Friday, August 31, 2007

Squash Soup!

I have replaced my squash soup recipe. Perhaps not permanently, but at least for near future. I’m hoping that my husband will like this one better than the old one. He wouldn’t eat the old one at all because he said it was too sweet. On careful reflection, I can’t actually replace my old recipe completely, because it was a very healthy version of squash soup, whereas this one is less so.

Previously when I made squash soup, it was from a recipe from an Eating Well magazine. The article had two outstanding soup recipes that both used vegetables that had been roasted in the oven, and then made into soup. One of them was a roasted tomato soup, the other was roasted squash and pear soup. I discovered these recipes back in about 1997, and then lost both of them in a tragic upgrade incident.

I had been using a computer software called MasterChef, which had its own built in cookbook (pre-loaded with recipes from Cooking Light, among other sources), but would also allow you to type in your own recipes as well. It had the usual features that this kind of software does—menu planning, nutritional analysis, grocery list creation. I spent hours happily typing in dozens of recipes so I could be rid of those pesky pieces of paper. Once they were all in, all the paper went straight into the garbage—welcome to the modern world! Who needs those bits of paper floating around? And if really do want a paper version, if someone should ask me for a copy of recipe or something like that, I have a printer!

Then one day, in a moment of sheer insanity, I upgraded our happy little Windows 95 machine to…Windows Me. No, I don’t recall why. All I remember is that from that day forward my MasterCook program, which (as you may have guessed) wasn’t designed to run on Me, wouldn’t work at all. All those recipes, all that work, gone. To this day I refuse to put recipes on a computer, and keep hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pounds of paper (in the form of books and magazines) around to keep track of my recipes.

So, the squash soup recipe was gone. I was sad, but resigned. At one point a website called had many of the recipes from Eating Well (which by then had ceased publication). It had lots of their recipes, but not my soup (now, I find, their “recipes” section just has links to low rent sites like I finally decided it was gone forever. And then years later in a moment of startling boredom, I did a Google search for roasted squash and pear soup. Much to my delight, some blessed soul had entered it in to one of those “share your recipe” sites, and they’d even credited it to the October 1997 Eating Well so I knew for sure it was the right one. Oh joy! (And I would like to say thank you to Gail Shermyer, for posting that recipe and bringing a little sunshine to my life.)

I made it again, and my husband still didn’t like it. It has cinnamon and cardamom and brown sugar in it, and he thinks it makes the squash too sweet. He doesn’t mind butternut squash, but he doesn’t like it sweet. He blames the pears in this recipe, but they’re really not solely responsible. The pears and squash are roasted for about 45 minutes, then pureed and cooked with the spices and some sautéed shallots. It also has curry powder in it, which gives it a wonderful flavor to me.

But just a week or so ago, I discovered a new squash soup recipe in an issue of Fine Cooking magazine (my new magazine obsession—I’ve read Threads magazine by the same publisher plenty of times, and my husband even has a subscription to Fine Homebuilding, but I’d never really explored Fine Cooking before, and now I’m hooked!). This one called for squash, Granny Smith apple, and bacon. The bacon hooked me. I love bacon. I think you could put bacon in just about anything, except maybe ice cream or chocolate cake, and it would be outstanding. So I gave it a try. And it’s great.

The bacon fat is rendered, then the squash is sautéed in it to give it some depth of flavor, and then the apple and some sage are added, along with chicken broth. Then it’s pureed with half the cooked bacon that the fat came from, and the rest is scattered over the top of each bowl. It’s not one for my vegetarian friends, but is simply wonderful if you don’t mind some bacon fat.

I had an awkward moment when pureeing time came around, because I’ve managed to misplace my immersion blender in all this moving we’ve done. I can find the motor, but not the blade or the safety shield, so I was forced to use the blender. I’d rather have used the food processor, but someone grated about four pounds of cheese last night, and all the food processor parts are in the dishwasher, still dirty. I’m always afraid of using the blender because of all those warnings about the lid blowing off with the buildup of the steam from the hot soup. Like all those warnings about old pressure cookers blowing pea soup all over the ceiling—pressure cookers flat out scare me. Fortunately I managed to get the soup smooth without incident.

