Monday, May 26, 2014

Happy Memorial Day

Clockwise from top: poppyseed torte, chocolate chubbie (from Donald Link's Down South), Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie, a bag of which I received on Mother's Day
In a bookstore yesterday I spent 30 minutes skimming Nina Teicholz's new book, The Big Fat Surprise. The premise -- that saturated fats have been wrongly demonized and are actually essential to good health -- is hardly new, but the book has been getting huge amounts of attention from the mainstream media. Having come of age in the 1980s, to hear that ice cream is probably healthier than sorbet is like hearing that pigs can fly.  What a stunning screw-up on the part of the public health establishment. If I'd ever actually succeeded in sticking to a low-fat diet, I'd be furious right now. 

Fortunately, I failed. I never bought skim milk, cut the fat of my steak, or made an egg white omelet. I wish I could say this was because I knew better, but can't. I didn't adhere to a low-fat diet for the same reason I've never cleaned our refrigerator coils. Seemed like a drag. Couldn't be bothered. Rebellious. Lazy. 

Did I feel guilty about it? You bet I did.

It's going to be hard for nutrition "experts" to get me to believe anything ever again.

Since the last post, I went to my 30th high school reunion (sweet), finished the audiobook of Catherine the Great (tremendous), started the audiobook of On the Noodle Road (not tremendous), and baked a fabulous poppy seed torte out of The Essential New York Times Cookbook. It's a moist, intensely flavored cake so full of poppy seeds it resembles chocolate. If you care, it's gluten-free. Highly recommend.

I haven’t been sticking to a cookbook agenda, which isn’t just a problem for the integrity of this blog, but for me as a cook. Too many options make me crazy. I start flipping through book after book trying to devise a weekly menu plan and hours later I'm still flipping. The one-book-at-a-time program has kept me sane in the past, so I’m recommitting. I'll make 5 to 10 recipes from The New Persian Kitchen over the next week or so.  

As I mentioned in a previous post, New Persian didn't impress the older Iranian ladies in the ESL class where I’m an aide. I think it's the "new" that's the problem. The author, Louisa Shafia, grew up in suburban Philadelphia with an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and Iranian father and it doesn't appear (at least as far as I've read in the book) that she's ever visited Iran. She used to work as a chef in a vegan restaurant and the book contains sentences like: “In general, you’ll find that the recipes here emphasize whole grains and gluten-free flours, use minimal amounts of oil and fat, and call for alternatives to white sugar.” 

None of this means The New Persian Kitchen can't be an excellent cookbook, but might explain why it didn't resonate with a group of Farsi-speaking octogenarians.

So far, the recipes have been solid. Wednesday, I served Shafia’s radish, rhubarb, and strawberry salad. It sounded fresh and unusual and was, though I would not in future put raw rhubarb in a salad or anything else. Raw rhubarb is bad and should not be eaten. Feel free to disagree, but I won't be budged. 

Strawberries, on the other hand, make a tasty addition to a salad, especially when dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I removed this delicious thing from the oven an hour ago, and strawberries dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar also make a tasty addition to a cake. (Note: If you make this, don't use a springform pan.)

Thursday night, I served Shafia's chicken salad with potatoes and olives which consists of chopped cooked chicken (rotisserie), green olives, yogurt, potatoes, and roughly 3 tablespoons of freshly ground coriander, fennel, and mustard seed. The tangy yogurt dressing contained just enough olive oil to soften its rough edges and the spices were magical. I'll say it again: MAGICAL. I couldn't get enough of this salad, though I'd omit the potatoes next time and stuff it inside pita bread with cucumbers and tomatoes.

