Friday, October 30, 2009

A few things about which I am unenthusiastic

I was looking forwards to seeing Where the Wild Things Are about as much as I look forwards to cleaning the chicken coop. Actually, less, because when you're scooping up wood shavings and hosing down avian waste your thoughts are free to wander, but seated in a multiplex you are psychically trapped. I'm not a lover of fantasy, plus I had read Dana Stevens' review and agreed with her premise, film unseen. (I still do.)

But Owen really wanted to go, it was playing right here in town, so I caved.

To my surprise, I found the early reality-based portion of the movie incredibly moving. It made me cry, an unexpected response that had everything to do with seeing a film anchored in the mind of an imaginative, emotionally volatile 9-year-old boy in the company of my own imaginative, emotionally volatile 9-year-old boy. I thought: This must be sort of what it's like to BE Owen. 

I already know what it's like to be a tired and perplexed parent and Catherine Keener was brilliant in that small role. The life-like untidiness of the house; the sensitive, maddening son; the languid adolescent daughter holed up in her room; the school supplies on the dining table; the tantrum over frozen corn -- Spike Jonze really nailed those 20 minutes before dinner when every pot in the house, emotional and actual, seems to come to a boil.  The way he and the actors captured the many layers (absurd, totally mundane, shattering) of the pivotal conflict and honored the perspectives of both the mother and child was, to me, miraculous and strangely edifying.

I wish the film had continued in this vein, but then Max goes to where the wild things are and zzzzz. The beasts were funny, vaguely alarming, beautifully designed, etc. etc. etc., and Owen was enthralled, but I started making to-do lists in my head and wishing I could turn on my cell phone to see how much longer the ordeal would last. My makers forgot to install the fantasy chip.

Today, I clean the chicken coop.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some donuts, some self-promotion

On the left, a Krispy Kreme. On the right, a donut made by Isabel and me. Details on how they tasted and how much they cost: coming soon.

Briefly, though, I ate so many hot homemade donuts the other night that I sent myself to bed early as punishment. The good news is, there were no donuts left over to feed to the chickens which I have since learned is a bad idea

I will probably continue to feed the chickens failed cakes, cookies and donuts to break up the monotony of centipedes, sandwich crusts, and grain, but perhaps not quite so often.


My story about shopping for Vietnamese groceries is in the November issue of Sunset, or so I have been told. (I can't find it online.) It includes a picture in which I am wearing a shirt that my friend just said "resembles a tablecloth." He also told me that it's charming how "natural and disheveled" I look, that it's clear I hadn't spent a lot of time primping or brushing my hair. Which is funny, because I actually had. 

Also, my review of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals is here. I couldn't begin to fit my thoughts about this fascinating and maddening polemic into the space allotted. This is a book you really need to take apart piece by piece to separate the truly strong arguments (there are many) from the eminently debatable (there are many.) I wonder if Foer paid Natalie Portman to sound off and start the buzz. If so, good thinking!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Onion ring v. onion ring

Can you make onion rings at home that are as unwholesomely delicious as those prepared by an adolescent fry cook at Burger King?

Isabel and I performed this very experiment last night. 

Our august tasting panel:

Don't laugh. Who better? The boys did an estimable job.

I have to withhold the verdict for a few days because this is part of the best work assignment ever, at least if your life goals no longer include curing cancer, winning a Pulitzer Prize, or making pots of money. That would be me. 

Our stout brown onion ring is on the left, the BK "onion" ring is on the right.

Like I said, the results of the experiment, plus many thoughts, in a few days. 

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ideas for green tomatoes?

I keep thinking I'm going to rip out our summer garden one of these days and replant with lettuce and cilantro, but I've been busy and meanwhile the tired plants keeps throwing off produce, albeit of ever diminishing quality. These are sad, grimy, hard tomatoes, but I hate throwing food away. If anyone has ideas for what to do with several gallons of green tomatoes, please let me know. I'm not sure how many fried green tomatoes one family can consume.

Last night, I remembered seeing a recipe in Viana La Place's Verdura for a green tomato and almond pasta sauce. Have I mentioned this cookbook before? It is one of my favorites, full of delicious, unique, and startlingly simple recipes that use fresh vegetables. 
If you ever see this cookbook at a used bookstore or garage sale, buy it. You will not be sorry.

