Jun 28 2009




I’m in the middle of a small war right now with the neighborhood stray cat. He has decided that the best place to hang out while stalking rabbits is in the middle of my tomato plants. This is an issue for me because a) I like to see bunnies on my lawn and I don’t particularly want them killed and b) the cat does a little more than just sit in the garden, if you know what I mean. And while I’m all about homegrown food and organic gardening, finding cat droppings in the middle of my tomato patch is a little TOO organic for me.

My mother has always been an avid gardener. I’ll never forget the year she planted–in a fit of misguided enthusiasm–not one, not two, but SIX hills of zucchini. I believe our backyard accounted for about 5% of the world’s production of zucchini that year. But once I left home I lost whatever skills I might have gleaned. I lived in a series of run-down and dark apartments and tended to be more concerned with finding the money for dinner than trying to actually grow it. My thumb never got any greener than a few pots of herbs on a kitchen windowsill.

This changed when I moved south. Suddenly I was living in houses, not apartments, and living in a climate with a 286-day growing season, not a 120-day one. I became what you might call a “Darwinian” gardener–the plants in my garden must survive in a climate of benign neglect, with rare attempts at weeding or pruning, and only infrequent watering. Lettuce is allowed to bolt and re-seed. Compost is left to its own devices. I currently have a rather vigorous pumpkin vine growing where last year’s jack-o-lantern fell from the porch and was allowed to return to the earth unhindered. But there is one type of plant that is exempt from my general mistreatment–the tomato.

I still remember the first time I ever tasted southern Sweet 100s cherry tomatoes as one of the defining foodie moments of my life. Tomatoes that you could eat like candy! I was beyond shocked, and immediately went looking at farmer supply stores for plants. In an unconscious imitation of my mother’s earlier enthusiasm, I bought six. I think I was responsible for about 5% of the world’s production of cherry tomatoes that year. Since that time, I have always had tomatoes in my southern garden–in a full vegetable bed if I had the space and time, or in large pots on the porch if I didn’t. I grew Sweet 100’s for their taste and Better Boys because that is what the neighbors grew. And then one day I saw a picture of a Costoluto Genovese in a seed catalog. It was a princess of a tomato, an heirloom with a lovely lobed shape so that when sliced, each slice had beautifully scalloped edges. It was supposed to be an excellent slicing tomato, and an excellent sauce tomato, but not a tomato with a long shelf life. This last caveat did not phase me because I lived, at the time, in a tiny house with no air conditioning. So in the summertime nothing had a shelf life longer than about six hours.

For the first time in my life, I fell in love with a food–with a specific kind of food. With a specific variety of a specific kind of food. It was the mere sight of the Costoluto Genovese tomato that made me decide to try growing tomatoes from seed. I started combing seed catalogs for other heirlooms. Suddenly tomatoes were not those mushy, watery, tasteless things you slid off your burgers. They were fun and exciting and pretty and–oh yeah–tasted good. I tried a rainbow of cultivars from Yellow Pears to Brandywine Pinks to Cherokee Purples (which get my vote as the ugliest tomato ever). I grew San Marzanos and Principe Borgheses with the idea that I’d do a lot of canning (I never got around to it). I grew a few yellow and orange tomato varieties and ended up with the most lovely tomato salads. I toyed with the idea of growing “Green Zebras”ť and “Russian Blacks” but lost my nerve.

It isn’t always clear what the term “heirloom”ť means. In general, the term implies that the cultivar has been around for more than fifty years. It also implies that the plants are open-pollinated (you know, by bees and things). But this isn’t always the case–some hybrids (which require controlled pollination) like yellow pears are considered heirlooms, possibly because they are simply so pretty. Open pollination comes with its own set of considerations. Heirloom tomatoes can’t be bred for disease resistance, for example. Their yield is more unpredictable since they depend on a supply of willing and happy pollinators. Heirloom varieties also must be picked before they become fully ripe, since they are not bred for long shelf lives and once ripe, must be eaten almost immediately.

There are an astonishing number of “heirloom”ť tomato varieties available–some of them with stories as colorful as their skins. My favorite is the “Mortgage Lifter”, aka “Radiator Charlie.”ť It sounds like a thug from a Chicago mob but it was so named, apocryphally, by a man named MC Byles, who sold the cultivar for a dollar a plant to pay off his house when his radiator business went under during the Depression. Alas, Mortgage Lifters and Brandywine Pinks–the two heirlooms that may be responsible for the current craze in heirloom varieties–defied my gardening skills. They are “beefteak”ť tomatoes–the kind with very large fruit that is very solid and meaty, with small seed cavities. I learned after several frustrating years that I did not have the mentality to grow goliath-sized beefsteak tomatoes–I invariably lost them to the bugs, worms, moths and caterpillars that flourish in the south as easily as do the plants. I also found, through trial and error, that cultivars that tend towards odd shapes–the pointed San Marzanos, for example, and even my lovely lobed Costoluto Genovese–often developed cracks and spots if, as often happened, I was not too diligent about watering.

The tomatoes the neighborhood cat finds so useful for stalking (among other things) are Tomosas and Sweet 100s; what I think of as my “old reliables.” (A term I adopted from a children’s book called Junket about a city family that buys a farm without knowing anything about farming).  I planted them because it is a new house and a new garden and there was nothing established. They are more forgiving about watering (or the lack thereof) and they are quite forgiving about wildlife. It is a struggle just to keep the beds relatively cat- and rabbit- free without fussing over a tomato that came from a plant someone found in a holler somewhere in the Appalachian mountains.

Heirloom Tomato Patch, June 3, 2009

Heirloom Tomato Patch, June 3, 2009

Although, I believe I have one of those, because this year a good friend dropped off a flat of 16 different heirloom tomato plants–no single one alike.  They were the leftovers from some “combat obesity” drive, if you can believe it, although by the time they got to me they were all looking a little spindly and forlorn in their red plastic beer cups. Here’s a list of the plants:

Black (deep red)

Black from Tula– regular leaf, 8-12oz., purple-black, great flavor, loves heat

Black Cherry– black (deep red), regular leaf, abundant

Bicolor, white, green-when-ripe, yellow, or orange

Big Rainbow– regular leaf, deep gold with red splashes, good flavor, fair yield

Earl of Edgecombe– regular leaf, orange color, big producer, 6-12oz, grows in clusters, heat and humidity tolerant

Super Snow White– ivory, regular leaf, large, ~75days to production

Isis Candy– regular leaf, yellow-gold color, very large, low yield, ~80 days to production


Eva Purple Ball– regular leaf, deep pink, uniform color, disease and bug resistant

Giant Belgium– regular leaf, pink color, high yields

Good for Tomato Paste/Sauce

Rio Grande– regular leaf, red, very productive, great flavor, good for paste

Marianne’s Peace– dark pink, potato leaf, very productive, good for paste

San Marzano– a variety of plum tomato considered by many chefs to be the best sauce tomatoes in the world, gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples in 1770, thinner and pointier than Roma tomatoes, first grown in volcanic soil of Mt.Vesuvius


Red Calabash-regular leaf, fluted, red color, 69-80 days to production

Camp Joy– red, regular leaf, strong vines, ~60 days to production

Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red-really red, robust, 8oz. globes

Tondo Liscio– smooth, round, Italian eating tomato, red color

Cuor di Bue– red color, also known as the ”Bulls Heart” and ”Giant Ox Heart” tomato. Superb tasting, fleshy,”Ox Heart” beef tomato, so called because of its size and shape, a lovely slicing tomato due to it’s meaty flesh, and few seeds, unbeatable in salads or with slices of fresh Mozzarella and basil, fruits typically 150-180g each in weight, but can get much larger.

Heirloom tomato patch, June 27, 2009

Heirloom tomato patch, June 27, 2009

Honestly. “Clint Eastwood Rowdy Red?” I wanted to grow these just because of the names.  So far, they are looking pretty good.

If you are interested in growing heirloom tomatoes, you are in luck. There are a couple of local nurseries that grow varieties especially at home here in the hot and humid Southeast. Shelton Herb Farm is where I go for my Sweet 100s plants. (Do not buy six plants unless you are trying to feed a small country).

