Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Recipes, Cookbooks and Magazines

I’m not one of those brilliant home cooks who can just whip up a creative recipe on a moment’s notice. I like recipes. I tend to adapt them as needed and occasionally I make up something (usually a salad or a pasta dish), but I have a real love for recipes. I have a pretty big collection of cookbooks, which I mostly use for looking at pictures and special occasions. I think of my cookbook collection the way other people think of their coffee table books. 

I also subscribe to a couple of cooking magazines. For years I’ve been a loyal Cooking Light fan, but in the past year or so it’s become less interesting to me. They have a new layout and seem to be catering to brand-new cooks, who apparently need pictures of everything in order to make a 5-ingredient recipe (I’m not able to find a visual example, but imagine a recipe with pictures around the edge of salt and lemon. I, for one, do not need a picture of a lemon to know what a lemon is). In past years, I would eagerly sit down with the new issue when it arrived and read it cover to cover, and then go back through and tear out 20 recipes or so. Now, I skim it much more quickly and tend to pull only a couple of recipes.

I think it’s time to end my subscription. I have far more complicated feelings about this than I should. I have been subscribing for nine years. That’s twice as long as my relationship with my husband! (No worries on that front, though; I’m confident I will ultimately have a much longer relationship with my husband than with Cooking Light). I’ve purchased the cookbook collections of nearly every year that I’ve been a subscriber, and will continue to cook their recipes, but only those from 2002-2011.
I also subscribe to Bon Appétit, which makes me feel slightly highfalutin, but I enjoy it. I rarely cook recipes from it, with one notable exception: this butternut squash risotto with shrimp. I make this recipe probably once a month when butternut squash is in season, and even made it for my in-laws with resounding success. But most of the recipes in BA have far too much fat for me to contemplate, except perhaps on special occasions.

I mentioned that I have a number of cookbooks. The only two I cook from with any regularity are Ellie Krieger’s So Easy and The Food You Crave. Krieger is a registered dietician and has concocted recipes of amazing foods that won’t kill you and don’t have any weird ingredients. This is no small feat. She uses normal cheeses and dairy products with some occasional low-fat options, and regular items that you can easily find at a grocery store in the middle of the country. By that I mean that there aren’t things like wheat germ thrown into cookies and the like, or odd grains that are difficult to locate. For my California readers, finding odd items may not be a problem. When I lived in the Inner Richmond in San Francisco, I could track down any conceivable ingredient within about a five-block radius. Here in Denver, I sometimes have to check two different stores for fairly regular items—for example, my regular somewhat healthy grocery store, Sunflower, which is kind of like Trader Joe’s only not at all, does not stock no-boil lasagna noodles. This is an item I need fairly frequently. But I digress. Ellie Krieger is my heroine. For a brief period, I even considered becoming a registered dietician because of her, but I learned that doing so requires taking chemistry classes. So I just bought her second cookbook instead.

I recently checked out Eating Well, a healthy-cooking magazine that has a heavy emphasis on seasonal fruits and vegetables. I like this. It annoys me to no end when I pick up a cooking magazine in January to find recipes calling for fresh tomatoes. Why why why would anyone buy a tomato in January (unless you live in the southern hemisphere)? I know they exist in the store, but there is no point. If you think you can buy a valid tomato in January at your grocery store, I beg you to have a tomato out of someone’s garden (or better yet, grow your own) in late summer. Please. Do yourself a favor. I once had a friend tell me she was not sure if she had ever eaten a truly ripe tomato, and I told her that was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. But I digress, and I soapbox. Anyhow, I may just pick up a subscription to Eating Well when my Cooking Light runs out.

Lastly, I recently got a gift subscription to Cooks Illustrated. They are also a little heavy on fat, but I love how scientific and well, nerdy their magazine is. If you have any remote interest in food science and why things work the way they do with food, you should check it out.

