Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The World's Most Interesting Vegetable

I wrote about what I think the world’s most boring vegetable is, and one of my friends asked me, then what's the most interesting vegetable? I replied that that would depend on your definition of “interesting” and that I’d give it some thought. So I did.

The first point to address is, what’s the definition of interesting that we’re using. For the most boring vegetable, it was the one with the greatest limitation in terms of preparation. I think it’s fair to say that for the most interesting vegetable, it ought to just be the reverse: the vegetable with the greatest number of possible preparations. Personally, I think that’s a no-brainer, and the potato wins. Breakfast, lunch, dinner; baked, fried, mashed, boiled, steamed; salad, soup, side dish, main dish…they’re a dream come true.

But what if you want to eliminate potatoes from the running and ask what non-potato vegetable (since potatoes are sort of considered a starch these days) is the most interesting? I still feel that the criteria should be the most versatile vegetable, the one that can be served at any time of the day, and can be prepared many ways.

I could be a smart ass and say that the most versatile vegetable in the world is the sugar beet. Since the sugar beet accounts for about 30% of the sugar produced in the world, and sugar is an endlessly useful product, the sugar beet could be considered the most useful vegetable in the world. However, it’s not like the sugar beet in its raw state could be eaten in any variety of ways. Pretty much the sugar beet can be used to make sugar, and that’s it. So I’ll eliminate the sugar beet and consider only vegetables that can themselves be prepared and eaten in a variety of ways.

In thinking of various vegetables, four sprang to mind as the most useful, but they could be divided into two categories—those that can stand alone, and those that tend to be more in a supporting role. So let me review my list.

Tomatoes were the first very useful vegetable I thought of. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are used in countless dishes like pizza and pasta sauce. They can be served for breakfast, as the British do, or they can be served at any other meal or snack. They can be made into a drink, as in tomato juice or V-8. They can be their own thing, like stuffed tomatoes or roasted tomatoes, or they can be part of another thing, like tomato and onion tart, or tomato and mozzarella salad. They can be a garnish, like tomatoes on a salad or the tomato on a sandwich, or they can be a condiment, like ketchup or chili sauce. The tomato is the overall winner for most useful vegetable ever.

Squash, interestingly, also came to mind as a very versatile vegetable. When I say squash, I’m really speaking of winter squashes, not zucchini and summer squash. If you add those two into the mix, then it’s really a tough call between squash and tomatoes. I think tomatoes would still win, because squash (even summer squash) can’t really be eaten raw. However, unlike tomatoes, squash can be made into desserts, such as pumpkin pie or pudding. It can also be roasted, stir fried, baked, or used in muffin batter.

I started thinking about mushrooms, and how many ways there are to use them. They’re fine raw in salads (not my favorite, but I’m trying to keep personal bias out of this decision), cooked in stir fries or casseroles, used in sauces, stuffed as an appetizer, or used as a substitute for meat (such as a portobello burger). The mushroom is flexible and can go many places, either on its own or as a supporting player. It’s still not quite the superstar that tomatoes or squash are, because it doesn’t get check marks in either the dessert or condiment column, unless you count mushroom flavored condiments, such as soy sauce (which, for the purposes of this exercise, I did not).

Onions are probably the most ubiquitous vegetable going. I can’t think of a cuisine that doesn’t use onions in some way or other. Mostly they’re lending a hand on flavor, rather than carrying the show, but in baked stuffed onions, or something like a caramelized onion tart, they do an outstanding job. As Nora Ephron said in her book Heartburn, “You really can’t cook without onions.”

So there you are, a sort of four way tie. Tomatoes and squash take the prize for Most Useful Vegetable, and mushrooms and onions walk away with Most Useful Vegetable in a Supporting Role. If we’re mixing our award show metaphors and giving a Best in Show prize, I’d have to say it’s the tomato that will wake up tomorrow wondering if it was all a dream until it sees the headlines in the newspaper.