La Place's green tomato pasta recipe calls for green tomatoes "with a touch of blush" of which I had many. You slice them and cook them with garlic, olive oil and slivered almonds and toss with angel hair pasta.

Not a good picture, but a good dinner.

Dessert: Crumble cake out of Gourmet Today. I've said before that I worry all the recipes from this book are going to be fine but not worth repeating. This is another of those. I've made hard Italian cookie-cakes before, and this one -- gritty with cornmeal, lemony, lumpy -- wasn't among the best. Plus, it stuck to the pan despite generous buttering. Automatic fail.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bees: They're there

A friend of mine constantly nags me about our bees, thinks that my infatuation with chickens has led me to abandon the bees. It is true, I do like the chickens better than the bees, but there's not that much to do with these bees except leave them alone. 

Yesterday, my mother was over and I offered to let her inspect the hives with me since I haven't done so in a couple of months. Plus, I wanted to show off. She wore a bathrobe, I wore a winter coat because we don't have suits. I know that some people inspect hives in shorts and t-shirts, but I will never be that kind of person.

What did we find? There are fewer bees in both hives and they are more concentrated in the lower boxes than they were this summer. There are signs of a queen (specifically, babies) in both hives, but not very many. We will harvest no honey this year; all the honey -- there is a lot and it is beautiful -- is for the bees to use over the winter. I did not do a mite count, though I know I should at some point.  And I need to fix my feeders, in which the bees were drowning in vast numbers before I removed them. I've read that this is a common problem with the type of feeder I bought and can be remedied with duct tape. I have a short bee-related to-do list and I will tackle it within the week.

My husband took these photos of my mother and me after I was stung on the neck by a bee that got inside the coat, which didn't bother me at all, but immediately before a bee began buzzing inside my bonnet, which bothered me inordinately. I am terrified of bees getting trapped in my hair, so I did the most irrational, childish thing imaginable: I ripped off my bonnet. Then there were a lot of bees (maybe three? five? it seems like a lot in the moment) buzzing around my face and head and I began to wail and ran into the house. My husband brushed the bees off me and gave me a withering look. I put the bonnet back on and resumed my duties, but the act I was performing for my mother -- remember how I used to be scared of bees when I was a foolish little girl? see how cool I am now? -- was somewhat spoiled. 

These are some of our new chicks. 

I used to think it was a shame that tiny, adorable chicks had to grow up to be hens. I still think tiny, adorable chicks are tiny and adorable, but there's nothing quite like a plump and clucking full-grown hen, pecking and scratching and dust-bathing. We got wire for the new, high-security chicken run from a neighbor, but we're going to hire out the actual carpentry.  This is very good news for the chickens.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gourmet Today: roasted pears and candied celery

Right before we went to Boston last week, we had party with my uncle Luis, his wife Ana Maria, and my grandmother. The only dish I made that didn't come from Gourmet Today was the guacamole (excellent Rick Bayless version with tomatillos) and the guests -- all natives of Guatemala -- informed me that this chunky Mexican guacamole lacked the suave, elegant texture of Guatemalan guacamole, which is essentially pureed and, of course, far superior. Having stated their case, they basically scraped the bowl clean of the barbaric Mexican guacamole and my grandmother took the dish to her place at the table and used the last bits as a relish for the rest of the meal.

 I served straciatella, a chicken soup with spinach and egg that was fine, and an eggplant souffle, that was also fine but didn't rise one centimeter, so I called it a frittata. I forced myself not to apologize.
 For dessert, we had roasted pears with candied celery because I wanted to taste candied celery.

To make this, you halve and core Bosc pears and lay them in a bed of sliced celery and pour over everything a lemony, sugary syrup spiked with expensive dessert wine. 

I used the cheapest dessert wine I could find (Moscato) and it cost $15 for a half bottle, which gave me pain.

 You roast the pears until tender, remove them from the oven and place them in a serving dish while you boil down the syrup and celery. When the celery is shiny, sticky, and almost jammy, you take it off the heat, pour it over the pears, and serve.