What is your favorite cookbook or magazine? Do you use recipes, or create your own? Do you have favorite things you make year after year? My mother recently started typing some of her recipes into Word documents, and I’ve started to do the same. Very easy to share, and you can print off a new one when one becomes unreadable. This method my kill a little bit of the romanticism of recipe cards, with their years of wear, faded, loving cursive that is so personal, and splotches of ingredients, but it is undoubtedly practical. Do people still have recipe boxes? I have two, but they’re back in California at my mom’s house. I wonder what that says metaphorically—my distance from the recipes I learned to cook from…

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Party Like It’s 1939

The Great Canning Project of 2010 has concluded. 200 pounds of organic produce, 200 jars, 12 recipes, 2 exuberant women, and approximately four square feet of counter space...whew. I am exhausted. In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, the answer is a simple one…I’ve been at home, trying to extend and hold on to summer as long as humanly possible. The mornings here in Colorado are now nearly always freezing, though our project began when they were merely crisp. I had anticipated blogging as we went, but alas, I seem to have gotten lost amid the dozens upon dozens of jars, lids, and pounds of produce.

While I love the onset of fall, I find I’ve never quite ready to say good-bye to peaches, tomatoes, and all of the other lovely summer nibbles. It seems that the farmer’s markets had just gotten interesting and abundant when summer came to a close.

The GCP started, like so many things do, with a Facebook post. I believe it went like this: Me: So I want to order 200 pounds of produce to can, and there’s only one person I can think of who would possibly be interested in doing this with me…
Friend: Yes! Just let me know the details. Let’s chat more.
What followed were a series of preparation events: ordering the 200-pound “single” canning share from Grant Farms, a CSA that also offers canning shares, an afternoon planning (overambitiously) which recipes we would use, purchase of necessary equipment from the hardware store in the neighborhood (where I haggled with coupons vs. sale items and buying more jars than I’d ever purchased at once), and a practice run in which I canned a dozen jars of blueberry jam solo.

Whew. Even the preparation bit sounds tiring, looking back.

When I say that we planned overambitiously, I don’t mean I would do it differently. We selected 4-6 recipes per type of produce. We ordered (to be delivered in a TBA format) 20 pounds of peaches, 40 pounds of pears, 40 pounds of apples, and 100 pounds of tomatoes. We really, really like tomatoes.

For the planned recipes, I’ll give an example—from the 20 pounds of peaches we intended to make Peach Melba jam, peach salsa, peach BBQ sauce, and peach jam. Did I mention that my stove is one of those that would be best described as “dated” on those house-hunting shows? Two small burners and two big ones? Did I mention that every time I watch a house-hunting show, I am typically in awe of the kitchens and their mad canning capacities? An island, what I wouldn’t give for an island…but I digress. We must can in the kitchens we have, not the kitchens we wish we had.

The peaches arrived first, which was lovely. As I said, there were a mere 20 pounds of peaches to contend with. However, it took nearly an entire day (8:30 a.m. until about 4:00 p.m.) to work through them, and we only got to three of the recipes. There were a couple of bruised ones, and I’m not sure what happened to the rest, with our careful calculations we had done. We somehow came up about four pounds short. The pits? It remains a mystery. But the Peach Melba jam (a mixture of peaches and raspberries, inspired by the dessert), peach salsa, and peach BBQ sauce are all fantastic! In anticipation of the day, I had purchased a slab of pork ribs to barbecue. I put them on the grill with a rub of cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and put the peach BBQ sauce on at the very end. Perfection. Truly the epitome of summer.

I had scarcely licked the last of the BBQ sauce off my fingertips when the next Grant Farms e-mail arrived…pear delivery, three days away! Luckily, pears store a little better, so we gave ourselves a week off. And proceeded to split the pear canning process into two weekends. Peeling pears takes a long time. With the peaches, we had blanched them briefly and were able to peel them pretty quickly. Another side note about the peaches--we peeled them over a bowl, and then placed the peaches into another bowl. Left behind in the two bowls was a good amount of peach juice. I simmered some of it later on with a bit of cornstarch for thickening and just a hint of sugar and lemon juice, and it made a fabulous syrup to put over vanilla ice cream. I’m currently watching a snowstorm beginning to build, and the memory of that peach syrup makes me feel warm inside.

But I digress. With the pears, we wound up making pear-orange butter, autumn cranberry pear jam, and pear-port-thyme conserve. The last recipe is from the fantastic book Well- Preserved by Eugenia Bone; the rest of the recipes were from Ball’s canning book.

