Custom Cookbooks – A Blend of High and Low Tech

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Overwhelmed by Cookbooks

Imagine thirty feet of tables covered with three rows of cookbooks placed spine up for easy reading.  The floor underneath is covered with boxes holding more cookbooks.  This is temptation central, otherwise known as the Friends of the Library Book Sale.  Other topics fill other tables, but right now I’m focused on the cookbook section which promises spicy Mexican meals, Indian cooking made easy, Mediterranean menus which promote good health, bean dishes, vegetarian dishes, French cooking for the gourmet, White House favorites, thirty minute meals, casseroles for every day of the year, desserts to highlight any meal, and Northwest specialties.

The list could go on, but it’s making me hungry.

Some books are easier than others to pass over because I rarely make desserts, even more rarely eat red meat, and favor spicy one dish meals.   Maybe just one recipe in a book looks tempting, so I ask myself, “Do I really want to pay a dollar if I’m going to use just one recipe from a book?”  Why do I even ask?  After half a century of eating my own cooking, a new recipe that both my husband and I like is a treasure.

Now imagine my bookcases.  I’m an avid reader who is a committed Anglophile, especially the years of Elizabeth I, plus I like science, history, and anthropology.  And so many books have to be kept and reread.  When the floor under the bookcase begins to sag, it’s a hint that I need to thin out. Last time the row of cookbooks was my target.

Technology Offers a Solution

We recently got a new computer printer with a built in scanner that makes it easy to quickly copy recipes.  I spent an evening going though the cookbooks and putting post-it notes on pages to copy.  Some books had just one or two post-its while other had so many the tops drooped like the tails of over fed birds.

I dedicated a day to the scanner, but copying all the recipes took less than two hours.   Technology! A three hole punch made all the pages ready for an old fashioned three ring binder. I categorized the new recipes into vegetables, poultry, lentils and beans, meat and fish, international, salads, desserts, pasta, cheese, breakfast, and canning.

A Personalized Cookbook!

I love my new one-of-a-kind-just-what-I-like cookbook!  Now instead of trying to think of what to fix next week and then going to check the recipe while I make out a shopping list, I thumb through my own personal cookbook and see what looks good at the time.

It’s easy and efficient.  I’ve even been motivated to fix some recipes I copied because “someday” I wanted to try them.  Now I have a personally customized cookbook that makes  life both easier and tastier.  Why didn’t I do this years ago?

Of the recipes I’ve tried so far, here’s an unusual and very tasty vegetable side dish from page 78 of the Totally Garlic Cookbook by Helene Siegel and Karen Gillingham. It’s a palm size paperback shaped like a head of garlic. Try doing *that*, O Kindle!! I’ve made a few modifications, feel free to try your own.

Green Beans with Walnuts and Garlic

Serves 4-6

  • 1 pound green beans, string and tough ends removed. Or not. If they’re fresh enough, green beans need next to no preparation.
  • Coarse salt (Kosher or sea salt) to taste
  • 1/2 bunch parsley
  • 1 cup walnut halves
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube (Ed: We recommend a teaspoon or so of “Better than Bouillon”)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup olive oil

Drop beans into boiling, salted water.  As soon as water returns to boil, remove beans and immediately plunge into iced water.  Drain well.  Place blanched beans in a large bowl and set aside.

 

Remove leaves from parsley and place in food processor fitted with metal blade.  Set aside 1/4 cup walnut halves for garnish.  Place remaining walnuts in food processor with parsley.  Add garlic, bouillon cube (Ed. Or 1 tsp. “Better than Bouillon”, and pepper.  Process until mixture is like paste.

With the machine running, slowly drizzle in olive oil.  Mixture should be the consistency of thick syrup.  This is much like a kind of pesto. Tip: You might want to add the juice of half a juicy lemon – your call!

Pour over beans in bowl and toss to coat beans thoroughly.  Serve at room temperature garnished with walnut halves.

Jane Roll is an educator and world traveler who lives in Seattle when she’s not in some far away place, learning about new cultures and cuisines

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Who Knew? It’s National Grilled Cheese Month

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Grilled cheese sandwich by Thomas Keller - yours may not end up looking quite like this - read on

I suspect that the few people on our planet who don’t like grilled cheese sandwiches are:

  • Vegans
  • Aliens from Another World – (see?? They’re not really from our planet at all)
  • People Who Believe Fried Food will kill you. Handy tip: *Everything* will kill you. Proof: You live, you eat – whatever – eventually you shuffle off this mortal coil. So, by this impeccable logic, food is just plain dangerous.
  • Lactose Intolerant Folks
  • Gluten Intolerant Folks

Much like chili or spaghetti sauce, *everybody* knows how to make The Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich in The World. This makes me think of Lake Woebegone, where all the Grilled Cheese Sandwiches are eaten by above-average children. I don’t believe that there is any such thing as the Best of Any Food. Is there a “Best Watercolor in the World,” or a “Best Short Story in the World,” or a “Best Joke in the World”. Hmmm. . .I didn’t think so either.

Food is art, or as my niece Sarah, the Executive Pastry Chef, and a far wiser foodie than I, is wont to say, it’s “Sex on a Plate”. Is there a “Best Kind of Sex”? Hmmm. . .again, I didn’t think so either. I say potato, you say The Kama Sutra Passion Propeller. No, I am *not* linking to that, so stop asking – this is a food blog, dammit.

Art is just like that.

I was gratified to see (via the very fine blog YumSugar) that Thomas Keller, one of the true deities in the world of food, likes a “simple” GCS. His recipe is here. And yet still, despite the fact that Keller is the Caravaggio of the food world, I feel he’s missed an important element. His recipe uses brioche. Good stuff, browns up nicely, suitably complex. For a bread. I have no objection to his choice of two cheeses, although me, I like to pick a single cheese and stick with it, and I love Love LOVE the fact that he pops a few Lays chips in between the layers of cheese, because. . .well, *I* do that too.

Tom?? Call me, we’ve got a lot to talk about.

It’s the Bread

People spend a lot of time – I know, I’m one of them – refining and perfecting sauce recipes for pasta. But really, in the classic sense, it’s all about the pasta. The sauce is a garnish. Sure, here in the States, we like to put a kilo or so of sauce on our pasta, in the spirit of “More is Better” that we’ve all seen work so well for Goldman, Sachs and Bank of America, but truly, just a dollop or two of good sauce on perfect, fresh, well-made pasta of just the right shape – well, you’ve gotta try it. sometime.

Mario Batali offers a simple recipe for fresh pasta that I’ve tried and liked. I’d only suggest adding another egg yolk or two, but that’s just me. Eggs are variable. It’s dead easy and makes a gorgeous fresh pasta. Bonus – fresh pasta cooks in mere moments, and not very many of them.

So – just as the pasta’s the thing, in a grilled cheese sandwich, the bread’s the thing. And it’s like art. My bread might not be yours, Thomas Keller’s brioche might not be my Passion Propeller.

What’s mine, you ask? OK, it’s one of those childhood memory things. When I was a kid, living in Lowell, Massachusetts, grilled cheese was on the menu. It was fast and easy to make, and occasioned no crying “I don’t like grilled cheese” because – well – we loved it and could eat it every day. The bread came from a small bakery in Cupples Square and I regret to say that the passage of time has eroded my memory of that wonderful place’s name. Suffice it to say that it was Corn Rye.

If you don’t know what Corn Rye is, or you’ve tried big-manufacturer rye and said Blecch, you owe it to yourself to find a place where you can good a real loaf. Or you can make some - but if you use this recipe (which is excellent), where they say “more caraway seeds for inside if desired”, I can only add “DESIRE”!

Once you’ve got your Corn Rye, the rest of the sandwich is up to you. I won’t prescribe cheese, but along with Mr. Keller, I would strongly urge placing a few thin potato chips in the sandwich – your choice of brands. You will not regret it. Me, I love a nice sour pickle, or a handful or cornichons on the side with my grilled cheese – I think they’re the perfect foil for its unctuous goodness.

Enjoy Grilled Cheese Month – And, if you belong to one of the non-medical groups who don’t like grilled cheese sandwiches – expand your horizons – try one. Heck, you don’t even have to find a good Corn Rye – you can use a brioche, as the estimable and brilliant Mr. Keller recommends. Just keep it simple. As my mother used to say “How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it??” People also say this about bungee jumping and BASE jumping, but I suggest that is a crazy horse of a different color.

All right – fine!! You want to know what I think is the World’s Greatest Grilled Cheese Sandwich. Fine. Remember, as they say, YMMV, and this is just what I personally happen to like.