Like the rest of the meal it was fine; the celery tasted only vaguely of celery, mostly it was just achingly sweet. We enjoyed this novelty dish, but I'd never make it again and I'm worried that a lot of Gourmet Today recipes are going to fall into this category.
There's more to this story. Many months ago, I stated steeping vanilla using inexpensive beans I bought in bulk on amazon. Since I couldn't decide what liquor to use, I made three batches: one with dark rum, one with golden rum, one with vodka. I cut the beans into pieces, stuffed them into three jars, and added the booze. Then I let them sit and sit and sit.

To embellish the pears, I decided I would make custard sauce and divide it into four portions and flavor each with a different vanilla, including a supermarket vanilla. Then we would taste them all, discuss, and declare a winner.
I wish I could say there was a dramatic finale to the vanilla experiment, but you had to really concentrate if you wanted to detect a difference between the batches of custard sauce. There was a weak preference for the homemade vanilla made with light rum and I would say the dark rum was the loser. The supermarket vanilla was definitely the mildest, but I'm not sure that was a bad thing; it didn't overshadow the bright flavors of the milk and egg. 

Really, though, the differences were so subtle it was hard to make a case for any of these vanillas. I haven't priced it out, but on flavor alone, homemade vanilla -- at least as made by me -- is no better than McCormick's. 


A scene from our home a few minutes ago:

Owen: Mom! Dad!

Tipsy: Yes?

Owen: I asked the Magic 8 ball if any more of our chickens are going to die and he said, "My sources say no!"

Tipsy (heart sinking): That's wonderful.

Husband: Ask the Magic 8 ball if I am the handsomest dad in Tam Valley. 

Owen: Aaahh! He says "Don't count on it." Wait, let me try again.

I find nine to be a very sweet age.

Friday, October 23, 2009

If what she's trying to show (not tell) is utter contempt -- A+!

This was on the screen of our family computer when I sat down a few minutes ago. It is a writing assignment that Isabel produced for school. 


The room was messy.

“Ouch!” I cringed as a sharp, bright red, plastic lego pierced my foot. My brother had stolen my colored pencils and I wanted them back. Scanning the room I narrowed my eyebrows in disgust. Week, maybe month old laundry littered the rug which was stained with chocolate milk. Various toys of every shape and size cluttered the floor and the stench of discarded week old pizza filled the air. Hopping to avoid any more of the deadly legos, I made my way to his scratched-up brown desk. Pushing aside piles of drawings and forgotten homework assignments I finally dug my way to the bottom and found what I was looking for. I grabbed the pencils and sped out of the messy room.

Do you narrow your eyebrows or narrow you eyes? I believe it's the eyes.

Actually, I think Owen's room is looking comparatively good these days. No week-old pizza. I checked.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I really do think about things apart from chickens, at least occasionally

Last night, Owen and I were watching The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and every time the background sounds included a chicken squawking, we would look at each other. We've become daffy like that. On the plane back from Boston, I finished one book and started another. Both had memorable scenes involving chickens. I will share: 

1. The farm-dwelling protagonist of All the Living by C.E. Morgan (strong, quiet novel -- Marilynne Robinson with more sex and grit) hates chickens, finds them stupid and ugly. Silly lady. Perhaps that is why she is viciously attacked by an enraged rooster whose wings make "a rushing sound like a woman giving chase in an old-timey dress with crinoline and hoops." Her boyfriend then slaughters the evil rooster and brings her his claws which leads to a big fight. She then proceeds to accidentally kill a bunch of her boyfriend's hens by giving them wet feed, which leads to another big fight. She also burns some fried chicken which is either before or after a big fight. In fact, come to think of it, the whole book revolves around chickens and big fights, with occasional piano playing and tobacco cultivation. It's a lot better than I'm making it sound. Good book.

2. In Pete Dexter's Spooner (a ribald dark comedy about which I'm not yet prepared to opine as I'm only on page 104) a character witnesses, in passing, this delightful scene: "There were also shirtless men in the poultry yard, two of them hidden in the shadow of a henhouse. One of them was having sex with a chicken and the other one was standing with his pants down around his knees. . ." It goes on and gets coarser and I want to keep my PG-13 rating so I'll stop. I count this scene against the novel because it has nothing to do with anything and while I guess you could say the same about posting this passage on my blog, at least I'm making a point about gratuitous sex-with-animals scenes and how much I loathe them. LOATHE. Do not include sex with animals in your books, please, please, please, or at least put a warning on the cover. I'll never forgive Larry McMurtry.