Shelton Herb Farm
340 Goodman Road
Leland, NC 28451
(off Route 17)

The local farmers’ markets, such as the Riverfront market on Saturdays downtown, or the Pender County market on Wednesday mornings at Poplar Grove also have a few local farms who supply heirloom vegetables (I picked up a gorgeous bunch of multicolored carrots at the Riverfront Market last Saturday that were almost too pretty to eat). And while it is long past the time when you could start your tomatoes from seed, there are at least two seed suppliers that are excellent resources for heirloom varieties if you want to plan for next year:

Seed Savers Exchange

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In the meantime, you can always raid your neighbor’s garden. The tomatoes will still be green for at least another two weeks, but even green tomatoes have their uses:

Fried Green Tomatoes:

2 lb Green tomatoes
4 ea Eggs
1 1/4 c Corn meal
3/4 c Water
1/4 c Minced chives
1 tb Salt
1/4 ts Pepper, fresh ground
1/4 c Butter or margarine

Slice the tomatoes 1/2 inch thick, but do not peel or core. Drain
well between several thicknesses of paper toweling until most of the
moisture of the tomatoes is absorbed. While the tomatoes are
draining, make a batter by beating the eggs until light, then mixing
in the corn meal, water, minced chives, salt and pepper. In a large,
heavy iron skillet, heat the butter or margarine until bubbly. Dip
the tomato slices into batter, and brown quickly on both sides. Serve
at once.

Apr 20 2009


“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” –Dr. William Butler, 17th Century English Writer

It was maybe two or three weeks ago that I was driving back from a trip to the hardware store, my van weighted down with the bags of compost and mulch that were going into the garden when I first saw it–the little red wooden farm stand set up in the parking lot of the gas station on the corner of RT 17 and RT 210, with a banner that said Lewis Farms and a red painted strawberry. I didn’t even hesitate. I swung into the station and spent the last ten bucks in my pocket on two quarts of freshly-picked, locally grown strawberries.

I grew up in western New York state, which is known, aside from its snowy winters, as “the fruit basket” because of its extensive orchards and rich farm land. This was a bounty that my mother did not neglect to appreciate–she often took the family on trips to the farms in search of apples, pears, plums, cherries, and strawberries. As children my brother, sister and I could mark the passing of the year by the fruit that was in season. We visited smaller farms with”U-pick”ť orchards and fields, and Mom, blithely unconcerned about child labor laws, would turn us loose with baskets and bushels and tell us to fill them. I learned to climb trees by picking apples in the fall. I learned I was impervious to wasp stings picking plums in the summer. And I learned that spring was really here when strawberries were in season.

Of course, I know now that there are more economical ways to buy strawberries. When I was older I realized that the strawberries we were paying for the privilege to pick were twice as expensive as the ones we could buy already packed in their little plastic pint baskets. I was incensed when I discovered this, until my mother, ever practical, pointed out that we kids ate at least as many berries as we put in our baskets out on the field. I’m not sure why mom made all the extra effort to drag three kids out to farm country to get themselves dirty and exhausted picking fruit, but I am glad she did. Not only did these “u-pick”ť orchard visits give us a fair amount of exercise, but we learned first hand that not all cherries or apples were alike. I discovered the difference between a MacIntosh apple and a Yellow Delicious. And I came to associate the passing of each month with the smell of the fruit in the car as we drove home, hot, weary and happy, with baskets of berries on our laps–too full to eat any more, even if we wanted to. To this day, I have a very Proustian moment whenever I smell strawberries under the hot sun. It takes me right back to those days of kneeling in the sandy fields under a spring sun, floppy hat on my head, my grubby fingers greedily pulling at even the not-quite-ripe berries and cramming them into my mouth.

Those childhood memories of fresh-picked berries made such an impression on me that for the rest of my life I have been disappointed by the taste of strawberries that I haven’t picked myself, or at least bought from some small roadside stand. I’m not above picking up a few pints of the one billion pounds of strawberries shipped out of the state of California now and then, but they never taste as good as the local ones. They are too clean, perhaps. Too sterilized. They never taste of the sun and sand and they never smell of the country. So I really only indulge myself in strawberries when they show up in the farmer’s markets, and once they are gone, I don’t eat them again until spring comes around the next year. And when I see the little red wooden stand show up at the 17/210 intersection, my heart gives a little leap of joy. I’m a little past crawling out in the fields for my berries, but Lewis Farms in Pender County is where I like to buy them (already picked). And if you are into picking them yourself–or you just want to tire out your kids–now is the time. Strawberry season peaks in May, and their stand out on Gordon Road offers homemade ice cream to hot and tired pickers. They also have a u-pick spot out on Castle Hayne Road, near GE. Both spots are open these days from 8-6 during the week, and 1-6 on Sundays.

There are thousands of recipes for strawberries–from the erotically-charged strawberries-and-champagne to the rather homey strawberry shortcake. I confess, I don’t know any of them. Strawberries to me are one of nature’s perfect foods–so delicious in themselves that I never can bring myself to waste them in some dessert recipe. Mom used to make sure we brought home enough berries that she could make jam, but eventually even she decided that was a terrible waste. Eight berries give you all the Vitamin C you will need for the day. A cup of berries is about 55 calories. You might as well just eat them plain, because anything else is just overkill. The people who chop up strawberries and pile them on those little gold cakes and spray them with that canned whipped cream are committing a culinary crime. (The original strawberry shortcake is a Native American thing–colonists watched the Indians mash up small wild berries with cornmeal to make little cakes. The colonists liked the idea, but had an addiction to sugar that haunts American cooking to this day.)

Besides, strawberries are a little like sushi–best if eaten within a few hours of being picked. They are not improved by refrigeration, and the pigments that make strawberries red, anthocyanin, are heat sensitive. They break apart and turn brown when exposed to heat or warm temperatures. So really, your best bet is to just eat them on the way home from the farm stand. Don’t wash them until you are ready to eat them, and eat them directly after you have washed them. In a pinch, you can wait until dinner, but not any longer than that. If you want them for breakfast the next morning, then put them in the fridge unwashed, and let them come to room temperature before you start cutting them up over your cereal.

And although I almost never eat strawberries anyway but right out of the bowl, I did make this salad once, and it was so good that it made my very short list of “approved uses for strawberries.”ť (The other approved uses are not exactly “recipes”):

Strawberry and Spinach Salad
1 pint fresh strawberries
2 bunches fresh spinach
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons minced green onion
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1. Wash strawberries under cool running water. Remove caps and set aside to drain.
2. Wash spinach and remove large tough stems. Tear large leaves into small pieces. Drain.
3. In a medium bowl combine remaining ingredients and whisk together.
4. Slice strawberries into halves or quarters and place in a large bowl. Add dry spinach.
5. Pour dressing over all and toss.
Makes 8 servings.

Jan 15 2009

In praise of the alligator pear

One of the things I did not prepare at last month’s Super Bowl party (where I got to watch my team lose in the last thirty seconds of the game, oh the agony) was the chips-and-guacamole. It was Fay’s job to bring the beer and the guac, mine to provide the chili, the wings and the nachos. Because Fay and I have been doing this column for ten years now, we have a pretty good understanding of what the other person likes and hates, so she is one of the few people I actually trust to send out to the grocery store. I expected her to come back loaded up with avocados, chili peppers, tomatoes and maybe cilantro (which she detests). I was more than a little shocked, therefore, to see her dump a case of beer and about five packages of pre-packaged, pre-made guacamole onto the kitchen table.

“What’s this?” I asked, my voice a little high in alarm.
“Trust me,” said Fay, “even you will love this stuff.”

“This stuff” turned out to be something called “Wholly Guacamole” (the spicy variety). It was cold, as if it had been kept in the refrigerated cases at the supermarket. In the box were two vacuum-sealed packages of green goop with little red specs. With a flourish, Fay grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the corner off one of the packages, then proceeded to squeeze the stuff out the hole into a bowl as if she were decorating a cake. When she had coaxed out the last little bit she tore open a bag of corn chips and handed me one with a flourish. I took a doubtful scoop, bracing myself for the metallic tang of preservatives that seems to come with every pre-made guacamole brand.

Needlessly, as it turned out. My eyes opened in surprise. The stuff actually tasted like perfectly decent guacamole. I could taste the clean smooth avocado, a little salt, a small amount of cilantro (a notoriously difficult taste to preserve) and – I choked a bit – a fair amount of searing hot chile pepper. The trick, according the to box and the company website, is pressurized preservation. (Actually, they called it “fresherized” so you’ll have to forgive their assault on the English language) Rather than rely on any chemical or acidic methods to keep the mashed avocado from spoiling, this company treats it to ultra-high pressure (about six times the levels found at the bottom of the ocean according to the website) which kills off most of the little critters that cause oxidization and spoilage. Unopened, it will keep in the fridge thirty days, in the freezer six months. I’m going to take their word on that because I can’t bring myself to try freezing anything with avocado in it. If you like your guacamole chunky then it had its drawbacks, but if you didn’t mind it served smooth like peanut butter, then “Wholly Guacamole” passes muster. And that means something, coming from me.

