Saturday, April 03, 2010

In A Whirl 'Cause She's Not

A bazillion years ago in blog years, our delightful friend Georg convinced me to make my own ricotta and on this very blog, I documented my cheesy experiments. I didn't really think it would work because Georg can do anything and I can't add and subtract, but I followed her instructions and - BLAMMO! cheese! I did have to think about the cost effectiveness of the process, though: one gallon of milk produces 4 cups of cheese, and milk, while wholesome, is fucking expensive.

Then again, sometimes you're minding your own business in the health food store, find quart bottles of goat milk and you think, By gum, I could eat a good pizza. Sometimes a small amount of cheese goes a long way, and standing there in the health food store, I decided I wanted to help it.

Georg's recipe must have been in the comments that disappeared ages ago because I couldn't find it. I resorted to searching for recipes on one of Dad's favorite websites and found one that was both enthusiastic and fully crazy. I thought, Yeah, bring it. First, I did not have a gallon of goat milk, so that meant I was going to do some math. This is not promising.

The recipe called for 1/3 cup + 1 teaspoon of white vinegar. I could divide the teaspoon by four with the help of my handy measuring spoons, but I couldn't remember how many tablespoons went into 1/3 cup, which someone made me memorize in eighth grade. So I got out those measuring spoons, measured how many tablespoons of liquid filled my 1/3 measuring cup and did what I was bound to do from the beginning: I guessed. I heated the goat milk, poured in the vinegar, sprinkled in a tiny amount of salt and let that bitch sit for two hours while I did several things that are none of your beeswax. After two meow-meow hours, I spooned and then poured curds into wet coffee filters sitting in a strainer and let that bitch sit for another two hours before I squeezed out any remaining clear liquid and put the curds to bed in the fridge for the night. The one thing that must be said about this process is that, other than the math for me, this could not be easier for you to do.

The yield is about one earthy, grassy cup. Pete and I tasted tiny bits of it and were surprised by the subtlety and complexity of flavor. This is not a lot of food unless you're putting it on a pizza for two middle-aged people to eat after their second jobs, where a cup of goat milk ricotta is just right with one thinly sliced turkey meatball, spinach, a tiny bit of fresh marinara and a few shrimp on a thin, admittedly store-bought crust. Not to be frou-frou about this, but precise: fresh ricotta is easy to make, offers the assurance that little if any unwanted chemical crap is in your food, and tastes like real food.

I feel a batch of ravioli coming on...


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of A Cottage On the Shore

Saturday morning, I reached into the dryer and broke a thumbnail below the nail line, which while short of being tragic was long on opportunities to see stars. One good whack and I had my own personal Fourth of July. Peeling off nail polish caused me to sing soprano for the first time in two decades. Washing the dishes stung like a very stingy thing, and this went on until - cross your fingers - this morning, when I shut my thumb into a desk drawer and went all blinky for a different reason. Yes, it's the little things that make life worth living.

My mind has been elsewhere lately. It's plain to me that the health insurance debacle will stretch on and on, wounding the vulnerable among us. Our situation will not improve; we will simply change the subject and insist we did, too. Those who should have raised their voices loudest were bought off and kept quiet. If Alan Grayson's simple, sensible proposal passes, I will eat my houndstooth fedora. Today, I sent back another donation request from the Democratic Party with another blistering You've got a lot of nerve asking for money message no one will receive. I need to change the subject, too, or Poor Impulse Control is going to become a smoking hole in the ground on the internets. Or a knitting blog, bless my heart! This weekend, we're going to set up our seeds, clean up the garden beds and give the composter a once-over. It's head out of the muck and hands into the dirt for me.

And gloves. And BandAids.


Friday, March 12, 2010

With A Deck Of Fifty-One

I've butted into your business before and I will do it again, but this has to be said: make your own damn yogurt!

Recently, 8 ounce wide mouth Ball Jars changed my ultra-glamorous life. The glass jars that came with my ancestral yogurt makers have become delicate with age and I'd prefer not to take them to work. One day, I was foraging in my vast stores of Stuff Dad Gave Me and discovered the 8 ounce wide mouth Ball Jars. They fit perfectly into one of the ancestral yogurt makers and they don't break when Topaz pushes one off the kitchen counter. You don't have Topaz reorganizing your glassware, but the Ball Jars might help you carry that yogurt you're making to work with you.

Lovely Drusy cannot sniff you without playing kissy face.

Miss Sasha calls and asks questions. Is Jell-O gluten-free? This morning, one of my co-workers stepped into my cubicle and said, "You are a genius, I think. Has anyone ever said that to you before?" A couple of months ago, I was walking to the bank when a woman across the street waved and shouted to me in a peppery mix of Russian and English. From a distance she looked like Auntie InExcelsisDeo, who does not speak Russian and though she speaks no other language avoids speaking English if she doesn't have to, so I approached with a smile and realized we did not know one another. By the time I put my hand on her forearm, she had called me a genius and by someone else's name. I said, "Hello, but I am not her." She said, "I thought you were my niece!" I said, "I thought you were my aunt!" Then I laughed all the way to the bank and checked the name in my underwear - and I was only sure I was me when I wasn't wearing any. Memory can be overrated but being able to work out a problem is good stuff, so I told Miss Sasha to call the phone number on the box and ask a direct question.

In fact, my co-workers ask me questions all day long.

Beth: Can I ask you a question? I was just cleaning off my desk and I moved something and do you know what size mouse droppings are? Have you ever seen them? Are they small or big? We were having a mouse problem awhile ago, I remember, and I was just wondering -

Hmm. That doesn't do this justice. Imagine Beth, who is a gentle, lovely person, talking without taking a breath.

Beth: CanIaskyouaquestion? IwasjustcleaningoffmydeskandImovedsomethinganddoyouknowwhatsizemousedroppingsare? Haveyoueverseenthem? Aretheysmallorbig? Wewerehavingamouseproblemawhileago,Iremember,andIwasjustwondering -

Tata: You saw mouse poop and thought of me?