Ingredients for The Best Damn Cheese Sandwich in My Personal World

  • Good quality corn rye bread
  • A heavy fry pan. This is one of the very few recipes where I’m perfectly OK with the non-stick variety, if that’s what you’ve got, by all means, use it!
  • A nice mild cheese – I happen to like, in no particular order: Tillamook Medium Chedder, Jarlsburg Swiss, and Dofino Havarti. These are not Magic Cheeses, but remember, it’s not so much about the cheese. . .You can use a combination, but again – one cheese is less distracting than two in this dish.
  • A few thin potato chips. If you open the bag of  Kettle cooked chips and find slices of potato that appear to be a quarter of an inch thick, give ‘em a miss. Lays’ are good for this purpose. Sorry, they just are. In my locale, Kettle Chips “Lightly Salted” are also very good, but they’re way more expensive and Lays’ makes the grade, so – your call
  • Butter. You do want the butter to be nice and soft. And, if you want a little extra flavor, get some actual cultured butter. In this particular dish, it’s just better.
  • Best Mayonnaise. I can hook you up with a back alley cardiologist for a scrip. Or make your own mayonnaise, the food police have yet to ban this activity.
  • About 3-4 slices of the cheese you want. The cheese should be mild, not overly assertive, and melt well. Swiss, mild or medium Cheddar, OK, I’m about say this, and do not flame me, because it’s good – Velveeta. We’re not talkin’ about the ecology of Velveeta, just its suitability for a grilled cheese sandwich.

Make Your Sandwich

The key is to fry at a medium high temperature and watch carefully so you brown darkly but do not burn the bread. So:

  • Butter the outside of both slices of bread. Be liberal in your use of butter. Go ahead, you’re not going to eat this every day. Are you?
  • Spread a teaspoon or so of the mayo on the inside of both slides
  • Lay a couple of your Chosen Cheese slices on the bread. Tip: Try to keep the boundaries of the cheese about a quarter inch or so inside the bread. You can do this by breaking off extraneous pieces and eating them. It’s what I do.
  • Place your Chosen Chips onto the cheese
  • Add the rest of the cheese on top of the chips
  • Put the second piece of bread (butter side out) on top and smoosh it down gently with your hand until you can hear a faint crackling as the chips crumble a bit. This lets you eat your sandwich without finding a large gooey chip hanging out of your mouth at some point. If you like that sort of thing – and food is art – then omit the smooshing, but do make sure the sandwich sits solidly together.
  • Heat the pan until it’s medium hot and place the sandwich in the pan. You should almost immediately hear a little crackling and hissing – nothing too fierce, but it’s obvious the butter is melting and the bread is starting to brown. Tip: Please do not press down on the sandwich to compress it or hasten its cooking. OK, this isn’t actually a tip, it’s just a plea. Doing this compacts the bread unacceptably. And yes, it’s unacceptable to me. I’m just that way. You may like compacted bread, in which case, you can crush the sandwich until it’s the thinness of a cracker. It will still be good, because that’s what you like! :)
  • When the bread on the first side is nicely browned (at this point the cheese should also be well on the way to softening and melting), flip the sandwich over (you may need to turn the heat down just a bit at this point. Smell the pan. Is it starting to smell a little burned? Turn the heat down. Look at the pan – are there very dark bits of butter hither and yon? Turn the heat down a bit.
  • Cook in the same way for another 2-3-4 minutes. It really shouldn’t take long, the key is you want the cheese to be at that stage just beyond softening, where’s it’s melted but not quite flowing.
  • Take the sandwich out of the pan, slice it in some fashion that appeals to you and serve it. To yourself!! BWHAHAhahahah. Or, to a loved one. Nothing says true love more than making a beautiful grilled cheese sandwich for your SO.
  • Don’t forget the pickles or something just a little sour / vinegary to serve as a counterpoint to the perfect unctuous goodness of the sandwich.
  • Lager beer is good. If you drink wine with this sandwich, I will hunt you down and chastise you. OH, OK, fine, truly it is a choice – Prosecco is actually not terrible with grilled cheese, I think it’s the tartness and bubbliciousness  that makes it work.

I think it was Joni Mitchell who, when asked about the difference between painting and music said (and I’m probably paraphrasing) “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, “Hey, man – paint A Starry Night again.” So, I guess in that sense food is a little more like music, because once somebody has tasted your GCS, they will very likely say, “Hey man, would you mind making me another one of those.”

Peace.

 

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Tweaking the Classics – Cream of Asparagus Soup

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Respect for Your Ingredients

When you’re cooking soup with lots and lots of beautifully fresh asparagus, you’ve got to remember that the asparagus is the superstar. But  – even as sometimes happens in the movies – the supporting characters can make the star shine even brighter. My goal was to make cream of asparagus soup that my my mother in law would love, but that had a few small twists to help pop out the flavor of the fresh organic asparagus we’d picked up at Schuh Farms, our neighborhood farmstand. OK, it was from California, but it was *very* fresh, it was organic (just try and find inorganic asparagus – I dare you!), and we don’t have any local asparagus of note here in Seattle quite yet.

The First Rule: Use a LOT of Asparagus

It’s always startling when I say this, but roughly a pound of asparagus per serving is about right. The recipe doesn’t scale linearly, so you can get away with using, say 8 pounds of asparagus for 10 people. But really, 10 lbs. will not hurt. I promise. You’re just gonna need a really big pot.

The Second Rule: Buy from People You Trust – The Central Market Story

I buy produce at Schuh’s, but when I’m picking up a bunch of stuff and need to shop at a supermarket, there is only one place I go – Central Market. Central is a small locally-owned chain (I think they have 5 or 6 stores), and here’s why you shop there:

So I’m wandering about in my usual contemplative daze through the produce department. I want citrus. Many interesting recipes for C of A soup call for a bit of lemon, but I want something with a gentler, friendlier nature. Ah! Cara Cara oranges sound right. Where are they? So – I ask one of the produce peeps where they are, and he takes me to them. I sort through a dozen and find two perfect oranges. Yes! The guy is watching me, and asks, “Do you mind if I ask what you’re going to do with those?”

“Sure – I’m going to use the juice and zest in cream of asparagus soup.”

“Cool idea. You know, for the same price, though, you might want to consider the Heirloom navels. Their flavor – and probably the zest – should stand up better to cooking than the Cara Cara and they’re not as sweet, so you won’t have as much competition with the asparagus.”

LOVE. Thank you.

Off to the deli counter, which looks a little bit like this:

This is about 1/16th of the deli section. . .

Hmmmm. . .I love asparagus wrapped in San Daniele prosciutto. I think I’ll get some to crisp up for the garnish. One of the folks behind the deli counter asks me what I need, and I vaguely say “a little San Daniele prosciutto,”  Nothing daunted, he asks “How much – two – three pounds,” Haha. OK, I need about 8 slices. “Do you mind if I ask what you’re going to be using it for,” (are you sensing a pattern forming here?)

“Sure – I’m going to slice it into shreds, crisp it up and use it as a garnish for cream of asparagus soup.”

“Sounds awesome. You might want to consider either the Speck or the Jamon Serrano instead, though – they’ll crisp easier and they have a beautiful crackling texture when you cook them. Would you like to try a slice of each?”

Ummm. . .sure. . .this was clearly not a trick question. I tried ‘em both and I loved the Jamon Serrano, which was about six bucks a pound less than the San Daniele.

Both these suggestions worked out really well – I love love love markets where the staff actually:

  • Knows what the hell they’re talking about
  • Is excited about sharing their knowledge
  • Doesn’t try to constantly up sell.  Sure, sometimes the costly product is the right product, but you know – sometimes it’s really not.

Who wouldn’t want to shop at a place like that? There must be someplace like that where you live. What’s it’s name? Why do you like it?

Getting Ready to Make the Soup

I get home, offload supplies, clean up the asparagus, snip off a few choice tips with my gorgeous new ceramic knife. A dear friend and frighteningly smart social marketing consultant just gave me a set of them – I normally don’t get excited about ceramic, but these are so light, and easy to use, with a well-shaped handle.  They’re so sharp, you can feel them cutting the air in half as you move them towards the food. Thank you, Kathryn Courtney Wachs, you’re one of the best eggs I know.

OK, I cut up and prep what real chefs call the mise, but I think of as “all the sh*t I need to make the soup”, as shown below:

Oops sorry – but this *is* an important ingredient after you’ve finished using the very very sharp ceramic knife

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sorry, these darned blogs, what I meant was (waving hands in the air) “Pay no attention to the little martini on the counter, this is what you really want.” Chopped onion, sliced leek, little bit of minced garlic, orange zest from heirloom navels, juice from one orange. We ate the other one. Hey, we were hungry!! Yes, that is a Meyer Lemon, thank you, but I decided against using it.

