Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Even though it’s nearly Spring, something the other day happened to remind me of Christmas. Actually, it was the bag of red, green, and silver foil wrapped Hershey’s Kisses I found that were plainly left over from Christmas. I tend to buy the holiday wrapped candy a week or so after the holiday at half price. A Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in green foil is still a Hershey’s Kiss, after all.

This discovery reminded me of some of the more memorable holiday foods I’ve come into contact with over the years. The holidays are typically a time of indulgence, of course, and I’ve done my share of indulging, I admit. Interestingly, the things that stand out most in my memory are not the really wonderful things I’ve had, but the less wonderful, or even very awful ones.

When I was small, my grandmother used to send us boxes of baked goods every Christmas. There are only two things that she sent that really made an impression on me, and again, it’s because they were both fairly horrible, in retrospect. At the time I thought they were pretty good. The first was a variation on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and the second was Twinkies. I think my grandmother knew how much I liked junky foods like those, and in an effort to save money (always a top priority for her) she decided to make them for me, rather than buy them.

The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup things were chocolate covered peanut butter balls. If you don’t know this, peanut butter gets grainy when it’s refrigerated. I don’t mind that texture, but chocolate gets waxy when it’s refrigerated, and I do mind that. Also, my grandmother always put raisins in her peanut butter balls. I don’t like raisins plain to start with, but I sure don’t like them in things. So to sully perfectly good peanut butter and chocolate with raisins is just downright wrong in my book, and then to refrigerate it on top of that renders the whole product totally inedible. Since she was sending the stuff out of the kindness of her heart, I didn’t very well feel like I could complain (not that I’m not complaining now, but I would never have hurt her feelings by saying anything to her).

The Twinkies were just kind of weird. I really have no idea what she used for “creme” filling, only that it wasn’t white frosting (which is pretty much what Twinkie filling is—white frosting, probably made with pure lard and sugar, likely with some titanium dioxide tossed in for good measure and whitening and brightening purposes). She made a simple sponge cake, and then cut it into rectangles, which she layered together with this “creme”. I remember eating them, and liking them fairly well, but today I have to agree with my aunt. At the time she remarked “Who would bother to make a Twinkie?” (and the question wasn’t posed as to why you wouldn’t simply go buy them, but more why anyone would want to have anything to do with a Twinkie in any form at all).

Since then I have actually seen "Twinkie" pans for sale through the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Clearly there are people who feel that homemade Twinkies are a good idea. It takes all kinds, I guess.

My husband’s grandmother was also a seasonal baker. She made mostly cookies—chocolate chip, Mexican wedding cakes, and the like—and fudge. He said they were great when he was a kid, but last batch that was inflicted on me was pretty terrible. The cookies were either hard as rocks or flavorless, or both, and the fudge was like eating chocolate plastic. He agreed that it was all horrible, and we sewed all of it at intervals along the Taconic State Parkway as we drove home. I’m not sure if her offerings were always so terrible, or if they just deteriorated as she aged. It’s not the sort of thing I can gauge because I never tasted anything until it had gone past awful, and he might be remembering the flavor in the forgiving glow of childhood nostalgia. She has now grown too old for holiday baking, for which we are all somewhat guiltily grateful.

I think the person who provided the most repulsive holiday “treat” was Aunt Stevie. Aunt Stevie was married to Uncle Mike (before he died, of course), and was my husband’s great aunt. Aunt Stevie lived in Sacramento or something, and every Christmas she would send a “tower o’ treats” thing to my husband’s grandparents “for everyone to share.” This was a very kind gesture, but the tower consisted of Aplets and Cotlets. Aplets and Cotlets are the most horrid candy every made (I use the term “candy” loosely, since I’m not sure they're not actually made of melted-down rubber bands). Interestingly, I recently found out that they're made not far from where I now live. That doesn’t improve their flavor or texture, but now I’m grossed out by something made locally. I feel I’m contributing to saving the environment, somehow.