We have five brand new baby chicks. They are sweet little balls of gray fluff, and we are eager for them to grow up and go outside and join the flock, which seems very small and subdued now.  

There was a dog in our driveway today, a big, cheerful, bounding, barking gray dog who seemed like he was about to try to surmount the fence. I shooed him off and then realized I should have grabbed his collar to see if this is The Dog. I am not currently angry at The Dog, but if he comes back, I will be.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

And then there were seven

Thank-you for all your condolences.

In the end we lost four chickens: Marlene, Caroline, Tiny, and Barbie. Miraculously, Alberta Einstein, Owen's 4-H project and favorite, survived, and one hen who had been assumed dead was later found alive. We got home from Boston at midnight and discovered phone messages from neighbors we have never met telling of dead chickens strewn about and traumatized hens wandering in their driveways. It was apparently quite a horror show, a real community spectacle. 

The aftermath is definitely creepy. Surveying the yard today, I feel like I'm looking at a crime scene, and the remaining hens are visibly nervous and depressed, perched in a shady corner where I have never seen them before. I didn't want to confine the chickens to a little cage-like run, but I am beginning to see the downside of "free range."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A goal achieved, some bad news from home

We've been in Boston for the last few days visiting my husband's family and today, we went to Durgin Park, a legendary, touristy and very old restaurant that serves "Yankee food." I've wanted to eat here since I first learned of its existence 10 years ago and while it was not worth the wait, now I know. The place smelled like a large steam table and nothing was delicious -- not the fish cakes, not the baked beans, not the cornbread -- except the Indian pudding, which caused me to break all my moderate eating rules. It was warm and smooth and rich, like a great breakfast food rejiggered for dessert. The waitress gave me the recipe, which is printed in a little pamphlet and calls for baking the pudding for five to seven hours in a stone crock. I am only sorry we didn't also try the coffee gelatin.

After lunch, riding the T back to my in-laws' house, we got a call from our neighbor back in California. He is unsure how, but his dog got into our fenced yard and killed five of our chickens. Owen is devastated, and understandably so, because he has watched, studied, washed, fed, chased, and loved those chickens as only a 9-year-old boy without a dog can. I never thought I would do this, but I now think we will hire someone to put in a high-security chicken run with chain-link fencing. We love our chickens and can't let this happen ever again.

We'll see who survived when we get home tonight.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

R.I.P. Floppy

I don't know if I mentioned this, but we had a second rooster. It was Floppy, one of our original Buff Orpington chicks. That is Floppy as a baby, when I first worried he might be a boy. He started crowing a few weeks ago, but so intermittently that I thought maybe we could get away with keeping him. Recently, though, he found his voice and crowed lustily every morning. He sounded like a bagpipe. 

We put him down yesterday morning. He would have had a rough time integrating with a new flock, I know this by watching the ongoing miseries of Caroline, and I could not be sure how his new owners, if we could find him new owners, would treat him. He was a big, wobbly, fluffy bird, slightly buffoonish, lovable. But there was also something wrong with him that made him floppy and that is the main reason I don't think anyone else would have wanted him. Although he had been vaccinated and his symptoms did not progress, I worried he had Marek's disease. From his early youth, he stumbled and staggered and twitched. For that and other reasons, there was no way we could even try to eat Floppy. We buried him. 

I think, for now, I am done trying to eat our chickens. I am also done buying factory-farmed chicken and eggs. I was at Safeway a few days ago and considered buying some poultry parts for stock, but the sight of the slick, pink meat compressed under plastic struck me as terribly sad and wrong. The polemics I've read about the evils of factory farming certainly laid the groundwork, but none was ultimately as persuasive as just living around a small flock of funny, clucking birds. 

I guess this means we'll be buying from Marin Sun Farms, and eating less chicken.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kennedy: Vinegar update

On the left is the pineapple vinegar I began last month by steeping pineapple skins in brown sugar. 

On the right is the banana vinegar, made by letting overripe bananas rot and seep.