Monday, June 25, 2007

My Trip to the Grocery Store

My daughter is home sick today (nothing serious) so I got a chance to do what I love to do most. Well, one of the things I love to do most—I got to browse around in the grocery store. I needed infant Ibuprofen for her, and so naturally I figured I’d just check things out and see what was new. A few random thoughts occurred to me that I thought I’d toss out there.

There Just Isn’t a Brand of Natural Peanut Butter I Like Out Here
I prefer the “natural” peanut butter to the stuff with sugar and other random ingredients in it. Although I was raised on Peter Pan, I switched over to the natural kind for reasons I no longer remember, and now can’t stand the peanut-flavored sugar spread.

Today I was looking for a crunchy natural peanut butter to use in a recipe. I used to buy Smucker’s, but for some reason, while they carry all varieties of Smucker’s jams in my grocery store, peanut butter is beyond the realm of their imagination. Or they don’t have the shelf space. Or something. Anyway, all they have is this brand, Adams, which is nast. I tried it when we first moved out here. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, since how can you screw up pulverized peanuts, but the company that makes Adams has found a way.

And because I’m an internet-addicted freak, I just looked up which idiots that would be who make Adams natural peanut butter, and lo and behold, it’s our old friends at Smucker’s. I kind of had a hunch that was the way it was. Best Foods mayonnaise is Hellman’s, and Eddy’s and Drucker’s ice cream are the same, too. I suspect there’s a lot of this. But knowing this doesn’t help me at all, because they’ve done something to the formula of Smucker’s natural peanut butter and it just doesn’t taste right. I did find that Skippy (or maybe it’s Jif) makes a “natural” version that’s OK, but this particular store didn’t carry it, so I’ll have to look elsewhere, I guess.

This 100 Calorie Pack Thing is a Pretty Annoying Trend
Something you just can’t avoid if you set foot in a grocery store these days is packs of high calorie junk food in “100 Calorie” bags. Everyone is packaging everything you can think of in 100 calorie packs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for portion control, but this is ridiculous. I can now buy 100 calorie packs of Oreos (except they’re not Oreos—they’re just little chocolate wafer cookies, which I think is false advertising), Chips Ahoy!, Cheez-its, and both cheddar and chocolate Chex Mix. Oh, and Doritos and Cheetos. And because they’re in 100 calorie portions, they’re healthy, right?

On the plus side, I did get a giggle out of it. The Doritos and Cheetos are, of course, on the chip aisle. As I was continuing down the aisle, I noticed the large bags of Funions and started thinking about how they could do a 100 calorie pack of those things. You’d either get three, or they’d give you a little pouch of Funion dust. I can’t wait.

Grocery Stores are Dangerous
This isn’t something that’s exactly a new thought to me. I realized it a long time ago, but it came home to me again today. I went in for one thing, as I mentioned: infant Ibuprofen. I walked out with this: infant Ibuprofen, infant Tylenol Cough & Cold (I think I can be excused for this), fresh rosemary, cream of tartar, smoke flavored sea salt, two toothbrushes, the July issue of Gourmet magazine, the July/August issue of Cottage Living magazine, and a greeting card.

Just what was I thinking? You may well ask (or you may not ask, but if you keep reading, you’re going to find out anyway).

The rosemary I realized we would want because we’re having lamb chops for dinner tonight, and the rosemary we had in the fridge is pretty old so I wanted to make sure we had enough to make the recipe.

The need for cream of tartar occurred to me because I made blueberry muffins yesterday, and as I was making them I was thinking (as I always do when I use baking powder) of making my own baking powder. It’s just a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar, so it’s not like it’s hard, but homemade doesn’t have the sour taste that some commercial baking powders have. I’ve never gotten around to making this, but I always mean to, so I bought the cream of tartar so that next time I get the urge (and have my copy of Edna Lewis’s Taste of Country Cooking unpacked, which it is not right now because we’re in residence limbo), I’ll be ready.