During one holiday celebration, my husband’s grandmother (nickname Grammy), kept insisting that we take some with us. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law and I protested that we didn’t want to deprive them of Aunt Stevie’s gift. Grammy kept saying that Stevie had sent them “for the family to share.” Finally, in an effort to get out of there before St. Patrick’s Day, I grabbed the smallest box and said “OK, thanks--well, we’ll be on our way.” On the way out the door, my mother-in-law asked me low in my ear which box I’d taken. “The smallest one,” I hissed back. Needless to say the box was promptly consigned to the trash compactor (still in its cellophane wrapper) the minute we arrived back at my in-laws’ house.

My husband says my in-laws used to get a fruitcake from his grandparents every year that was fairly nasty. But fruitcake is so clich├ęd that it doesn’t even get a mention in annals of Nasty Holiday Treat Gifts. My preference is for unusual disgusting holiday treats. If I have to eat something yucky and pretend i like it, at least I want it to be something yucky and interesting.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Spring Fling

Spring is on its way (although I know my friends on the East coast, being threatened with one of those last-ditch, dammit-it’s-still-winter, this-will-kill-all-my-daffodils-that-have-started-to-come-up snows that hit the DC area don’t necessarily think so). But here in the Pacific Northwest the daffodils, crocuses, and primroses are blooming away. It’s raining, of course, but things are blooming. And chefs are starting to talk about “spring food” ad nauseum.

I think of “spring food” as those things that are available (or are only supposed to be available) for a short window during the spring months, and that chefs clutch at because they’re sick to death of coming up with new ways to serve Hubbard squash and parsnips. Some of them are kind of yucky, frankly.

Exhibit A in the yucky category is morel mushrooms. These things look like partially shriveled sponges with a stem. I actually like mushrooms (cooked, anyway), but I can’t get past the appearance of morels. They’re considered a big treat, and restaurant menus offer all kinds of things with and under morel mushroom sauces, but their appeal just eludes me.

Fiddlehead ferns run a close second to morel mushrooms. I suppose after a winter of near-starvation, little curled bits of fern might look appetizing, but I’m not sure of that, even. I think I can’t get past the idea that I’d be eating fern. At no other time of the year do we seriously consider eating something that many people keep as a houseplant (unless you’re into eating cactus, which I am not). Yet these are considered a rare delicacy, and many people rush to farmers markets searching for them.

My West coast friends won’t recognize the shad as a spring food (or maybe even at all), but I’ve known perfectly normal East coast people who go berserk when the shad are running. Once when I was about 12 we were invited to the house of some friends of my parents for a shad dinner. As far as I can tell, shad is just fish, and I’ve never been one to get particularly excited about fish. The truly awful part of this dinner was the shad roe. I know some people like fish eggs. I know some people like Yani, too. I didn’t like shad roe (or really, any roe. I don’t much care for Yani, either). Part of it may have been a texture thing—I had braces at the time, and I took one bite of the stuff and it all squished up into my braces and felt…really gross. I’ve never really been inspired to try it again.

Many people I know are crazy for asparagus. It’s this great indulgence. I don’t like it. I’ve eaten it a couple of times, usually in a situation where I’m a guest at someone’s home and it would be rude not to, and I just can’t warm up to the stuff. I find it bitter and metallic tasting. I get really tired of the magazine articles this time of year that gush about fresh asparagus and how wonderful it is and all the fabulous things you can do with it. I just don’t get it.

Lamb, on the other hand, I do get. I love lamb. I know it means the demise of cute cuddly little creatures, but it’s so good that I overlook that. In this country we mostly eat either leg of lamb or rack of lamb, and I’m OK with both of those, but I also would like to see some more variety in what’s available to us. Lamb steaks, lamb backstrap—these things are hard to find. I’ve read recipes for lamb neck that sound pretty decent, although I understand it’s not an easy cut of meat to cook. For many people, Easter dinner is lamb. My grandmother has been known to serve it for Christmas dinner too. I find it a little odd at Christmas, and its constant availability takes something away from it.

Often the Easter lamb is served with new red potatoes. The problem with “new” potatoes these days is that there never seems to be a time when they’re not available, so it’s hard to get excited about them just in the spring. There are recipes all year long for “new” potato salad and the like. This is actually similar to the problem I have with lamb, and asparagus too (except that I actually like new potatoes): it just seems to be available all year long now. People serve asparagus for Christmas dinner (my grandmother actually did last year—along with the leg of lamb). It’s the “vegetable” with entrees in restaurants all year long. Things lose their specialness if you just serve them all the time.