Anyway, while this recipe is clearly higher in fat and not really as healthy as the Eating Well version, it gets points for being faster. Once you get past the chore of peeling the squash (something I hate doing because I always wind up with a weird slick orange film on my fingers), the soup is ready pretty fast—within a half an hour. The Eating Well one requires the roasting portion, which means your soup takes more like an hour or more to make. Also, this new one has bacon. Did I mention the bacon? It has bacon.

So now I have a squash soup recipe for any occasion—trying to eat more healthfully; throwing caution to the wind; having vegetarians over for dinner; providing for hard-core carnivores. I think my husband will like it—it’s not too sweet, and he kind of has the same philosophy about bacon that I do. Now if I could just get my kids to eat it. But I guess we can’t have everything.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Coast to Coast

A friend of mine always used to swear that the West coast had better restaurants, better food in general than the East coast. Now that I live out here, I can say that while I will agree there are some things that are better out here, there are some things (food related, of course) about the East coast I miss very much.

For one thing, it’s impossible to get a decent crab cake out here. There are crab cakes, all right, but they’re made with Dungeness crab. Dungeness crab is stringy and mushy. It is not crab cake crab. If you want crab cakes, they have to be made with blue crab only. Lump meat preferred. A little mayo for binder, and then they must be sautéed, not deep fried. Recently I went back East and, while there, ordered a crab cake at a restaurant and forgot to ask about preparation method. Sure enough, it was deep fried. That’s just wrong.

Another thing they don’t have out here is Chick-fil-a. Some may say, who cares about a fast food chicken sandwich restaurant. Me, I retort. I care. It’s not their lunches, it’s their breakfast biscuits that I love so much. On this same trip back East, I was within reasonable distance of a Chick-fil-a when our plane landed. Oh sure, it would be a little bit of a detour, but really, we were in no hurry, so we were going to drive a little out of our way and go there. One thing about Chick-fil-a: they’re closed on Sundays. It has to do with the founder decreeing that everyone was entitled to the Biblical “day of rest” and thinking that all of his employees should be able to go to church, if they wanted to. As our plane was landing, I was trying to decide just how many chicken biscuits, versus how many buttered biscuits I was going to buy, and would I just get enough for right then, or should I buy extra and eat them later, even though they would be cold? As I was thinking all this, something struck me—we had left LA on a Saturday on a red-eye. That meant that this was, yes, Sunday morning. Poop.

There’s also not a single person out here who can make a proper donut. Again, same trip back East, we drove up into Vermont (from where we were staying in Massachusetts) and stopped in a town called Bennington at something called the Apple Barn. The Apple Barn is really just a big store, although they do have pick your own things out back (apples, mostly). We bought Vermont cheese, maple mustard, some crackers, some summer sausage, and two bags of donuts. Two bags of the world’s best donuts, that reminded me again that there must be something in the air, or in the genetic composition of the people who cook them, that makes New England donuts so incredibly good.

Real cheesesteaks also elude cooks out here. I have to confess, I’m not actually devoted to true Philly cheesesteaks. I don’t like that Cheese Whiz crap that’s supposedly traditional, nor do I like peppers, onions, or mushrooms on my cheesesteak. What I like is the kind they sell at Jerry’s Subs and Pizza. Regular cheesesteak, with lettuce and extra mayo only is my choice, the cheese needs to be Provolone. Plus fries and a drink. We do have a place out here that claims to make an authentic “East coast” cheesesteak, but it’s someone’s interpretation of a genuine East coast cheesesteak (not mine). It’s OK, it’s just not what I crave when I crave a cheesesteak.