Ready to start preparing the soup!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the way, might I add that the leeks were guys that had wintered over in our garden and were awfully good.

Sweet overwintered leeks from our garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK, you’re telling a nice story, but how do I make this soup already??

Thanks for asking! Here’s how I ended up putting it together:

Cream of Asparagus Soup with Crisp Prosciutto, Melted Orange Zest and Asparagus Tip Garnish

I have *got* to come up with a snappier name for this dish – any ideas??

Ingredients for about six to eight servings:

  • Six pounds of the freshest asparagus you can find
  • About two quarts good quality chicken broth
  • A pint or a pint++ of half and half (I’m a chicken, but next time I swear I’m using heavy cream, it’s not like we’ll be eating this every day)
  • About the equivalent of a stick of butter. Tip: This is one of those times when using good quality cultured butter makes a real difference in the taste.
  • Nutmeg – I used about a half teaspoon or so – this is really a matter of taste, so add it a bit at a time. The idea is you do *not* really want to taste the nutmeg, you just want to know that something’s going on that makes the asparagus flavor more pronounced.
  • Four or five leeks, rinsed, white part and light green part sliced. Or, half a medium sized white onion, chopped, and the two nice overwintered leeks from your garden. Next time, I’m going with the all-leek motif, we loved the flavor and wanted more!
  • Two or three garlic cloves, finely minced.
  • A few slices of prosciutto. Using a sharp knife, you’ll slice the prosciutto into approximately 1/2″ wide slices, which you’ll slowly crisp up in a tiny bit of butter or olive oil. It’s a garnish! But – there’s something about asparagus and prosciutto that is just irresistible. Let your conscience be your guide. I generally err on the side of “use a little more”. Your mileage may vary.
  • An heirloom navel orange. Or a navel orange. Or some kind of orange that’s not too sweet. You’ll want to slice off as many long strips of zest (the orange colored skin, with as little of the white part (sometimes called “pith”, probably because that’s what it tastes like) as possible. Then juice the orange into a container, ready for action.
  • Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste. Tip: When you’re making most any dish, it’s a good idea to not add much salt at all (unless it’s necessary for some element of the cooking) until you’re close to the finish line. Yeah, your friends will ask for a taste about three seconds after you’ve started cooking something and say, “this needs salt”. Duh. It will have salt when the time is right, OK? Now sod off. Alternatively, offer them a large glass of wine or a martini – that usually distracts most people from trying to taste what you’re making before it’s ready to be tasted.
  • A large pot for the soup
  • An immersion blender (best), a blender-blender (not bad), a food processor (works, but really not the best tool for the job)

Preparation

Once you’ve cut everything up, make a large martini. I like olives. Many olives. But I also like a nice strip of orange zest. Oh, wait, sorry. . .here goes:

Rinse and prep the asparagus. Snap off the stem ends and reserve for another purpose. Compost is an excellent option. Slice off 15 or 20 of the tips (make the slices about 1-1/2″ or so. Put the tips in a microwave-safe bowl, add a scant teaspoon of water, and nuke ‘em for about a minute, then remove. You’re really just trying to blanch them, not cook them.

Slice the rest of the asparagus into chunks about an inch or two long. You’ll end up with a good sized bowl full of asparagus pieces.

Melt a tiny bit of butter in a fry pan over medium heat, then add the strips of prosciutto. Toss around to coat, and make sure they’re separated from each other. Cook on low heat, stirring and turning gently now and then.

Melt the rest of the butter in the bottom of your stock pot over medium heat. When it’s stopped frothing, add the onion / leeks / whatever you chopped up and stir about to coat. Cook for about six or seven minutes, stirring frequently, you do not want the onion to burn or really even to sear, so turn the heat down if this appears to be happening.

Add the garlic and stir it in for a minute or two until you can really smell it.

OK, toss in the sliced asparagus, and toss, stir until it’s well coated with the melted butter. Cook over medium-low heat for about ten minutes, stirring regularly until it’s softened.

Add about half the nutmeg, the strips of orange zest and gently stir them in (try not to break up the zest, you’ll be removing it before you serve the dish). This is a nifty trick I learned from the brilliant Kathy Gori, proprieter of The Colors of Indian Cooking, which I recommend visiting. Great food and wonderful writing!

The idea is that you add aromatics to the pot before you put the liquids in, and fry them up just a bit. It can be little tricky, since you don’t want to burn them, but putting them in at the very end mixes them with all the other stuff you’re frying up and makes burning them far less likely. Be careful and I think you’ll love the result. You’ll totally love the remarkable aroma of the nutmeg and orange as they (gently) fry up.

Add the juice from your orange and cook until it’s very gently simmering. Simmer for just a bit. I like to add the juice first so I can simmer it down a little for. . .ummm. . .”flavor intensification purposes”.

Add about two quarts of good quality chicken broth, and stir gently to mix it with the fried ingredients. Then add the half and half. OR GO WILD – USE HEAVY CREAM. I know a disreputable cardiologist who will happily write you a prescription for this allegedly deadly substance. :)

Bring to a gentle simmer – you don’t want the broth to boil. Stir occasionally. Simmer for about ten minutes or so. Now it’s time for serious pulverization to happen.

Kitchen Equipment – The Immersion Blender

You may have seen the industrial quality immersion blenders used on food porn shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef, Tungsten Chef, Aluminum Chef and that cute chef who everybody seems to dislike, but I kinda like her. Let’s call her Perky Chef.

You don’t need one of these. But you’d be smart to nip out and pick up a home version – you can get a very good quality immersion blender for 50-75 bucks or so, and it’s worth its weight in Perky when you need it, which is actually fairly often.

In a fit of parental adoration, I just gave ours to our daughter (“oh honey, I’m glad you liked it. Why don’t you just go ahead and keep it, I can get another one.” Yes, I am A SAP, but I loves me my girl).

So, I had to use our food processor (with the chopping blade) to pulverize the soup. DANGER! Food processors can be quite dangerous to use for processing batches of hot liquid. Note: before processing – use tongs or fingers or whatever you like to remove the pieces of orange zest. Do not toss them – they will have a wonderful use in a moment. Taste a bit of the zest. Just a wee nibble. Amazing how a little time in the hot soup tones down the zesty-ness and turns it into something lush and lovely. If you miss a small piece or two, it is not a big deal, but do try to remove all the larger pieces.

Federally mandated Safety Instructions follow: Here are the things you really want to do to 1) Get a good result 2) Avoid scalding yourself or enjoying a food processor mini-explosion from the buildup of steam inside the container, or the worst danger of all 3) Splash boiling soup into your martini, rendering it unfit for further consumption.

  • Process in batches – unless you have a totally enormous food processer. In any case, do not fill the food processor more than half full with each batch. Takes time? Yes. Is a pain? Yes. Can leak a bit of liquid even in the best of circumstances? Sure. Remind me why I gave my only immersion blender to my daughter. Oh yeah. . .finger. wrapped. I am a SAP.
  • To process, do not put the  feed tube plug in tightly at first – leave a little opening for the very hot vapors to depart the vicinity of the bowl in a non-explosive fashion.
  • Before you turn the processor on to continuous pulverization, give it a few short jabs. Trust me on this.
  • Did I mention not filling the processor more than half full?
  • You shouldn’t have to process each batch more than 10-15 seconds or so.

After you’ve finished each batch, pour it into a large bowl. When you’re done, pour the now-creamed soup back into the stock pot. Or, use the immersion blender, which means putting the blender into the stockpot and moving it around. You should have a bit of height between the top of the soup and the top of the stock pot, but that’s about it.

Taste the soup. Smell the soup. Bond with the soup. Correct for seasonings – yup, now you can add the salt and pepper you think it needs. You can also add another pinch of nutmeg if you think you need it. I always go light on salt and pepper, because it’s so easy to put a salt shaker and pepper mill on the table. You should be able to cleanly taste the asparagus and the leeks. Bring the soup back to a gentle simmer. Hot soup is the best!

The Good News

My optimistic heart says that since I’ve given away my old immersion blender to my daughter, at least I can now get my heart’s desire – the KitchenAid 300W hand blender.

Oh, and the other good news – this soup is so good that – as my Executive Pastry Chef niece Sarah likes to say, “It will make you want to grab a chair and throw it through a window.” See Sarah’s earlier post about why you might do this here.

You’ve blended your soup. Now what?

Good going. You now have a large stockpot full of simmering deliciousness, with seasonings “corrected”. Time to serve. Here are a few tips to make your bowls of soup pretty and even more delicious.