That’s the complaint I have with ham at Easter. I like ham OK. It’s not my favorite, but it can be pretty tasty. The thing is, it’s available the whole year around. I can walk into my local Honeybaked Ham store any day of the year and get a ham. So again, I’ve started to not identify it with spring because it’s so universally available.

However, I do like the longer days, the fact that it’s often warmer (except when those unexpected snowstorms hit), and the fact that more and better fresh produce is coming my way. What I seem to have issues with is the food that’s available right now. It seems like I either don’t like it, or that it’s not unusual or rare enough for me to get excited about it in the spring. Clearly, that’s my own problem to deal with. At least I don’t have to figure out something interesting to do with a Hubbard squash for the 63rd night in a row.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

To Buy or Not to Buy

In almost every cookbook I read, there is a section on equipment. The content varies only a little from one to another. They talk about pots and pans, baking equipment, knives, miscellaneous utensils, and sometimes, small appliances. In almost every case, these missives urge you to buy the best of everything that you can afford. I would say that’s partly true, and partly not true. And so, because I sometimes disagree with the generally published standards of kitchen equipment expenditure, I offer my own guidelines, based on my own experiences with things that have lasted forever, and things that have fallen apart within two weeks of purchase. I’m sure I won’t cover every possible item available. Some things just aren’t worth discussing (I personally use jarred grated ginger, so although I have a ginger grater, I never use it and my advice on ginger grater purchasing is “Don’t.” Buy the jarred stuff and save yourself the trouble).

Wooden Spoons:
I’ve bought really cheap wooden spoons, and I’ve bought the ones that cost more than five bucks apiece and I honestly can’t tell any difference in their performance (if you will). One cooking equipment site offers olivewood spoons for $7.99 each. Their promotional text assures you that they have “more depth and durability than you can find with average wooden utensils.” Their description talks only about the aesthetics of said spoon: “a pleasure to use,” “distinctive grain and color variations,” “one-of-a-kind.” What I gather here is that while they’d like you to believe that olivewood at 8 bucks a pop is somehow more long-lasting than whatever crap wood they use for the spoons you buy in the grocery store in three packs with brand names like “Chefs Friend,” the truth is that all you get for your $8 is a spoon with a distinctive wood grain pattern. $8 for wood patterning sounds pretty steep to me. My advice is go with whatever is available unless you’re really out to impress your friends with what beautiful spoons you’re capable of buying.

Some people may say that stainless steel is the only way to go. I agree and don’t. I have stainless steel spoons, and they’re nice. They’re also expensive. And if, like so many people I know, you have nonstick cookware, you can’t use them to stir things while cooking. Wood is cheap, can be used on both regular and nonstick cookware, and can be affordably replaced when it wears out. As for the argument that wood harbors food particles that grow bacteria, I have a single word: bleach. If you’re that worried about bacteria, use a water and bleach solution to wash everything in your kitchen. Problem solved.

Do I even need to say it? Spend the money on knives. Then spend the money and the time having them professionally sharpened. Again, I’ve bought cheap, and I’ve bought expensive, and I can tell you that it really does matter. Cheap knives have handles that fall off, have blades that don’t stay sharp, are hard to sharpen, actually aren’t worth sharpening, and so you really just wind up tossing them and buying new cheap knives and the cycle starts all over again. I won’t bore you with the “Buy these three knives if you can only afford a couple” advice. Buy any basic cookbook and read what’s already been written 900 times.

There’s a company that shall remain nameless, that promotes its wares via annoying “Come to my house and buy crap” parties, that sells what are probably the worst knives in history. Although they may have upgraded since I last saw them, when I was introduced to them they were inexpensive stainless steel, with a glued on handle. If you asked about things like quality of the steel used, handle attachment method, or anything remotely related to the quality of the product, the sales person would carefully steer the topic of conversation back to the self-sharpening sleeves—aren’t these handy? You’ll never sharpen your knives again! What they didn’t say was that they weren’t worth sharpening. The company did offer a lifetime guarantee, but I’ve never seen the use in that—you promise me that if your product fails for whatever reason, you will replace it with the same crummy product?