Both recipes came from Mexican cooking maven Diana Kennedy, both have been decanted and tasted.

Pineapple vinegar. This smells incredible, bright and tangy, like some bionic pineapple just exploded. (Not sure that simile works, but hyperbole is called for.) You open the jar of vinegar and the whole room is perfumed with one of the loveliest scents ever generated in my kitchen. The vinegar is also gorgeous, a cloudy gold nectar. The flavor is sharp, vinegary, very pleasant, if not complex. I would rate this a moderate success.

Banana vinegar. The aroma is so mild I can't really describe it. As you can see, the vinegar is inky, opaque, not all that appealing. I was reluctant to taste this; I shouldn't have been. It is delicious. This is a thicker, more syrupy vinegar than the pineapple; it also tastes more substantial, sweet and rich, distinctly sour but full of honey and caramel flavors, and, of course, banana. It's like balsamic, but maybe even better.
No one could be more shocked than I that this experiment actually worked. Thank-you, Diana Kennedy. Both vinegars need to sit for a while more, but given my exceedingly low expectations, I am exceedingly happy with the results.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Make it or Buy it: hot dog buns

Blog evidence to the contrary, it is not my dream to churn butter, render lard, bake crumpets, and pickle watermelon rinds from dawn to dusk. If I actually had to make all my food from scratch, I would never get to read a book, earn a paycheck, play the piano, sit around watching The Office with my kids or Dahmer all by myself (Last night. Stupendous, though you should lock your doors before inserting the disc and prepare for troubled sleep.) There's a lot to be said for the convenience of buying your mustard and ketchup and bread and cheese.

But the more I cook, the more depressed I get, because it becomes more and more obvious that what we have gained in freedom we have lost in tastiness. No one else is surprised by this, so I don't know why I am. But I am. It never fails to shock me how easy it is to wildly outperform the big food companies. 

It seemed a little ridiculous to make hot dog buns, but we had an open package of franks and no buns, so I decided to try. I used the recipe from page 232 of the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion and I'm going to print it here, slightly  "adapted." I hope they don't mind; I can't think of a better advertisement for this excellent book.

Hot Dog Buns

1. In a bowl mix 1 cup water, 2 tablespoons butter, 1 egg, 3 1/4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon instant yeast. Knead until you have a soft, smooth dough. Scoop up the dough, grease the bowl, return the dough to the bowl, cover with a damp towel,  and let rise for 1 hour. (More is fine; I let it rise for three hours.)

2. Divide the dough into 8 pieces, shape into logs, and place on a greased cookie sheet. (Obviously, you can shape the dough into hamburger buns if you wish.) Drape with the same damp towel. Let rise for 40 minutes until "quite puffy." Mine got more than quite puffy; this is dough with Frankenstein inclinations, so err on the side of petite when you shape your buns.
3. Preheat oven to 375. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown. The recipe says to cool the buns, but I would use them soon. Like, immediately.
I didn't think I minded storebought hot dog buns, but now I am ruined. These were ethereal, slightly sweet, chewy, and fresh. The kids and I were hushed as we ate. It was like tasting your first Cabernet after a lifetime of Thunderbird, after a lifetime when you thought there was nothing BUT Thunderbird.

The buns were delicious. They were easy (much easier than bread, easier than most cookies). They were also inexpensive. By my estimate, using bulk yeast, it cost $1.41 to execute this recipe, including oven heat. This works out to 18 cents a bun. By contrast, the rock-bottom house-brand buns at Safeway are currently 25 cents a bun. After this, a big jump: Ball Park buns: 42 cents. Columbo: 45 cents. Orowheat: 53 cents.

I would not mind paying three times as much for the convenience of packaged food if it were not so insultingly bad. You only realize just how flagrantly, needlessly crummy it is after you try making it yourself. I should probably feel empowered, but instead I feel indignant.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming: 

Gourmet Today's roasted tomato soup with Parmesan croutons was sweet and creamy and took care of the the last of the tomatoes. I wish the recipe was on Epicurious so I could link, but it's not. Two caveats:

 1. The instructions call for you to put the soup through a fine sieve after pureeing, but I didn't do this. The soup might not have been velvety enough for Joel Robuchon, but it drew no complaints from a suburban family of four. I really hate cleaning the sieve.