I found it interesting that Ball does not actually manufacture jars anymore. They stopped in 1996. Most of my canning jars still carry the Ball logo, but apparently Ball specializes in metal containers and aerospace technologies.

Where were we? Three weekends of canning down, three to go. The tomatoes came in two deliveries. We canned crushed tomatoes and Italian herbed tomatoes. My husband began saying that our kitchen looked like a war zone, and I suppose it did with tomato splatters all over the place. We needed a break (not my husband and I, but my friend and I—from the canning. I feel the need to clarify that). We decided to freeze the tomatoes. And then the apples sat in the fridge for a few weeks.

But now we are done. This weekend we finished off the apples by making and canning applesauce (apple butter and more applesauce was a few weeks ago). The remaining tomatoes were made into salsa and tomato butter ( which I can’t wait to try on a pizza, with caramelized onions and goat cheese, as suggested. The tomato texture changed a little by freezing, but since they got pureed for the tomato butter and thickened in the salsa, texture wasn’t a big deal. Oh, and the final tomato-and-applesauce canning session took only four hours!

I managed to fit all the jars onto one shelf of my rather deep pantry. I have roughly 100 jars of differing sizes. I’m looking forward to spending winter weekend mornings eating pancakes and biscuits with all of my preserved summer toppings!

There is one sad note about the GCP, though. I gave my dad a jar of blueberry jam and a jar of the peach BBQ sauce for his birthday. Unfortunately, these were confiscated by the TSA, although they were clearly not liquids. I hope that the TSA agent in Albuquerque enjoyed my canned goods. Next time, I will just mail the gifts.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Zucchini Bread

I was recently at a farmer's market in Boulder. I always love going to a farmer's market, but I admit that I am usually a little disappointed in Colorado farmer's markets. They are always a little too heavy on bread and meat, and too light in actual produce. Often there is produce from out of state...a vendor may shout enthusiastically, "fresh from California!" Not exactly the point. This particular one had a fair amount of local produce, including lettuces, green garlic, and zucchini.

I bought an obscene piece of zucchini. It was about a foot and a half long and about three inches in diameter. You could probably cause some serious damage with it if you wanted a weapon. In any case, it was not suitable for small children to see. It was the biggest one in the basket, and the moment I spotted it, I knew it would make at least a double batch of zucchini bread.

I do not like zucchini much on its own. Occasionally in a ratatouille or veggie lasagna, and of course, fried, but that doesn't really count. I once had a fantastic pasta dish made by a friend who had recently gone to Italy. I have no idea what was in it, but it seemed to be only zucchini, olive oil and parmesan cheese. I have tried to replicate it to no avail.

But I make a pretty mean zucchini bread. Some recipes I've found are more like zucchini cake. Cake is nice, but if it's going to feature a vegetable, I'd prefer it to be more healthy than not. I don't feel this way about, say, chocolate cake. You will not find me substituting sweet potatoes into a chocolate cake to up the fiber, or adding wheat germ, or any other "tricks" my health magazines try to see me on. But with zucchini bread, I've felt the need to doctor recipes so that this can be a somewhat healthy snack, especially if I'm going to make 4-6 loaves at a time, which I'm prone to do.

Zucchini is pretty easy to come by during the summer, when it's in season. If you grow it in your garden, you will inevitably have more than you know what to do with. If you have a small garden and don't have space for it, such as I do, then you will probably have a friend or coworker that's looking to get rid of some of theirs.

This recipe is adapted from James Beard's Beard on Bread, which has a lot of delicious, basic bread recipes that you should learn how to make.

Zucchini Bread

3 eggs (egg substitute works well if you're a cholesterol-watcher like me)
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup applesauce
2 cups grated, peeled zucchini
3 tsp. vanilla (I forgot to put it in today, which resulted in a more savory bread)
1 cup white flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
3 tsp cinnamon
1 cup walnuts

Beat the eggs. Add the sugar, oil, applesauce, zucchini, and vanilla and mix. Combine flour, salt, soda, baking powder and cinnamon; add to zucchini mixture. Stir until blended, add nuts, pour into two 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pans. Bake in 350 degree oven for one hour; cool on rack. I spray the pans with nonstick cooking spray and put a rectangle of waxed paper into the bottom, as I've found these loaves prone to sticking. You can also make 2 dozen muffins in lieu of two loaves, or one dozen muffins and one loaf.