  • Heat your bowls. You can put a stack of soup bowls in a microwave (check for microwave safety first) and run the microwave for about a minute and a half. Ta da! A nice warm stack of soup bowls.
  • Remember the little crispy strips of prosciutto you made? Now’s the time to use them.
  • Those big chunks of delectable orange zest that you removed from the soup before blending? Take a very sharp knife and slice them into a fine julienne.
  • Get your blanch’ed asparagus tips ready.
  • Plate by ladling the soup into the bowl, adding a few artful strips of prosciutto, an asparagus tip or two, and drift a few of the julienned orange zest bits on top of the other garnishes. This is the part that I’m working hard on. I’m OK, but making your food look beautiful means you’ll hit every sense but sound – it will taste gorgeous, smell remarkable, and look beautiful. The trifecta. The sound comes when your guests say, “OMG that is *so* good!”

Serve With: We like to serve this with a simple green salad and some nice warm slices of baguette. It doesn’t need much else. Unless you’re in a major feast mode, a bowl or so of this soup + salad + bread + a Perky white wine = a really good meal.

Editors Note: We are not thrilled with the picture below, the prosciutto looks like sun dried tomato and we forgot to wipe down the edge of the bowl. As we noted, we’re working on the whole “plating” thing. Click the image twice and it will look a little bit nicer.

Finally -the asparagus soup in its bowl, soon to be eaten - see the wee little bits of orange zest?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The resul

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Food is Like Sex on a Plate – Confessions of a Serial Eater

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My Relationship with Food

As a chef, I try to taste as much as possible; I rarely go to a restaurant and get one dish.  If I go somewhere to eat and I see ten things on a menu that I must have, I’ll try them all!

I often describe food as sex on a plate, something that will make you want to slap something, someone or break something!  A prime example, and one of my all time favorite dishes in the world (so far) is the Rabbit Cacciatore from Valentino’s Cucina Italiana in my adopted home of Fort Lauderdale. I tell people to watch out when they order it, “You will want to get up, pick up your chair and hurl it violently through the large plate glass front window!”  It’s that good.  Sorry Peter Cotton Tail, Thumper, Runny Babbit, Roger Rabbit, Aunt Bunny.  Some foods are just too fine to resist, even if they come from animals with cute faces.

When you eat this, you'll want to throw a chair through the window - in a good way, of course

Small Things – Strong Memories

You can probably tell that I have a very emotional relationship with food. Oddly enough, and as surprising as this may be, my strongest emotions and memories are most often for the little things, not the large, showy dishes.

One of these things just happens to be ketchup.  I know, KETCHUP??  Yes, ketchup is my crack… I have certain things that I have to have it on and if I don’t have it, LOOK OUT!  Don’t mess with this girl’s ketchup, I’ll bite!

If it’s not Heinz don’t even bother, it would be like buying store brand toilet paper made from recycled sandpaper. Hunt’s is against my religion!  For no rational reason, certain containers of Heinz taste even better than others, the large wide mouth glass jar for instance; this particular vessel brings back very strong memories about my childhood. Even today’s flock of gourmet ketchup cannot compare to the flavor memories I have of Heinz.

When I was young, my mother waited tables at a tiny little place across the street from our house.  My sister, brother and I would frequently visit her after school. Their ketchup – served on every table? Heinz in the large wide mouth glass jar!

Every time I see one of these containers, it takes me back to that time in my childhood and I know my sibs feel the same way.  I think about a lot of food that I can’t imagine not having and I try to remember the first time I ever had it. I usually find a fond memory of eating that food, often from when I was young.

(Ed: Notewe believe that almost everybody has a strong memory of some food from their childhood. What’s yours? Check the poll on the side of the page and let us know!)

Growing up, I was a very picky eater.  I rejected tomatoes (ketchup, in my book, is not a tomato!), strawberries, beef, pork, anything too squishy, certain herbs, veggies, chicken on the bone, etc.  I missed out on so much goodness; I have so much catching up to do! The good news is I am well on my way.

Mom? Is. . .that you?

With so many medical breakthroughs in the area of genetics, perhaps soon you will be able to choose how smart your baby will be, how athletic, even what your baby will look like, who knows? As odd as this may sound, if I could choose a trait for my children, I would give them adventurous palettes.  Who needs looks when you can have endless unforgettable food experiences?

At this point, you probably think that I must weigh around 500 pounds. Not only do I love eating, I love cooking. As a Pastry Chef, I bake for a living. Every day, I bake and taste desserts to create dishes that my customers will devour with every one of their senses. Sure, I still ask, “Do I look fat?” In fact, I ask it often!! Staying not-fat means tasting small, but mostly it means being willing to regularly put in the time working out, and burning calories, which I do joyously, because I’m doing it for love.

To me, this is the best of all possible jobs and I think I’m a lucky girl.

I live, sleep, EAT and breathe food.  I can’t think of anything else I am more passionate about.  I always tell people that I don’t eat because I am hungry; I eat because I love food.  I don’t even think I know what hunger feels like.  Great food makes me feel like the richest girl in the world.

P.S.  My cholesterol is stellar. So far! They say love conquers all – maybe it can even conquer my metabolism. In the meantime, I love to eat, and I eat with love. Oh, and the occasional sound of a solid smack (in a good way, of course) on a dining companion’s face, or the even more occasional sound of a piece of furniture going through a window.

The author, Sarah Magoon, is Executive Pastry chef at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, FL, whose name begins – and ends – with a letter between “V” and “X”. Full disclosure – this passionate foodie and brilliant chef is our niece,  from whom we learn new things every day.

Give me the Heinz and nobody gets hurt!

Is this the face of a person who'd throw a chair through a window because the rabbit cacciatore was so damn' good?

 

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Sustenence is more than a word

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There are dishes that I’ve cooked for my family since the kids were small. Oh, I’ve tarted them up a bit over time, but there are just some dishes that you don’t mess with. Possibly because they work, possibly because you remember the smiles on the faces of your friends and family when they eat, possibly because you’re lazy! :) Nonetheless, there it is – you serve this dish and everybody sits down to table smiling, knowing they will be. . .sustained, and not just by eating tasty calories.

So everybody, and I do mean everybody – every “recipe” blog and food site on the Web (at last count, over sixteen trillion of the things, so thanks to those of you who visit mine – it’s a needle in a haystack. Or a pin bone in a very very large salmon fillet) – everybody, as I was saying, has a recipe for meat sauce. Ragu Bolognese. Spaghetti sauce. Gravy. Call it what you will.

I’ve been making this dish for my family for decades, and although I’ve learned a few tricks, the essence of the dish remains the same, as do the smiles on the faces of family – and on the faces of those friends who we know well enough to feed ‘em “family food”. That’s one thing that sustains me. Watching people chasing after the last little bits of sauce on their plate with a scrap of bread is a beautiful, nourishing thing. The look on their faces is one usually reserved for when you’re trying to figure out how to get a little extra edge on your tax return, or reading a really great novel – so concentrated, so intent, so focused. Only without the worried part – just happy concentration. It’s beautiful.

What?? I Can’t Smell You

Here’s a little trick – smell is one of your most important tools, but there’s a small problem with smell. If you’re in the kitchen, working away, humming a merry tune, chopping, slicing, frying, dreaming, you might notice that. You. Can. No. Longer. Actually. Smell. What. You’re Cooking. Your brain has a self-defense mechanism – really, it’s just doing it for your own good. It’s a mechanism that works for most senses – after you’ve smelled something for a while, or listened to something, or seen something long enough, the sensation just fades into the background. You can still smell, hear, or see something, but it’s a pale shadow of what’s really going on.

Since this isn’t a philosophy blog, that’s as far as I’m going to take that notion. However. . .when you’re cooking, there’s a workaround. Step back from the stove. If you can, step outside. Look at the flowers (or the cars or whatever you see outside your home), breathe deeply. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Try and stay outside at least a minute or two. When you step back in, the true aroma of what you’re cooking will smack you on the side of the head and you’ll say “Marjoram!! I *knew* there was something missing.”

How About You?

What do you cook that you may have cooked for years and still just totally love? By the way, it doesn’t have to be a family dish. If you’re a single person, what do you cook when you just want to be happy and eat something good, and don’t want to go to a restaurant, but want badly to be in the comfort of your home, eating something you love.

The Recipe“Spaghetti Sauce”

You’ll need the following for 4-6 good servings. Cut in half and you’ve got a meal for one, with awesome leftovers. I urge you to consider making this the night before or even two nights before. It is so much better the day or two after it’s first made.

  • A large fry pan. Saute pan. Some kind of pan
  • A large bowl that can handle having hot vegetables and oil poured into it.
  • One medium-sized white onion, cut into a medium dice
  • One good-sized carrot, finely diced. Old carrots are good!!
  • One stalk of celery, sliced thin
  • A handful of minced parsley

    Fresh ripe tomatoes add brightness to your sauce!