It was just Owen, Mark, and me both nights, as Isabel is rarely home for dinner these days. If she isn’t at dance class, directing a play, or babysitting, she’s out with her friends. I miss her, but understand this is as it should be. Mark, Owen, and I have gotten in the habit of watching TV while we eat dinner and are currently into Game of Thrones, which we love, and Silicon Valley, which I'm ready to abandon. Fargo seems too realistically gory for mealtime, but Penny Dreadful might work. We have lots of fun watching TV together with our plates balanced on our laps, and there are fewer complaints from some quarters about the food. I've also noticed that a lot more salad gets eaten while attention is directed at the screen. All the experts says watching TV while you eat is terrible, but that’s what they said about cooking with butter and cream. I’m not listening anymore. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A story about bulletproof coffee and homemade tofu

Owen in daycare, 2001. One day I turned up and Sandy, who ran the daycare out of her home, tried to explain to me what they'd all just eaten for lunch. It was a struggle for her to pronounce the words and for me to understand, but I finally got it: pork blood.

Ten days ago at the gym I learned that some of the trainers put butter and coconut oil in their coffee. I’d never heard of such a thing and as soon as I got home, googled it. So-called bulletproof coffee turns out to be a trend among people on Primal and Paleo-style diets. It involves blending single-origin, wet-processed coffee, grass-fed butter, and coconut oil to make a drink that supposedly keeps you calm, energized, nourished, sated, mentally alert, and slender. The inventor claims to have raised his IQ by more than 20 points after adopting a lifestyle that includes this coffee. Make up your own minds, friends. To me, he sounds like a snake oil salesman, but that didn’t diminish my interest in trying his snake oil. 

I bought the ingredients at Whole Foods, where the fancy coffee cost roughly $20 per pound and the pastured butter $8 per pound. It’s not cheap, raising your IQ. 

Tuesday morning, I blended the concoction in the Vitamix for 30 seconds to emulsify the fats. Mark was appalled and would divorce me if I made this a habit, so I won’t. Also, a Vitamix is too loud for 5 a.m. But bulletproof coffee turned out to be delicious, mellow and rich. My lips were soft and buttery for hours afterward and I was pleasantly full all day, despite eating virtually nothing. I also had abundant energy to execute my second culinary project of the morning, which was to make tofu. 


Recently, someone gave me a bottle of nigari, a brine extracted from sea water that the Japanese use to curdle soy milk. I bought soybeans at the health food store, pulled out Andrea Nguyen’s superlative Asian Tofu, and set aside an hour to make tofu. 

Here’s the gist of tofu: Soak soybeans, grind them with water, briefly heat. Strain, forcing all the liquid out of the ground beans. Now you have soy milk. Cook this for about 5 minutes, add some nigari, and pour into a mold. This can be anything from a dedicated wooden tofu mold to a sieve. Weight down your tofu with whatever you have around (cans, little barbells, stones) for 20 minutes. Lift the weights and you’re looking at a block of tofu, cheap, humble component of the Chinese diet for at least a thousand years. The yield from 12 ounces of dried soybeans was a pound of lovely tofu, which hardly seems possible. Huge success.


That afternoon at the gym I mentioned my tofu to the trainer who’d told me about bulletproof coffee. She grimaced and said, “I used to be a vegetarian and ate lots of tofu, but now I wouldn’t touch the stuff.  Soy is one of the big GMO crops and tofu is so processed.” 

I wasn’t about to debate GMOs at the gym, but I couldn’t let her second criticism pass. I said, “Having just made it, I can tell you that tofu isn’t very processed." 


Yes and no.


Which brings me to my frustration with the term “processed food” used as shorthand for things like Pringles, baloney, Uncrustables, and instant pistachio pudding.

According to the dictionary, to process means to “change or preserve by a series of mechanical or chemical operations.”  Tofu is clearly a processed food. So is steamed broccoli. Grilled steak? Processed. Bulletproof coffee is extremely processed as it requires processing together coconut oil (processed), butter (processed), and coffee (processed several times). If  you won’t touch tofu because it’s processed, you'll  need to stay away from bulletproof coffee too.

But of course the processing isn’t really what’s objectionable about “processed foods.” What’s objectionable is the fact that cheap, inferior, artificial ingredients are used to cut costs and extend shelf life, sharply diminishing the flavor and nutritional value of a given product. A better term (thought not perfect) might be “adulterated foods.” Both a homemade chocolate chip cookie and a Chips Ahoy cookie have been processed, but only the Chips Ahoy cookie has been adulterated.