This bread freezes exceptionally well. The recipe makes two loaves, so if you double or triple it, you will have a nice supply. I have played with the ratio of oil to applesauce and the flours. Using all whole wheat flour made the loaves heavy and a little dry. My next experiment may be to use equal parts whole wheat and whole wheat pastry flour. I also considered adding a bit of ginger in place of some of the cinnamon, but shied away for today. Next time.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Jungle of Mint

Summer is the time of year I love desserts the most. Well, that might only be partially true, as I love a dense, warm molten chocolate cake or gingerbread in the winter. But summer seems to bring endless flavor combinations with its ripe fruit.

Since getting an ice cream maker as a wedding present, I've been very busy whipping up various frozen desserts. I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favorite, so I'll just list what I've been making: fresh mint ice cream, watermelon sorbet, blackberry-strawberry sorbet, and blackberry-nectarine sorbet. Making this list, I've just realized that I've neglected to try a peach ice cream, so I'll need to remedy that soon.

My mint plant is out of control, as mint tends to get. Mint grows runner roots, which means the roots go out horizontally underground, sprouting up other shoots along the way. Another complication with mint is that once you cut it back, it grows several new shoots in the place you just cut. Our first solution to controlling it was having a mojito party, but alas, that just made it grow back twice as big. Luckily, I have it in a container, so it's not taking over the entire garden. But it produces far more mint than I can typically use.

Enter solution #2: fresh mint ice cream. All I can say about this is that it's a true revelation. I will admit that I love mint-chip ice cream, despite its disturbing artificial minty green color. For fresh mint ice cream, you steep mint in milk and cream, strain it, and make a custard. It does have a faint green color, but the taste is completely refreshing and lovely. I used this recipe.

But I can't eat mint all the time, so I've turned to sorbet for an easy, healthy dessert. Sorbet is ridiculously easy and basically has a formula: 2-6 cups of fruit, 1/4-1 cup of sugar, a tablespoon or two of lemon or lime juice, and sometimes water, depending on the fruit. For example, for watermelon sorbet, I mix 4 cups of watermelon, 1/4 cup sugar, and 2 tablespoons of lime juice. Watermelon doesn't need added water, and it's already pretty sweet, so not much sugar either. For blackberry-strawberry sorbet, I use 2 cups of strawberries, four cups of blackberries, a simple syrup of 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar, and one tablespoon of lime or lemon juice. Some of the combinations are a matter of experimentation; blend the fruit in a blender or food processor with some sugar (and water, if necessary) and keep tasting until you like the sweetness. I enjoy some tartness in sorbet. And if you don't have an ice cream maker, you can reduce the amount of water, pour the mixture (strain out seeds if there are berries) into a rectangular dish and freeze, scraping a fork across the mixture every 1-2 hours until it's frozen. Then you have granita, which is like a sno-cone, only without the nasty flavored syrup. Maybe you like the flavored syrup, but I prefer fresh watermelon flavor over, say, tiger's blood.

As for today, I think I'm going to put it all together and try a strawberry-mint ice cream.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Looking Forward to Summer's Bounty

This week, it happened. The first truly warm day in which I could open the windows, let fresh air in, and let winter out. Though there will inevitably be spring snowstorms, in my mind we are just one step away from summer.

Tomatoes, eggplant….tomatoes, eggplant. Bell peppers. Peaches, apricots, cherries. All manner of colorful fruit. And best of all, firing up the barbecue nearly every night. I have a gas grill, and though I have some guilt about that (dad always taught me that charcoal or wood tastes better), it is nice to come home from work at 5:30 and have a grill that’s ready in ten minutes.

I was dreaming about some of my favorite summer foods. Tomatoes are the best. Eggplant is a close second, though I find I can get it at other times of the year and it tastes quite good. The sickly pink tomatoes of winter are not worth buying, in my opinion.