2. The Parmesan wafers did not melt into firm wafers, but were yummy dumped in the soup as shreds.

Taste test: Bubbies Mochi ice cream

Wow, talk about a nothing picture. The mochi ice cream was so blindingly white that it confused the autofocus on my camera. But the photo does capture one of the salient features of Bubbies vanilla mochi ice cream, which is the pure-as-driven-snowy whiteness of it. You can buy this product at Whole Foods -- $7.49 for a box of eight, which is not cheap given that the mochis are very small, about the size of an egg.

What is Bubbies mochi ice cream? It is a ball of mediocre ice cream wrapped in a sheet of the pounded sweet rice paste called mochi, which often enrobes unctuous sugary bean pastes.  I have loved Japanese mochi confections since high school when I first discovered them. Why would anyone eat brownies when they could eat pink and pastel-green mochi? Because they are crazy.

Verdict: Eaten straight out of the freezer, a disappointment. The ice cream tastes artificial, like storebought vanilla ice cream before premium and super-premium. Also, it is hard. Gummy mochi skin wrapped around a firm ball of ice cream isn't a wonderful thing.

However, left out of the freezer for twenty minutes, the ice cream melts and what you are left with is a sturdy little sack of velvety, ice-cold custard. It's like a Beard Papa cream puff, but with chewy mochi instead of cardboard choux pastry. You bite a little hole in the mochi and suck out the cream. You probably don't want to do this in front of other people, but trust me, this is an extremely fun food to eat. 
Would I buy this again? Yes, I definitely would, but probably won't because I ate a whole box of mochi ice cream in two days.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gourmet Today: more low-hanging fruit

I have roasted a lot of chickens over the years and they were all tasty. The oven temperature, basting, brining, stuffing, slathering with herb butter -- I don't think any of it matters. What matters about roasting a chicken is that you just do it. 

I was thinking about rotisserie chickens. They're usually smaller, not organic and they're a tiny bit oily (a plus, depending on who you ask, and if you ask me, a plus). I think they're delicious, often more delicious than a chicken you roast at home. They're definitely easier and sometimes even cheaper, which is inexplicable.

Still, they're not the same, are they.  They don't pack the symbolic wallop of a whole bird crackling and spitting in a pan in your very own oven. Rotisserie is fine for picnics, but for a family dinner, you need to roast your own.

My roundabout way of saying the salt-roast chicken from Gourmet Today was very tasty, if not worth the price of the book.
The red wine/maple-glazed carrots I made as an accompaniment might have been more popular had I not used giant, woody carrots from the plastic bag in the crisper. They tasted overripe, oversweet, unwholesome. How could they not? They are as old as my children. I need to upgrade to the long, skinny, fresh carrots with leaves attached like we ate this weekend at a party, and which tasted like carrots, not mashed yams. 

I hope the hens, at least, enjoyed the carrots. They are definitely not enjoying this mad rainstorm, have been huddled underneath the coop all day, monitoring the weather. One of them, Angel, made it to her "secret" nest in the ivy and I found her there sitting on a warm egg at 9 a.m.. She was drenched, her usually jaunty, bright-white feathers sodden and mud-spattered and she appeared very scrawny without her fluffy plumage. I carried her back down to her compatriots, where she has remained. They must be very cold and hungry and as soon as I'm done with this post I'm going to take them some treats.
Storm should continue for a bit. There have been mudslide warnings, flood warnings, power outages, the constant screaming of ambulances in the distance. I stayed in all day and finished a long, annoying, exhausting novel that I had to write about, and did. The experience so drained and depressed me that instead of doing something practical I picked up a book I don't have to write about but thought I would love. And I do. That book is Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder and it is similar in subject matter to Dave Eggers' What is the What, but it's non-fiction and better. 

Brought in the last of the summer garden yesterday. Some of the white eggplants turned yellow, which was weird.
Tonight, we're having tomato soup, if I can ever rise from the couch.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bayless v. Kennedy: The winner is. . .