Unfortunately, the term “processed foods” is here to stay and I’m just going to have to live with it. 

Getting back to my story: Is tofu a food that has been processed? Yes. Is it a “processed food?” No. 


I’ve been thinking a lot about the “I wouldn’t touch the stuff” exchange. I like and respect this trainer and didn’t take offense, though I admit that for a few minutes I felt like I’d been caught wearing acid-washed jeans and listening to ABBA. No wonder this poor middle-aged lady can’t do a pull up. She still thinks it’s ok to eat tofu!

I do think it's ok to eat tofu. There are valid reasons some people avoid it (allergies, plant estrogens, distaste) and it's true that there's probably too much soy in the American diet. But that's not because we’re stuffing ourselves with bean curd. I came home from the gym wistful on behalf of old tofu, thrown over by all the cool people for sexy, expensive grass-fed ribeye steaks and bulletproof coffee. I picture tofu like the nice grandmother who carried baby Owen around on her back for a couple years when he went to the Cantonese family daycare. I picture bulletproof coffee like a hot biker in Spandex. He’s a lot more exciting, but can we really trust him? I mean, where was he when people were
were really, really hungry in 19th century China? I'm sure folks would have loved to start each day of crushing toil with a big cup of pastured butter, coconut oil, and top-quality caffeine.

But tofu was there. Tofu has pretty much always been there. And after her centuries of stalwart service to humankind, is it really becoming for wealthy Westerners to talk smack about the old gal and kick her to the curb? Poor old tofu. You’re not perfect, but I’ll still touch you.

Friday, May 09, 2014

A funny little party

 A new photojournalistic low, but I don't like to post pictures of people without asking. That would have meant explaining what a blog is. Maybe even the internet. Maybe even computers.
It’s hard to do justice to the charm and oddity of the ESL class where I volunteer once a week as an aide, but I’ll give it a shot.

Picture a group of (mostly) senior citizens just about evenly divided between sophisticated Iranians and working class Latin Americans. There’s so little cultural overlap between the two groups, it’s not even like apples and oranges. It’s like apples and shiitake mushrooms. A couple of the Iranian women dress like movie stars from the 1960s. A couple of the Latin American men are illiterate. One woman has Alzheimer’s. Another hobbles along with a cane. A few students are very earnest and motivated and a few of them come only to socialize. But everyone likes Wenceslao, a cheerful Salvadoran who wears a hat, plays the accordion, and has something like 57 grandchildren. Personal charisma transcends culture.

The end-of-term party on Wednesday was sweet and, well, a little funky. Mohammed brought Iranian CDs and played them very loud. He and Fatemeh danced for a while. Mohammed was an accountant in Iran and now breaks down boxes on the nightshift at Safeway. “But I’m happy!” he said, happily. I talked to Orfelina and Isila about the difficulties of making pupusas and Orfelina said she doesn’t stuff them, just mixes all the filling ingredients with the masa and fries ‘em up. Adolfo gave me a can of Coca-Cola for Mother’s Day. 

I'd brought in my two Persian cookbooks for vetting by the Iranian ladies, who dismissed The New Persian Kitchen, winner of the 2014 Piglet, but approved of the stout, encyclopedic New Food of Life by Najimieh Batmanglij. (I think New Persian Kitchen is too slim and contemporary for old-timers.) Najar had cooked a lentil dish for the party and Fatemeh had prepared a platter of really tasty baqala polow (rice with dill and fresh fava beans), a recipe for which I found on page 162 of Food of Life. Rosario, who is Mexican and whose front teeth are capped in gold, contributed a big foil container of very soft spaghetti.

Boy, did I eat. I ate like someone who'd spent the morning baking and hadn’t consumed anything except coffee, brownie scraps, and blueberries as of 2 p.m. and now had a splitting headache. I ate and ate and soon the headache was gone.