I found a ridiculously easy recipe last summer for a grilled eggplant and tomato salad. If you like eggplant and tomatoes, you must make this dish. It is ridiculously easy, and if you just pour the grilled salad on top of some pasta, it’s a satisfying, quick weeknight meal. You can try different cheeses, too; I like it with goat cheese or feta. I suppose it would also be lovely on top of polenta or mixed into a risotto.

It is from Cooking Light:
• 1 (1-pound) eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices
• 2 cups coarsely chopped tomato
• 1/4 cup (1 ounce) crumbled feta cheese
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
• 2 teaspoons capers
• 1 teaspoon extravirgin olive oil
• 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1 garlic clove, minced
Grill the eggplant about 3 minutes per side. Cut it into bite-sized pieces. Mix it, along with all other ingredients, in a large bowl.

Other, less formal grilled salads last summer included bell peppers, corn, and summer squash. I basically throw whatever I have on the grill, chop it after it cools a little, and mix some oil and herbs in. fresh basil, thyme, oregano or mint are all fantastic. I now prefer grilled salads to cold ones, because to tell the truth, I get a little bored with lettuce. Although you can also pour the grilled veggies on top of the lettuce for yet another variation.

If only it were summer all year long, I just might be a vegetarian. But then, even the best eggplant doesn’t quite compare to a grilled bison steak (for me, at least)!

What are your summer favorites?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Saddest Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever

First, here is the "picture is worth a thousand words" version of The Saddest Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever:

I should mention a few details as to why I even tried making these. First, chocolate chip cookies are not my favorite. My mom made really great ones when I was growing up, and although the neighbor kids loved them, I liked others. Probably an early indicator that I would one day grow into an obsessive palate was that my favorite cookies were Ghiradelli Chocolate Crinkles. Or snickerdoodles. My mom's cookies really spoiled me. I mean, what kind of 4-year-old does not list chocolate chip cookies as her favorite?

Despite the fact that they are not my favorite, I was craving chocolate chippers, and nothing else would do. So I followed the good ol' Toll House recipe. You can see the disaster. Now, at this point I might have gone to my high altitude cooking guide I downloaded from Whole Foods, which has wonderful, detailed suggestions for altering recipes.

Instead I shunned cookies, and turned to something I've almost never failed at: bread. Baking bread in Denver is a revelation. The altitude and air pressure and dryness combine in a superb way that translates to your bread dough rising in about a half hour as opposed to up to two hours. While this goes somewhat against my slow food, take-your-time tendency, I can't tell you how happy it makes me to throw together a pizza dough when I get home from work on Friday and have it be ready so soon.

Speaking of pizza dough, I've been making it every week, playing with the ratios of white and whole wheat flours. The thing I love about bread is, once you've got the hang of it, you can substitute practically anything and just adjust the amounts by feel. If it's not springy and elastic, you've done something wrong; you just add water and flour until it feels good again. Pizza dough was initially challenging for me; I tried it a few times in San Francisco, but never got the results I wanted.

Enter Alice Waters and her recent bible, The Art of Simple Food. Her pizza dough recipe is the best I've made so far--and, although she calls for an initial 2-hour rise followed by a 1-hour rise, in Denver that translates to a 1-hour rise followed by a half-hour rise. It puffs up wonderfully in the crust but is still chewy--and light. Curiously, it does not call for proofing the yeast with any sugar or honey, which I haven't had success with in the past, but no problems with this one.

If you've never tried your own pizza dough before, this is a good one to start with. It's not too fussy and can be done in a mixer, if you have one. It does take some time, especially if you're not living above 5,000 feet, but it will spoil you off delivery or take-n-bake forever.

Friday, August 1, 2008

High-Altitude Baking Conundrums

I've relocated from San Francisco to Denver. From a cooking standpoint, I am in a different world. The foggy, cool San Francisco air was not conducive to making caramels (they came out like taffy, which led me to think maybe this is how taffy was invented--just another failure to create chewy caramel candy). Bread was difficult. The air was damp literally 365 days a year, as I lived near the ocean.