I’m something of a purist when it comes to avocados. They are on my list of “perfect” foods—foods that are so good in and of themselves it is almost pointless to try to dress them up or “cook” them. I still remember the first time I ate an avocado as one of the great culinary turning points in my life. I was visiting a friend in Montreal one summer and we were walking through the great open market. My friend owned a restaurant, and was quite well known to many of the merchants. One grabbed her and pulled her aside to show her a pile of just arrived avocados. So we bought a couple. My friend borrowed a knife and a couple plastic spoons from a sandwich vendor, and borrowed a little oil and mustard. She stirred the oil and mustard together in a paper cup, then balanced one of the avocadoes on the little table we had found and sliced it round the middle lengthwise, twisting each half in opposite directions until they came apart. She handed me the half without the pit, and deftly scooped the seed out of her own piece, then poured a little of the mustard dressing into the bowl-shaped indentation it had left. She did the same for my half, and handed me a spoon. “Mange!” she said, “comme-ça.” She took her own spoon and began to scoop out pieces of avocado, allowing the mustard dressing to season each bite.

I did the same, and allowed myself on that sunny afternoon to simply sit and savor the mild, delicate, almost buttery taste of the fruit. Oh, I’d had guacamole before, I’m sure. But that day in the Montreal market was the first time I had ever truly noticed the avocado. It was so good, and made such an impression on me, that it was over a year before I could bring myself to eat one any other way.
These days I’m a little more flexible. I can put up with avocado appearing as filler in my sushi, in my wraps and burritos, and even on the occasional burger. It sure beats shredded iceberg lettuce in that regard. But there is always a part of me that thinks these uses are a waste of a good thing, and I never do it at home.
Guacamole, on the other hand, is one of my very few approved uses for an avocado. If you aren’t just going to scoop it out of its thick, rough skin and eat it plain, then making guacamole is an acceptable alternative.
It is a dish of ancient origins—invented by the Aztecs, who considered avocados to have aphrodisiac qualities. Their name for the fruit, ahuacatl, means “testicle” (try not to let that little tidbit spoil your appetite). Where the term “avocado” comes from is the subject of some debate. Most believe it to be a mispronunciation of the Aztec word—which the Spanish turned into “abogado” and the English into “alligator.” The English in Jamaica called them “alligator pears.” But the ingredients of guacamole have remained largely unchanged for over a thousand years: avocado, chiles, salt, onions, tomatoes, cilantro. Other ingredients have found their way into the mix in our modern, experimental era, but the one thing that absolutely does NOT belong in guacamole is garlic. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a philistine who wouldn’t know good cooking if they fell face first into it.

The recipe I use, (and thought I’d be using for the Super Bowl party) comes from Diana Kennedy, who is to Mexican Cooking what Julia Child is to French, or Marcella Hazan is to Italian. Kennedy is a stickler for authenticity in her recipes, which is a little funny because the Hass avocados she insists on using (with good reason) are actually an agricultural accident invented by a California grower, and not authentically “Mexican” at all. Still, she’s right to insist—they taste much better than the kind you get from Florida with the smooth, bright green skins.

The Perfect Guacamole Recipe
Excerpted from The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy

2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
4 serrano chiles, or to taste, finely chopped
3 heaped tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro,
Salt to taste
3 large Hass avocados (about 1 pound)
4 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped (About 2/3 Cup)

To Serve:
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped onion
2 heaped tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro

Grind together the onion, chiles, cilantro, and salt to a paste. Cut the avocados into halves, remove the pits, and squeeze the flesh out of the shell and mash into the chile base to a textured consistency — it should not be smooth. Stir in all but 1 tablespoon of the tomatoes, onion, and cilantro, adjust seasoning, and top with the remaining chopped tomatoes, onion, and cilantro. Serve immediately at room temperature.

Jan 6 2009

Chili Nation

(a revisit from last year)

This morning as I was doing my grocery shopping, I found myself navigating round stock clerks pushing dollies full of massive boxes filled with potato chips and Doritos, jars of salsa and dip, cases of Budweiser and (because I live in a yuppie neighborhood) Blue Moon. The meat cases were piled high with packaged ground beef and Italian sausage. The frozen foods section was bulging with boxes of microwaveable pizza bites and just-reheat-me bags of “Buffalo-style” chicken wings. The aspirin aisle had stocked up on Tums.

Oh yeah, it’s Super Bowl season.

The most important thing about this time of year—after the current standing of the New England Patriots, which, I’m sorry to tell y’all, is MY TEAM—is what to serve on Super Bowl Sunday. I’m a couple weeks ahead as I write this, so the Pats haven’t squared off against Chargers yet. So while I’m planning out the menu for the big event, I haven’t done the shopping yet. If you are reading this and the Pats didn’t win the AFC, then just imagine me crying in my beer and my bowl of chili.

Chili, of course, is the main thing on the menu. And by chili, I mean Chili, not that stuff that comes out of cans that Southerners put on hot dogs.

Chili is a little like barbecue in that every region has its own ideas of how to make it, and arguments can get quite heated over what should and shouldn’t go in the pot. Its origins are lost in the annals of time, although some folks say that it first appeared at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago as the “San Antonio Chili Stand”. My favorite story is that chili was invented by cowboys at campfires along the early western cattle trails—where there the little meat available to them was tough and tasteless. So the cattle hands invented a stew that spiced up the unaged beef, and even took to planting oregano and herbs along the trails—partly to keep the cattle from grazing off the trail, and partly to have the herbs available when they made camp for the night. It’s a nice, but probably untrue story. The truth, I suspect, is more pragmatic; Chili is an excellent way to prepare tough cuts of beef, and to use up otherwise inedible parts of a cow, like the suet. It also makes a little beef go a long way and is tolerant of variation. Like all great peasant food, it goes well with almost anything you have to hand.

It is so tolerant of experimentation, in fact, that when the first chili contest was held (in 1967, according to Bernard Clayton in his fabulous book The Complete Book of Soups and Stews) people started to go a little overboard with “secret ingredients” that included things like chocolate (not so unusual), peanut butter, applesauce, artichoke hearts (perish the thought) and even goat cheese. One woman attributed the key to her winning recipe to the fact that she tied her chile peppers up in the toe of her discarded panty hose.

I do not wear panty hose, and have no hope of winning any contests. My favorite chili recipe comes out of a book called Chili Nation by Jan and Michael Stern, who are these people who somehow get paid to travel around the country and eat stuff. Each page in the book features a recipe from a different state—some of them quite weird. I use the recipe from Missouri called “Mule-Kicking Hot Chili.” I chose it firstly because I usually have most of the ingredients on hand, and secondly because it didn’t arouse any of my own prejudices. Nothing makes me quite as annoyed as being served un-natural versions of great dishes: Vegetarian chili? What’s the point? “White” chili? If I want white food I’ll have a slice of Wonder bread. I want chili that acts like chili, and doesn’t get too weird in the process. The Sterns’ Hawaiian Chili recipe uses macadamia nuts, the Arizona recipe–you’d think they’d know better–involves cream cheese. And the Alabama “Whistle Stop” chili uses, (good lord), rolled oats. By contrast, the weirdest thing in the Mule Kicking Missouri chili is a can of Budweiser. Which is only to be expected, since Missouri is the home state of Anheuser Busch.

Mule-Kickin chili is an entirely meat-based recipe; no beans, and no tomatoes. I am not one of those people who feel strongly one way or the other about beans and tomatoes in a chili. I know some people do. For some folk, the phrase “add a can of crushed tomatoes” is chili-fightin’ words—tantamount to finishing the sentence “well your mother was a…!” But not me. Missouri Mule-Kickin’ Chili has all the necessary things from my point of view—it has meat and lots of it, and it had chilies, and lots of them. The base is made by soaking dried chili peppers (ancho and chipotle) in hot boiling water until they are soft, and then pureeing them in a blender. Otherwise it is just browned cubes of steak and sweet sausage, a dash of mustard for some kick, and a little bit of onion and garlic. And a can of beer.

The first time I made Mule-Kickin Hot Chili I stayed true to the recipe and ended up with a spicy hot, sharp-tasting stew that really hit the spot. But it was even better reheated the next day, and even better the day after that, when I caved and dumped in a can of crushed tomatoes to balance out the beery flavor. It is perfect for a Super Bowl Sunday meal because you can keep it simmering on the stove indefinitely, just adding more beer as the liquid cooks down. Serve it with cheap corn chips and sliced extra sharp cheddar cheese, and more of the same kind of beer you put in the chili. To make it really, really three-alarm-fire hot, add a few dried cayenne or scotch bonnet peppers to the mix.