Anyway, the long and short of it is, buy the best knives you can afford, and upgrade as soon as you can. Oh, and never use your good chef’s knife to try to pry apart two partly frozen bone-in chicken breasts. Just another in a long line of opportunities for you to learn from my mistakes.

Spatulas used to be a little more hit-and-miss, but since the advent of high temperature resistant silicone, it’s really easy to get good not-too-expensive spatulas. While I won’t pay $8 for a wooden spoon, I will pay $6 for a spatula. This past Christmas I bought my husband three or four with cute designs on (really more in) them—gingerbread men, snowflakes, hearts, pumpkins. They ranged in price from $3 to almost $7. You can get them for $2, but they won’t have the heads that withstand temperatures up to 7 million degrees Fahrenheit or whatever it is. For a couple of bucks more, you can get the ones that will. Since spatulas aren’t really a major purchase to begin with, get what you can afford at the time. You’ll have to replace them eventually anyway. And when you do, maybe you can find cute ones with pictures of little cherries in them.

Measuring Spoons/Cups:
First let me say that it’s worthwhile to have as many sets of measuring cups and spoons as you feel comfortable with (some people feel their space is overwhelmed by three sets; I myself have four sets of cups, and five of spoons). Metal is better than plastic in both cases. For about twenty years my mother had a set of plastic measuring cups in a sort of olive-y green. The half cup measure had a handle that looked like you’d walked in and caught the cup in the process of spontaneously turning from a solid to a liquid—there was even a big drip, frozen as it oozed away from the main part of the handle. That’s because it fell on the heating element of the dishwasher and was, in fact, in the process of turning from a solid to a liquid when the cycle stopped and the element cooled down. So I say metal is better, because you don’t have that risk.

Other than that, my only personal prejudice is against gadgets that have fancy leveling devices on them. Some measuring spoons come with a sort of plastic plate that slides out over the bowl of the spoon to level off whatever dry ingredient you’re measuring. Weight Watchers promotes these as being helpful in achieving really accurate measuring results. Aside from thinking this is for unbelievably lazy people who can’t use the back of a knife to level, I find these little things hard to clean. Food gets trapped under the little plate and it’s just downright unsanitary. Those measuring cups that have a plunger in them so you can adjust the amount by pushing up on a plunger are in the same “lazy person’s tool” category in my opinion. If you’re too tired to use a simple cup to measure an ingredient, go take a nap.

I also have glass measuring cups for liquids. At this point I have only a single one cup measure, a single two cup measure, and a four cup measure. I want one more of each. I happen to have an as-yet-unnamed fear of washing out measuring cups in the middle of a recipe (modern psychology is working on a name for this phobia—my husband calls it “laziness.” Is there an irony in my criticizing people for not being energetic enough to level off a measuring spoon with a knife, yet being unwilling to take the 90 seconds to wash out a liquid measure mid-recipe? Probably). OK, perhaps it’s not so much a fear as an aversion to doing it. In either case, I want more glass liquid measuring cups. You can get perfectly good Pyrex ones at the grocery store, which is exactly where mine come from. Don’t bother with high end kitchen shops for these.

Mixing Bowls:
I actually collect old Pyrex mixing bowls, mostly because I think they look cool. The fact that they could also go in the oven is just kind of an unnecessary bonus for me. I never actually put them in the oven. I don’t think it’s worth it to spend double digit dollars on sets of mixing bowls. Glass ones break, plastic ones will warp and distort in the dishwasher, ceramic ones will also break, metal ones get dented. You really can’t say that one particular type is better than another. I have some of each kind.

Glass, in addition to breaking, is also pretty heavy. This is fine if you’re mixing, but not so great when it comes time to pour something like batter. Also, glass bowls more than any other seem to have a very distinctly conical shape to them, making them much wider at the top than at the bottom. It’s harder to mix evenly in this shape of bowl, I find, especially if I’m using a handheld electric mixer. The one exception to this rule that I’ve found is the sets of nesting bowls you can buy that come in sizes from huge mixing, to single egg yolk.

Ceramic or pottery bowls also tend toward a conical shape, and also are pretty heavy. Unless they’re actually dropped flat out on a ceramic tile floor, they don’t necessarily break, but they do tend to crack, which I find more disheartening somehow—it looks like it should still be functional, but it really isn’t. The nice thing about them is that they’re usually prettier than glass bowls. They can actually be used as serving pieces if necessary, and can also be bought to match your kitchen’s color scheme, if you’re one of those people. I’m not.