The smoke flavored salt (which sounds like a nasty cousin of Liquid Smoke) was called for in a recipe I was reading over the weekend, and I toyed with the idea of making it, so I bought the salt when I saw it, rather than risk it not being there when I was ready for it. This has happened to me far too many times. I see a recipe and think “Hm, that looks good…I’ll make that some time.” It calls for an unusual spice or seasoning, which I notice in the grocery store the next time I’m there, because of course I’ve just been reading about it. Finally the day arrives when I’m ready to make the recipe, and I go off in search of juniper berries, or orange flower water, or smoke flavored sea salt, and it’s nowhere to be found. This time I decided to buy the salt when I saw it, since salt doesn’t go bad, and it’s not exactly a staggeringly expensive ingredient to be stockpiling.

The toothbrushes were on sale, and I realized I didn’t know if we had any spares. I dropped mine on the bathroom floor this morning after brushing my teeth, and that, naturally, was the end of that toothbrush. So I bought two new ones, just in case.

I love magazines, and I probably ought to just flat out subscribe to Cottage Living, because I think I buy it every month on the newsstand anyway. I bought Gourmet to confirm that I still hate Gourmet. Several friends and I agree that Ruth Reichel just ruined that magazine. It used to be interesting, and have good recipes, even if it was a little pretentious. Now it’s lost the interesting parts, and the good recipes, and has retained the pretension, so that it’s downright unbearable. But every couple of years I buy it to confirm that, yes, I still hate the “new” Gourmet, and won’t be buying it again until Ruth Reichel moves on to something (anything) else, and someone else takes over and makes it a good magazine again. Check back in a week or so, and I’m sure I’ll have a tirade about what it is I hate about the “new” Gourmet magazine posted here.

The greeting card is for a friend. It was one of those “This is TOO perfect for so-and-so” cards, so naturally I had to buy that.

A friend of mine and I had a discussion about this very topic the day she went in for something like bouillon cubes and walked out with $75 worth of stuff. She remarked that it seemed that every time she went to the grocery store, even if it was just for “one little thing,” it set her back at least 50 bucks.

I think what’s so dangerous about grocery stores is that it all seems so legitimate. You have to eat, after all. And you need things like paper towel, and greeting cards, and those things don’t go bad, so why not buy them while you’re there? I know this is just exactly what the grocery store marketing people want me to think. Well, congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, it worked. Of course not everyone is as big a sucker for a grocery store as I am. I just go in to browse. But even for people without the strange genetic flaw that causes them to find grocery stores to be fascinating places to wander around are taken in by this marketing ploy. I can’t decide if I’d rather be an unwitting victim who just wants to get in and out of the grocery store but winds up leaving with a sackful of things anyway, or if I’m glad I’m an informed, interested victim who falls willingly into their outstretched hand. It’s sort of a moot point, since I am fully aware of what they’re doing, and yet continue to be sucked into the scheme.

So those, as my mother used to say, were my thought processes. I’d have thought more thoughts, but along about aisle 12 my daughter started to get fussy and I felt it was best to get her home and give her some Tylenol and a bottle. And I’m sure everyone reading this is glad I did, and kind of wishes maybe my daughter was less patient, and had gotten fussy on aisle 3 so I’d have had less time to think things.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The World's Most Boring Vegetable

Last week a friend and I were debating which is the most boring vegetable. This is not the vegetable that we like least, but the one that is just plain dull, regardless of how palatable it may or may not be. We discussed what it was that made a vegetable boring, and I opined that a boring vegetable is one that can really be prepared only one way. Fruit was not considered in this discussion.

We considered pretty nearly every vegetable, with the possible exception of salsify (probably because neither of us has really ever eaten salsify). I find, on further research, that salsify can be roasted, braised, or sautéed. That eliminates it from the running.

On further reflection, I’ve decided (independent of my friend) that making a vegetable into soup must also be taken out of the list of possible preparations. Soup can be made of just about any vegetable. It’s questionable how appealing soups made out of some choices may be: avocado soup (which always seems to be served chilled, something I find personally distasteful in any soup), cream of green bean (OK, I’ve never seen a recipe for this, but I’m sure someone somewhere has tried it). Practically any vegetable can be tossed into a soup, and almost all of them can be made into a cream-of variety.

