Monday, August 31, 2009

Bayless v. Kennedy

Here's how it's going to work. 

One night I'll do a Kennedy meal, the next night I'll do a Bayless meal. Since they've both published numerous books, I'm going to cook from a single book each time. Maybe at the end I'll be able to declare one title the hands-down best Mexican cookbook.

Or maybe I'll just move to Saigon and chuck all this domestic ambition. I had forgotten just what a slog these late afternoons are. The driving, man, the DRIVING. To the school, to the supermarket, to dance class, to piano lesson, back home, mix some masa, to the dance class, bake the cake, set the table, fight over homework, check for the bobcat. . .

Tonight: Bayless' Mexico: One Plate at a Time. We're having a casserole-style zucchini tamal. It is steaming and now I am running out the door for my last pick-up of the day. Sometimes I leave my apron on when I drive carpools. I think that's perfectly okay, because in an emergency, I can just take it off. I feel differently about driving in pajamas.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Justine's excellent Guatemalan party

That's my grandmother, making tortillas the old-fashioned Guatemalan way. She eschews the tortilla press, which is for inferior cooks, lazy cooks, Mexican cooks.
These are fighting words, but my grandmother, who is Guatemalan, doesn't read my blog so I am going to say it: Guatemalan food is just like a regional Mexican food. Refried beans, tamales, tacos, tortillas -- it's all the same, just different shapes and colors. Am I wrong? I am right.

For the Guatemalan-themed party my sister threw last week, I contributed chirmol made by charring tomatillos, tomatoes, and garlic, which I then pureed in a blender.

Tomatoes and tomatillos from our garden. Gold star for me. How is this not salsa? This is salsa.
I also made a sweet potato pudding which involved stewing the sweet potatoes with honey, cinnamon, butter, milk, then mashing the mixture and topping with toasted cookie crumbs.
It was tasty, creamy, and fairly healthy, for a dessert.

Then I made -- or tried to make -- huevo chimbo, which my grandmother has always talked about with such longing.  

First I beat 12 egg yolks until light and creamy and poured them into a brownie pan.

Then I baked it until it was puffed and firm

and cut into strips.

Cruel joke. They look like yummy lady fingers but are actually baked egg yolk.

At this point, you briefly dip the egg strips into a hot spiced syrup to which you have added currants, prunes, and liquor, preferably good quality liquor.


A few weeks ago in Guatemala I ate huevo chimbo that was firm, rich, moist, and unforgettably delicious. This homemade huevo chimbo was not like that. It was like French toast spiked with cheap sherry. 

My sister did most the work for the party. First of all, she hosted, which is the hardest part. She also grilled the steak, fried the chorizo, steamed the tamales, mashed the black beans, and made awesome chancletas -- a pudding of chayote served in the hollowed-out shell of the squash-- that you can see in the foreground of the picture below.

After the meal, my grandmother spent two hours looking at pictures from our Guatemala trip on Justine's computer. I sat in the corner drinking margaritas and thinking about the bobcat.

We have seen no trace of the cat since Friday. I am hoping it has been hit by a car.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beer margaritas from the other Tipsy Baker

A few days ago, someone alerted me to this blog, and my first response was to sneer the "perfect margarita" recipe because it contains beer and frozen limeade.

I was subsequently chastised for snobbishly dismissing a drink I have never tried. Point taken! Last night, my sister hosted a party for our grandmother, a Guatemalan party about which I will have more to say later. Among my contributions was a pitcher of "perfect margaritas."
To make this unconventional drink, you mix equal parts frozen limeade concentrate, beer, tequila, and lemon-lime soda. Serve on the rocks.

How were the margaritas? They were great and fizzy and they were also easy. The beer cuts the sweetness of the limeade and soda pop, and somehow it all balances out very nicely. I should add that these are not as potent as "proper" margaritas, which was a blessing given how hot it was yesterday, how distraught I was about that bobcat, and how many of them I drank. This is an excellent recipe for a big party.