     

     

     

  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced (I actually use more like 8-10 cloves, finely minced, but that’s just how I roll. Find the amount of garlic that makes you smile.)
  • About an ounce of tomato paste (TIP: Get tomato paste in the squeeze tubes. That way you can use just what you need – which is always less than what most recipes call for – and the rest will keep indefinitely in the refer)
  • Two pieces of Parmesan rind. These are the rinds that are left over at the market when they cut up the Parmesan. They are goodness, and they are cheap! Most good supermarkets will have them, sometimes you have to ask.
  • 3-4 firm ripe tomatoes, your choice. You don’t need to remove the skin – but it’s a good idea to quarter them and scoop out all the seeds and pulp. Medium dice.
  • Extra virgin olive oil (I always thought you were either a virgin or you weren’t, but I guess it applies differently to olive oil.)
  • One large tin of good quality crushed tomatoes (they vary by region, Muir Glen are quite reliably good – here’s a link to a nifty Chowhound forum discussion on just this very topic!)
  • Red wine. Doesn’t have to be an awesome vintage – these days, I buy the “two-buck chuck” at Trader Joe’s and find it quite acceptable.
  • Brandy or cognac or bourbon. You’ll only need a tablespoon of this potent flavor additive. Note: In cooking, you’ll vaporize all (or almost all) the alcohol – this is a dish you can serve to anybody.
  • About 3/4 lb. of the cheap ground beef. It has more fat. You’ll drain away most of the fat, but the flavor you’ll get is far better than the ultra-lean ground beef that costs so much. Everything has a purpose!
  • Oregano. Dried is fine, truly.
  • Thyme. See the note about dried oregano.
  • Basil. Dried is not a good idea. Get a handful of fresh, rinsed and patted dry basil leaves and tear them with your hands into tiny bits.

     

     

     

     

    Fresh basil, please!

  • A pinch or two of nutmeg
  • Optional – a teaspoon of dried marjoram. It’s dry, dusty and, with the cocoa powder and maple syrup (or sugar), adds depth to the sauce.
  • A tablespoon of cocoa powder – the real stuff, just plain cocoa. This is optional, but so so good. You won’t even taste the chocolate – you’ll just feel a dark, rich “undertone” to the sauce.
  • Maple syrup – about 2-3 TB to taste. Or sugar. If you’ve got maple syrup, it’s a huge plus!
  • Lemon juice. These days, I favor Meyer lemons, they’ve started to come down in price, but any fresh lemon juice is just fine)
  • Salt, pepper
  • Shredded Reggiano Parmesan for serving

Cook it up

Put a large fry pan on the stove and get it hot. This is important. Heat the pan over medium hot (you’ ll need to figure out what that means for your range-top, for me, it’s about 3/4 of the way to totally on), then add about two turns of oil (Note: that means pour the oil from your container around the pan twice – the dispensers on the containers are generally pretty standardized, this should give you about 2 oz. of oil or so.

When the oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add the onions and carrots. Turn the heat down a bit, and toss the onion carrot mixture about a bit, playfully, to coat everything with hot oil. Cook for about 4-6 minutes, stirring now and then, until the onion has turned translucent, and the carrot is softened. Add the celery and stir until the celery is softened – about 2 minutes or less. Add the garlic and stir until you can really smell it – should be a minute or so. Add a pinch of salt and a couple of twists of freshly ground pepper. Stir one last time and move all the veggies into that big bowl we talked about. Sprinkle a pinch or two of nutmeg on the veggies as they rest in the bowl.

Put the pan back on the heat, wait until it gets hot again – this won’t take long – and add the meat. With a large fork, press, smoosh, stir, and generally break up the meat. There will be a lot of steam at first, then, the steam will go away. Steam’s like that. Once you’ve heated most of the water out of the meat, it will start really cooking. Continue to stir, smoosh and scrape the bottom of the pan with the side of the fork tines. The meat will form small crumbles of goodness. There should be a healthy sheen of fat. Once the meat has just started to brown, drain the majority of the fat. I just tip the pan and use a large serving spoon to scoop up the fatty liquid. Leave a little fat in the pan, you can discard the rest.

Add the veggies back into the pan, and about an ounce or so of tomato paste. Again, using the fork, stir everything up, “cooking” the tomato paste and mixing it thoroughly with the other ingredients. At this point, you’ll have  nice lot of browned stuff on the bottom of the pan. This is goodness. Fancy folk call it the “fond”, in Asian cooking it’s known, more beautifully, as “the precious” (also applies to rice!). Now it’s time for the wine. Take about 1 cup of wine (to start) and pour it into the pan. Sizzling and steam will happen. Technically, this is known as “deglazing”, though it has nothing to do with glass.

With the side of your fork, scrape up as much of the good brown stuff as possible into the boiling winey mix. Add more wine if you like. I do. Cook the wine down by about half.

Add the crushed tomatoes, stirring to mix. Add the pieces of parmesan rind. Add about a TB of oregano (crush the dried herb between your palms to break it up even further. This gives it more surface area and – more flavor! Add about two tsp. thyme in the same fashion. Stir them in. Add the parsley. Taste the sauce, and add a little salt and freshly gr ound pepper. Just a little, because the sauce will be cooking down. You’ll fix the salt and pepper balance right at the end.

Turn the heat down to simmer and let simmer for an hour or two. Or three. Three is good. Four is better. If you can let it simmer all day, that’s awesome!! Just add a little water whenever it looks like the sauce is getting dry. Stir occasionally, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan for any stray bits. Continue to simmer.

Tip: If you have one of those little pan screens – this is exactly what they were born to do. The sauce, even at a simmer, will tend to splatter and give you some extra cleaning work to do in the general neighborhood of the pan. Or you can use a pan screen.

By the time you’re done, the sauce should be moderately thick (for example, if you put a spoon into it, the spoon will come out with its back coated with sauce). Add the brandy and lemon juice (juice of about a half a Meyer or other lemon) and stir. Add the diced fresh tomatoes – they’ll brighten everything up beautifully. Add the torn shreds of fresh basil.

Stir everything into the mix and continue simmering for another 15 minutes or so. Remove the Parmesan rinds. Or don’t, just advise your happy eaters that the large knobby chunk of gooey goodness in the middle of their sauce is a piece of cheese. Taste and correct for seasonings. In other words, see if you’ve got the salt and pepper right. Err on the side of caution with these two key seasonings, as everybody has a different tolerance and it’s easy enough to put a salt cellar and pepper mill on the table.

If you’ve prudently made this sauce a day or two in advance, pop it into a large, sealable container and put it in the refer. Bring it out when the time is right, put it into a pan – probably the same pan – and heat it gently until it’s nice and hot. Have a large pot filled with boiling salted water (about 2 TB. salt per gallon of water – no worries, virtually all the salt will wash away when you drain the pasta).

Serve with – hmmm, my favorite pasta for this dish is fettuccine, but really you can use any pasta you like. Long noodles are generally preferable, and more fun! Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, then drain the water, add a little bit of sauce to keep it from sticking, and fish out the individual servings with tongs, and add more sauce. Or just drain in a colander and put back in the pot, again adding a little sauce to keep it from sticking.

Fresh green salad. A bit of toasted, buttered baguette. A red wine that you like. A nice bowl of freshly shredded Reggiano Parmesan cheese for people to use as they will. Salt and pepper at the table. Happy people, which is really the best part.

I just can’t prescribe specific wines. I don’t like abstract expressionism. You love abstract expressionism. I don’t like almost any zinfandel, you adore zin of all kinds. I say potato. Wine is a personal matter. If you don’t think so, try doing a completely blind (brown paper bag) tasting with some of your wine-loving friends. :)

I’ve been making this sauce for almost three decades, with minor variations here and there as I feel the urge to experiment. And I’ve been watching family and friends smile as they sit down to eat a little bit of love on a plate. My wonderful niece Sarah, the executive pastry chef, calls great food “sex on a plate”. I’m older and think of love. Come to think of it, I’ve always thought of love.

A brief note – although I’ve made this sauce a million times, I. Have. Never. Taken. A. Picture. What’s wrong with me. So, after a good bit of research using Bing Image Search, I’m prevailing on the kindness of my blogging friends and using this lovely shot – which looks a great deal like what your own finished labor of love will look like. It’s from the nice peeps at What’s For Eats. Their recipe, which is also a good’un, is here.

Are you hungry yet?