Jan & Michael Stern’s Mule-Kickin’ Hot Chili

3 dried ancho chilies
2 dried pasilla peppers
2 dried chipotle chilies
½ cup chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lb beef round steak, trimmed of fat and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 lbs sweet Italian sausage
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 1/2teaspoons prepared hot mustard
1 (12ounce) can Budweiser beer (or your choice of non-yuppie brew)
1 tablespoon masa harina (dissolved in 1/4 cup water)

1. Put the chiles in a large heatproof bowl; add boiling water to cover.
2. Let stand 30 minutes, until soft; stem and seed them.
3. In a food processor, puree the chiles with some of the soaking water; set aside.
4. In a large pot, sauté the onion and garlic in the oil until soft.
5. Add in the beef; cook until browned; drain any excess fat; set aside.
6. Preheat the broiler; cook the sausages under the broiler until they are cooked through and crisp skinned.
7. Cut into 1 inch discs and add to the beef/onion mixture in the large pot along with the chile puree, sugar, salt, pepper, oregano, mustard, and beer.
8. Stir well and bring to a boil; decrease heat and cook at a simmering boil, partially covered, for 40 minutes.
9. Add in the masa harina mixture; cook for 10 more minutes.

Nov 9 2008

The Dilemma of Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma

[originally published here]

Michael Pollan may have ruined my Thanksgiving Dinner. I’m thinking about showing up on his doorstep and demanding he feed me. Pollan, of course, is the author of the wildly popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (Penguin Books, $16) an engaging and creative piece of investigative journalism that attempts to answer the question “What shall we eat for dinner?”

It is an age-old question that dogs every relationship at some point. My girlfriend and I must ask it of each other at least three times a week. My parents, on a night they decide to eat out, have long and frustrating conversations in the car that go something like this:

Dad: Where would you like to go?
Mom: I don’t know. Anywhere.
Dad: What are you in the mood for?
Mom: Anything. You pick.
Dad: How about Antonio’s?
Mom: No. Not there.
Dad: Mexican?
Mom: No, I don’t want Mexican.
Dad: Well, what do you feel like eating?
Mom: What do you feel like eating?
Dad: #$%!@!!!!!!

Go on, laugh. You can’t tell me you don’t have the exact same conversation with your parents/spouse/kids/significant other at least once a month.

But actually, the question of “what shall we eat for dinner” is much, much older than our dilemma of whether to go out for Italian or Chinese. Human beings are classified as omnivores—meaning, we’re open to eating pretty much anything–a fact that has been so well exploited by the food industry that you can now find blueberry pancakes, wrapped around a hot dog, ON A STICK in the frozen foods section of your supermarket. Thank you Jon Stewart for pointing that little culinary absurdity out to the entire nation. Omnivores have an evolutionary advantage over, say, herbivores (who only eat plant material) or carnivores (who only eat meat) or eucalyptus-vores (Koala bears, which will go extinct if all the eucalyptus trees die since they eat nothing else). Omnivores are adaptable in their diet, able to take advantage of new foods when the other things they have been eating become rare or disappear altogether. The down side of this evolutionary strategy, of course, is that we never know if a new food will kill us until we try it. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then, is how we decide what foods are safe and good to eat, and what foods are poison. As it turns out, most of our decision making process is genetically hardwired into us: natural feelings of euphoria or disgust, attractions to sweet tastes and avoidance of bitter flavors—all these designed to reinforce and inform our decision about what is safe to eat.

Pollan suggests that these hard-wired eating habits have been so manipulated by the modern food industry that everyone in the country is suffering from a kind of national eating disorder. Our own instinctive ability to judge what is good food or bad has been undermined and rendered impotent, and we have, in turn, abdicated the right to make those decisions to “scientific experts” and “nutritionists” who advise us, give us conflicting but important-sounding facts, and basically put the fear of God and cholesterol into us until we would probably be afraid to put anything into our mouths without the stamp of FDA approval. Given the wild success of the diet industry, it’s hard to argue with Pollan’s contention.

Pollan accordingly set out to discover where the food on his dinner plate came from. His original idea was to follow his steak back to the original cow, his potato back to the original field, and his glass of wine back to the original grapes. But he soon discovered that path food travels from farm and field to supermarket and then dinner plate is not nearly so simple. Eventually, he was forced to divide his approach into three sections. The first part is an analysis of what Pollan calls (justifiably) the “industrial food chain.” Part two looks at the organic and local food movement and in part three—most amusingly—he explores what it means to go directly from forest to food. In other words, he attempts to hunt his own dinner.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is frequently described by critics and reviewers as “a life-changing book” and when this phrase appears, it is almost entirely based on the reader’s reaction to Part One, Pollan’s expose of the industrial food chain. The author provides a fairly devastating analysis of the environmental and social costs of industrializing agriculture—focusing for this book on the country’s dependency on corn—not the kind you eat on the cob with butter, but the kind you grow to make cattle feed and to process into about half the ingredients listed on your average can of soda. His condemnation of the way Big Agriculture—corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and a few others—force farmers to produce cheap corn in excessive quantities with utter disregard for the market or the environmental impact, and the policy of the government to subsidize a practice which is basically bankrupting farmers while concentrating profits in the hands of the corporations—is blunt and uncompromising. But it isn’t Pollan’s opinions on governmental agricultural policy that got readers all riled up. It was his lurid descriptions of a beef cattle feedlot, a chicken factory farm, and the fate of your average pig that got everybody’s attention. Pollan makes sure to fully engage his readers’ genetic inclination for disgust and he does it well. It took nothing more than his statement that chickens in egg-laying factories have their beaks clipped off with hot pliers (so they don’t peck and cannibalize the other half dozen hens crammed in their two-foot by two-foot space) to make me put down my usual carton of a dozen eggs at the supermarket, and pick up the ones next to them on the shelf, which were twice as expensive, but said “organic” and more to the point “free range”.

Pollan essentially gets the same reaction from his readers to his descriptions of cattle standing sick and wheezing, ankle-deep in their own muck, or pigs enduring a lifetime of suffering from their neighbors gnawing on their docked tails, or even the simple fact that any person who enters a factory farm animal shed usually has to wear a hazmat suit, as Upton Sinclair did when he wrote about the meat packing industry in his novel The Jungle. Sinclair, a committed socialist, was trying to engage the country’s sympathy for the immigrant poor. His aim was a little off. “I tried to hit Americans in the heart,” he is supposed to have said, “but I hit them in the stomach.”

Pollan, I think, has suffered the same fate. He wrote a book that calls for fundamental change in agricultural policy and in the way we regard our relationship with food, but readers are distracted from the complexity of his arguments (not all of which are convincing) by the sheer grossness and awfulness of parts of the story. We are, after all, basically good and kind at heart. We don’t like to read about cruelty, even (or especially) to animals. This is a country where it is a truism in the publishing industry that if you want a novel to sell, you can’t kill a dog in the story. We certainly don’t want to think about the fact that the chicken we just were handed through the KFC drive-through window spent its short miserable existence in a kind of living hell. By the time the reader turns to Part Two, he is desperate to think of something else.

In part two, after a brief foray into what Pollan calls “industrial organic”—these are the companies who provide the lettuce on the organic shelves of your supermarket produce sections, the author spends a week living on a small organic and “sustainable” farm in Virginia. The farmer is a member of what Pollan calls the “non-barcode people”, he produces food for local markets and has made his farm self-sufficient and self-sustaining; Orchestrating a diverse set of produce that includes raising chickens, beef and pork as well as organic vegetables. After the previous hundred and eighty pages, Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms seems like an idyll. Heaven on earth. The answer to all our food prayers. Pollan first encountered Joel when his steaks were recommended by a friend. Pollan lives in California. He called the farmer and asked him to FedEx a couple steaks.

“No.” said Joel. “You want to eat my steak, you’ll have to drive up here and get it.”

That answer is a fair indication of the kind of philosophy—bordering on fanaticism—that this particular farmer holds. Pollan faithfully arranges to spend a week on his farm to understand how it works, and what agriculture based on grazing and grass rather than feedlots and corn actually means. And it is hard not to be converted by his descriptions of the happy chickens in the fields, the cattle lowing on the pastures, the pigs rooting through compost (not to mention the vibrant grass and lush woods on the hilly farm). His first night at Polyface farms, they have farm-raised chicken and farm-grown broccoli in a casserole for dinner. There are deviled farm-laid eggs. The only things at the table that didn’t come from the fields outside were the can of mushroom soup Theresa Salatin used to make the casserole, and the paper towels she used to wipe the counter.

There was only ice water to drink.