That said, I did not think these margaritas were quite as delicious as those made with Cointreau and fresh lime juice. They don't have the  complexity and sharp, sour edge you can only achieve with top-shelf liquor and the laborious slicing and squeezing of many limes. 

As for the bobcat, it's like Straw Dogs around here today. We've got bricks piled up on the deck to throw in the event of another incursion, which we have been told to expect.  

Friday, August 28, 2009

I need a pellet gun

You have to look closely (you can also click on the photograph to enlarge it), but that's a bobcat eating one of our chickens about an hour ago. Just to the right of the tree trunk. Never seen a bobcat before in my life until this morning. I thought I'd scared him away, but he returned. The suburbs aren't what they used to be.

2:30 p.m., much squawking from the chickens. I ran onto the deck, this burly brown cat was sitting there with a gold hen in its jaws. Large animal. Not unthreatening. Short tail. (Thank God.) I ran downstairs and threw rocks at it and yelled and it gazed at me for a disrespectful amount of time, then calmly jumped over the fence and slunk down the road. 

We have a big problem.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I should Queer Eye this blog design

It's cool how the gingerbread is the exact same color as my dining room table.

I bought this table in 1993, when I was living in New York City and finally got tired of serving people dinner on my desk. (Maybe when I get tired of working at the dining room table I'll go buy a desk.) I rented a truck and drove to to a giant antiques store somewhere in New Jersey. Or Pennsylvania. I don't remember. Anyway, I came home with this handsome, sturdy table that seated ten people with all its leaves in, and was almost as big as my apartment. I had friends over all the time; for a hermit, I was very social. Then one morning I used the table as an ironing board without even putting a towel underneath whatever I was ironing. I am looking at the blistered patch of varnish as I type. Such a clever girl.  

Not that long ago, my sister and I started using Queer Eye as a verb. We talk about Queer Eyeing our outfits, our hairstyles, our home decor. I assume the definition is obvious, but if not: to Queer Eye means to scrutinize some visual aspect of your life as if you were a gay man with excellent taste. Would he wear this Walgreen's faux-tortoise shell plastic barette? Would he put the Sponge Bob beach towel out for guests to dry their hands on? Would he keep that saggy purple t-shirt with a bleach spot? Et cetera. It's actually very helpful because the answers are so immediate and definite and they are almost always "no."
I recently Queer Eyed my dining room and know the table should go. At her birthday party last year, Isabel and her friends spilled red nail polish on it; the drop leaf at one end is held up with a magazine; there are grooves in the wood where someone wrote too hard with a ballpoint pen. 

But I can't part with this table. It's okay to talk back to the Queer Eye. Having the conversation is what matters. 
Enough about the table. Now, for the gingerbread. When Isabel was in kindergarten I made gingerbread for her snack after the first day of school, and I've done it every year since. Although I don't think she cares anymore, I did it today, her first day of 7th grade using a recipe from the L.L. Bean Book of New England Cookery, liberally adapted to the ingredients I had in the house. Dark corn syrup instead of molasses, brown sugar instead of white, three times the called-for ginger. If it's a big hit, I get credit.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Slipping through my fingers

I was all set to go forward with Rick Bayless, but Diana Kennedy's banana vinegar recipe changed everything. I MUST make banana vinegar. 

So, I'm going to do both Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. Like a bakeoff, at the end of which I will know, once and for all, who is the #1 Mexican cookbook writer. I've wondered for years. 

Last night's meal confirmed that Mexican cooking is an ordeal. We had chicken enchiladas with tomatillo salsa, rice, and guacamole. My able assistant and I used every saucepan and skillet in the house, plus the Cuisinart, and the dishes were not all washed until mid-morning.

I also made margaritas, which I rarely do and never should, but just did again.

Speaking of margaritas, a commenter directed me to this site. Uncanny! I am not drawn to her margaritas (Corona???? frown.) but she did a really amazing job with her macarons

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Alright. Whatever. We'll do Mexican food.