Beth: [Can't breathe for laughing.]

Tata: Go talk to Hal. He's lived on farms all his life.

Maybe it's the decades of working in a library, but I'm convinced that whatever the question, someone - somewhere - has the right answer. It's probably not me, but someone. For instance, someone knows why this bullshit health insurance debacle has gone so horribly wrong and I am afraid it might be Dr. Marcia Angell.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Don't Be Blind To the Big

We interrupt this blog to point out that playing with your food is funny. For me. If I were you, I'd be dialing the pizza place right now.

Miss Sasha, my sweet:

A couple weeks ago, we were talking about edible cupcake papers and I brought up egg roll wrappers. You are probably right that spring roll wrappers, properly prepared, are the kind of textural nightmare dessert enthusiasts might find disconcerting, but I haven't given up hope. In the meantime, I bought a $1.49 stack of dumpling skins, dug out the mini muffin tins and persuaded the cats to take a powder.

1. Spritz pans with release.
2. Fit dumpling skin into muffin well thingy.
3. Spritz dumpling skin.

Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes, depending on how half-assed your oven is. They came out of the oven crisp and golden brown. The second time:

4. Sprinkle on cinnamon and sugar. Lightly. I mean that.

Dude, these things are tasty, crunchy, subtle and you immediately shout about things you will be stuffing these cups with, should you stop what you're doing and make more. Which you will.

So I was foraging in the basement for the regular size muffin tin when I came across a bag of my dad's mini fluted pastry forms. After a good soak, the forms still look like murder weapons. That's how you can tell they were well used, not that we'll ever know on whom.

The dumpling skins fit beautifully into the forms but you have fit the skins with a firm hand. Once baked, they slip from the form or pan without any effort on your part, yay!

Baked dumpling skins are pretty. You can flavor them with anything. I wouldn't try serving anything wet in these shells - or any shells, for that matter - but Pete promised me smoked trout salad with goat cheese and chives. Naturally, I will make the great sacrifice of eating that. You know. For science.

My sweet, if you think you could use the fluted forms, you can have them. Let me know what you think.



Sunday, February 28, 2010

Put 'Em Under Pressure And You Watch

So I'm - like - frigging civic minded. Last month, I went to a well-attended meeting about sustainability and didn't punch anyone in the face, though the topic did come up. Last week, I went to a second and - fortunately for me - the face I wanted to punch didn't put in an appearance and a mustachioed man at the other end of the table became visibly excited every time I blurted something blunt and sensible. Perhaps he was happy that someone else was interested in tasks and not subcommittees; it's also possible he was tired and my peppery language burned a bit. Anyway, his bouncing was no doubt aerobic: I made many remarks that ended with a growled, "...why the hell not?"

It wasn't a question. I'm colorful like that!

A member of the committee said the tiny town was interested in setting up a recipe exchange.

Tata: Go one better: make the recipes feed a family of four for $10.
Committee Member: Is that even possible?
Tata: Of course it is.
Another Committee Member: With actual food?
Tata: I double dog dare you.

Yes! I did it! I double dog dared the committee to try something tougher than talking, party throwing and meeting attending-ing. Fortunately, other people are working on this very proposition.
USA TODAY asked four dietitians who blog at to come up with creative ways to feed a family of four for under $10 — as healthful alternatives to the meal advertised on a new KFC commercial. The company is selling seven pieces of fried chicken, four biscuits and a large side, such as mashed potatoes, for $9.99 and is challenging people to make this meal without going over that amount.

This inspiration SUCKS. Is there good news?
Cooking a meal for a family of four for under 10 bucks is a piece of cake. You can make hearty soups, sub sandwiches, chicken dishes, Sloppy Joes, large salads with leftovers, omelets and other egg dishes, nutritionists say.

USA TODAY is not the only entity interested in the challenge, but some responses are more awesome than others.

You're saying to yourself, "No sweat, I can make you six months of recipes with one ladle tied behind my back." Yeah, but you have to do better than a plate and a block of cheddar. That's the caveat: that dinner for four for less than $10 must be nutritious. Don't be shy.

Speak up. I double dog dare you.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

She Gets It While She Can

How To Use A Potato Bin

Potato bins and grow bags are used to grow the earliest potatoes. They are also used along with raised beds to grow prize winning potatoes for the garden show bench.

Potato bins, bags, and potato barrels fit on any hard surface or small piece of ground open to full light. Try them on your patio or balcony. They give you a convenient way to harvest fresh spuds.

Here you'll discover how you can grow the earliest potatoes for summer salads and the latest 'new' potatoes to eat fresh and roasted for Christmas dinner.

They might be easy to grow.

I feel better already.
SELECTING POTATOES - make certain that you choose only certified seed potatoes for planting in the garden. Certification means the potatoes are free of insect or disease problems and that they have not been treated with a growth retardant. Garden centers; nurseries; garden outlets and hardware stores generally feature certified seed potatoes during the spring planting season.

SOIL PREPARATION - potatoes grow in just average soil, so a great deal of soil preparation is not really needed. However the addition of some compost or a little peat moss is beneficial. Avoid using fresh manure or lime in the soil where potatoes are to be grown, as it tends to cause scab on the potatoes. The addition of either 5-10-10 or 10-20-20 fertilizer is beneficial. Mix the fertilizer into the planting soil, prior to planting. Till or spade the soil to a depth of ten or twelve inches.

CUTTING POTATOES - if the seed potatoes are small to medium sized, plant the whole potato. If they are large sized, you can cut them in half, or quarter them. Each section should have two or three 'growth eyes'. After cutting, let the cut surface callus-over before planting them.