I ended up bringing a bunch of old favorites: these Essential New York Times Cookbook brownies, the Flour banana bread, Marcella Hazan’s (gluten-free) almond macaroons, and some cut butter cookies from Alice Waters’Art of Simple Food

All winners, except the butter cookies. I’d always frosted them before and learned that without frosting they’re not sweet enough.

Sometimes I wonder how I ever found myself in this strange, delightful group of people for whom I feel so much affection, but the answer is simple: I answered a Craiglist ad back in December. One of my best decisions of 2013. 

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

For the record: wig

If you’ve just blanched almonds for cookies and put them out on your deck to dry and a few minutes later find a crow standing in the middle of the sheet pecking at the almonds with his big, black beak do you:

a. Weigh the almonds, figure out how many the crow’s eaten, add some extra almonds, and proceed with the recipe, confident that the cookies will be sterilized in the oven

b. Let the crow finish off the almonds because he might have contaminated them with a bird virus that doesn’t bake away

c. Throw the almonds into the trash because they might be contaminated, but you’re too pissed at the crow to reward him

I went with "c," but considered both "a" and "b."

I couldn’t decide what to make for the end-of-term party at the ESL class where I volunteer on Wednesdays, so decided to bake a variety of things, a good excuse to spend a couple of hours futzing around in the kitchen rather than working. We now have brownies and butter cookies. Banana bread is cooling and macaroons (made with clean almonds) are in the oven. 

I needed a relaxing morning of baking. It’s mammogram season. For me, the anxiety leading up to the mammogram followed by the anxiety of waiting for the results lasts for roughly a season, a.k.a. spring. (My mother died of breast cancer -- I'm not totally crazy.) I had my mammogram last week and found the dreaded call-back message on my phone about an hour after I landed in New Mexico on Friday. “This is Leslie from Kaiser radiology. . . “

Blood ran cold. I thought, ok, this is it, Jenny, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Do you think you'll go with a wig or a snood? 

It wasn’t the moment I’ve been waiting for, though that could come at any time. It turned out the technician had made an error and they needed to take one shot over again. I went back in yesterday morning and moped around for the rest of the day feeling pathetic, doomed, and alone. I was my worst self, small, anxious, and childlike.

Then last night I read this. I felt immediately and completely better. Warning: it's crude, even gross, but irreverent, funny, and big-hearted about something terrifying and a lot of the comments are, too. We’re all in the soup together and might as well be open about our struggles and fears.

So I’m being open.

I love Chuck Wendig’s blog, by the way. I have some of his classic posts bookmarked because nothing gets me out of a writing slump faster. 

Today he wrote this, which delivers a very familiar carpe diem message, but is nonetheless bracing and true. It made me think that I should be writing rather than baking cookies, but I love the people in my ESL class and there’s (probably) tomorrow.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

A Saturday in Santa Fe

Softly plump women of a certain age in flowy skirts, hats, and arty jewelry, wandering through Indian galleries with dreamy expressions on their faces. A common Santa Fe sight and it makes me miss my mother terribly. She had a closet full of flowy skirts and I’m currently wearing a large hammered silver pin in the shape of a bird that was once hers. It keeps the neck of my dress closed. Come to think of it, the skirt on this dress is a bit flowy. Have I crossed the line? 

The last time I was in Santa Fe, many years ago, it was with my mother. She loved this city and had lots of artist friends here. I remember little about the trip except that I was in my twenties, restless, and sort of a pill. My mother and her friends seemed willfully uncool. Why did they dress like that? Why were they so worried about a little sun? Did they never tire of looking at ristras, silver earrings, and pottery? 

Total turnaround. I now love energetic, open, art-loving older women who travel and paint and aren’t trying to be cool anymore. It warmed my heart every time I came across a group of them yesterday, enthusiastically tasting chili-spiked chocolate elixirs or photographing adobe churches. What I’d give for a do-over of that long-ago trip to Santa Fe with my mother. 