 

 



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How We Know it’s Spring

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It’s pretty easy to tell when Spring starts and everybody has their own way of determining their personal Spring start-date. For some people, it’s the beginning of baseball season – and we’re not averse to that – but for some, it’s the opening of Schue’s Farmer’s Stand in Stanwood, WA. Oh – if you’d like to see *why* this says Spring to me, here’s a picture I took of the inside of the farmstand on their opening day this year, 2011. Click the picture to see the whole thing.

Schuh's Farmstand, Stanwood, WA., April 1, 2011 - Spring!

Schue’s is a family stand that’s been around for generations. Jennifer, the current proprieter, is a sweet, funny woman who demonstrates a classic Newtonian law – A Body at Rest Tends to Remain at Rest – a Body in Motion Tends to Remain in Motion. In case you were wondering, Jennifer is rarely at rest.

Here’s a link to Festival of Farms, which features Schue’s (they don’t have a Web site yet, and that’s. . .OK).

These are folks who’ve been in the business of growing (and raising) food for generations. They’re hard-working, generous and funny.

Please support them, and our other local farmers. Try a Farmer’s Market break from the usual harried run of supermarket shopping. Visit a nearby Farmer’s Market. Have a cup of coffee. Visit with the producers. You might even meet a friend, or engage in lively discussion with a neighbor over the nature of different types of tomato. Or – in the case of the Ballard (WA) Sunday Market, have an awesome slice of pizza from Veraci Pizza’s lil wood-fired ovens.

Let us know how you mark the entrance of Spring.  Is there a special food or drink that says Spring to you?

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Manners Around the World – With Thanks to the Family Education Network

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Whether you eat umeboshi or White Castle, whether your idea of a feast is a noma choba or a barbeque, whether you use a fork or chopsticks, there’s one thing we can all agree on – manners at the dinner table are consistent – after all, good manners are good manners, aren’t they?

Hmmmm. . .well, maybe that’s just a bit provincial. As the raconteur, chef and bon vivant Anthony Bourdain might say, “Suum Cuique”. Mr. Bourdain is not only a great chef and entertainer, he’s a bit of a classicist – what he’s telling you (in Latin, of course) is “To Each Their Own”.

Every culture in the world has its own standards for dining manners. If you think you’re an international Emily Post of the dinner table, then take a whirl at this simple test and see how your International Culinary IQ measures up.

With thanks to the nice people at The Family Education Network (http://www.fekids.com)

Click here to start: Start the Test!

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Maggie Go to Seattle and Get Fat

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Editorial Note: We don’t usually publish stories without a picture of the dish, but felt this story was so engaging that it was time for us to do what we do best – break our own rules! This tale comes from Marjie Bowker, who I met at a cheese-making class. The class was an utter disaster, but meeting Marjie made it all worthwhile.

We loved her story – and the gorgeous recipe that follows. Hopefully, she’ll send us some images of the actual dish (sure, you can find them with, say, a Bing image search, but we’re looking for authenticity here, right? :). Enough. With no further ado, here is:

“Maggie go to Seattle and get fat!”

I hear Thanh proclaim these words joyfully, but they ping-pong painfully around my American brain before I can digest that I’ve just been called “fat” for the first time in my life by someone I love a whole lot.

I had just returned for year two of my teaching contract at the American International School in Ho Chi Minh City. Honestly, though, I was thinking of year two more in terms of food opportunities. Yes, I loved my endlessly sweet sixth grade Language Arts students, but I had become addicted to the neighborhood in which I and my two roommates had landed.

We referred to our five-story stack house with a Romeo and Juliet balcony as our “castle”; it was set at the end of an alley that was part of an extensive morning market that offered fresh fruit, vegetables, squid, shrimp and live frogs along with vendors selling Bánh cuốn nhân thịt (steamed rolls filled with minced pork and mushrooms) and Bánh khọt (tumeric coconut rice cakes topped with shrimp).

Banh Cuon Nhan Thit

Love for a place equals a lot of intangible qualities all tangled up together – for me, love for this place was the way the mornings moved in this ten-block alley grid, the way they smelled, and, of course, the way they tasted.

Acceptance into this community – into their homes, lives, weddings, funerals and Tet celebrations – had come through two women: Thuy and Thanh, who ran the fabric stand in the middle of the market. Each morning, they assembled a wooden frame outside of their tiny two-story home to hold layer upon layer of cloth from Thailand to sell by the meter.

They had befriended me from the beginning, and despite our lack of a common language, they made it clear that they were my friends while I was in Vietnam. They began to call me their sister, and every Sunday morning one of them would abandon the stand for fifteen minutes so we could shop for fish and vegetables to cook when they closed their stand at noon.

 

The first week I was back, Thuy and Thanh were over at our castle cooking with my roommate, Katherine, and me for our Sunday feast. Thuy was mashing up white fish, molding it around huge Vietnamese shrimp, dipping them in egg and flour, and frying them in oil. Thanh was frying long, slender eggplants to stuff with a pork and onion mixture.

Katherine and I were both so happy to be back cooking with our Vietnamese sisters, drooling over the greasy treats being prepared in front of us.

In the midst of feeling this happiness Thanh giggled, glanced at my bulging-from-summer-vacation waistline, and made a “wide” gesture with both hands, saying, “Maggie go to Seattle and get fat!”

Read that comment again. Let it sink into your American, westernized psyches.

This was not a new thing for me or Katherine. Not only were we Amazons in this country and especially in this non-foreigner neighborhood (I am 5’8” and Katherine is 6’0”), but every time we gained a little weight, someone was sure to let us know it.

Just a few days earlier, when the seamstress (“Sweet Seamstress”) two doors down from the castle laid eyes on me-and-my-extra-pounds back from summer break, she said “Hi Maggie!”, looked at my waist and then made a wide gesture with both hands. Then she came over and touched my stomach. Last year, our housekeeper made the same gestures to Katherine. As for our students, they were not at all trained to hide exclamations like “Truong is so fat!”

After the “housekeeper incident”, Katherine and I debriefed extensively on this cultural conundrum. She suggested that we should just burst into tears the next time it happens, to get our own cultural message across.

When Sweet Seamstress made the gesture and touched my stomach, I just laughed and said, “Yes, America!” as in, “Yes, I come from a culture of fat. I went home and my culture made me fat. Your culture does not make you or me fat.”

But Thanh? Somehow I thought that Thanh, my “sister,” would have somehow ingested and come to understand our cultural values out of her pure love for us. Surely she wouldn’t be capable of hurting either of us on this level. But the words had been spoken, and the gesture had been made.

Katherine jumped to my defense. “That’s a mean thing to say in our country. That makes us feel sad.” However, the only thing her scolding produced was uncontrollable laughter out of both Thuy and Thanh. It felt awful. Suddenly, I  empathized with every fat kid, everywhere.

After much analysis, this is what Katherine and I came up with regarding this topic: their way is probably better. Just like the honking of the Saigon motorbikes stating “I am here” is anything but mean, Thanh’s comment was a statement of truth and was not at all loaded.

Thanh is anything but mean. She is lovely and giving and has sat by our side through sicknesses. And she is truthful.

The Vietnamese culture does not encourage you to eat more, more, more. Their portion sizes are reasonable. There is no such thing as Super Sizing anything. Even Cokes are regular sized…nothing giant exists. Ice cream bars are little and there are no ice cream shops where you can order three scoops in a waffle cone. Yes, their way is better.

But you know what? Even though I can see all of this culturally and objectively, I do hold it against them, someplace where I can’t get rid of it. That statement has been tagged as one of the meanest statements in our culture of fat. We Americans can tell it like it is in so many situations, but in that one, we remain quiet liars.

So, how did I respond? That night I was silent and melancholy. Thuy and Thanh ask me if I was “sad.”

“Just tired,” I answer. And I eat way less of the stuffed eggplant and greasy shrimp (which are extremely delicious) than I would have, otherwise.

But then I go on to respond in another way: by losing those extra *&^% pounds within about ten days (after signing up at the most expensive gym in Ho Chi Minh City).

If you think getting on a weight scale is motivation for keeping your weight down, try having a Sweet Seamstress three doors down who makes a wide gesture with her hands if you gain a few pounds, or have your Vietnamese sister point at you and laugh as she calls you “fat.” That, I’m telling you, is a much better incentive to keep yourself in line.

And it’s also free.

The Recipe

Vietnamese Stuffed Eggplant with Nuoc Cham and Crispy Fried Shallots

This recipe will make four servings. Begin by making the nuoc cham (dipping sauce) and set it aside while you prepare the eggplants.

Basic Vietnamese Dipping Sauce Recipe (Nuoc Cham)

I spent Sunday after Sunday trying to “measure” Thuy and Thanh’s Nuoc Cham ingredients. They threw it together so quickly, though, that I could hardly keep up with them, but I have tested and tested until I came up with a very close copy. This dipping sauce is essential to all Vietnamese cooking – it is poured over and dipped into with just about everything and is used to bring all sweet, sour, salty and spicy elements together.