Three pounds of tomatillos from the sad, ravaged garden. One of the only vegetables that the chickens did not trample, maim, or eat. The tomatillos are telling me that the next cuisine I tackle should be Mexican. My children, spouse, and sister are telling me that the next cuisine I tackle should be Mexican. I sat for 30 minutes this morning reading Rick Bayless cookbooks for inspiration and failed to become inspired. All I can see, stretching deep into the fall, are long drives to special grocery stores. Wrapping tamales all by myself. Shaping masa boats. Making elaborate moles that no one really likes. Hassles. Weight gain. The passage of time. . . 

I find Bayless's cookbooks forbidding. Not as forbidding as Diana Kennedy's books, but definitely intimidating. Who else writes good Mexican cookbooks? Research required.

I suppose I just need to start and all will be well.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

We're all about moving on

Owen wanted to name her Arlene II, but Isabel and I nixed that. Compromise: Marlene. She's our new hen, a teenaged Ameraucana (the kind that lays blue eggs) with a very sweet nature, according to the kid who works at Feather Haven, who has a very sweet nature himself. If you live in the Bay Area and are interested in getting chicks or chickens -- or pot-bellied pigs or bunnies or quail or canaries -- I strongly recommend Feather Haven. It's a schlep to Morgan Hill from almost everywhere except Morgan Hill, but I so prefer this store to others I've bought from that I have made the trek twice and will probably do it again. Hopefully not very soon.
After acquiring Marlene, since we were already down the peninsula, we went to the Lee's in Milpitas to try the Vietnamese sandwiches.

For a 97-year-old, my grandmother is incredibly game. She also dresses better than I do.

We had very tasty $3.25 pork-and-pate sandwiches, honeydew smoothies, dumplings and egg rolls. Thank-you for the recommendation, Azure Song.

For dessert, we went next door to Pho Nguyen, famous for it pandan waffles.

According to Charmaine Solomon's Enyclopedia of Asian Food, the pandan leaf produces a flavoring that is "delicate, and as important to Asians as vanilla is to Westerners."
The color was neither delicate nor natural. I could not for the life of me describe the flavor, which was indeed extremely delicate. I'm not sure about natural.
The waffles were warm, strangely elastic, mildly sweet. "This, I do not like," said my grandmother. This, I did sort of like. But I won't be craving pandan waffles, which is my feeling about all waffles.

Since we've been home, the other birds have been picking on Marlene unmercifully. I knew this would happen, but it's worse than when we introduced the Chinatown chicken. Alberta Einstein is one of the worst offenders, which is depressing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Like that Chorus Line girl, I felt nothing.

In a San Francisco Chronicle article about urban homesteading earlier this week there was this quote from a woman who raises her own livestock in Berkeley:

"The level of appreciation for nature and life when you slaughter your own meat creates a kind of ethic that I think is what we need to save the world. That's why I do this -- I want to live with a deep gratefulness and appreciation for what the world provides me."

This passage -- which I read in the wake of Arlene's slaughter -- made me want to pave over our garden and get a Costco card. 

Let's start with sentence one, in which the woman (who is probably very nice, sorry to jump on her passing remark to a reporter, but I must) asserts that if more people regularly slit the throats of animals it will "create a kind of ethic" that is going to "save the world."

I know what she's getting at in her fuzzy way. She's suggesting that if we take less for granted, if we understand the cost in blood of every burger, if we are more in touch with the realities of food production, we will be better, more soulful people. 

A nice idea and complete nonsense.  Throughout history people have slaughtered their own meat and also slaughtered each other. Moreover, the places in the world where people regularly butcher their own animals today are places those of us accustomed to democracy, universal education, and clean drinking water would prefer not to live. Slaughtering your own meat is not barbaric, but it is not ennobling. It's like snaking your own toilet.

Now, sentence two. More well-intentioned nonsense. Slaughtering, plucking, and trying to choke down Arlene gave me "a deep gratefulness and appreciation" for what grocery stores provide me.
Enough preamble. Here's the story of our chicken-slaughtering. Please skip this if you're highly sensitive or tender-hearted. 

Husband and I woke up the morning after we came back from Guatemala and heard crowing from the henhouse. One of our hens turned out to be a rooster, and boy chickens are not allowed in this town. We went out, identified the crowing bird -- it was brawny, butchy Arlene, what a surprise -- who continued to crow intermittently throughout the day. 

