can you do with baby bok choy? It’s easy, yummy and different.

I would suggest that pretty much any cookbook that includes a “basics” or “foundation recipes” section in it can most likely just save the price of printing those pages. Direct people to cookbooks like Fannie Farmer, Joy of Cooking, or the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook if they really haven’t got a clue how to make chicken stock. If they’re so new to cooking that they don’t know how to make stock or a basic vinaigrette, they really need one of these foundational cookbooks more than they need a section at the back of a more advanced one explaining to them how to combine chicken bones, carrots, celery, water and an onion in a pot for two hours. Use the space for recipes that will really expand our horizons and give us new ways to eat things that are good for us. This is especially helpful for unimaginative cookbook addicts like myself.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Homemade English Muffins: A Surprisingly Good Idea

We recently moved to a small town on the other side of the country, and neither of the convenient grocery stores carried my style of English muffin. I like English muffins with a little butter and jam for breakfast sometimes, but I prefer the Oat Bran ones, and all I could find were Honey Wheat or 12 grain. So I decided to make my own. I have no idea why I went with the idea of making my own, instead of deciding to just switch flavors. Time must have been hanging heavy on my hands. I made plain whole wheat initially, but now that I’ve found the experiment to be successful, I can buy my own bag of oat bran and make the kind I can’t find here.

I wasn’t at all sure they would turn out, you understand. I used a recipe from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and as I was putting the dough together, it seemed questionable. First it called for one and three quarter cups of liquid to three cups of flour. When I mixed this up, it didn’t seem very promising. It said to let the dough rise until it doubled in bulk. This first rise wasn’t so much a rise as an unimpressive bubbling. At least I knew the yeast was working, even if it didn’t seem like I would wind up with anything that even vaguely resembled English muffins at the other end.

The second rise was also unpropitious, although it did do something that more closely resembled doubling in bulk. I also added and extra half a cup of flour beyond what the recipe called for because the dough seemed awfully sticky. When I patted out the dough and cut out the muffins it was still sticky. I used a lot of flour to keep them from sticking to the cutting board, and even had to use a spatula to scrape them up so I could move them around. (Now I use more flour than the recipe calls for, adding it by quarter cups until the dough can be handled easily, and use less on the board when I cut them out.)

English muffins cook on a griddle or in a skillet, rather than being baked. I used a 10” skillet we have—regular, not nonstick, but sprayed with cooking spray to keep them from sticking. And they cook for a long time—about 10 to 15 minutes per side. They just get cooked over a very low heat so they don’t burn. My big fear was that they’d be done on the outside, but still raw in the middle. I must say that when they were cooked, they looked a lot like English muffins on the outside. And surprisingly, they even tasted like English muffins. It looked like an English muffin! It tasted like an English muffin! It even split in half the way the ones from the store do! I was pretty thrilled that I had managed to produce a real, live English muffin.

There are some things that we buy in the grocery store that we wouldn’t really think of making at home. Yogurt springs to mind (I make this too). Hot dog or hamburger buns. Ketchup. Sausage. I’m sure there are people who make these things from scratch, but until I made English muffins, I never thought of myself as one of them.

Since making these muffins, I’ve found a cookbook that actually suggests you make them for guests for a weekend breakfast. A year ago I would have scoffed at this idea. Now I’d consider trying it. As with any yeast dough, you can slow down either of the rises by refrigerating the dough, so you could mix it up the night before through the second addition of flour, put it in the refrigerator for the second rise, then cut them and cook them in the morning. And rather than giving a recipe here, I’d just say go check out Fannie Farmer, and use your best judgment as regards dough texture—never mind how much flour she says to use; it should look like dough, so after the first rise (but before the second) add enough flour until it does.

I cut mine out using a juice glass that’s about 2 ¾” in diameter (the last of a set of six I liberated from a company I used to work for that had actually gone to the expense of having their logo silk screened on juice glasses and coffee mugs for executive meetings—ah the excess of the 1980s). But you could also just pat the dough out and cut them in squares (not traditional, but less trouble than actually cutting them out with a round cutter). It has also occurred to me that they’d be wonderful cut out small—maybe 1”—cooked, and served with soup, or as the bread for some kind of little sandwich on a buffet. I’ve made ham biscuits a number of times, and served them with several different mustards, but little English muffins could either be split and made into pizzas, or used as the outside around some kind of sandwich filling (turkey or ham, or even something like chicken salad).

While they take a bit of time to make, it’s unattended time, for the most part. Even when they’re cooking, you can wander of for a few minutes at a time. I don’t recommend leaving them cooking and going off to shower, but certainly you could go check the mail, change over a load of laundry, or let the dog out (possibly even all three, if the dog didn’t take too long outside), and get back just about the time the muffins were cooked on one side. As for that underdone in the middle fear, even if they are a tad doughy in the center, toasting them will cook them that last little bit. It’s not the solution for really underdone muffins once they’re split—I don’t think there’s any hope for them, except perhaps to bake them in the oven for a little while at 350—but the toasting will finish off a muffin that came off the griddle slightly too soon.

I classify my English muffin experiment as a huge success. I haven’t had the courage to tackle ketchup yet (it’s not really tomato season here yet anyway), and I may never (things that need to go in sterilized jars or bottles kind of intimidate me, frankly—botulism is such an ugly thing). But one of these days I’ll make homemade English muffins for my weekend guests or in place of biscuits on a buffet, and be able to say truthfully “Oh, they’re simple, really.”