SPACING - potatoes can be grown in many different ways. If you have lots of room the cut pieces can be spaced about a foot apart in rows which are spaced two to three feet apart. Then cover with about an inch of soil. Pull in additional soil as the plants develop. Always be certain the surface tubers are covered with soil.

Hilling or mounding is another method of growing potatoes. Three or four pieces of potatoes are planted on a mound of soil, pulling in additional soil as the potatoes develop.

You can grow potatoes in the ground, in stacks of straw or mulch, in black plastic bags, in garbage cans or to stacks of tires. Potatoes can be a fun and easy crop to grow.

Field growing: This is the conventional way most potatoes are grown. Generally, the seed potatoes are planted about 12 inches apart in rows that are spaced 2 to 3 feet apart. The seed pieces' are planted about 1 inch deep, then covered with additional soil as the sprouts develop.

Straw: For centuries, Scandinavians have grown potatoes in stacks of straw or other mulching material. Potatoes are planted above ground in the straw, and as the vines begin to grow, additional straw` or mulch is mounded up around the base of the plants. This results in a yield of very clean potatoes. New potatoes can be harvested easily even before the potato vines mature completely.

Under plastic or in plastic garbage bags: Garden soil or a commercial potting soil can be used to grow the potatoes in the bags, Fold over the top half of the bag, fill with soil, and plant a certified seed potato that has been cut in half. The plastic bag can be set above ground wherever it's convenient. Punch holes in the bottom of the bag for drainage.

You also can plant potatoes under black plastic. Cut open a piece of the black plastic, and plant a potato piece. The potato tubers will develop as they would in the open ground. However, the tubers that develop close to the surface of the soil are shaded by the black plastic and should not develop the green inedible portions that often are found on other tubers. The black plastic also will aid in controlling weeds.

Garbage cans or containers: Old garbage cans, or wooden or fiberboard-type containers are suitable for growing potatoes, if they have adequate drainage. You can conserve space by growing them in this manner. A word of caution, though: The plants tend to dry out more rapidly when grown in containers, so additional watering will be needed. Otherwise, you're likely to end up with misshapen tubers.

WATERING - Black or hollow centers on potatoes is often caused by over-watering. Irregular watering causes irregular shaped or knobby potatoes. As a guideline, water potatoes (thoroughly) weekly during warmer summer weather.

HARVESTING - New young potatoes are harvested when peas are ripe or as the potato plants begin to flower. For storage of full sized potatoes harvest them when the vines turn yellow or have died-back.

STORAGE - Keep them in the dark, in a spot where temperatures are about 40 degrees.

I'm giving it a whirl. You might give it some thought.


Monday, February 22, 2010

You Always Were Two Steps Ahead

Miss Sasha let slip that in North Dakota she can get fresh lingonberries, long a staple of Swedish food. Here in New Jersey, lingonberries are generally only available after a lengthy traipse through IKEA, though recently, Pete and I found them canned in the grocery store. Thus, I have informed Miss Sasha she will be jarring lingonberries because I want to eat those, and isn't that what's important in life? Sure. So let's talk about banana bread. I started with a recipe from a famous cookbook, which was okay but not great. Gradually, I made it healthier, moister real food. I'd pat myself on the back but - would you get that for me?

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients:

1-1/3 c whole wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder


1 tablespoon basil
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon

In a separate mixing bowl, cream together:

5 generous tablespoons butter
2/3 c brown sugar

Slowly add dry ingredients, then add:

2 lightly beaten eggs

Fold in:

1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or toasted pignoli nuts
5 mashed bananas

Grease a loaf pan and dump in the gloppy batter. Bake 50 minutes. Test for doneness with a butter knife. If batter sticks, bake and test in five minute increments. When finished, the bake will be moist and very dense. Serve slices toasted with cream cheese.

Banana bread is often a way to use leftovers, but I think it's a simple way to get more fruit into our diets in the winter. Tonight, I made a whole cranberry bread based on the same recipe, adding some minced tropical I'd bought dried and reconstituted plus a little orange juice. The flavor is sweet and tangy; Pete is looking forward to eating a couple of slices toasted with butter for breakfast.

The thought occurs that super ripe platanos could substitute for bananas. Think I'll try that. And you?


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Collar To the Cold

Here at Poor Impulse Control, we're all about It, whatever It is, so long as It is funny, and nothing is funnier than talking about food. Why? Because I get stage fright making rice pudding and half my family went to cooking school without so much as sending a postcard. To recap somewhat, then, I have several different projects going and your bag's packed.

1. Dad died and left cookbooks to study, mysterious gear and problems to solve;

2. Dagnabbit: jarring, canning and preserving;

3. Inspired by Pete's wonky digestive tract, he and I are exploring better food for better health including organics, reducing meat consumption and expanding our vegetable and grain options;

4. Gardening. It's better to grow one's own food than to rely on outside sources wherever possible;

5. Affordable, nutritious eating. If we can get dinner on the table every night for $10, we might have enough money to pay our fucking bills.

These topics overlap somewhat. For instance: remember our friend, Dad's dehydrator? Instructions for the mothership here are hard to come by in book form and online recipes are full of slippery adjustments. Example: every direction I found ended with store in a cool, dry place and last summer, New Jersey did not provide any of those; in time, everything I dehydrated and stored in the basement turned a lovely blue. Pete and I picked up a vacuum sealer, thereafter sealed everything and stored it in the fridge. This degree of caution still did not guarantee success: sometimes dehydrated vegetables are sharp and pierce the plastic and appear sealed anyhow. They are not and will turn a lovely blue in the fridge, which like the rest of New Jersey is slightly damp.