The Bayless versus Kennedy competition? Bayless wins. But you already guessed that. I haven't done the tallies for all the individual books, and I'm not even sure Bayless will prevail in a by-the-numbers comparison, but the dread with which I came to approach the Diana Kennedy books can not be overemphasized. In the last week or so of this experiment I only wanted to cook from Bayless because he was friendly and encouraging and didn't bombard me with dishes calling for young iguana and a special mushroom that you can only get in late April in northern Chiapas when it's raining. I made that up, but it's a fair exaggeration.

I'm going to assess the cookbooks one by one and I'll only offer a review if I made ten recipes or more. Is that fair? Ten? Or should it be fifteen? 

Here's the first:
Mexico, One Plate at a Time
Rick Bayless

I made 16 dishes from this cookbook:

Worth the price of the book -- 0
Great -- 3
Good -- 10
So-so -- 3
Flat-out bad -- 0

Mexico, One Plate at a Time is a companion to Bayless's TV show, and the ratio of flowery preamble to recipe is definitely too high. On the other hand, there's a useful Q&A section attached to each category of dish and I learned a lot just reading these. I like this amiable, conversational and informative cookbook and will use it again. But I don't think it's as strong as Bayless's other books, and it isn't a shelf essential. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gourmet Today: some low-hanging fruit

Toasted coconut cookies. Brown sugary, chewy-crispy, like chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate chips. You finish one and your mouth instantly wants another, which is the best kind of cookie. 
Capellini with fresh tomato sauce.  It tasted exactly as you would expect, was juicy and much loved by children. Benefited from heavy dosing with Parmesan.

Two early thoughts about Gourmet Today

1. There's a recipe for cinnamon toast ice cream, but none for vanilla or strawberry. On the other hand, pasta with fresh tomatoes? Buttermilk pancakes? I'm not sure I understand the mix of novelty and pedestrian basics. 

2. So much booze. Dish after dish calls for a dram or two of some expensive/exotic liquor -- armagnac, framboise, pomegranate liqueur, sauternes, creme de menthe -- that I don't have and really don't want to buy.

 We are about to be pounded with our first storm of the season and I can not wait.  Whole Foods was aswarm, everyone talking excitedly about "stocking up for the storm," which was funny because it's not like you can't go to the supermarket in the rain. 

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Taste Test: multi-green kombucha

Commercial kombucha comes in a pretty palette of girly fruit colors: pink, purple, orange, gingerberry. For a long time I have nervously eyed the multi-green, a lone snake in the flowerbed. Yesterday, Owen begged me to buy some, I guess because green is a boy color. 

Impressions: It tastes like soda made out of moss. If you call it a tonic, which changes all your taste expectations, it is tolerable -- spritzy and vegetal. Owen was not a fan. The algal sediment at the bottom of the bottle brings to mind the fatigues-colored juices emitted by cooked spinach. 

Buy again? No.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

When you start feeling better again, you feel really good

A stomach virus has recently galloped through our home and turned three of the four of us into groveling, dead-eyed zombies. It always attacks at night, and picks off the calves first. You are sleeping sweetly and hear a plaintive: "Mom, my tummy feels weird." 

Soon, you will be doing lots of laundry.

When I was a child, minutes after my sister or I announced a stomachache, our mother, who otherwise forbade all soda, was in the Datsun heading to the supermarket to buy a six-pack of Coke. Never Pepsi. It had to be Coke, and you had to drink it in tiny, tiny sips from a glass filled with ice. Where did her devotion to this dubious remedy come from? Was there once a Coke-for-the-puking marketing campaign? If so, what an idiotic idea. If so, it worked!

Because I am now raising children who believe that this sugary, caffeinated soft drink is a holy elixir. I know that the secret Coca-Cola formula does not include antiviral properties, and I know that if you drink it too early in the stomach flu experience it will cause more harm than good. It cures nothing. But when I have turned the corner and am huddled, groggy and parched, in a stuffy room, the fizz of Coke being poured over ice is the sound of grace. I associate it with my mother taking care of me, but now I'm getting wiggy and sentimental so I will stop.