Metal bowls are lightweight, don’t crack or break, and usually have rounded bottoms that make it easy to stir and mix. They aren’t particularly attractive, but if you’re into that food service I’m-a-serious-cook look, they’re for you. They do conduct heat, so they’re not the best thing for mixing up hot liquids. And while they don’t break, they do dent. Some people may look at the dents as a kind of badge of distinction, showing the world that not only are they a serious cook, but they are a serious cook of long standing. The only metal mixing bowl I have is one that will hold a triple recipe of bread dough during rising. Only a metal bowl will work in this capacity, because any other material would be so heavy that it would be impossible to carry around. Plastic would work, but it would be too flimsy, unless it was pretty heavy plastic, in which case it would probably also be pretty heavy.

Plastic mixing bowls are inexpensive, but if you run them through the dishwasher enough times, they’ll eventually melt. They also are prone to staining by things like tomatoes. Sometimes, however, the plastic bowls will come with a rubber gasket of sorts around the foot of the bowl, which makes them nice for making things that require two hands (one for stirring, one for pouring something while stirring). They won’t scoot all over the counter. And like metal bowls, they tend to have pretty well rounded bottoms. They’re not very pretty, but they have their uses. Having bought one set, I’m not sure I’d seek them out again, but if I were given a set as a gift, I wouldn’t take the trouble to exchange them.

Pots & Pans:
Another area in which I’m not going to repeat what’s already been written a thousand times. Cheap is cheap, expensive is good. There are a number of cookbooks that talk about the efficiency of heat conductivity of various materials. If you have a pot that always seems to burn whatever is cooked in it, it’s probably because it’s a cheap pot. My father in law has what must be the world’s worst 8 quart saucepan. I made spaghetti sauce in it once and it burned the daylights out of it. His girlfriend told me it does that to everything she cooks in it. “Then WHY,” I asked her “don’t you throw it OUT?” Answer: (I received none, I’m just guessing here) because they couldn’t think of anything better to replace it with. It seems to me they could use a dinner plate and it would be just as functional as that stupid pot was. Yes, I’m a little bitter that it ruined my spaghetti sauce. Does it show that much?

I try to stick with reasonable brand names for appliances. It’s been my experience that things like a $16 Sup-R-Mix blender by Ampco doesn’t really last long. I also try to stay reasonable. While I might want the Cuisinart 14 cup food processor, I don’t really need it. Of course, the 14 cup is only $50 more than the 7 cup, and the same price as the 11 cup, so there’s a sort of dilemma there, but I try not to go overboard. The short version is, it’s worth it to spend the money on a brand you know and that has a good reputation. Otherwise you’ll just end up replacing them over and over again.

General Gadgetry:
Some things are wonderful and absolutely worth buying (and are generally pretty cheap into the bargain). Those slicers that cut an apple in wedges, a cutter that will make square fries out of a potato, microplane graters, the new silicon pastry “brushes” (no more little pastry brush fibers in your food).

Some things, however, are just more trouble than they’re worth. Batter dispensers, waffle stands, mushroom slicers, ice cream sandwich presses (really!), cookie presses (I have never been able to get one of these things to work), and breading sets (three rectangular pans that fit on a frame and hold milk, egg, and breadcrumbs).

The other day, however, I saw the ultimate in worthless gadgets. It looked very complicated and it took me awhile to figure out what it was. It had a five things that looked like pizza cutters, separated by adjustable dividers in an X shape. Finally it occurred to me that it was used to cut rectangles of dough into even strips of varying widths. It was called an Adjustable Dough Divider. It was recommended for cutting puff pastry, shortcrust pastry and other doughs. I realized I already had a set of tools that would do this. I call them “a knife” and “a ruler.” I have a plastic ruler that I bought at the drug store and use only for measuring things while I’m cooking (the diameter of a circle of pie crust, the width of a strip of puff pastry). I think the ruler set me back about 65 cents. I can use the knife for dozens of other tasks as well. The Adjustable Dough Divider was $64.95.