Ta, dahhhhhlink, you're saying, Can we take a connecting flight to the point? How about you return your tray to the upright and locked position and not be so critical, hmm? As lessons in home economics go, learning dehydrating without a teacher proved tricky, expensive and frustrating. In practice, dehydrating works best for us with fruit like peaches, pears and apples. Reconstituted, these sturdy fruit add nice flavor and the texture is familiar if you, as I did, grew up eating dried apples; I also learned the hard way that peeling apples and pears before drying is worth it. A second preparation has been very successful: combinations of leeks, young carrots and fennel - loosely speaking, a form of mirepois. Rehydrated and minced, one of these packages adds a jolt of kickass richness to soups, stews and sauces.

The next thing I wanted to road test was fingerling potatoes. I know. No, really. I know. You can buy potatoes all year round, there's no point in drying them, right? There is, actually. I bought these potatoes from local organic farmers with excellent tattoos. When I bought them in September, I parboiled them, sliced them lengthwise and dehydrated them overnight at the highest setting on the dehydrator: 175 degrees. Two nights ago, I opened the package and poured boiling water over the potatoes, and when they cooled, I refrigerated them until this morning, when I drained off the water, mixed in about a cup and a half of homemade yogurt, half a cup of grated cheddar, salt, pepper, cumin, dried sage and minced rosemary. I poured this into two small casseroles, dotted the surfaces with a bit of butter, covered with foil and baked at 425 for an aromatic eternity. For the last fifteen minutes, the potatoes baked with foil off to develop a nice crust. Result: a filling breakfast gratin that tasted like summer.

Pete was hesitant before the first bite but enthusiastic thereafter. He offered that the potato flavor was good but next time, instead of long rehydration, we might try boiling the potatoes. It will save time. We decided that in the future we wouldn't dehydrate other kinds of potatoes, just fingerlings, and the initial storage failures, while discouraging, had taught us enough to be worth the price.

This is a picture of dinner at our house: Pete makes something almost miraculously delicious, I make a yogurt or a fruit sauce, and Drusy drinks water out of a plastic goblet. We have all accepted that at dinnertime, Drusy will be joining us for drinks. Believe me, this is a civilized alternative to what might have become our routine had the other two cats decided they wanted to fight us for our dinners. Pete and I are okay, though, until one of the cats learns how to operate a spatula.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Like the Deadly Hands Of the Radium Clock

Tata: Is Lois there and is she good and surly?
Anya: Lois, are you good and surly?
Lois: Who is it?
Anya: Auntie Ta. Get over here!
Lois: Hello?
Tata: I have all the ingredients for tempeh dumplings laid out on the counter. Wanna come over and teach me how to make them, since you've made dumplings and I haven't?
Lois: I can't. I'm going out to play in the snow with my friends.
Tata: I don't blame you. That sounds like more fun than calling Poison Control.
Lois: Sorry about that.
Tata: Talk to you later when you visit me in the hospital!

Since I was in my house and happy, I thought I'd try out something new. We had wonton wrappers because this day was going to come eventually, vegetables because I was betting on the snowstorm and tempeh because why the hell not? I cooked everything that needed cooking, drained everything and minced the whole mishegas. So I brushed each wrapper with water, filled it, pinched it closed and laid each little dumpling on parchment paper. It was a lot like working with phyllo dough in that the wrappers dried out quickly, but it was also very satisfying to fill up trays and freeze them. Vegetable dumplings are my favorite breakfast. I'm psyched!


Monday, February 08, 2010

Let's Discuss This Man To Man

We're expecting a snowstorm tomorrow, which means that my neighbors and co-workers are still slathered in minty BenGay from the last one. I can't wait! By lunchtime tomorrow, every eye in my office will glance furtively at the tiny windows through which we in the basement observe weather and feet walking by. By mid-afternoon no one will compose a sentence that does not involve the word snow. By rush hour, the peaceable folk will beating each other senseless over bread and milk because grocery shopping before the Super Bowl was two more thoughts than any mind can hold - or so weather forecasters suggest. Don't listen to them! You're prepared and ready to roll out or stay in, whichever plan your brainy brain brain conjures up. Make tomorrow's dinner tonight, dress in layers and watch out for your elderly neighbors. It's all in your hands, cozy in fuzzy mittens.


Monday, February 01, 2010

When A Flaming Stealth Banana Split the Sky

A few years ago, my friend Trout had a CSA share with the unnamed university's agricultural extension's wacky farmer training program. The whole idea was new to me when she called one Friday from a business trip to ask if I could go pick up her weekly share. I drove out to the farm, rumbled across the PVC cow catcher and crept along the farm road about a half mile past a house and a sign threatening visitors with dire consequences if one of the resident children or varmints had an accident to the outbuildings in the back. In a small, awkward parking lot, I beached my car when it became completely obvious that 130 sharers were planning their weekly rumble over a two-hour window for pickup and 12 parking spaces; good thing we're all peaceful and organic!

Inside, agricultural students had brought in vegetables, herbs, gourds and decorative plants, counted each and divided by the number of shareholders to formulate a list of what each shareholder should collect. This part of the process was really mysterious at first as I shuffled between ancient supermarket refrigerator bins, trying to figure out what the hell I was looking at and whether or not I recognized it as food. One aspect of the CSA experience is education: the aggies learn how to grow a wide variety of plants and shareholders learn how to prepare tasty stuff they've never heard of. It works great. In fact, it works so well that a couple of years ago, my sister Daria shared a share with Trout and learned to like, then love, sorrel. Daria's sorrel problem was so bad she found herself staring into her reusable treehugger grocery bag, shouting, "WHERE THE FUCK IS MY SORREL?"

(Note: though Daria would rather chew off her French manicure than touch dirt I'm planting sorrel for her in a planter sorrel will like and her homeowners' association will surely disparage. I would bet my shoes the association has not seen anything like full-metal Daria on a sorrel-inspired rampage, and I will laugh and laugh. And have bail money.)