I have discovered that bagels actually are different out here. I kept buying them at the grocery store, and being disappointed that they seemed to be basically just round white bread with a hole in them. I assumed it had to do with the brands I was buying, since the brand I used to buy back East wasn’t available out here (I admit it—I liked frozen Lender’s plain original, the smaller ones, not those huge things that could serve a family of four for a week). Anyway, I had finally decided to give up on bagels, because clearly I was missing something, when I read a website that informed me that, in fact, West coast bagels are different from their East coast counterparts. They’re softer, and thus more like…well, more like round bread with a hole in it. The website, if you care, was an LA-based bagel chain. Western Bagel or something, I think it was called. Anyway, they had one of those “about us” stories, and the founders had come from the East and opened a bagel shop, only to discover that people on the West coast don’t like chewy bagels, so they changed them to make them softer.

Lobster is another thing that’s just not available out here. We have good seafood by the ton, but no lobster. This translates to no really good lobster bisque, which I happen to adore. Mostly I adore the kind that’s available at a small local chain of restaurants near where I used to live. But the lack of lobster out here means that really no one has lobster bisque that’s quite right. I’ve had it out here, but it’s not the real thing. Even though I know the lobster used back East is often frozen, out here it’s so obviously frozen. It couldn’t be anything but. I think that takes something away for me.

I have been able to find one decent bar-b-que place, which is a blessing. They even have the Kansas City style sauce that I like, and passable cole slaw. But on the whole, cheap bar-b-que is not easy to come by in this part of the world. What I do find amusing is how many people who are from the Pacific Northwest will proceed to sit you down and lecture you about just what constitutes good bar-b-que. These are people who’ve never gotten closer to real pulled pork than walking past pork shoulder in the grocery store, and yet they know all about what’s good and what’s not. I find that kind of funny.

On the other hand, where I live now, I can go out and pick blackberries by the ton everywhere. What used to cost $4 a pound are now growing wild by the roadside and can be picked by any and all. I spend the entire months of August and September making blackberry cobbler because it’s just too easy to get lots of really great blackberries for free. There’s also outstanding Japanese food, and fresh mussels at every turn. Ingredients that I’ve been searching for for years to make more authentic Asian and Indian dishes are readily available in the grocery stores.

I can’t say I agree with my friend that the restaurants are all an order of magnitude better than anything on the East coast, but there are certainly some good ones. I think the shortcomings are more obvious to me because I grew up on the East coast, and had all those things I miss available to me from birth. I’m sure my kids will go back East and bemoan the lack of free blackberries, or complain about how crummy the sushi is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Just Lukewarm

I’ve been reading cookbooks (again!) and I realize there are a few things I just can’t warm up to. It’s not that I hate them, or would refuse to eat them if they were served to me, but they’re things that thus far I haven’t been able to get friendly with, and I don’t know if I ever will.

I’ve seen so many recipes for savory things with raisins in them lately, mostly calling for golden raisins. I’ll eat an oatmeal raisin cookie, and my cousin recently gave me some homemade granola that had golden raisins in it that I was surprised to find I really liked, but on the whole, raisins just don’t do it for me.

In fact, let’s just make that dried fruit. I don’t mind dried apples, and I’ll eat dried apricots, but I don’t like dried fruit that has been soaked in something (generally wine) and used to make an entrée. The only thing I kind of like is dried cherries with duck. I don’t know how dried cherries make it onto the list, but I do like them.

Bow Tie Pasta
I know this is just pasta in a different shape, but I think bow ties are a dumb pasta shape. Somewhere in my vast collection of cookbooks is one of the first books I ever got after I got married. It’s the Eating Well Rush Hour cookbook, and while I couldn’t tell you much of anything else that’s in it off the top of my head, I know that the first recipe in the book is a sort of pasta primavera that calls for bow ties. I know that because I used that cookbook hundreds of times, and I always snorted with derision as I flipped past that recipe. I have no idea why I’m so hostile toward an innocuous pasta shape, but I am.

Cornish Game Hens
Yes, yes, they’re darling and isn’t it cute that each person gets their own little chicken. How about if each person just gets their own chicken breast, and let’s call it a day? Cornish game hens just seem kind of silly to me. I can’t eat a whole one, and because they have all those little bones, they’re hard to pick apart. I used to want to make them, and my husband used to resist, so maybe that tainted me. He’d never let me make them, so gradually I came to be contemptuous of them.