Enter the Denver kitchen. They have a regular summer here. The air is incredibly dry, save for a few thunderstorms at night. There are, and here is where it gets scary...different instructions for baking at high altitude. Altitude? Ah, yes, I am now living precisely 5,280 feet higher than I've ever lived. On second thought, I was nearly 900 feet in the air when I lived on Twin Peaks in SF.

My first indication that I should use the high-altitude instructions actually occurred in Mammoth Lakes, before we left California. I bought one of those fool-proof brownie mixes that comes in a zipped plastic bag. Wanting to make a moist brownie that was a little lower in fat, I got clever and used applesauce instead of oil. I ignored all mentions of high-altitude in the instructions; not out of defiance, but rather, ignorance. Mammoth is between 7000-8000 feet above sea level. Those of you who live in altitude are probably chuckling to yourselves right now. For other neophytes such as myself, let's just say that the "brownies" were about one half-inch thick and soaking wet. They had to be eaten right out of the pan. In fact, we stored them in the fridge. They were more like really wimpy fudge.

But now I have learned! Or am learning, I guess. I bought a boxed brownie mix here and actually followed the instructions. It wasn't that complicated. Turn the oven down 25 degrees and add 3 tablespoons of flour. If I had to figure it out on my own, I'd say that's because the air is thinner up here, and adding flour incorporates more air into the batter...right?

I also attempted a loaf of bread during my first week here. It was whole-wheat bread, which is always a little dicey for me. It tasted fine, but the texture was off. I didn't see any special instructions on the package. According to the friendly Whole Foods website, I have the following to look forward to if I don't learn quickly: Collapsing cakes, overflowing batters, brittle cookies. Mmm.

An investigation: the following can occur at high altitudes: liquids evaporate more quickly, baked goods rise more easily (hmm, didn't seem to happen with the brownies), batters more likely to stick to the pan. Decreased air pressure seems to be the main culprit, and will also result in leavening agents (baking powder, for example) to be overactive. Once cooking, all the gases have already escaped, which accounts for the brownies. I also found out that foods with high chocolate content tend to burn more easily. Oh, the joy! Nothing will make me depressed more quickly than ruined chocolate.

Now I also saw that temperatures should be raised 20 degrees for cakes and cookies. Are brownies a separate category? Something tells me that navigating this new cooking territory is going to be every bit as difficult as climbing a fourteener (mountains over 14,000 feet tall. Colorado has more of them than any other state. This excites people here. I'm still struggling to play tennis down here at a mere mile high).

Basically, no conclusive answers yet. I'll continue experimenting. Luckily, my oven here cooks at a spot-on temperature, which is more than I can say for most SF ovens I experienced--such as attempting quick breads in my boyfriend's oven there, which cooked at least 50 degrees too hot.

Here's to new culinary adventures!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Behold the Butternut!

There are produce choices we must make in winter. When in the grocery store, we have several options: anemic, pink, out-of-season tomatoes, veggies imported from the southern side of the globe, which brings up a few ethical/environmental issues, or frozen veggies, bound to wind up encrusted in ice in the back of the freezer.

Or, we can eat what's in season. And what's in season right now, and through winter, is my favorite vegetable, the butternut squash.

Where to begin? The range of size? So far this year I've bought a tiny, six-inch, four-pounder, a few medium, and the current choice, an 18-inch-high one weighing in around ten pounds. They are also just plain good-looking, with their tan peels and rich orange flesh. They're cheap--I get mine for 40 cents a pound at the farmer's market.

The possibilities with butternut squash are pretty endless. If you've got the time, inclination, and are as fascinated as I am with dishes that taste better the day after they're cooked, this risotto-like dish is worth a try. Butternut squash soup is one of my favorites, but I have yet to make a good homemade one--suggestions welcome!

One of the few recipes I've ever created that was successful is a butternut squash puree. You can mash if you prefer. Here it is:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and halve a butternut squash (all weights welcome). Place onto a greased jelly roll pan. Take a head of garlic, and chop off just the top part. Wrap the garlic in a piece of foil, and put it on the jelly roll pan with the squash. Roast squash & garlic for one hour. Let cool about 5-10 minutes. Place squash in a large bowl. Squeeze garlic out--it should have a pulpy consistency. Add a tablespoon of butter and 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Puree with a hand blender, or mash with a potato masher until everything is mixed together. Sprinkle with more Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Butternut squash is a good source of potassium and fiber. It's very sweet. Australians refer to it as pumpkin. It originates from Mexico, whereas pumpkins originate from South America. It keeps for more than a month (but don't refrigerate it, unless you've peeled and cut it).