CSA shares aren't cheap. We're looking into them because supporting local farmers is crucial, supporting agricultural students learning organic growing techniques is an investment in a healthy future for us all and because, dang it, I have a lot to learn and can't wait to give new things a try. A CSA share, if we were lucky enough to get one, would be on the outer, pointiest edge of what Pete and I could afford if we pinched a few pennies and watched black and white TV. That could be funny. Plus: we're going to learn to grow sorrel in a hostile environment.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Here Below Nothing Is Moving

The tiny town in which I live, like other tiny towns all over the country, maintains a food pantry. Twice in the last year, calls went out that the pantry was empty and our neighbors were in trouble. The first time was startling. I didn't know we had a food pantry. Volunteers and donations turned up; the pantry shelves filled up nicely and overflowed into a storage closet in the senior center. Today on the second day of the second food drive, when I pushed open the door, the room was full of smiling, eager volunteers, many of whom I'd seen before. The shelves were clean and carefully organized, but there were empty spaces.

The town is holding a meeting about teaching children to garden. Do you suppose gardening gloves come in opera length?


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Back To That In Our Family Portrait

Last Saturday, the family and half the tiny town threw - flung, perhaps - a surprise party for my niece Lois's seventeenth birthday. Pete turned out beautiful, sculptural platters laden with bright fruit, cheeses and crisp vegetables and an abundant variety of dips, breads and crackers. My sister Daria arranged the tables. She told me later, "Pete put down a platter and I said, 'Nice. But not there.'" My cousin Sandy contributed an elegant display of striking cupcakes in the party's black and white theme. We've developed the confidence to throw - fling, really - a party anytime, anywhere.

It's also at these moments I remember our parents have always been batty.

Do not adjust your monitor.

Somewhere in 1950s America, Mom learned that significant teen occasions must include layered or rolled pink and green sandwiches with a creamy olive filling made by professional bakers. Psychiatrists refer to this as an idée fixe. Every time a member of the increasingly large family reaches a milestone, out come these completely tasty and mildly psychedelic sandwiches. Then those of us not thriving on diets of Frankenberry and Count Chocula detox for months.

Seriously: the ingredients are cream cheese, olives, bread and two vats of food coloring at truly dubious points on the color wheel. I'm sorry I'm not eating one of these sandwiches right now.

In an unrelated and equally inexplicable development, I seem to be able to try stuff and generally succeed at it again. Last week, I decided I could make the pierogies I wanted to eat. With Pete's help and Siobhan's favorite dough recipe, it worked! I was flabbergasted, and I mean completely flabbergasted when not only did the dough come together in my hands after chilling overnight, but the filling was brilliant: sweet potato, a bit of andouille sausage, vitamin greens and homemade yogurt, drained and herbed. The pierogies served with more yogurt and homemade apple butter were so good we could barely summon words to describe our joy. The next day, I made the desperate decision to make tamales. Somehow. Because I really, really, really want to eat those. Really.

While we all know better than to shake babies, science has yet to deliver a verdict on how many forehead slapping moments a brain can stand. For quite a while now, I've been looking for banana leaves in the produce aisle of the Asian market I love. Sunday morning, Rick Bayless was talking tamales on Mexico One Plate At A Time and he held up a bag of frozen banana leaves, saying they're everywhere these days. I slapped my forehead and probably lost five I.Q. points I might need someday. Banana leaves, with their rich, verdant aroma reminiscent of my grandmother's artichokes, have been in my grocer's freezer all along.

Yesterday, I awoke from my nap anxious to make tamales. All I had to do was decide I could, and then I could! I moved fast but everything I wanted to do as prep took about an hour longer than I planned for. Result: with better planning, not only can I make tamales on week nights -

- but we can eat them as well. Poor banana leaves! Without their scrumptious corn, chicken and achiote filling, they look so sad! And yet, I am so happy!

Tomorrow, between jobs, we will have the pierogies we made with yogurt we made and apple butter we made and green beans someone with a tractor made. I love this idea so much I want to buy a small tractor. Tonka makes them. I'm almost sure.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

I Understand About the Food

I swear to sweet baby Jeebus: this morning, I found a bag of masa flour selling on EBay for $9.98 - used.

In other news: today, we will acquire banana leaves or I shall have to reconsider my opinion of my zip code. Reconsidering is thinking. That's hard work, my pet.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Nothing There But the Dust And the Rust

This is a picture of a sudden ensmartening. Yes, I made up word. Shut up!

Siobhan and I had lunch like lunching ladies, and Siobhan was squawking about dumb stuff it doesn't take much thinking to see through. Naturally, I squawked a harmony part.

Siobhan: That's like my favorite cooking instruction Remove from heat. No one follows that!
Tata: Omigod, so a few months ago, I was listening to a woman in my office talk about making yogurt and how the way she does it sounds like a lot less work than I put into it, when suddenly I realized that not only should I shut off the heat and remove the pot from the burner, but if I remove the milk from the pot, the temperature will drop sharply.

Siobhan slapped her forehead.

Tata: I KNOW!

If I had a plastic bowl, I'd feel even smarter.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Raindogs Howl For the Century

Sometimes a meal is notable not just for its flavors or presentation, but also for what it is and means. This is our Christmas breakfast. Pete and I have worked like a dog team for a couple of months; we've really looked forward to today and planned every morsel. Last summer, we jarred blueberries and, in the fall, apple butter. A few weeks ago, I made and froze whole wheat crepes with fresh nutmeg and basil I'd dried. Every week, I make full fat yogurt. To make this breakfast, I thawed the crepes in the fridge and heated them in a glass pie plate. Then I opened a jar of blueberries into a saucepan, added a handful of Craisins and simmered for about five minutes. A 4 oz. jar of apple butter whirred in the microwave for 20 seconds, then another 20. Into a bowl, I added a pinches of basil, allspice, cinnamon, brown sugar and about a teaspoon of a honey-ginger mixture we found at the Asian market.