Therefore, a vegetable must lend itself to roasting, sautéing, pureeing or mashing, steaming, broiling, braising, and/or baking to eliminate itself from the Most Boring Vegetable Ever competition.

After considering a long list of candidates, we narrowed it down to two: celery and peas.

Celery, to me, can be eaten raw (possibly with peanut butter or cream cheese, or dipped in some kind of dressing or dip), cut up and added for “crunch” in things like tuna or chicken salad. I know it can be made into cream of celery soup, but soup was eliminated from the possible preparations, and I also know the French braise it, but that idea sounds fairly revolting. Celery turns to mush when you cook it and stringy mush is not the sort of thing I really go for.

So celery is a prime candidate.

The other choice, peas, seem always to be an afterthought in things like potpies, risottos, and soups. They have an unpleasant tendency to squish when you bit into them, rather in the way cherry tomatoes do (which makes them also unappetizing to me). Peas as a vegetable side dish can pretty much just be kind of blanched, so it’s not like they have a ton of preparation options. I mean, just go ahead and try to grill them. And they roll off your fork, which makes them not only unpleasant, but maddening. They do, of course, go into various pea soup concoctions, but soup is out, so that leaves just the blanching way to cook them.

Peas can give celery a run for its money.

And when it all comes down, I have to vote for peas. I admit that the fact that I don’t like them much does sway my vote a little. However, celery, even as a “filler” in things like tuna or chicken salad, seems more useful. Peas don’t really add any flavor, or an interesting texture (in fact, with that whole squish thing, just the opposite), and they just clutter things up. Celery at least adds a little zing, a little snap. I find celery to be more useful than peas, even if it’s only useful in one way (raw). Peas aren’t very useful either raw or cooked.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Memorial Day Foodfest

We had a busy Memorial Day weekend, foodwise. I spent more time cooking over the weekend than I think I have in the last four years. And of course, I have some random observations based on my experiences.

On Saturday we attended the potluck 40th birthday party of a friend. This is not how I would choose to spend my 40th birthday (although to be perfectly fair, it wasn’t her actual birthday), but my friend loves potlucks. I do not love potlucks. Call me a food snob, but I don’t like the randomness of asking everyone to bring something. In the first place, you generally wind up with far too many pans of brownies, and in the second place, nothing ever goes.

At this particular event, the hosts provided hamburgers and hot dogs (and vegetarian burgers—we’re in the Pacific Northwest, after all). The guests were asked to bring the sides and desserts. The selection was predictably random. Peanut noodles (made with spaghetti—which I find unforgivable in a day and age when you can buy packages of real oriental noodles at any 7-11, practically), an orzo salad, a green salad, several pans of brownies (see?), a couple of boxes of cookies from Costco, and the birthday cake. Maybe I’m too much of a traditionalist, but if I’m forced to eat grilled food I’d prefer things like potato chips or potato salad or something like that. No, there is no pleasing me.

On Sunday we had my family over for lunch. Since I was cooking, everything “went.” Well, it did as far as I was concerned. We started with spiced pecans that I made. My husband had pooh-poohed these as a dumb idea, but I know my family. Sure, they wouldn’t necessarily be what I craved at lunchtime, but my family loves nuts (insert your own nut-as-synonym-for-insanity joke here). Sure enough, within ten minutes of their arrival, both my aunt and my grandmother had asked me for the recipe.

Then we had a fennel slaw, with shredded cabbage, shredded fennel, and shredded Granny Smith apple. Making this made me realize that I don’t like the bagged shredded cabbage as much as I like the consistency of what I shred myself in my food processor. The bagged stuff is too coarse. I can get it much finer with my food processor. I’ve now decided that if I’m in a hurry, I’ll use the bagged stuff, but that if I have the time, I will certainly shred my own. I actually used the grating disk, not the shredding disk, which is why it was so much finer.

Then I made a gougere pizza. This translates to a pizza made out of cream puff dough. Cream puff dough is butter, flour and egg. This dough also had Gruyere cheese and blue cheese stirred into it, and then blue cheese scattered over the top of it. It baked for about 45 minutes until it puffed up nicely. Originally this was intended as an appetizer, but it made a nice lunch, albeit a pretty rich one.