How to determine a fantastic butternut squash over a mediocre one? It should not have cracks. It should be heavy for its size. It can be easily peeled with a vegetable peeler--if you have a good one. I thought it was very difficult to peel until I peeled one at a friend's house last year. She had a super peeler, and I went out and bought the same one. Now I eat a butternut squash a week, rather than one per month. That's the difference a good peeler makes. That is the moral of this article--if you currently own a sorry veggie peeler, do yourself a favor and buy a better one. You will feel the difference. Oh, the power of gadgets!

Next up in my winter vegetables series: more root veggies, including a clarification of yams vs. sweet potatoes, currently a mystery to me.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Cream of Tartar

Now that I'm done with college, I'm educating myself by eating and drinking. While wine tasting this past weekend, a wine maker informed me that the tiny crystallized bits clinging to the wine cork were cream of tartar. He asked me if I had ever used cream of tartar, and I said I did, though I could only conjure up snickerdoodles in my head. Does anything else use cream of tartar? Didn't matter; there had been many tastes of wine and now this: an unexpected education. A school lesson hidden by alcohol!

And though the man seemed authoritative, and the tiny crust that had formed on the grape-stained end of the cork, I was slightly doubtful. Surely this man had never made snickerdoodles.

Here it is: Cream of tartar is is the common name for potassium hydrogen tartrate, or Potassium bitartrate. It is officially an acid. It results when tartaric acid is half neutralized with potassium hydroxide. Apparently only grapes have a useful amount of tartaric acid, and cream of tartar comes, indeed, from the process of making wine. But how does it transform from those little dark purple crystals into the white powdery stuff that goes into snickerdoodles? (For those who are truly unfortunate and have never had or heard of a snickerdoodle, I implore you to save yourself by making some immediately! I can't publish my mother's recipe, but here's a similar one for Grandma's Snickerdoodles.

The crystals on the cork are also called "beeswing," which the kind man at Retzlaff did not tell me about! They go through a purification process to become white and powdery.

The second mystery: why is it called cream of tartar? Obviously the tartar part is from the tartaric acid. But cream? It's powder. This will have to remain a mystery, as I searched and searched and learned nothing. It does enhance the creamy texture of frosting and other baked goods, though, so that could be the reason.

Other uses: to help stiffen egg whites, as in meringues. It also helps polish copper and brass cookware. Other fun facts: baking powder is 2 parts cream of tartar, one part cornstarch, and one part baking soda. Cream of tartar is also a leavening agent on its own, though pricier than baking powder. It is not an ingredient in, nor should it be confused with, tartar sauce. Lastly, it might be a cure for acne, though there seems to be some controversy on that note.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A World Full of Plantains

# The Caribbean cook will often use fried plantains as an accompaniment to beef or goat dishes.
# In Central America plátanos fritos are often served as part of a large breakfast of eggs, ham and refried beans and topped with a big dollop of crema.
# Known as tajadas de plátano in Venezuela, this lightly sweet side dish is an essential component of pabellón criollo.
# Nigerians love fried plantains, especially with fish, and call them dodo

Friday, July 6, 2007


Perhaps I shouldn't have started out my enthusiasm-for-food blog with such a negative post about a food I don't like. Let's switch gears, shall we?

I have a new love as of late: plantains. They look like bananas, but are clearly superior. Or maybe just different. Plantains are generally cooked, not eaten raw, like a banana.

Plantains seem to be found in the cooking of tropical regions, and on a recent trip to Hawaii, I was going to make some for my friends. I was confused to find apple bananas, which look like plantains but are clearly not the same.

Research was in order, but who has time for research when you're in Hawaii? I cooked up the apple bananas in the same way I've made plantains before: fried with sour cream on top. They were fine, which is to say that they were less than spectacular. But it's hard to complain when you're eating exotic fruit while sitting on your balcony and looking at the ocean in Maui.