For the next two months, we will sometimes eat what we preserved and experiment with the fruits and vegetables we dehydrated. Miss Sasha is ready to begin working with a nice selection of dried items - for SCIENCE! It is a little odd to suddenly know: this is the time we worked and waited for, and now we can relax a bit. And so: breakfast, simple and important. Happy day to you, my darlings, whatever you celebrate.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Like Cold Water In A Hot Glass

Siobhan: Last night, I roasted a 9 lb. chicken in an hour. The skin was crispy and delicious.
Tata: Liar! At 20 minutes per chicken pound, you should still be roasting.
Siobhan: I butterflied it so it roasted flat and I swear it was an hour.
Tata: You get home from work at quarter to bedtime and still you get a roasted chicken for dinner? I am so buying a chicken and trying your method.
Siobhan: Look at these amazing pictures!
Tata: Jesus Christ! Your one-hour roast walks like an Egyptian!

I am a middle-aged Italian woman. If I cannot roast a decent chicken, half my family would end up down at St. Peter's making a novena, but first, you gotta buy a chicken because in New Jersey people have stopped paying each other in chickens. I know. That might be a reason to move to Delaware. Anyway, Pete and I love the Sunday ritual of grocery shopping for everything we need and new stuff we've never seen before. Today's find was lingonberries next to canned mandarin oranges, and the only other place I've seen those in New Jersey was IKEA. In other news, we bought a chicken and I began cackling and leaving hairpins floating in mid-air from wherever I scrammed. Yes, we had a snow storm and I spent a lot of time with a broom. What?

While we were at the grocery store, we disposed of a heel of stale bread in an ecologically sensitive manner by starting a seagull riot.

If there is anything you can count on in this life it is that seagulls in coastal parking lots are interested in whatever flies out of car windows. Suffice it to say we will be shredding stale bread at home before the next time we stage a similar antic.

Dad told me that when he lived in Europe, he went to an audition or an entrance exam for a cooking school, probably in Belgium, but I'm not 100% sure. What I am sure of is the test was boning a chicken without breaking the skin. Dad put his knife down. The school took him anyway, saying, "What the hell. It'll improve American cuisine." I'm not saying I can do that; I can barely operate the can opener. So what me think I could sculpt this chicken? Simple: I am not very bright and have a proclivity for violence.

Note: that's why you love me.

I did that Martin Yan trick where you hold the chicken by its legs and swing it like a contented toddler, then swing it again by its wings. The muscles relax, making it much easier to cut the flesh around the thigh and pop the joint. If you've done this procedure on both sides of a chicken, you know it takes a matter of seconds. If you haven't, take my word for it: a matter of seconds. I put down my knife and picked up the kitchen shears. I cut up the side, through the ribs and behind the wings. It's kind of hard to tell from this picture, which looks like I am giving Uncle Fester a piercing no one will mention at the family reunions.

As I cut up the second side, there was a very satisfying SNAP! behind the wings that told me not only that I was done, but that I had done it right. Years ago, I had a boyfriend who nearly fainted as I quartered a chicken.
In my heart, I know he slept with one eye open after dinner that night. At least the chicken was tasty. Pete took these pictures and when I turned the top and bottom over and pressed down, there was another satisfying SNAP! along the breastbone. Yes, dinner will be tasty.

This is the picture of sound effects made by uncooked chicken. Like POW! and BLAM! Batman-style, this is what SNAP! looks like.
Ta da! In related news, I'd rehydrated parsnips, sugar plums and a mixture of leeks, carrots, celery and fennel and tossed them into a roasting pan to form a bed. I like fruit and unusual veggies in my roasting mix; they make for unique, complex gravies. This is one of those views of an uncooked chicken that reminds people that chickens were once alive, and good. Appreciate that this was recently a living thing and waste nothing. Toss the giblets into that pan, huh?

So Ta, you ask, did you have any trouble with this technique? You bet your ass, I did. Knives are usually honed to have a straight edge and a diagonal side. They intersect, forming a sharp point. This is an advantage for right handed people, but I am left handed. Knives mostly work if they're truly sharp, but when your pressure is on the wrong side, you're working against your tools. Similarly, I have three sets of kitchen shears and here you can see what a struggle it was to use them with my right hand. If I get the correct tools, I might be a real menace to Poultrykind.

Into a bowl, I spooned, poured or pinched a whole mess o' my favorite herbs and spices, then added enough olive oil to make a paste. Chicken skin separates easily from the flesh if you pull gently, and if you smear some of that mixture on the flesh, you will be rewarded with fragrant, moist chicken. I also smeared a bit on the outside and around the edges that tend to burn, then sprinkled some achiote powder. Siobhan said she'd set her oven at 350 degrees and set her chicken on a silicone mat. Pete panicked when I brought out the ancestral Silpat, so we resorted to the contemporary roasting pan.

Within ten minutes of putting the pan into a heated oven, we could smell the chicken. An hour later, we let it rest. Siobhan was completely right: this method works. I don't know why, but it does. And you should try it.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Floodland And the Driven Apart

It's Saturday night, the Saturday night before Christmas. After a month of long hours, fatigue and re-reheated dinners, Pete and I have just a few days to go before we both finally get two days off in a row, which we have not since the summer. You know what this means, don't you? Exactly: the bread machine's running and I want to talk about food.

What's normal and ordinary culinarily for each of us will be different, depending on factors like where we live, where we travel, what kinds of people live around us, our ethnic backgrounds, our economic status and how adventurous we are. Here, all kinds of people from all over the world move and open restaurants. You can eat your way around the globe and never leave the county. But to really learn about one ingredient, you have to stay home and roll up your sleeves. I don't recommend you go to this site unless you don't mind sites that shout commercials at you, so here's my current obsession: achiote paste.
A traditional Mexican sauce or marinade of Mayan origin, that is made by grinding annato seeds with spices, chiles, and added to other ingredients such as fruit to create a mild red paste used to flavor foods. Pork is often seasoned with Achiote by rubbing the pork and wrapping it in a cornhusk or banana leaf before steam cooking the meat. The sauce is also used on fish and poultry. Achiote may be referred to as annatto seed paste or recado rojo.