And there, I paused. The fact that there was no alcohol in the farm house might be a function of the farmer’s peculiar brand of Christian libertarianism and fundamentalism (there were grape vines on the land). But there was no coffee. And the reason there was no coffee was simply because Polyface farms couldn’t grow coffee. I can appreciate the environmental benefits and impact of the farm, and naturally, after the horrors of the first part of the book I had no trouble converting and extolling the virtues of locally produced meat from happy animals. But something always stops me from completely accepting the local-only dictum that Joel Salatin preaches—to great effect, I admit.

I was drinking coffee as I read that he had none on his farm—“fair trade” coffee that comes from women growers in Peru. I drink enough of it that I’m sure I’m keeping at least one Peruvian family in clothes and cornmeal. In my pantry I have a variety of odd ingredients, included dried Asian mushrooms, walnuts from New England, Pecans from Georgia, and cranberries from some place in Massachusetts. There is chocolate from Belgium. In the fridge there is cheese from Switzerland and proscuitto from Italy. I have three kinds of olive oil, none of which was grown or bottled in the United States, balsamic vinegar, cans of coconut milk, Mexican cinnamon and mole sauce, and couscous from Morocco. And sitting on my kitchen table is a bunch of bananas that this week, anyway, came from South America. The most dire, fire-and-brimstone, impassioned preacher on the sins of importing food or the saving grace of local eggs could never make me give up my bananas.

I think it is because one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways we come to terms with and accept foreign cultures is by learning to eat and enjoy their cuisines. A shared meal has more potential to erase xenophobia and racism than almost any other social activity. The family on Polyface farm will never eat sushi, never enjoy pad Thai or Massaman curry because lemongrass and coconuts can’t be grown on their farm. They won’t have oysters because they don’t live by the sea. They won’t ever eat fish because no one on Polyface is a fisherman. I get a real pleasure from eating the things I grow in my garden. But I also get a real pleasure from exploring the world via its food. I’d hate to live in a world where I would have to actually go to Morocco to eat couscous. And I wonder about that farm’s self-imposed restrictions–when does their commitment to nurturing their own land become a rejection of the rest of the world at their doorstep?

Michael Pollan, it has to be said, does NOT wonder about this. But he wonders about many other things. He considers the ethics of eating animals and the point of hunting in a culture where food is provided for us. He contemplates the economics of cheap food and the devastation of world hunger, the never-ending struggle between providing profit and providing health. He describes, in great and searingly-self-aware detail, how it feels to kill something and how it feels to eat something you have killed. He struggles with his own personal prejudices and assumptions, and finds in the end a kind of redemption in his meal. And ultimately that tendency to wonder, to think about our food and why we eat the things we do is the great good thing about The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Wondering and thinking has seriously complicated my plans for Thanksgiving Dinner, thank you very much. I had just finished the part of the book where Pollan described exactly how many chickens can be crammed into a cage when my girlfriend called to say that turkey was on sale for twenty cents a pound that weekend. I felt not excited, but rather nauseous. “Let’s have oysters for Thanksgiving” I told her. I would have loved turkey. I had already been planning on what kind of turkey to cook. But if you want a happy, free range organic turkey from a local farm you have to order it ahead of time—like three to four months ahead of time, since that is how long it takes for a turkey to grow up. I’d obviously missed my window. Our Thanksgiving Dinner was going to require some careful thought.

“I had actually wanted to say something more,” Pollan writes about the final meal he cooks for friends who have helped him to hunt a wild pig (California is full of them, who knew?) and gather morel mushrooms, “to express a wider gratitude for the meal we were about to eat, but I was afraid that to offer words of thanks for the pig and the mushrooms and the forests and the garden would come off sounding corny and worse, might ruin some appetites. The words I was reaching for, of course, were the words of grace. But as the conversation at the table unfurled like a sail amid the happy clatter of silver, tacking from stories of hunting to mother lodes of mushrooms to abalone adventures, I realized that in this particular case words of grace were unnecessary. Why? Because that’s what the meal itself had become, for me certainly but I suspect for some of the others, too: a wordless way to say grace.”

And ultimately, if The Omnivore’s Dilemma does nothing else but this—if it never effects any change in agricultural policy, never convinces a single reader to buy an organic chicken, never even makes a single person attempt to grow their own tomatoes—if all it does is make us think of the food in front of us as a kind of grace, then it will have done enough.

Sep 10 2008

Sweet tea

“In the south, sweetened ice tea is taken for granted, like the idea that stock car racing is our national pastime and that the Southern Baptist chrch is a legitimate arm of the Republican Party. If you order ice tea in a restaurant, it will arrive presweetened. If you want it unsweetened, you must ask for it. Actually, you must demand it with pistol drawn and cocked.”
–Fred Chappell, “Iced Tea: A Contrarian’s View” from Cornbread Nation by John Edgerton

The first meal I had in Wilmington was a Hardee’s combo from a drive-through window. (My options were a little limited at home, where everything was still in boxes). The girl handed me a paper bag greasy form the upturned French fries, and a slippery waxed cup for my Coke. “Soda” I had said when asked. Where I grew up in Buffalo, we called it “pop”, but in Boston it was “soda.” When I took a sip, though, it was sweet tea.

I’ve since learned that no matter what I tell the mysterious little creature in the drive through intercom I want to drink, I am more than likely to be handed a cup of sweet tea at the window. I don’t even check any more. It happens to me at restaurants, at hot dog stands, and at refreshment stands. In fact, the first thing I had to become acclimated to living in the South wasn’t the heat, wasn’t the hurricanes, wasn’t even the barbecue. It was sweet tea.

Just how this drink became so ubiquitous in the South—so prevalent that couple of years ago a Georgia state official tried to pass a bill requiring sweet tea be served in all restaurants as an April Fool’s joke (everybody laughed but the bill was deemed unnecessary)–is something of a mystery. Hoodlums in Boston may have been dumping boxes of tea into the harbor, but by the end of the 1700s it was being grown in South Carolina—the only state to attempt to make tea a commercial crop. Before there was sweet tea, apparently, there was punch—English aristocrats, bored and taking decadence to new heights, hit upon the idea of spiking bowls of cold tea with fruit and liquor. This went over phenomenally well in England and like all English fashions began to be slavishly copied by the upper classes on these shores. Regional versions of quickly popped up, each trying to out do the last in potency. Charleston has its St. Cecelia Punch, and Savannah its notorious Chatham Artillery Punch:

Chatham Artillery Punch

– 1 1/2 gallons catawba wine
– 1/2 gallon rum
– 1 quart gin
– 1 quart brandy
– 1/2 pint Benedictine
– 2 quarts Maraschino cherries
– 1 1/2 quarts rye whiskey
– 1 1/2 gallons strong tea
– 2 1/2 pounds brown sugar
– 1 1/2 quarts orange juice
– 1 1/2 quarts lemon juice

Mix from 36 to 48 hours before serving. Add one case of champagne when ready to serve.

There is a legend to the effect that the punch was originally created by the genteel wives of the Chatham Artillery members, and it is they who are responsible for the tea, the sugar and the orange and lemon juices in the recipe. But while the punch was brewing, their husbands, the rascals, snuck into the kitchens and secretly added a little of this or a little of that to give the punch a bit of a kick. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the men didn’t tell each other what they were up to, and most of the secret stashes in the barracks ended up in the punch.

It wasn’t until ice became generally available in the mid 1800’s that iced tea became a popular drink, with recipes showing up in church and family cookbooks. It was the refreshment of choice at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and has remained popular ever since. Up until World War II, the “tea” in iced tea might have been either black or green tea, but the war cut off the usual sources of green tea, and the only tea available was black tea from British-controlled India. After the war, black tea was almost universal in the US, and it is only very recently that green teas have come back into favor.

So how do you make Southern sweet tea? Southern women get as fussy over the proper way to make sweet tea as Southern men do over the proper way to barbecue a pig. The main thing to remember is that tea is a delicate plant that doesn’t take kindly to abuse. Using boiling water will ruin a pot of tea and make it bitter. So regardless of whether you believe that the water should be brought to the pot, or the pot to the water, it is vital that after you bring the water to a boil, you turn off the heat and let it sit for a couple of minutes before pouring it over the tea to brew.

If there is a classic “original” sweet tea recipe it is this one from Henrietta Stanley Dull, who was the Home Economics Editor for the Atlanta Journal in 1928:

TEA – Freshly brewed tea, after three to five minutes’ infusion, is essential if a good quality is desired. The water, as for coffee, should be freshly boiled and poured over the tea for this short time . . . The tea leaves may be removed when the desired strength is obtained . . . Tea, when it is to be iced, should be made much stronger, to allow for the ice used in chilling. A medium strength tea is usually liked. A good blend and grade of black tea is most popular for iced tea, while green and black are used for hot . . . To sweeten tea for an iced drink-less sugar is required if put in while tea is hot, but often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end there is more often a waste than saving . . . Iced tea should be served with or without lemon, with a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of orange, or pineapple. This may be fresh or canned fruit. Milk is not used in iced tea.