Too sour for me. And here’s a story that my sister-in-law will remember (and I hope smile at, just as I now tell the story and laugh): one Christmas we were visiting my in-laws. My sister-in-law and her family have a few holiday traditions that she likes to continue, even when she’s not with them. Brunch out on Christmas Eve is one, a cranberry apple pie is another. Somehow, there was a swirl around the pie—I never did really understand what happened, but I think my mother-in-law expressed a total lack of interest in the pie, and my sister-in-law gave up the idea of making it. Then an hour before dinner (or something), my mother-in-law turned to my sister-in-law and said “Well, aren’t you going to make the pie?”

So the pie was made, but my sister-in-law was annoyed with my mother-in-law, so the whole subject of The Pie was a sore one. At the dinner table, I tried to stretch my ice cream out so that it would match my pie (the sweet of the ice cream compensating for the cranberries). I failed, so I figured I’d just leave the last little bit and no one would notice, or care. My husband looked at my plate and announced in a loud voice “You’re not eating your pie.” I did eat the rest of it, but he got a talking-to about not ever, ever remarking on what I was or was not eating during the meal. And, to give him his due, he never has since.

That’s the Cranberry Pie story. The End.

I’ve really, really tried. I’ve eaten green, I’ve eaten black, I’ve eaten tapenade (which I can actually eat because it usually goes on bread). I just don’t care for olives in things. Or plain. And one of the great travesties of our time is that generic cocktail party fare is now hummus with pita chips, a bowl of olives, and possibly a bowl of nuts. In the 70s at least you got deviled eggs and cheese and crackers.

Things Made with Fresh Corn
Yes, you’re right—I am a Communist. I don’t really give a damn about fresh corn. On the cob, off the cob, don’t care. Things made with it—chowder, salads, corn bread—don’t care. Which is not to say I don’t like corn bread, or polenta, or grits. In fact, I love all of those things. It’s the corn itself I can do without. My husband loves it. I never cared much about it as a kid, although I do remember being sad that it was hard to eat corn on the cob with braces, but as an adult I really don’t care about it. And the rhapsodic verse that flows forth from the pens of cookbook authors and newspaper columnists every summer when corn is ripe influences me not at all. I just don’t get it, I guess.

Rice Salads
Rice is not something out of which salad should be made. Pasta salad is pushing it. Let’s just all stop trying to make salad out of rice. Thank you.

There are probably other things that I could think of, but I’ll stop there. Reading cookbooks always makes me think of these things that are not high on my list of favorite foods. Of course, in between I wind up salivating over things that sound great. Sometimes I just need to whine a little about things I don’t much like, just as other times I need to extol the virtues of things I love. These aren't things that I loathe with a passion, you understand, I'm just completely lukewarm about them.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Some New Food Rules

In my latest issue of Bon Appetit there’s a blurb on ice cream vs. gelato. It talks about the differences, and then lists a few places to get good versions of either. One of these places (in LA, perhaps not surprisingly) offers such choices as “bacon-caramel,” “Pabst Blue Ribbon-avocado,” and “dill-mascarpone.”

I feel it’s time to put my foot down about this, and a few other related trends.

For starters, bacon- or beer-flavored ice cream is simply an abomination and the making of such vile concoctions should be prohibited by the US Constitution. There’s just no excuse for these retch-inducing combinations. No, I haven’t tried them, but I haven’t tried crickets or guano either. There are some things you just don’t have to try. You just know they’re nasty, and instinctively avoid them. I suppose one could argue that were it not for similar attempts, we might not have flavors like chocolate chip cookie dough, or even coffee ice cream. But then we would also have avoided mistakes like licorice flavored ice cream, so there.

New Food Rule #1: Stop making ice cream out of ingredients that simply don’t belong in ice cream. And if you’re not sure what ingredients simply don’t belong in ice cream, then you need to play it safe and not make ice cream at all. Enough with the chai flavored ice cream, already.