My father, who worked at a slaughterhouse in high school, came over in the late afternoon. Owen helped us catch Arlene, then went upstairs and turned on the TV really loud.

I placed Arlene on a tree stump and held him down while my father put the bird's neck between some sharp garden shears and took off his head. Arlene thrashed for about 25 seconds and then went limp. My hands were covered with blood. 

I wasn't sure how I was going to feel -- I've never intentionally killed a living creature more evolved than a Dungeness crab.  I didn't feel bad, and I didn't feel good. I didn't feel empowered and I didn't feel enlightened. I felt nothing. He was a chicken. I washed my hands. Critics often suggest that here in the United States we don't appreciate the connection between the living animals that run around and the shrink-wrapped filets at Ralph's. I used to accept this on faith, but after killing Arlene, I no longer believe this is true. As it turns out, I understood the animal-meat connection perfectly from the get-go. 

We hung Arlene upside down for an hour in a garbage bag to drain his blood while we had dinner. Then I boiled water, dunked him in there for a minute, and plucked him. He smelled like wet cat. Plucking was both messier and easier than I'd anticipated -- the feathers came off in fistfuls, but they stuck to my hands, which was annoying. I also pulled off big chunks of skin, which made for a really ugly chicken carcass. See photo at top.

After plucking, I sliced open the body and scooped out the innards -- puffy intestines, liver, tiny heart. This took about three minutes. Some undigested grain spilled out, and this did make me a little sad. Arlene was cut down in his prime with a gullet full of cracked corn. Poor guy. I rinsed him off, placed him in the fridge.

Yesterday, I put him in a pot with an onion and some water.
After taking the macabre photograph, I cut off his horny green feet. I know chicken feet supposedly enhance stock, but I didn't have the energy to skin them.

I let the chicken cook for three hours, strained the broth, cut the meat off the bones. There wasn't much, and it was swarthier than usual. I put it back in the pot with some rice.
Now, we get to the mysterious part of the story. I understood there was going to be a problem when I kept postponing tasting the broth for salt. It dawned on me that I really did not want to eat this soup. 

But I tasted it, salted it, added lemon and egg (avgolemono), served it. 

The kids were surprisingly unfazed. Owen ate quite a bit, Isabel ate the broth and rice, but avoided the meat. My husband would not touch it. I sort of wanted to show him up, but why be a bitch when you don't have to. It was delicious soup and I would have dumped it down the drain if no one was looking. 

I'm still trying to figure out why I was so repulsed by this soup. I have some thoughts, but also some non-butchering work to attend to this morning. More later. 

Thursday, August 20, 2009

R.I.P Arlene, April-August 2009

It was a short life, but as chicken lives go, a pretty good one. He was just too much man for this world.

We used garden shears and severed his head completely. I don't know about painless, but it was quick. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Culling our rooster

I guess we're going to do it ourselves. I had more fortitude before I saw this video. The thrashing got to me, plus I don't have a bucket with a hole cut out for the bird's head.

But my father's on his way with his knife. The rooster must go tonight. He's crowing as I type, and it's embarrassing. I'm surprised at how embarrassing I find it. Like, I might go out and wring his neck with my own two Clampett hands if he doesn't stop calling attention to us.

(Thanks so much for the funny Sunset link, Azure Song.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Are you there, God? Our chickens have hit puberty.

The trip to Guatemala was family-packed and wildly fattening and altogether lovely and now it is over. There was no internet access at Lake Atitlan, which is where my mother (in the blue skirt) celebrated her birthday with two cousins who have birthdays the same week. It's blurry, but I love that picture. Like I said, and as you can see, Guatemala is my mother's laughing place. 

We ate many wonderful things over the last five or six days, including chancletas (an ambrosial pudding of chayote, butter, and sugar served in the hollowed-out rind of the squash), tamales, pork rinds, candied figs, gnocchi at Tamarindos, nachos at Casa Palopo, platanos stewed in honey, and mountains of refried black beans. Yum. I had so much to say -- I walked around composing blog posts in my head -- but feel I missed the opportunity to say it, lacking both a camera and internet access. Now it seems old. I'll remember things piecemeal, but meanwhile, we came home yesterday afternoon to bad news and good news.