The culinary highlight of yesterday was not the chili-spiked chocolate elixir, though that was pretty interesting. The culinary highlight was a blue corn donut with a blueberry-lavender glaze from the Farmers’ Market. It resembled an old-fashioned donut, but was a lot more substantial and complex. Craggy, purple, crunchy, gritty -- it sounds weird, but it was a winner. I am so irked that I didn’t bring my camera. 

The eating low point was a stupid seafood salad at a hushed, overpriced restaurant where I sat next to a table of merry women in flowy skirts. They were having a ball.

Today, I need to try a green chile cheeseburger at one place and some chile cheese fries at another and then my work is pretty much done. 

Friday, May 02, 2014

In the Land of Enchantment

photo from Cafe Press

On the flight to Albuquerque this morning, I read a tremendous story in The New Yorker about the capture of El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. You should take 30 minutes to read it. Not my usual fare, but I couldn’t put it down. 

Then I got off the plane and right there at the gate was a stand selling Heisenberg t-shirts.*  Is this really such a swell idea, New Mexico? A meth dealer as the icon of your lovely, lovely state? 

Now I’m reading Ruth Reichl’s brand-new novel, Delicious! It's her first and I'm curious to see if she can pull it off. I'm not far enough in to have a good sense of the plot, but so far there's a sensual, self-effacing narrator and she's just landed a job at a glitzy New York City food magazine. As of page 27 the book is cheerful and fluffy and I have no trouble putting it down. I'll give it 50 more pages to win my heart. 

Now I need to go find blue corn for dinner.

*For those unfamiliar with Breaking Bad, the show took place in Albuquerque and its central character, Walter White, was also known as Heisenberg.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Eggs and ice cream

Short and sweet ‘cause it’s super hot and I have to pack to go to New Mexico tomorrow for a story. 

Two topics to cover:

1. Eggs on pasta. This was the week for it.. First, the deep-fried poached egg carbonara experiment. A few days later, Michael Ruhlman’s pasta puttanesca with poached eggs. This entails making a zesty puttanesca sauce (tomatoes, olives, anchovies, capers) in which you then poach a few eggs. Serve eggs and sauce on a nest of angel hair pasta.

Interesting idea. How was it? The runny yolk added richness to the puttanesca -- like a sauce for the sauce. Very nice. But the egg whites were bland, flabby, and not so pretty. What were these flimsy white scraps doing in my pasta? It reminded me of when you pull out a load of laundry and realize that someone left a packet of Kleenex in their pocket. 

Conclusion: No eggs on pasta unless it’s carbonara.

2. Stuff in ice cream. I think we all know the joy of ice cream filled with cookie dough, crushed shortbread, peanut butter cups, etc.  When I was younger I thought ice cream was basically just a delivery system for broken Oreos and chocolate-covered pretzels.

Lord knows I'd never turn down a bowl of Chunky Monkey, but now that I am old and wise I think it sort of misses the point. What’s miraculous about ice cream isn't how many brownie chunks or bits of cinnamon dough it can hold. What's miraculous about ice cream is the way it can capture the essence of an ingredient in firm, cold, voluptuous cream. 

One of the best examples of this is a simple, intensely flavored lemon ice cream from Baking with Jim Dodge. I’ve been making this ice cream since 1998 and to put anything in it (I once added pistachios) is a mistake. The ice cream is an end in itself -- smooth, pale yellow, profoundly lemony, and restful to eat.

I understand why kids don’t go for it. They want a lot of noise and sugar and crunch and chocolate. Naturally, Owen declined to try the lemon ice cream and instead scooped himself a large, lumpy bowl of Safeway Select Moose Tracks. Not even good bad ice cream!

He will see the light in 10 or 15 years. I did.

Here’s the recipe for Jim Dodge's lemon ice cream. It's easy.

1/2 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 cups cold heavy cream

1. Bring the milk to a simmer. Remove from heat. 

2. In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, whisk the eggs with the sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Cook, whisking, until thickened, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in milk and cream. 

3. Chill. Freeze in an ice cream maker. Makes 1 quart.