I bought Gourmet Today as my next book, even though I need another $40 all-purpose cookbook like I need stomach flu. But Isabel and I spent some time at Borders poring over this enormous tome and decided, on the basis of timeliness, a copious dessert section and the goat cheese and arugula ravioli, that it was an excellent choice. 
I liked brilliant Amy Bloom's eulogy for Gourmet: "There's no need to defend Gourmet against charges of elitism; Gourmet was certainly an elitist magazine, if by that we mean not any old mundane and familiar crap would do."
Michael Connelly's new novel is full of mundane and familiar crap; he's usually better than this. My review is here

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Not quite so many nooks and crannies

Make an eggy yeast dough and let it rise. Cut, as for biscuits.
Cook in a skillet, as for pancakes, except without butter and for about five times as long.
The discs of dough rise straight up, like the cylindrical towers on a storybook castle. Cool. Split with a fork, toast, butter, top with jam.
I have no brief with Thomas's, but homemade english muffins are tastier, less flimsy, less cottony, albeit also less craggy. Overall, better. But how much better? I don't buy english muffins very often so I probably won't make these very often, but it was fun, as always, to see the mystique of another supermarket staple evaporate, and so quickly.

We had old friends over for dinner the other night. It seems like yesterday that they were new friends, but suddenly they're old friends. I braised beef short ribs a la Mexicana from Rick Bayless's Mexico, One Plate at a Time, a dish that showcased the unholy alliance of poblano chiles, white onions, and tomatoes. I'm putting a black mark in the book beside this recipe for the faintly kidney-like flavor created by those ingredients. I only ate kidneys once, eleven years ago, in Ireland, and that sufficed for all eternity. 

Here's Bayless on the dish: "Red white and green -- joyous colors on the national flag of Mexico. Red tomato, white onion and green chile -- awesome, amicable flavors on the plates of Mexico."

I don't agree with him, but he's such a cheery guy.

Here's another Bayless effusion: "Mexico is a hunble country that's been kept together, in great part, by rice pudding."

Wild overstatement, but sweet.

I served Bayless's rice pudding, an easy stovetop dish flavored with cinnamon and orange rind, and dotted with raisins. At the end of his recipe, where most cookbook writers would coldly command you to "serve immediately," Bayless writes: "A wonderful, warm treat awaits." 

The pudding was warm, but too soupy to be quite wonderful. (The soupiness may have been my fault; although I followed his instructions to the letter, I believe I misinterpreted.) In any case, I can't bring myself to photograph food when there are people around. Even old friends. 

It is coming on time for a new cookbook. I was truly devastated by yesterday's news from Conde Nast, and I think I have to do a Gourmet cookbook. But which one? The old leather maroon Gourmets with the gold lettering? Or the fat, shiny yellow one from a few years ago? Or the brand new one Ruth Reichl was pimping on Forum the other day? Or something else entirely? Suggestions? 

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Gee, her hair smells terrific

Just look at that clean, clean, clean chicken. CLEAN. Owen was very excited to show off Alberta Einstein, who was by far the sassiest bird at 4H. The chicken-bathing lesson went smoothly, with one big caveat: According to Mary, the 4H leader, Alberta Einstein is infested with mites.  

We were so ashamed. 

I have since confirmed the presence of mites (or are they poultry lice?) with my own eyes, and they are more horrifying than I had imagined. I spent much of today chasing chickens around the yard and dusting their vents with toxic white powder.  The good news: no longer a mite to be seen. The grotesque bloodsucking arachnids that were making our chickens tired, feeble, and ill have been vanquished. A follow-up dusting in a week will take care of the babies. The bad news is, I'm going to get cancer from inhaling Permectrin and I don't think I can say our eggs are organic anymore. 

I'm all itchy. Farming is gross.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

How many birthday cakes does a boy need?

A kid needs 28 birthday cakes. One for the friends party, one for the family party, and 26 cupcakes for school.
I was thinking of buying the cupcakes (tired, who cares), but Isabel wanted to bake them. She favors the Magnolia Bakery recipe which is reprinted here and which we have made 20 times and love. She was going to color the buttercream frosting pink, but I told her, it's your brother's birthday, any color but pink. 

So she made. . . 

Gay Pride cupcakes. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Such a hit they were at school that Owen traded the extras for action figure cards. He was very pleased with the exchange, but I've seen those cards and they were cut from the back of a cereal box. He totally got rooked. 

Today he's going to learn to bathe chickens at 4H. Just thinking about that cracks me up.

My review of Nick Hornby's new novel is here