Good news first.

We got our first egg. Whichever bird supplied this tiny, perfect item failed to make the deposit in one of the expertly home-carpentered nesting boxes, but chose instead a pile of unsanitary sawdust and. . . well, you know.  The egg is about an inch-and-a-half long and cocoa brown. Beautiful. Needs washing. Seems all wrong that I don't have a camera to document this moment. 

Also, ugh, we woke up this morning to music very familiar from our stay at Lake Atitlan. A rooster. Our rooster. The big, brutish, mottled Ameraucana. I should have known that crazy bully was a boy. I don't mind at all -- I like the sound he makes -- but our neighbors probably won't be too psyched. It's also (therefore) illegal.

Rooster must be dispatched. Unfortunately, the kids are at home and they are not eager to experience the "circle of life" with these particular chickens. Fate of rooster TBD asap.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Antigua is like Rome, but nicer

I mean that. I like Antigua better than Rome. Isabel criticized my last post because I failed to described the beauty of this city, which has completely captured her 12-year-old imagination. I will attempt a description.

The old capital of Guatemala has narrow, cobbled streets, pastel houses (and candy stores) interspersed with the crumbling ruins of massive churches and convents that are now overgrown with bougainvillea. Some of these ruins have been semi-restored, turned into restaurants and hotels. Some are just there for you to wander through with your guidebook, feeling like Lord Byron. There are endless ruins, and also many shady squares where you can sit with a bag of candy and watch the passerby: giggling Catholic schoolgirls in short skirts and knee socks; Indian women in long woven skirts and colorful blouses carrying their babies in slings; slightly dodgy looking young men who are a constant reminder that you are, after all, in a poor Latin American country with a serious crime problem. 
But you don't feel anywhere near as nervous here as you do in Guatemala City.

Part of the magic of Antigua is knowing that behind the blank pastel facades of the houses you find incredible private courtyards and gardens. From where I sit in the courtyard of my cousin's house (which you can rent and if you ever come here, you should) I can see an antique fountain, an orange tree dripping with fruit, an ancient frieze, a volcano. I don't know the name of this volcano, but it is impressive and shrouded in clouds and presumably dormant. Some birds are chirping. Now some bells are ringing. It's like inhabiting a travel brochure.

Isabel should be satisfied with that. 

My camera is broken again, by the way. Those photos are from my brother-in-law's phone. 

Today: market, more eating, more napping. I also found out where I can buy some local honey.

Tomorrow: Lake Atitlan.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Doing nothing much in Antigua, but that's okay

Our daily life in Antigua:

-long breakfast involving tamales, black beans, fruit, coffee
-walk to buy candy and look at crafts
-long lunch involving tamales, black beans, grilled meat, beer. Or, if you are Owen, chicken fingers. 
-walk to buy candy and look at crafts
-long dinner involving tamales, black beans, grilled meat, beer

My mother is elated. She received her cancer diagnosis two years ago, almost to the day, and this whole trip -- with her American family, visiting extended Guatemalan family -- is a triumph. Guatemala is her laughing place, and seeing her so relaxed and happy is a joy for my sister and me.

Meanwhile! The obsession with Guatemalan candy only grows. You find these exotic sweets in immaculate, old-fashioned shops that are no less formal or exquisite than chocolate boutiques in Paris. Behind glass are displayed dozens of fresh, beautiful, ornate confections made from fruits, tamarinds, nuts, eggs, milk, squashes. You order by the piece and forbidding ladies in uniforms place your selections in a decorative box using metal tongs. Yesterday, I bought a glistening, golden slab of huevos chimbos, which looks like undercooked poundcake but is actually an ambrosial confection of egg yolk and sugar. It's grainy and super-sweet and moist -- almost wet -- and I must learn how to make it.  