But oddly enough, I don’t like Mrs. Dull’s directions, which always makes the tea taste too bitter. My usual recipe comes from Mama Dip, although I’ve altered it a little bit because Mama Dip likes her tea a little stronger than I do:

Rosa’s Southern Sweet Tea

9 family-sized tea bags, or 18 regular-sized tea bags
1 cup sugar
1 quart of boiling water
1 quart of cold water

Take the boiling water off the heat and let is sit for two minutes. Pour it into a pot and add the tea bags (I usually take the little paper tags off and tie all the strings together). Let steep for 15 minutes. Pour into a pitcher, add sugar and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. (Having grains of un-dissolved sugar in your tea is like wearing a new dress and forgetting to cut off the price tag). Add the cold water to the pot and squeeze the tea bags against the sides of the pot with the back of a spoon. Give the cold water a quick stir and then add it to the pitcher as well. Serve in tall glasses 2/3 full with ice.

You can add slices of lemon to either the pitcher or in the individual glasses, but don’t squeeze the lemons into the iced tea, and don’t, no matter what, use lemon flavoring or mix.

Aug 25 2008

Learning to love lasagna

They say that first impressions are everything, and I think this is true of food more than most things in our lives. You can get over the fact that the first time you saw your future husband he was that total jerk drunk off his ass who threw up all over your shoes. But you never get over your mama’s pumpkin pie, or the way your grandmama made soup when you were a kid, or how your dad taught you was the only proper way to grill a hamburger. You may have other pumpkin pies, with richer ingredients and more subtle flavors. But although they may taste good—even spectacular–they will never give the same sense of satisfaction as the pie you grew up with. Your mother’s pie carries the weight of definition—it is the pie one ought to find under “p” in the dictionary.

Of course, the opposite is also true. A bad first experience can ruin a thing for life. There was a time when a friend and I once ate far too much popcorn—binged on the stuff, actually–and got as sick as only two girls who have eaten nothing but candy and popcorn and orange sodas can. To this day, I don’t order popcorn at movies. And it wasn’t until someone thought to cover popcorn in powdered cheese that I was able to eat the stuff once again. (Cheese popcorn tasted nothing like the oily, buttery stuff I made myself sick on at the age of eight).

Which brings me to lasagna, a dish that has been my bete noir for most of my life. I don’t actually remember the very first time I ate lasagna. It must have been very young, and it couldn’t have been all that bad an experience. I am Italian, after all. But I do remember the first two dozen times I had lasagna—and it became a re-occuring trial and source of much angst in my family.

My grandmother, you see, got it into her head that we—the entire family—loved lasagna. That it was our very favorite meal on earth. So she naturally made it whenever we came for a visit. The problem was, at this time in our lives my grandmother lived in another state, and it was a good six or seven hour drive to get to her house. Sometimes even longer, if mom and dad decided to stop for a rest along the way (a necessity when the car is crammed with three kids). And because we would often leave for our visit after my dad came home from teaching school, sometimes we wouldn’t pull in to grandma’s drive until ten or even eleven at night.

And there she’d be; the table set, the house filled with the aroma of tomatoes and garlic, and a great huge pan of lasagna just laying in wait for us. Now kids are pretty resilient, but I can tell you that after a long and cramped car ride (back before the days when cars had air conditioners), the last thing any of us felt like doing when we finally arrived was sit down to a big meal, only to go right to bed afterwards with stuffed, queasy stomachs. Still, there was no getting out of it. You couldn’t tell grandma you weren’t hungry. You couldn’t tell her that it was too late to eat anything. She would just look at you with that grandma-knows-best look and say, “oh, you can eat just a little something.”

A little something. Words that made us all groan in despair. What made the whole thing especially frustrating was that grandma was a small person who didn’t eat enough to keep a chihuahua alive. So while we all had to force down generous helpings of pasta heavy with ricotta cheese and italian sausage, Grandma would just sit with us at the table and WATCH US EAT. Mom has told me that they tried calling ahead on these trips. Dad would phone grandma from some rest stop to tell her specifically and unambigously NOT to cook. “We’ve eaten on the road” he’d say. “You don’t need to make anything.” “Oh,” grandma would answer, “I’ll just have a little something.” “Crap.” Dad would say to mom as he hung up the phone. The lasagna would be waiting.

Lasagna may not be your first weapon of choice when waging a passive aggessive war, but it is a very effective one. Mom stopped making lasagna at home. Once I left for college, I never ate lasagna again. I have learned to cook, learned to tell good Italian food from bad, learned how to distinguish between the sauces of the different provinces of Italy, but I have never ordered the lasagna in any restaurant. Just the thought of it brought a lingering and faint sense of dread. It is a little embarrassing to admit that as an Italian food critic I am afraid of lasagna, so this month I decided to conquer my irrational fear and reclaim this signature dish.

Lasagna is one of the great comfort foods. I have always assumed the incarnation we now think of– a lavish dish with layer upon layer of cheese, meat, pasta and rich sauce to be rather medieval. They had a way of going rather over the top when it came to food—medievals were constantly doing things like stuffing sparrows into peacocks, and the layered hedonism of lasagna seemed to come from the same kind of indulgent impulse. In fact, lasagna, or a version of it, can be traced back to the Romans—who knew all about over doing things.

I decided that if I was going to reclaim lasagna for myself, it had to be something significantly different from my grandmother’s, and yet still feel traditional. No eggplant substitutes, no “vegetarian” versions. No sneaking in mushrooms instead of meat. But neither did I want it to be “too cheesy” or “too tomato-y”—the two faults that I have always associated with my grandmother’s version.

Eventually I decided to make something that might be considered a cross between your traditional lasagna, and the Bolognese version that uses less tomatoes, and more mushrooms and bechemal sauce. I followed a traditional recipe, but added prosciutto to the sausage layer, and grated smoked cheese to the ricotta layer. I also made a tomato sauce from scratch, because canned sauces are always too sweet for me. Ever since I learned to make baked tomato sauce (where the tomatoes, peppers and garlic are all roasted before being peeled, crushed and stirred into the sauce) I haven’t been satisfied with anything less.

The end result (from the recipe below) was amazing. Oh, I had my difficulties—I discovered that one result of avoiding lasagna my entire life was that I had no lasagna pan, so I had to make do with a baking dish that was a little too shallow for my purposes. I also discovered that while I have a fairly decent sense of what ingredients go well together, I apparently have no spatial sense at all—I made far too much pasta. I really only needed enough for about three layers (nine sheets). I made twice that amount, much to the amusement of friends. And since there is really nothing you can do with cooked lasagna noodles except make lasagna with them, I was forced to throw some of it out.

Still, all in all, the mission was a success. I found that while the dish looked like grandma’s lasagna, it tasted very different. Rich and smoky from the mozzarella and the roasted tomato sauce. The mushrooms also helped nudge the taste away from the sharp, tomato-y taste I remembered.The proscuitto melted into the dish, acting almost as a seasoning for the sausage—I used 5 ounces, which I think made the dish a little too salty, so I’ve reduced the amount in the recipe below.

Most importantly, I’ve started looking forward to having lasagna. I find I am now looking for it on the menu when I go out to eat, and finding excuses to invite people over so I can serve it at home. I think I have finally exorcised that demon. And when Mom called to say she and my father would be driving down for a visit this summer, I told her I’d be sure to have lasagna.

“What?!?” she said in alarm.

Rosa’s Lasagna (based on a recipe from Gourmet Magazine, May 2004)
Feeds 6-8, especially if consumed just after they have arrived from a long car trip
3 tablespoons olive oil
1.5 pounds FRESH Italian sweet sausage (not spicy!!). Take it out of the casing if there is any. If you are using regular Italian sausage (not fresh) then add a half teaspoon rubbed sage.
3 ounces prosciutto, chopped
2 cups chopped onions
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 garlic cloves, roasted in their skins then peeled
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
half a teaspoon of cinnamon
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can San marzano tomatoes OR
five good-quality marzano tomatoes, skins oiled and roasted, then peeled and crushed, juices reserved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Aug 20 2008

The Tao of Breakfast

“Why is breakfast different from all other things, so that the Greeks called it the best thing in the world, and so that each of us in a vague way knows that he would eat at breakfast nothing but one special kind of food, and that he could not imagine breakfast at any other hour in the day?” —Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome

I am a morning person; one of those annoying people that wakes instantly and completely the moment they open their eyes, able to play chess, fix computer errors and write review columns even before having a cup of coffee. Not that this is my favorite way to spend a morning, but I can rise to the occasion if required. (“Only dull people,” says Oscar Wilde, “are brilliant at breakfast.”) It is a result of early childhood indoctrination. Dad would get up every morning at 5 am to go running, and Mom would be up shortly after to make us breakfast before trundling us off to school. I walked to school, so I was often out the door before seven, and at my desk for morning chorus practice before eight.