On a related note, I’ve read of a lot of restaurants lately that are serving “bite sized” dessert plates. These are combinations of several different one- or two-bite desserts, which would be fine, except that the pastry chefs are getting a little too cute with this idea and producing things like itty bitty lollipops, and teeny little puffs of cotton candy, and other junk food-inspired offerings. I think the straw that broke my back was the miniature peanut butter and jelly ice cream sundae I read about at a restaurant in Alexandria, VA. Peanut butter ice cream, guava jelly (or something similarly yucky), and the usual sundae fixings, but I think it also had some kind of croissant bread crumbs or something on it as well, to represent the bread of a normal PB&J sandwich. The whole thing was a stomach-turning combination of ick and affected.

New Food Rule #2: No more overprecious teeny tiny desserts that are some kind of riff on childhood junk food favorites. Just make a chocolate cake and let it go at that. If these pastry chefs spent half as much time making really good chocolate cake as they do coming up with darling little nibbles, the world would be a far, far better place. Good chocolate cake is hard to come by.

A take on this teeny dessert concept is the idea of teeny appetizers that look like desserts, but are actually savory. A restaurant in Seattle serves a cracker “waffle cone” filled with a scoop of mashed potato “ice cream” (in this case not actual mashed potato-flavored ice cream, thank God, since that would clearly violate rule #1, but a scoop of mashed potatoes that are intended to look somewhat like ice cream). Making appetizers that are intended to resemble desserts is just as bad as making tiny desserts that are takes on junk food.

New Food Rule #3: Just serve appetizers. Never mind trying to make them look cute. And especially never mind trying to make them look like dessert so that I am oh-so-surprised when I bite into it and discover that it’s not actually sweet, it’s savory! How very whimsical and droll!

I am also of the opinion that the people who run fair concessions should stop deep frying things. Deep fried candy bars, Twinkies, Oreos. At the root of this trend is evidently the Mullen brothers, Clint and Rocky, who came up with the idea of abusing Snickers bars in this fashion, and run fair concessions. Hostess (or to be perfectly accurate, Interstate Bakeries, their parent company) approached the Mullens about the idea of deep frying Twinkies, because Twinkies aren’t revolting enough on their own. They need to be breaded and saturated with fryer oil, too. Fairgoers responded enthusiastically (proving once again that the collective IQ of the American people is just shy of “functional”) and deep frying just about anything became not just acceptable, but trendy. I’m going to sell my idea for deep fried ice cubes. I’m sure they’ll be a runaway hit.

The only weird deep fried item that I will speak up for is deep fried dill pickle rounds. These are actually very yummy, and shouldn’t be scorned in the same breath with other freakish deep fried selections.

New Food Rule #4: Stop deep frying anything and everything. Let’s just stick to the traditional potatoes and chicken, and leave candy bars and cookies out of it.

I read recently about a couple of new restaurants that have a sort of similar philosophy to one another, although they’re executing it in different ways. One actually serves you completely in the dark. The servers are all blind or visually impaired, and the idea is, of course, that if you’re unable to actually see what you’re eating, your other senses (including taste and smell) are thus heightened. The other establishment offers accompaniments to the meal (which it calls “courses”) that are things like burning rosemary branches. That’s not a course; it’s a fire hazard. The concept in this case is that these added scents contribute to what’s being eaten without actually being a part of the dish itself. Tres gimmicky.

New Food Rule #5: Restaurants need to serve food, and not try to come up with ways to make it more dramatic and impactful. People will always need to eat. They will always come back to a restaurant that serves reliably good food, and they’ll tell their friends about it as well. If restaurants serve a high quality product in a pleasant setting with competent service, they won’t need to think up tricky ways of making the food more interesting.

In general, anything that could be described by restaurant critics as “amusing,” “whimsical,” or “fanciful” is not anything I want to eat. I don’t want fanciful food. I don’t want amusing food. I want food that tastes good. When I read any of those adjectives in a restaurant review, I am immediately on my guard. I guess I just have a no-nonsense attitude about food. I’m prepared to try something that sounds unusual, but not something that sounds disgusting or pretentious or both. Thus my contribution of a few new food rules, all of which I can pretty much guarantee will be soundly ignored by chefs around the world, until they themselves come to the conclusion that these things were just silly to begin with, and abandon them all. It’s the story of my life.