Monday, August 10, 2009

It's not Saigon

Time magazine recently described Guatemala City as "a gloomy capital that no amount of marimba music can brighten." I wouldn't disagree. This place feels nervous and buttoned-up and edgy, much more so than I remembered it from my last visit. 

But our family here is lovely, and has been hosting us and feeding us delicious meals (chicken stew, tortillas, bunuelos) and keeping my mother well-supplied with exotic candies that I keep filching. The candies are made from coconuts and figs and spaghetti squash and sweet potatoes, everything BUT chocolate, and I love them. The best candies in Guatemala are made in the town of Antigua, where we are going to be staying for the next five days. I don't know what the internet situation is at our cousin's house, but if there is a signal, I will have a lot to report.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Make it or buy it: peanut butter and jelly sandwich

First of all, there is this. I was on Marketplace, the great radio show. I haven't listened yet -- maybe after a big tumbler of cherry bounce -- but my sister assures me it is not embarrassing.

And there is this, which was a total surprise and special, since I make a point of seeing every movie Dana Stevens recommends. 

Now, the results of the Uncrustables taste test are in. 

The verdict of three children and one adult: If this is the best Smuckers can do, civilization is safe. I feared the Uncrustables would be irresistible, like heroin or Sugar Pops, but they are very resistible, like warm Miller Genuine Draft or stale Frosted Flakes. 
The only thing that strikes me as dangerously delicious about this product is the thin band of jelly, which is super-sweet, as in a jelly donut. We like that. But the peanut butter is gummy, the bread is dry, the whole production, lame. The homemade pb&j I made for comparison purposes was luscious and sloppy and extravagant and fresh, and it easily carried the day.

Unsurprisingly, it was also cheaper. Uncrustables were on sale at Safeway for $2.50 a box, which breaks down to 63 cents for a very wee sandwich. (I actually like the size; we need more undersized junk food.) The homemade sandwich was bigger -- maybe twice as big, though I didn't weigh it -- and cost 51 cents. Both were made with low-quality, nonorganic ingredients. If you factor in the size, you're getting a lot more calories for your money with a homemade sandwich. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe it's not.

Make or buy your peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Make it, of course Homemade is tastier and cheaper and how hard is it really to assemble? That said, I am less horrified by this phenomenon than I was.  These are stupid little sandwiches and not worth hating.

We're getting on a plane now. I'm a little rushed so I apologize for typos. My mother, sister, brother-in-law, niece, kids -- we're all going to Guatemala to visit family for 10 days. Some of us made the mistake of reading State Department warnings about violent crime in Guatemala. It has taken some of the luster off the journey, but I understand we will be riding in armored cars so should survive. 

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: 240 minutes on food preparation

We had a small party last night -- father, sister, bro-in-law, niece -- and I cooked what Owen calls "Vietnam food." I got completely overwhelmed, experienced the desperation that comes when you try to execute overambitious cooking plans and guests are hanging around nervously asking if they can help, drinking their second, third, martinis. You know it's bad when they start eating fistfuls of  the unsalted peanuts you bought for garnish. One of the dishes -- the crepes a.k.a. banh xeo, which my father and I supposedly learned to make in our Hoi An cooking class -- was giving me too much trouble, so I scrapped it midway through. After that, everything came together, though there wasn't quite enough. For once, the kids all wanted more; for once, I could not supply.

Everything comes from Andrea Nguyen recipes. We had: 

-Salad rolls w. hoisin dipping sauce (tasty, though hard to wrap especially when you're overwrought)

-Stuffed squid w. ginger lime dipping sauce (okay)

-Banh xeo (failure)

-Stir fried beef with french fries (hit)

-Garlicky noodles with Maggi sauce (hit)

The last flank steak I cooked from the Richmond New May Wah market was inedibly tough, so for the stir-fried beef, which I've made a few times before, I bought the slightly more expensive $6.99/lb. ribeye. Great. I'm amending the recipe permanently. You serve this beef on top of the fries and it is smashing.