Mom never let us out the door without eating something, and to give her credit, breakfast was always a “meal” in the fullest sense of the word—meaning, something that required dishes, silverware, glasses of juice and at least twenty minutes to consume. Looking back now, I remember “healthy” cereals without frosting or bright colors, French toast, bagels, pancakes, and as a rare treat, eggs and Canadian bacon. (Mom didn’t believe in sugar or cholesterol). I remember rejecting oatmeal and yogurt, but liking granola and cinnamon toast.

It was in college—that terrible era when so many bad eating habits are adopted–that I learned to accept yogurt into my pantheon of acceptable breakfasts, and at a particularly low point in my life, cold pizza. College was the era of the granola bar and the cup of yogurt, the sausage biscuit and the breakfast that didn’t require a plate or a fork. Those were busy, dark days. But even then, if asked about my “ideal” breakfast, I would have said cereal, eggs and bacon, bagels and toast.

Where this intractable stubbornness with regards to breakfast comes from, I can’t guess, but I’m not alone. Belloc’s observation above on the nature of breakfast comes during a morning spent drinking wine and eating bread and cheese—all of which had tasted delicious to him the night before, but were absolutely dreadful things to contemplate upon waking. “…In the harsh light of dawn [the wine] turned out to be nothing but a bitter and intolerable vinegar.” One suspects that the taste of the wine in the morning was very much dependent on how much of it he had drunk the night before. I love bacon and eggs in the morning, but like Belloc and his wine, simply can’t imagine having them at any other time of the day. Likewise, there are foods I just never want to see on a breakfast plate, something I discovered after moving South and eating at diners known for their “country” breakfasts.

I can’t tolerate sliced tomatoes on my plate with my eggs, for example—it brings up all sorts of bad associations involving this one cigarette-infested roadside diner and a waitress who chewed tobacco. The slick feel of a slice of beefsteak tomato—perfectly appetizing on a plate with some fresh mozzarella or in a spinach salad, is just revolting when it is sitting, cold and slimy, in the grease puddle made by my under-done eggs. I have learned, since moving to North Carolina, to simply tolerate things like grits and hash browns, and chocolate chip pancakes. I can admit that buttermilk biscuits are an acceptable substitute for toast. I no longer immediately retch when the guy at the next table orders fried pork chops AND steak with his eggs over easy. I’ve learned, after a few crash courses in the Cracker Barrel, to deal with the fact that some people put that thick gooey white “gravy” all over their biscuits and potatoes. I have even learned to like Texas Pete hot sauce on my eggs almost as much as Tabasco. If that doesn’t show I’ve acclimated, then I don’t know what would.

I don’t mean to sound intractable or fussy—I’ve eaten a lot of different breakfast foods over the last ten years as a food critic, from sausage burritos to “garden” omelets, to fancy pancakes in ridiculous shapes, to crepes filled with things that belong more on a dinner menu than a morning meal. I’ve liked most everything I’ve eaten, but—and here is the caveat—as food, not as “breakfast.” I can’t imagine starting my day with a seafood-filled crepe in garlic-lemon sauce on a regular basis. When I get up in the morning I do not, and never will think first of sausage burrito. Breakfast, at least at home, is a way to start your day out right. And “right,” in my case, will always be the prosaic eggs and bacon. The most decadent crabmeat-filled crepe with a side of strawberries and champagne would never make me feel as happy, as satisfied, as a plate of scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, juice and a cup of strong black coffee. As life philosophies go, I’m with the journalist John Gunther, who said:

“All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”

Rosa’s Decadent Scrambled Eggs
[this recipe is slightly modified from one I heard on Lynne Rossetto Kaspar’s radio show, The Splendid Table]
Serves 2
• 1 large scallion, thinly sliced
• 1/2 tightly packed tablespoon curly parsley leaves, chopped
• 1/2 tightly packed tablespoon fresh basil or tarragon leaves, chopped
• 6 large eggs (think 3 per person)
• 3 ounces cream cheese, cut into about 3/4-inch pieces (can substitute goat cheese, sharp cheddar, brie, or even port salut)
• Salt and freshly ground pepper as needed
• 2 tablespoons butter
1. Combine the chopped herbs. In a medium bowl use a fork beat all the eggs until well mixed. Stir in the herbs, and a little salt and pepper.
2. In a 10-inch heavy non-stick skillet melt the butter over medium heat. Add the eggs and allow to cook gently for several minutes without stirring. Sprinkle cheese pieces uniformly on one half of the eggs, and after another minute, use a wide spatula to flip the empty half over, like an omelet. Allow half a minute more and then flip the whole thing again.
3. Lower heat to medium low and flip once more, scraping up any egg sticking to the pan, for 3 minutes, or until the eggs are as dry as you like and the cheese is melted or melting. I like mine wet, but this recipe works very well for people who like well-cooked eggs, since the oils in the cheese keep them from getting too dry.

Aug 15 2008

Learning to Bake Bread

“The first time your mother ever baked a loaf of bread,” my Dad used to tell me with fondness, “it was so hard it put a hole through the drywall in our apartment.” I’ve always had a hard time believing this story, because my mother is one of those people who ends up being very good at whatever she decides to do—from gardening to cooking to raising kids to drawing to decorating Easter eggs to being completely prepared for any eventuality that might occur on a family camping trip with three small children. So the idea that she could decide to bake a loaf of bread and have it NOT turn out perfectly stretches the imagination a bit. Still, I have to admit that when I think of my mother and baking, what I remember was an endless series of cookies, pies and desserts; cranberry bread and carrot cake and date pinwheels and banana nut bread. I don’t remember bread—as in sourdough or sandwich, although I suppose she must have made it because otherwise why would my father and I be having that conversation?

Still, it wasn’t until I was out of college and in my own apartment that I started to pay attention to bread, buying my first loaf of non-white, non-presliced, artisan-crafted sourdough from a crunchy-granola supermarket down the street called “Bread and Circus.” I had to buy a bread knife to slice it. At that point in my life, bread—and eating—was an act of resistance. I shopped at food coops for organic produce and bought herbs and spices in little plastic ziploc bags that would have surely made a cop’s eyebrows climb if he happened to peer into my back pack on grocery day. And because I was very poor, and buying organic was rather expensive, I ate a lot of bread, which at least had the virtue of being filling even if it wasn’t all that cheap.

I experimented a little bit with baking my own bread in those days, but I was too easily intimidated by the counter-cooking-culture to really feel comfortable with it. Back then, my friends were the type to build their own wood-fired stone bread ovens in their back yards, and use 100-year-old sour dough cultures they had preserved from immigrant great great grandmothers. They ordered stone ground organic flour off of cheaply printed order forms from special coop farms. They let their breads rise in hand-made bowls and baked them on special stones and tiles they found in little artisan shops in Italy and France. A loaf of their bread probably cost about twenty-five bucks when you took into account all the extra time spent procuring pure ingredients and special equipment, and I could eat for a week on $25 if I didn’t mind the taste of Ramen pride too much. Besides, I lived in a tiny apartment with an oven whose thermostat was…eccentric. It made baking difficult.

So it wasn’t until I came South, moved into a house with a little more space than your average walk-in closet, and installed an oven that meant what it said when it showed the tempurature to be 400 F, that I tried once again to learn how to bake bread. It was a different experience this time around. I was in a brand new kitchen, a brand new house in a brand new city. I didn’t know anyone, and had no one to impress but myself (and my mother, who I still called regularly once a week). I had five pounds of flour in the cupboard and nothing else to do with it but bake. I had one large glass bowl, two regular sized glass bread loaf pans, and one fairly sturdy wooden spoon. I had a baker’s dozen books on the art of baking bread “from scratch.” I had no job and a lot of time.

As it turned out, all my bread baking books, while fascinating to read, were rather more complicated than I was willing to attempt as a nascent bread baker, so after a bit of searching I found what looked like a simple recipe in the back of one of my cookbooks that was actually devoted to soups and stews. “Good soup deserves good bread.” said author Bernard Clayton, who then proceeds to give a simple recipe for “A Peasant Loaf” using only flour, water, yeast and salt. It turned out so well, I have been using the same recipe ever since.