Turns out there are three types of plantains: cooking plantain, banana plantain, bocadillo plantain. And, amazingly, they are considered a starchy vegetable, not a fruit. This is because they are used mostly while still green--once they begin to develop spots and turn yellow, the starch level goes up and wham! It's a fruit. And the "trees" they grow on are actually herb plants, as they do not have trunks like trees do. Plantains are quirky, evidently, which might help explain my love for them. I have a love/hate relationship with bananas, but my feelings for plantains remain pretty constant. However, I seem to have misunderstood them.

Mofongo is a fascinating-looking recipe that I doubt I will attempt at home, but enjoyed watching Anthony Bourdain pursue, anyway. I plan to find it and eat it in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or any other country I may travel to that makes it.

My affair with plantains has only begun, and I have a lot more research to do. It is used in so many cultures. This will have to be a multi-part entry.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Belgian Endive

There was a year in my childhood when I ate only macaroni and cheese or hot dogs. My parents, though not happy about this development, indulged, as otherwise I would have continued to look like a starving child from one of those tv ads with Sally Struthers. Maybe not so drastic as those children, but I was told more than once that I was all bones.

My eating habits continued to be peculiar. When I was fifteen, my dad gave me a rather uncomfortable lecture about how no boys would want to date me if I didn’t learn to eat hamburgers.

I will never be a vegetarian.

My year in Belgium transformed my palate and I learned to like almost everything. Vegetables, meats we don’t have too often here, such as rabbit, potatoes cooked every way imaginable. There were only three foods the Belgians couldn’t convert me to: endive, blood sausage, and mayonnaise. It seemed appropriate to begin with the food that has yet to win me over, despite all its trendiness….the evil endive, otherwise known in Dutch as witloof (white leaf).

Let’s trace the trend, shall we? Is there anyone who remembers eating endive ten years ago? Maybe well-to-do folks who were older than my parents. Endive still has not caught on in the U.S. the way it has in Belgium, where it is more of a way of life. As the Belgian Endive Board would have us believe, “It isn’t any one thing. It’s everything.” (Incidentally, this site induces guilt in me; it is so convincing it has me wondering what it is I have against endive. Then I remember the bitterness). It is cooked many different ways; my host mother was certain I would grow to love one of them. The most convincing, the clincher, the recipe sure to convert the majority, is endive with ham au gratin. Impossible to fail. Smother anything in ham and cheese sauce, and Emily is bound to like it. Anything, apparently, except for endive. In the midst of gooey cheese and the lovely smokiness of ham lurks the eternal bitterness of the endive.

I never recall having seen an endive for sale in an American supermarket before going to Belgium in 1998. When I returned, it seemed they were everywhere. Okay, perhaps a slight exaggeration. They were present. Now, they’re everywhere: preening at the supermarket, weaseling into the appetizers at my company’s tropical-themed summer party, lounging under ceviche. Endive even has its own entry on Wikipedia. In other words, it is a celebrity.

Let’s get to the root of Belgian endive. There, we find chicory. I only learned about the connection recently. It seems to work so: the roots are chicory (also used to make famous New Orleans-style coffee). Witloof/endive is grown by forcing the plant to grow in darkness or underground. The absence of sunlight is what makes the leaves white. If left to grow on its own, it will develop curly green leaves, used as a salad green in the southern U.S. Witloof even needs to be shipped in darkness; any exposure to light will cause the leaves to turn green. If you have not seen endive, it does have the appearance of a vegetable that Bunnicula got a hold of.

When did the trendiness start? It turns out I’m not insane, at least not on this front. The SF Chronicle declared endive the new Cinderella of the vegetable world in 1999. According to Mollie Katzen, you can create your own little bistro at home by making endive (perhaps you can even romance a certain type of person by preparing endive?) The Food Network is certainly fond of the vegetable; 37 recipes show up. Maybe I haven’t had endive every way that one can. If anyone has a recipe that you’re sure I haven’t had, please go ahead and try to convert me. I’d hate to be a foodie hipster, hating an innocent vegetable only because it’s become popular with the masses.