For dessert we had strawberry shortcakes, with chocolate biscuits. The biscuits were kind of a pain to make, because the directions called for whipping heavy cream to stiff peaks, then stirring it into the biscuit dry ingredients. It’s not easy to stir whipped cream into flour and cocoa powder. The strawberries had a little crème de cassis sprinkled over them, and there was more whipped cream on the side.

On Monday I let my husband do the cooking, although I picked the menu. We had a tomato pie I’ve had the recipe for forever and have always wanted to try but never made, grilled shrimp wrapped with bacon (a concession to my husband, who feels that summer holidays require something to be charred to oblivion on the grill), and for dessert, a cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

The tomato pie provided two lessons—first, anything made with tomatoes is just bound to be watery, no matter how long you let them drain, and second, it’s very hard to roll out short crust pastry without a rolling pin. The tomato pie was good, but the bottom crust got soggy, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s just how it is with tomato things. As for the lack of rolling pin, we moved and we’re keeping our unpacking to a bare minimum, since we’re going to be moving again by the end of the year. Apparently, the box with the rolling pin didn’t rate unpacking.

I had this difficulty brought home to me on Wednesday night when I tried to make a plum jam tart for a friend’s birthday (same friend whose potluck we went to, but this was for the actual day). I had to push the dough out with my fingers, which isn’t the best way to handle chilled short crust pastry. The tart turned out fine, but it spread out too far because the dough was too warm. Suffice to say I was the only person who realized this was the case.

Another thing I discovered is that when someone says “Really, don’t bring anything” they need to be taken at face value. I suppose that what I mean here is that anyone who offers to bring something to my house when I say not to bring anything needs to take me at face value. My family knows this, and when they offered to bring something and I said “Nothing, thanks—we’re fine” they listened and didn’t bring anything.

However, on Monday my friend did insist on bringing something, even when I assured her everything was planned. Whenever someone insists on bringing something, I always dread it because what they bring is always a strange addition to my menu, and this was no exception. She brought a macaroni and tuna salad. I was grateful for the gesture, but it was totally unnecessary, and was just plain weird with what we had provided. I guess it’s a fine line you walk with the bring something/don’t bring something dilemma. Some people say “Don’t bother bringing anything,” and what they mean is “You better not show up empty handed and leave all this work to me!” I say it and I mean it—don’t bring a thing because I have it all planned, and I want it all to be a certain way. Practically the whole container of the stuff went in the trash. Not in front of her, of course, but eventually. I guess I’m just more anal about my menu planning than most people, and there's the same issue I have with potlucks, where if there's a base menu and then people bring things, nothing seems to go together. The menu winds up being a mishmash of unrelated items that don't compliment each other and may actually clash.

The weekend cooking didn’t actually end on Monday, since, as I mentioned, Wednesday night I made what was supposed to be a blood plum jam tart for my friend. It turned out to be a regular plum jam tart, because I couldn’t find blood plum jam, and the recipe called for grappa, which I was also unable to find. I used kirsch instead. I don’t think anyone noticed. We had this for breakfast on Wednesday, which was a little disgusting, but everyone enjoyed it very much. I say it was disgusting, because what we were eating was about a pound of butter mixed with flour, almond meal, and heavy cream, at 7 a.m. We all take the ferry together, and I brought this on as a birthday surprise for the friend.

Anyway, I did a ton of cooking, and really enjoyed it, and am now trying to get back into the cooking groove. Today I made zucchini cupcakes (in an effort to trick my children into eating something mildly healthy in the form of their dessert), and tonight I’ll roast a chicken, and some plum tomatoes, and we’ll have salad with that for dinner. All next week I have things planned out to make for lunches to take to work, and for dinners to have at night. We’ll see if I’m able to actually execute against this plan—often my well-intentioned plans fall flat. It’s a case of having to make two meals (theirs and mine), plus putting my lunch together the evening before, and sometimes that’s just beyond me on a weeknight. At least if I do manage it, I know everything will go together.