This recipe makes ¾ cup

  • 3 tablespoons lime juice (1 fat, thin skinned lime)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 ½ tablespoons fish sauce (Viet Huong’s Five Crabs is my favorite)

Optional additions:

  • 1 small garlic clove, finely minced
  • 1 or 2 Thai chilis, thinly sliced or 1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce

1. Make limeade. Heat the water and then add sugar and lime juice, stirring to dissolve the sugar. This is like a simple syrup made with lime

2. Add the fish sauce and any of the optional ingredients. Taste again and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing out the sour, sweet, salty and spicy.

Note: Advance Preparation – This sauce may be prepared early in the day and left to sit at room temperature.

Vietnamese Stuffed Eggplants

Ingredients

  • ¼ lb ground pork
  • I small onion, minced
  • 1 tsp vinegar
  • ½ tsp. salt, or to taste
  • 4 long, slender Japanese eggplants, tops peeled
  • 2 T peanut oil
  • 4 shallots, thinly sliced and dried on a paper towel
  • 1 T peanut oil

Preparation

  1. Heat the 2 T of peanut oil in a large, shallow pan over medium-high heat. Add eggplants (you may need to cut them in half if they are really long so they will fit) and fry them, turning often, until they are completely soft in the center. This will take between 10-12 minutes, depending on the eggplants, and they will most likely char on the outside.
  2. While the eggplants are cooking, mix the ground pork, onion, vinegar and salt.
  3. When the eggplants are soft, you should be able to slit them down the middle with a sharp knife to create an opening pouch for the pork mixture. Round it out with a large spoon.
  4. Spoon ¼ of the mixture into each eggplant and press down. Lower the heat and simmer until pork is cooked through, about 7 minutes. The eggplants will caramelize with some of the juice from the pork mixture.
  5. While the stuffed eggplants are simmering, heat another 1 T of oil in a small pan over medium heat and add the dried shallot slivers. Brown them until they are light and crispy, then drain them on paper towel.

Serving

Serve stuffed eggplants over a mound of jasmine rice, pour a ladle full of nuoc cham over the top, and sprinkle with crispy shallots. Don’t be shy about adding more sauce…this dish is best swimming in it in my opinion!  Enjoy~

About the Author

Marjorie Bowker is (usually) a high school English teacher in the Edmonds, WA.  School District. You can find more of her stories about Vietnam at http://marjiebowker.blogspot.com/.

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Spaghetti Ticino – a Love Story

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Analog cooking - a primitive recipe card, found by archaeologists

In which I was Tricked into Becoming a Cook

My wife is much smarter than I am – and for that, I am extremely grateful, even though her extreme brainy-ness can sometimes lead me around by the nose.

When we were first courting, back in the late Neolithic Era, she observed that my culinary expertise was limited to three items:

  1. Tuna fish salad. OK, all my friends said my tuna fish salad was the best tuna fish salad in the world, but it was tuna fish salad, plain and simple
  2. Hamburgers. OK, all my friends said my burgers were the best burgers in the world, but they were burgers
  3. Grilled cheese sandwiches. OK, all my friends – well, you know the rest

I was justifiably proud of these marginal culinary accomplishments, as my guy friends’ expertise at cooking was limited to food groups with names like Campbell’s, Princes, and Kraft.

One day, after we’d gone out together for perhaps 3 months or so, she announced that she’d like to cook me dinner. I took this as an expression of love – and it may well have been – but it was also an expression of “IF I HAVE TO EAT ONE MORE TUNA FISH SANDWICH, I AM GOING TO SWIM AWAY FOREVER” likely combined with, “IF WE HAVE TO EAT OUT ONE MORE TIME, YOU WILL HAVE TO SELL YOUR CAR.”

Told you she was smart.

So, she told me she was making spaghetti. That was cool. I knew how to make spaghetti. Boil pasta, pour sauce from jar on top, shake cheese on top from little green tube. Done. Spaghetti. I asked if I could help – she said,”No, I’ve got it, you just sit back and enjoy.” Hmmm. . .OK. I poured wine for us and we drank it in the kitchen of my small Somerville, MA. apartment whilst she moved briskly about, chopping things (do you have a cutting board? Ummmm. . .isn’t the counter a cutting board, too??), combining, moving, pouring, shaking.

I was entranced by the spectacle. Of course, she could have been preparing a dish of pea gravel on wood chips and I would have been entranced by her moving about. That’s just how it was.

At some point, she announced, “OK, I think it’s ready. Get a couple of plates and warm them up.” Warm the plates? Heat, heat, heat – ah! I ran them under hot running water, then dried ‘em off. Mission accomplished. My work was done, except for pouring more wine.

Then we sat down to table. There were candles, folded napkins, forks, spoons, knives – water in glasses!! A large bowl filled with an attractive mixture of greens that was something she called a “salad”. Funny little slices of bread that looked like they came from a loaf designed for dwarves (I later learned this was called a “baguette”).

And the main course!! As soon as it hit the table, I inhaled its fragrance and my mouth began watering. With some restraint, I waited until we’d toasted each other’s health (another nifty ritual learned from my smart wife). Then dug in.

O M G!!

What on Earth was this? It was divine, it had lots of flavors, but they didn’t compete – they were just kind of cozy with each other. The textures of the ham (she called it “prosciutto”) and vegetables blended perfectly together in a smooth, silky sauce.

“Whd oo call ‘es” I mumbled between mouthfuls. “What?” she asked, looking at me sharply, but clearly enjoying my non-stop fork-to-mouth action. “Er, what do you call this?” I said, convulsively swallowing the last savory morsel and looking over towards the stove to see if there might be more.

“Oh, it’s called spaghetti ticino,” she said. “Spaghetti ticino,” I parroted. “It’s really good.”

“Thanks, honey, it takes a little effort, but it’s worth it, isn’t it?” “Absolutely,” I said, thinking that it had taken very little effort on my part. And yet. . .

“How do you make it,” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a pretty complicated recipe,” she said, smiling gently.

“I like complicated things,” I asserted.

“I really think you’d want to start with something a lot simpler to make, and work your way up,” she said.

“No. I want to make this. I can totally make this,”

“Well, if you want to try, here’s the recipe I have for it,” she said, pulling out a little 3×5 index card covered in ingredients and arcane instructions. It was like finding a card written in Sumerian, but – well, I knew what most of the words meant, and I was sure I could figure it out.

I spent the next few days acquiring ingredients. I soon realized I had nothing, so I went to the Star market and began acquiring the basics.

Once I had everything, I spent some time with the little recipe card. I pondered it, thinking it through, trying to grok its essence (as we used to say back then). When I felt all grokked up, I started.Everything seemed to go quite nicely, although the spaghetti appeared to be congealing into a unified mass of starchy strands.

Serving time. Voila! I’d invited her over for dinner and she’d accepted – this was going to be a surprise. And it was. “What is this,” she asked, picking idly with her fork at a gooey mass of congealed pasta that lay submerged under a glutinous sauce that resembled library paste.

“It’s spaghetti ticino,” I said brightly, proud of my accomplishment, but feeling that I may perhaps not have entirely achieved my objective.

With a fine display of sportsmanship, she chewed her way through it, pausing only for frequent refills of wine. “How do you like it,” I said, quivering with anticipation.

“It’s,” and there was a long pause during which I could actually feel her brain searching for words, “pretty awful, but not bad for a first try,”.

“OK, well, it was my first try, but next time it’ll be wonderful,” I said, rising to the challenge.

“OK,” she said

“OK,” I said, pushing away my half-eaten plate and wondering if we should go out and have a little more food at a restaurant.

I spent much of my spare time perfecting my chops on that recipe and grew quite fond of cutting, chopping, organizing, mixing, thinking, tasting, smelling, touching – the whole range of things you do to create good food. And once I’d mastered that dish, I thought “that was fun,” and moved on to another. And another.

A Long Time Later

It’s over 30 years later. We’re still married. Although my wife is an outstanding cook, I do most of the cooking around home, because – well, because I really like it. Her Tom Sawyer-like ploy with the spaghetti ticino was a complete success (“Oh, I don’t know if you should try that – it takes experience and skill to cook something like that”). To this day, she swears she had no ulterior motive when she explained how complicated it was to make the dish, and how she just didn’t want me to frustrate myself in the world of cookery. Like I said – she’s a lot smarter than I am.