Bernard Clayton\'s Complete Book of Soups and StewsOh, I’ve wandered. I’ve tried more elaborate doughs, added other ingredients, used other kinds of flour and other types of starters. I have gone through whole grain phases and challah phases and flatbread phases. I even once had the freezer full of naan—a kind of Indian bread made with yogurt that is cooked in a frying pan stuck in an oven. That was educational, but ultimately wasteful since even I couldn’t eat that much naan. But on the whole, Clayton’s original peasant loaf has proved so reliable that I come back to it again and again, the rhythm of it so ingrained in my hands that I haven’t needed to look at the recipe for years. In fact, when a friend asked me for my bread recipe, I had to actually think my way through the steps to give it to her—like the way you can only tell someone the lyrics of a song if you sing it to yourself in your head.

Baking bread became a kind of ritual for me. I often give the loaves away (one person can only eat so much bread) but I used the process as a way to relax. Some people do yoga, I knead dough. The smell of loaves baking in the oven is more therapeutic than aromatherapy. And far more satisfying. It took a few months before I learned—by feel—when the dough had been kneaded to that perfect, silky elasticity, and when I had over done it. It took awhile before I had figured out when the water was too hot or too cold for the yeast. And there was one fateful and sad day when I forgot I had left the dough rising, and it did far more than double in size—spilling over the lip of the bowl and dripping down over the edges of the counter tops.

Now, I use the recipe below—tweaked slightly to accommodate the use of some sourdough starter my mother gave me–and bake bread about once every other week—unless it has been a very stressful week, in which case I might go through a good five pounds of flour baking bread for the neighborhood.
As decompression techniques go kneading bread dough is pretty harmless. I could be out drinking.

A Peasant Loaf
Inspired by The Complete Book of Soups and Stews by Bernard Clayton (Fireside Books, 1984)


2 packages dry yeast
1 cup sourdough starter
2 cups of water (70 F)
6 cups of bread flour, approximately
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons water
Butter or shortening

1. Sprinkle the yeast over the 2 cups of water in a mixing bowl. Let stand for a moment or two, then stir to dissolve the yeast particles.
2. Add starter, stir until mixed, then add 3 cups of flour and stir into a thick batter. This is the point where you can add seasonings as well—rosemary, or cracked peppercorns, or caraway seeds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for 4 to 6 hours, until size doubles.
3. Mix the salt with two teaspoons of water and pour into the batter. Add flour, ½ cup at a time, stirring first with a wooden spatula or spoon and then working by hand as it gets less sticky. When the dough is shaggy but a solid ball, turn out onto a work table. Begi kneading aggresively—psuh down with the fingers of both hands, turn the dough a quarter turn and fold over—continue this rhythm. Sprinkle on more flour as neeeded to give the dough additional body—it should not slump when formed into a ball. Occasionally slam the dough down hard against the work surface to speed the formation of the gluten. Dough should be elastic, firm but not hard.
4. Lightly film a bowl with butter or shortening and place the lump of dough in it. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for about 1.5 hours—until it more than doubles in volume.
5. Punch down the puffy dough and put it on a lightly floured work surface. Shape into one large loaf or divide the ball into as many pieces as you want loaves or rolls.. For round loaves (boules) shape the pieces into blls and place them on a greased baking sheet (you can sprinkly a little cornmeal on the sheet if you like). For baguettes, roll the dough under your palms to extend out 16 to 20 inches and place on a baking sheet.
6. Cover the loaves with wax paper and leave at room teperature until they have risen to more than double in volume.
7. Place 1 cup of hot water in a shallow pan in the bottom of the oven to provide steam during the first few minutes of baking. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
8. With a razor blade or VERY sharp knife, make diagonal cuts across the loaves. Place the loaves on the middle shelf of the over. Bake for 25-35 minutes. Loaves are done when they are a golden brown in color and hard on the bottom, and sound hollow when thumped.
9. Place on a rack to cool.

Aug 12 2008

My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King

I have an endless fascination with cookbooks from far away countries, of unfamiliar cuisines. Which would explain why I own cookbooks—note the plural—devoted to the cooking of Eritrea and why I felt inclined once to buy an entire volume devoted to traditional recipes of Kenya. But as fascinating as these books are, they can rarely be found cracked open on my kitchen counter before dinner. The problem with books devoted to exotic dishes is that they usually require rather exotic ingredients. The local Hampstead Food Lion, my current supermarket, is a very wonderful place but has not, as yet, taken to stocking things like kaffir lime leaves or “taff” (a small, specialized eastern African grain). Usually these books are for dreaming, not for using.

My Bombay KitchenBut occasionally, they aren’t. Sometimes, you come across a cookbook that is as fun to use as it is to read, and I think that King’s My Bombay Kitchen may well be one of this rarified group. The subtitle of the book is “Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking” which is why I picked up the book in the first place. Although I like to talk about my Italian grandmother and her endless attempts to force us to eat swimming pool-sized helpings of lasagna, in truth I happen to come from a family that –thanks to several rather adventurous aunts—is a little more international. I have some cousins who are Arab, and one who is African American. One especially adventurous aunt married a Parsi—his family lives in India although his ethnicity is actually Persian. (My mother says that our family portraits look like a little United Nations gathering.) Dinners at my aunt’s house were always exciting.

Parsi cooking is a complex amalgam of rich Middle Eastern cuisine and high-caste Indian cooking. Recipes tend to have lots of ingredients, and especially lots of spices. It is…a joyous cuisine, I guess, where every dish seems to have an exuberance and extravagance that I normally associate with special holiday dinners. King’s book—written as part family memoir and part culinary exploration of a cultural foodway—is a testament to this joyousness, this delight. This is a cuisine, one realizes, for people who love to eat.
Not that there aren’t a few oddities that I’ll probably never try making in my kitchen. I could do without the “kharia” which is a very short, innocuous word for “trotters with black-eyed peas.” King claims she has been “hopelessly and gluttonously fond of it since childhood” but most readers and cooks are no doubt willing to take her at her word. Nor was I immediately enamored of King’s recipe for “Brain Cutlets” –a dish, she says, of “brains for people who don’t like brains.” Which would be pretty much everyone, would it not.
But organ meat oddities aside, My Bombay Kitchen is packed from start to finish with recipes that bring new meaning to the phrase “mouth watering”. Her seafood ragout (“patia”) takes a full two and a half pages to describe (no pictures), will leave your kitchen redolent in the scent of chilies and turmeric and the tang of tamarind, and is absolutely exquisite when it is finally, finally finished. Most of the recipes are like this—requiring time and attention but immensely rewarding for the effort. They are also full of surprises. The crab salad includes mango. The coleslaw includes lime and mint. The “Thanksgiving Turkey”, the kind of modern adaptation one might expect of a family that had migrated from Mumbai to San Francisco, is made with ginger and pomegranate molasses.

King is careful to include extensive descriptions of each dish—sometimes culled from her own experiences and family memories, and sometimes showing the evidence of diligent research. This makes My Bombay Kitchen read like an intricate combination of memoir, history, and cooking class. But despite the sometimes overwhelming amount of information, it remains a fundamentally useful volume for a home cook. Even if that home cook does not, like the author, have the good fortune to live in a city like San Francisco. I found myself impressed with how many recipes could be made with a little garlic-chili paste, some turmeric, and a few fresh garden vegetables. The quick-cooked greens, what the author calls “express bhaji”, are delicious with the addition of a little ginger and chili. I made them with kale, which tastes sharp and spicy, and again with collards (I can hear my southern mama-in-law is tut-tutting up there in heaven). And I was very much impressed with King’s “Get-Well Soup”, which I really could have used back in January when I was shivering with a low-grade fever for weeks on end. This is not your average chicken soup. One reviewer called it “the first real cure for the common cold” and frankly, he had a point.

In the end, My Bombay Kitchen stayed open on my kitchen counter for over a week, during which the scents of ginger, garlic, chili and sautéing vegetables and chicken wafted out of the kitchen window nearly the entire time. I could see my next-door neighbors turn and look towards the house with something like wonder, or envy. As interesting as the book is to read, My Bombay Kitchen is really a book for people who love to cook. And all of their friends, who must love to eat.

Get Well Soup

1 small chicken (about 2 pounds), all visible fat removed
6 to 8 slices peeled fresh ginger
6 to 8 slices fresh turmeric
4 cloves garlic, crushed
6 whole cloves
12 (or more) black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2.5 quarts of water
lime or lemon halves
freshly ground black pepper

Put the chicken in a deep pot with the ginger, turmeric, garlic, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and about 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover with the water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently until the chicken is falling off the bones.