Isabel chose the dessert, Vietnamese coffee ice cream from a super-easy David Lebovitz recipe: Mix 1 1/2 cups strong coffee with 1 1/2 cups sweetened condensed milk and 1/2 cup half-and-half. Freeze in ice cream maker. Very delicious. Recommend.

Today: Uncrustables.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

As opposition research, I may have to try an Uncrustable

That is a baby pumpkin gutted by our chickens, who are now relegated to the lower yard. I've decided to do some fall/winter planting in the patches where summer planting was trampled, eaten, inadequately staked, or died. Unlike Charentais melons, fava beans have never failed me.

We had banh mi again the other night, and husband and I agreed that twice was enough. It's like making corn dogs at home -- you can do it, but the magic is in the associations. Corn dogs: county fair. Banh mi: urban hole-in-the-wall.
For dessert, we enjoyed some Hershey's bars while polishing off the last three episodes of season 1 of Damages (I told you we were going to seed!) and I must say, Hershey's bars are exceptionally tasty, as tasty as almost any cake I have ever baked, plus cheaper and easier. I don't even like chocolate. 
The meal got me thinking. Making those semi-elaborate sandwiches and unwrapping that candy bar took about 7 minutes of what food magazines call "active time." Making lunch earlier in the day (sandwich) took about 1 minute. "Making" breakfast (cereal, peach, coffee), took another minute. My husband took about 1 minute on his lunch (sandwich) and 1 minute on breakfast, so total household food prep time yesterday: 11 minutes. This is 16 minutes less than the American average, which is a "mere" 27 minutes, per Michael Pollan's big, scoldy story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the rise of cooking shows and the decline of cooking.

Here's the thing: Twenty-seven minutes actually seems to me like a lot of time to spend cooking, particularly if you don't have children around, if you have a demanding job, and/or you don't enjoy the process. If you're happy with a quesadilla or some cottage cheese or a Vietnamese sandwich and Hershey's bar, why knock yourself out? Because Michael Pollan says you should?

To illustrate the sorry state of affairs in our kitchens, Pollan alludes to the atrocity of frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A preposterous concept that struck me at first as an extreme example. I've never met anyone who ate frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I've never even seen this absurd product.

Now I have.
One look at that photo and you know Smuckers pumps psycho ingredients into those creepy-looking flying saucers that will make children crave them. 

Still, the homely 50-second act of slapping together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich strikes me as akin to pouring your own juice, brushing your own teeth, wiping your own. . . . Hiring it out feels corrupt. Is this a line a lot of Americans are really crossing? Seems impossible that Uncrustables will ever become as popular as Eggos and canned soup, which really are incredibly convenient. Or so I've been told by lazy people who don't love their kids.
Then I did a few minutes of research on the internet. Uncrustables are a big hit! People are cheerfully crossing that line. 

I forced myself to try to come to grips.

If frozen pb&j 
a. is just as cheap as homemade

b. contains the same (possibly very crappy) ingredients as a sandwich you'd make yourself and offers the same nutritional value

c. tastes good

why not?

If you're already using Jif, Smuckers, and Orowheat, there seems little point in fetishizing the assembly.
But, but, but there's TOTALLY a point in fetishizing the assembly.  If you buy Uncrustables, a corporation decides how much jam, and how much peanut butter, and removes the possibility of marmalade, or Marshmallow Fluff, or a crust. The idea of people ceding that last, trivial bit of control over what they put in their mouths makes my skin crawl. It made me ashamed that a few days ago I was cheerfully eating Hershey's bars, wondering why I ever bothered to bake. Hershey's engineers its candy to be wickedly delicious and produces it in a factory using cheap emulsifiers. I fell for it like a ton of bricks while watching a crass and addicting TV show of about the same caliber. From now on, only scratch cakes and Elizabethan poetry.

Back to Pollan's piece, since I'm in a mood.  There was a line that tripped me up: "The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite."