The Recipe – Spaghetti Ticino

I haven't made this today, and it doesn't seem to exist online, but this is very close to what it should look like

I’d like to note that I have so far been unable to locate this recipe (perhaps because I’m spelling Ticino wrong) online. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely dish, albeit a bit on the dense side – taken from an era when Julia Child’s star was beginning to ascend.

Ingredients (serves 2-4 depending on hunger levels and whether served as a course in a larger meal)

  • 3/4 lb. crimini mushrooms
  • 3 TB. butter
  • 1/4 Cup finely minced scallion, both white and green parts, plus 1 TB.
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed
  • 1 Cup coarsely diced prosciutto
  • 1.5 Cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 Cup grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese plus additional cheese for sprinkling on top
  • 1 TB. finely minced parsley for sprinkling on top
  • 8 oz. spaghetti. You could use linguine, but spaghetti is the way I’ve always done this dish – I think the shape just works well with the sauce.
  • Salt, freshly ground pepper to taste

Preparation

Fill a large pot with water and salt (I use about 1 TB salt / half gallon of water), and set to boil.

Clean and slice mushrooms. Today, I might use a mushroom brush or even just rub the mushroom skin with my fingers to remove any clinging bits of twigs or dirt. Heat a 10-12″ saute pan, then add 3 TB. butter, swirling and shaking until the butter stops foaming. Add the sliced mushrooms, cooking them on medium heat (you don’t want to brown them) for a few minutes.

Add the 1/4 Cup scallions and garlic, and cook for another 2 minutes or so until they are softened and fragrant.

In a separate small skillet heat 2 TB. butter. Add the prosciutto, shake it and toss it – or stir thoroughly. Cover and cook for five minutes over low-to-medium heat, until the prosciutto is softened and beginning to crisp just a bit. When this happens, remove the skillet from the heat.

Add spaghetti to your boiling water. While the spaghetti is cooking, add cream to your cooked mushroom mixture. Cook over medium to medium-high heat, stirring constantly and scraping from the bottom to prevent any burning. The sauce should reduce by about a half. This should take about 5 minutes or so. Once it’s reduced, add the prosciutto and fold into the sauce. Taste and correct for seasonings. That means add salt and pepper to your taste.

Drain the spaghetti (if a little bit of water clings to the spaghetti, that’s fine). Mix the drained spaghetti with the sauce and serve immediately in warmed bowls, sprinkling with the remaining TB of finely minced scallion, the parsley and additional cheese.

This is a simple – some might even say primitive – recipe, but it works. We fed this to our kids when they were little, they ask us to make it now that they’re grown. We eat it ourselves occasionally, but with a bit more caution than in days of yore.

And – it’s such a great jumping off spot for your own creativity. There are countless variations on this theme – give it a try. It’s a complicated dish and. . .well, it’s just pretty tough to make. . .but if you really want to try it. . . :)

I’ve kept the recipe card for over 30 years – it’s a part of our family history.

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Why Avgolemono Soup is the Perfect Food

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The Battleground of Making Food that Everybody in Your Family Will Eat

At least – in days gone by – it was in our family. Early on our daughter Amy decided to become a vegetarian. Our son Brendan was constantly hungry, but he wanted meat meat meat and starch starch starch – and he wanted it now. Bonney and I were omnivores, but we definitely had preferences.

As I fixed food for these three divergent appetites, I longed for the days of yore, when my mother would say, “If you don’t like what’s on the table, then I guess dinner’s over for you,” and my father would say “your Mother worked to put that food on the table, I worked to buy it, now you work at eating it.” Nobody disagreed much with either of these forces of Nature in the old days. Kids (and parents) today are a little different in their relationships around food.

So I searched and searched, trying this, trying that – trying anything I could to find a food that was reasonably nourishing, and would appeal to everybody in our family. Today, we have legions of experts who want to tell us how to eat, what to eat, when to eat. . .it constantly astonishes me that thousands of generations of humanity have somehow managed to struggle their way forward without benefit of these dietary mavens.

So – I rejected the notion of expertized food and turned to traditional cultures’ cuisines, thinking that these were recipes that had evolved over (sometimes) centuries and were likely to be widely accepted. I mean – otherwise, they wouldn’t have continued to evolve, right? :)

One day, some time ago, I had lunch at a little local Greek eatery – Costas Opa in the Fremont district of Seattle. Costas Opa has been dishing up classic traditional Greek food along with belly dancing and live Greek music since 1981 – their longevity alone says something about their food to me. They’d only been in business a paltry 10 years or so when I discovered them.

I enjoyed their usual assortment of Greek food – which I find one of the most comforting cuisines to eat – spanikopita, stifado, moussaka, souvlaki – I loved ‘em all! Then, by chance, I ordered one of their combo plates. It came with a little cup of soup – undistinguished, maybe a little yellow in color, with a haphazard sprinkling of finely minced parsley on top. Spoonful. Smile. Big smile. Another spoonful. Cup gone, considered ordering bowl, but was able to restrain myself with some effort.

“What’s this,” I asked my server, pointing at the little licked-empty cup. “Avgolemon soup,” he said, “It’s a classic Greek dish – everybody eats it.” OK, well, now I was a part of EVERYBODY. Excellent!!

I went back to work, but kept musing on this soup. It was chicken broth, but our daughter wasn’t *that* strict a vegetarian. It has a powerful flavor kick that would probably appeal to our son. And, I mused, if made with the right amount of rice, it would be almost like a congee – a very simple congee. I knew my wife would like it – it was simple and clean tasting – and I already knew I loved it.

So – an Aha! moment – I began researching it. Wow! There are a *lot* of recipes for Avgolemono (today, a simple Bing search on “Avgolemono recipe” delivers over 87.000 hits!!) – ranging from incredibly simple to feast-like extravaganzas. I decided to give these latter a miss – I was going for simple, clean and filled with bright flavor.

Fast forward. There. No, a little faster. I’ve been making this soup for well over a decade in this form. It’s the single thing I know I can make that my entire family – and now, our extended family – will eat without kvetching. In fact, both our children – now fully grown “novice adults”, as I think of them – sometimes come by and ask me to make this soup. That warms the cockles of my heart.

Avgolemono Soup – the Recipe

As I’ve come to make it, this soup is extremely fast and easy to prepare, uses but four ingredients, a single aromatic and is both comforting, filling and nourishing.

Ingredients (for four to six servings)

  • 64 oz rich chicken broth. If I don’t have any homemade chicken broth around, I find the broth that comes in the 32 ounce steri-pak cardboard boxes is an excellent and nearly-indistinguishable substitute.
  • 1.5 C medium grain white rice
  • 4 whole large eggs, and 3 yolks, reserving the whites for another purpose. An egg-white omelette, for example! For an excellent overview on separating eggs, click here.
  • Juice from 4 large, juicy lemons
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • (Optional: finely minced parsley or a little snipped fresh chive, or a few shreds of dill weed as a garnish)

Preparation

Juice the lemons, zest a teaspoonful of zest and mix together in a large bowl. Add the eggs, egg yolks and nutmeg to the lemon juice/zest and beat very thoroughly with a whisk or fork. Set aside.

Add the broth to a pot, and add the rice to the broth. Bring the broth to a very low boil, then reduce to a simmer and simmer uncovered until the rice is just cooked. The soup will thicken up a bit as the rice cooks. When the rice is cooked take the soup off the heat, take a ladle and put a ladle’s worth of soup into the egg/lemon mix, mixing briskly with a fork. This tempers the eggs and will help prevent their curdling when you add the lemon/egg mix back to the stock.

Add the lemon/egg/nutmeg mix to the stock, stirring gently. It’s important that the stock not be boiling at all, not even really simmering – you don’t want the eggs to curdle, you want them to simple meld with the stock, creating a smooth, creamy texture. Don’t worry if you get a few strands of curdled egg at first. After a couple of times, you’ll end up with a totally silky-textured broth with no curdled eggs at all. Promise!!

That’s it. You’re done. Serve in warmed bowls and, if you like, garnish with some of the garnishes above. We eat this with a slice or two of a nice crusty bread. If you’d like to drink wine with your soup – try a lighter wine – say, a decent Pinot Grigio.

Tip: My cheater tip for when I don’t have homemade broth – I use Better than Bouillon (because it is!). Add about 1 Tablespoon to the broth from the steri-paks if you like for a much richer stock flavor. Or use your own stock.

I have yet to meet anybody who doesn’t enjoy this soup. It’s about as simple as a soup can get, yet the few flavors merge together to create a complex, perfect taste that’s bright and clean, with a variety of textures from the silkiness of the broth to the very slight bite of the rice.

If you decide to try it, please drop me a comment and let me know. If you find anybody who just flat doesn’t like this soup, I have the number of an excellent therapist. :)

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