When we had the chance, we've smeared it on fish, pork, chicken and tofu, all of which turned out great and interesting. Achiote comes in several forms, which we haven't found in the grocery stores. We're going to search the bodegas in my old neighborhood for better ingredients. Those days off can't come soon enough, because I have a new experiment to make all science-y, and I can't wait to taste the results.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It Before It Grows

Tostones de panapen!

In the big struggle to get over myself, which is quite a climb, I could use a set of cleats. The fruit thingy has a hard, waxy rind. Even my sharpest knife had trouble slicing through it. The center is dense, and I don't know if it's edible, so I cut that out and made a mental note to look that up. Further: the panapen previously putting in a cameo appearance developed a delicate but inescapable aroma very quickly and went mushy within days; the pictured panapen is a worthy understudy, but it too was making plans to become One with the compost pile. Fortunately, once the skin came off, the seeds came out and I'd cut it into similar size chunks, the panapen merged with hot oil and magically transformed into tostones instead.

To make tostones, you take chunks of platanos or panapen, fry them lightly in hot oil, mash them flat and fry them to golden brown. Drain, sprinkle with sea salt. Nom, nom, nom. Tostones de panapen have a crisp outer shell, a soft, sweet center and a nice crunch. Eat while still warm for maximum happiness. You want that, right?


Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Bacon So That

Note that this is a stock photo. It says STOCK PHOTO. Perhaps there are picture takerers named Stock. I bet they're confused.

Feeling intimidated in the produce aisle can drain all the fun out of picturing yourself well-nourished and bantering wittily with someone sensational about the bloom in your cheeks. Go ahead. Picture that tantalizing tableau. Now picture yourself staring at a verdant mountain of greens at the grocery store. Are those your hands?

There are a few vegetables I haven't prepared myself but have enjoyed when other cooks swung the spatula. Some are more exotic by virtue of their not growing in the temperate zone where my house currently maintains a daytime temperature of 62 degrees. Recall my joy when I stumbled on the panapen. That was exciting. The poor thing is shivering on my kitchen table and if a fruit can be said to look nervous, this one does. Other vegetables are rumored to be so difficult to cook properly that the inexperienced home cook may be discouraged from the start. Thus, it was only last week that I bought two bunches of collard greens. By gum, they're greens and I own several methods of steaming those.

Last week, I was working at home and the Food Network kept me company. I know. The Food Network is a gossiping bitch who sometimes borrows my sweaters without asking, but she's okay if I want someone to ignore. So I looked up and found the Neelys making dirty rice stuffed collards and I thought, 'Greens, no three-hour boiling, dirty rice. Win/win.' I didn't follow the recipe - I'm almost incapable of following a recipe - but used their basic idea, substituting ground turkey for pork because I had ground turkey, and a can of diced tomatoes for the sauce. It was so simple I couldn't believe it and much easier than working with cabbage.

About every five years, I buy a jar of grape leaves and never get around to stuffing them. The next decade looks very promising.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Talking That Way They'd Laugh

I'm not sure I'm learning anything but -

- I know if I tried that I'd be missing some fingers.


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Perfect As the Fourth of July

Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick! Look what we found in Stop & Shop:

Panapen! That's breadfruit, and it was sitting next to a basket of sugar cane. Panapen! I almost didn't believe my eyes. I stood, rooted to the ground, trying to wrest Pete's attention from a display of organic carrots, though shouting his name didn't actually work. I may need a Nerf Pistol. Anyway, I picked a breadfruit by absolutely no criteria whatever since I'd never seen one before and dreaded the usual encounter at checkout. Last week offered a fine example.

Teenage Cashier: What're these?
Tata: Tomatillos.
TC: What?
Tata: Tomatillos.
TC: Tomatoes?
Tata: No. These are not tomatoes.
TC: They're not on my list. How much were they?
Tata: They didn't say. I'll go check again, but there was no sign.

[Musical Interlude]

Tata: Nope. Not a single sign.
TC: That's okay. We just made up a price.
Tata: How did I get so lucky?

Fortunately, our cashier was a middle aged Latina just as overjoyed to find panapen as I was, but:

Very Nice Lady: How much were they?
Tata: I didn't see a sign.
VNL: That's okay. We'll make it up.
Tata: I should buy a lottery ticket.

Daisy makes tostones de panapen. I can't wait to try it.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Little Sugar On It, Baby

On New Scandinavian Cooking, Andreas Viestad discussed cloudberries, and how Norwegians jealously guard the secret locations of cloudberry bushes. He seemed most emphatic about it. His eyebrows took on a life of their own. I've been thinking again about the conflict between wild imagination and the frailty of the body. We could plant more, but I'm having trouble vacuuming a whole room. I'd like to teach grade schoolers to grow herbs, but my stamina runs out on the way to the coffee pot. I've skipped exercising 10 days out of the last 13 months and feel certain yoga three times a week would significantly improve the condition of my hip, but I need a nap I'm not going to get. Somehow, though, having the ideas seems like enough for the moment. After the holiday madness is over, I'll have time to ask questions, find programs looking for volunteers and think about the garden. Today, I found a new yoga studio four blocks from my house I might be able to move in and occupy. Depending on the schedule over there, I might not even have to wait. And, as Andreas let slip, cloudberry preserves can be purchased in the States. I'll never tell you where.