I know what Pollan is getting at -- if you make coq au vin and salad for dinner, you're probably going to be slimmer than if you grab a bucket at KFC. This is true. But it's not the act of making coq au vin that accounts for the difference, it's the decision to make coq au vin in the first place and the values (moderation, balance, discipline, health) that go along with it. If my experience is any guide, the time and work involved in cooking do not check the appetite -- they sharpen it. Delayed gratification whets it. If Pollan had just used the word "food consumption" instead of "appetite" I would have no quarrel with this sentence.

There's lots of interesting stuff in the story -- about food TV, about Julia Child, about the horrifying Uncrustables -- and I agree in the main with what Pollan has to say, obviously. Obviously!

And I buried the lede in this muddled diatribe: Isabel and Owen are home, which is GREAT.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Cost v. benefit on backyard chickens

Good story here on the dubious economics of backyard chickens. I still think ours might eventually pay for themselves because we already had a shed to use as a hen house, a tall fence, and lots of forage. But maybe not. Maybe they're just amusing pets who happen to lay eggs. That's also okay.

I can't wait for someone to write a story about the cost of beekeeping.   

Monday, August 03, 2009

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Banh mi

Hurray! Camera fixed, thanks to clever husband.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can buy a formidable banh mi for $3, which is cheaper than making one at home. BUT. It was still interesting and instructive to assemble one for myself.

I went to Clement Street in S.F. for the ingredients, using Andrea Nguyen's recipe as my guide, starting with puffy Vietnamese-style French bread.

It's not the greatest bread -- the interior is like cotton -- but supposedly that's the idea.

I also bought a pound of yummy barbecued pork

and some cha lua sausage.
Do you see the little "Keep Refrigerated" warning? Well, it wasn't. It was on a shelf near the cash register. I pondered this for a while, then put the sausage in my cart anyway. 

And I bought a daikon radish that looks like something out of Dune
and cilantro, serrano peppers, cucumber.

At home, I cut up the daikon and put it into brine with some carrots.

Then I sat down to read, and fell dead asleep for six hours. Jet lag. When I woke up: dinner time. 

To make the sandwiches, I spread lots of mayonnaise on the bread, sprinkled with soy sauce, heaped with the pickles, cilantro, hot peppers, and sliced cucumber. Meat presented a dilemma. I sliced the cha lua, which was pink and finely textured, like bologna and smelled fine, despite improper storage at the Richmond New May Wah market. I thought: does my schedule over the next few days allow for food poisoning? And yes! It does. But I really hate to throw up, it's almost a phobia. No, it IS a phobia. I gave the $2.99 log of cha lua to the chickens, who scarfed it down. They are all alive and pecking today, so I guess it was okay.

I any case, I used only barbecued pork in the sandwiches, and they were fantastic. The sine qua non of the Vietnamese sandwich is not the meat. You could use almost anything -- leftover roast chicken, steak, duck, pork belly, even lamb, probably fish. It's the crunchy, spicy pickled vegetables and fresh herbs that make a banh mi a banh mi.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Wasting away again

No camera again, as I mentioned, which is a drag because I prefer writing captions to drawing word pictures. And my garden with its ravaged pumpkins and trampled cherry tomatoes -- what a photograph!

I had read about the incompatibility of chickens and gardens, but thought we could get away with letting the two mingle this year as the birds are smallish, the plants biggish. Mais non. Those crazy fowl have been uprooting and pecking at and trampling and eating their way through the potager. I went out yesterday and screamed when I saw what they were up to, then chased them into the lower yard. Husband built a simple but effective blockade with a piece of chicken wire, a few nails, and an upended chair. It could be easily surmounted if they were craftier. I love that chickens are stupid.

We are still waiting for our children to come home from New England. It's very interesting, what happens to a rudderless couple like us without our children. We've been eating Stouffer's French bread pizzas, watching 5 hours of Damages at a stretch, going out for beers, staying in for beers. Is this what our empty nest is going to look like? It's not how I pictured the empty nest. It's hard to imagine we could sustain this level of wastrelism year after year, but then again, before Isabel was born we watched Roseanne reruns every night while we ate dinner, topped off with an hour or so of Law & Order. We thought nothing of it.  

I'm going to try to make Vietnamese sandwiches -- banh mi -- tonight. At least they contain vegetables.