Friday, November 27, 2009

You Wrote It And I Played It

Lots of people don't think much about the words they choose. How about you: do you think about words or do you just talk? A phrase most people don't think much about is If I can do it, you can do it. Now, that is shorthand for something longer, bolder and more vulgar like, My parents were mouthbreathing, six-fingered triplets, and if I can do it, you, a person who eats with utensils and ties your own shoes, can do it, too. People misuse this phrase all the time. My favorite misuse of it currently on TV is Marie Osmond, mother of eight and professional entertainer since birth, insisting that if she can drop a pile of pounds, I can too. Frankly, Marie Osmond can do shit all day every day I can't do, but that's probably not true of you and me.

If I can dehydrate pears, I believe you can too - not because my parents were related but because I'm just learning how to dehydrate fruit. You can learn it, too. If I can brandy blueberries, I think you can handle it because I can't follow a recipe to save my life. If I can mix up brown sugar with cinnamon, a pinch of salt, some allspice and nutmeg, I feel sure you're up to it. Call it a hunch. I don't even have to have one and an entertaining lisp to know you'll be inspired to sprinkle this stuff on anything you bake.

So what did I do that you can do, too? Bake something architecturally unlikely and improbably delicious, that's what. Go ahead, scroll down. I'll wait right here. Go ahead. Feelings! Nothing more than feelings! Trying to forget my feeling of loooooooooove! Yup, I did that and a few other things, and you can too. Start at the grocery store with a box of phyllo dough, a spritz bottle of oil or I Can't Believe It's Stopping My Heart, a filling you make yourself or one you buy. You need pans and parchment paper. For some reason, tart pans are the shittiest things in everyone's kitchen. Don't put food on those!

I mean these! Don't put food directly on these, no matter how beloved the dead relative who gave them to you. How did I know? You didn't buy your own tart pans. No one does. Someone dies and you get them. Or there's a garage sale and the garage owner pays you to take them away. I didn't even know these were mine until Pete told me they came from Dad. Anyway, these pans had nice steep sides and the flutey shape meant nothing to me because I wasn't going to let food touch it. No touching!

That would be chaos!

Tear off strips of parchment paper to cover the surface of the pan. I was thinking of the parchment as a guide and not as an exact shape, then I cut the edges down to about half an inch above the edge of the form. You can cut this or leave it long. That doesn't really matter. I was warbling along to Side 2 of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the sustained notes made me want curves and ruffles. Perhaps it was the extra oxygen.

When you're working with phyllo dough, the hard part is the easy part. Have everything you're going to work with laid out and ready. Heat your oven. Turn off your phone. Discourage your helpful pets! Open the phyllo dough, lay it out flat and cover it with a barely moist towel. Ready? Go! Gently peel a layer of dough, lay it where you want it and spritz with oil. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Now and then, sprinkle a little of your cinnamon sugar here and there. It's not engineering and you don't have to be precise. Peel, lay, spritz. Try to keep the towel on the unused dough so it doesn't dry out.

There's a muddled instruction I hear on cooking shows over and over, but variations of it turn up on all kinds of how-to shows, probably because people don't know what they're saying. You've heard it. Alton Brown says, Don't over-mix. Giada says, Not too much. Even Jacques Pepin is not beyond saying, Just enough! This tells you nothing and makes you nervous. What they should be saying is Mix until such and such happens, then stop, or Add the ingredient until you see or feel a desired effect, because then you'd learn something. No sense adding peril to a peril-free situation. In this case, I piled on sheets of dough until I decided plenty was in the form and that it was pretty. Don't be nervous. There's no right or wrong. You're making something fun and pretty. Don't lose your nerve!

I made two crusts in the two pans, filled them with fruit and baked them at 350 degrees for about 20 or 25 minutes, at which point the crust was golden brown. You should bake stuff to golden brown. If you get to black, you've gone too far. See? You learned something. Then I laid out phyllo dough in the same pattern, only flat and as close to even as possible. Phyllo dough grabs wet phyllo dough, so where it touches it sticks. When I was satisfied that I had a thick layer of stacked phyllo to work with, I put down a thick line of fruit filling down the center of this rectangle and folded like a burrito. You've folded a burrito, right? Then you can make strudel.

When the strudel came out of the oven we kept our paws off it long enough for it to cool to a temperature slightly hotter than lava. I cut pieces. I mixed homemade yogurt with a dollop of ginger marmalade and tossed in some allspice. At this exact moment, Pete's sister needed to talk to him, so the strudel cooled, exactly as you see it, for another seven or eight minutes. Then we ate it like we were raised by wolves - wolves with poor table manners.

I made a third kind of thingy by layering phyllo into a loaf pan. When it came right down to it, putting it together was no more difficult than messing with PlayDoh. Nobody taught me to do this. I simply decided I could, figured out the spray goo trick and everything else was just playing. You should give this a try because it was so freaking easy even I could do it. See?

After the shopping, I forgot to mention a crucial step. You cannot miss it! Tie up your hair with the silliest, girliest, most hilarious hair tie. If you're bald or have short hair, you can now get hair nets with rhinestones and swim caps with flowers. Could we look one another in the eye again if you missed a chance to synchronized swim in your kitchen? I fear not, you know what I mean?


Monday, November 02, 2009

The Same Without A Gun

Tonight, Pete reclined with his feet up and eyes closed while I tried out making compound butter without him. I had questions.

Tata: What if the butter's too cold to combine smoothly?
Pete: Turn up the speed.

A minute later.

Tata: The mixer and I have had a disagreement.
Pete: What's all down the front of you?
Tata: Dill and lime juice. I smell tangy and floral!

A minute later.

Tata: Get up and come taste the compound butter!
Pete: I don't like dill.
Tata: Is it balanced or what?
Pete: It is! Want me to wrap it up?
Tata: Sure. I don't know whether to wash the bowl or scrape it and moisturize.

Cosmetic issues aside, the butter is refreshing and I'm shocked. I thought it would be harder to do but it just isn't. Plus: since everyone else in the whole world seems to know this already, you've stuck zillions of wildly exciting recipes all over the intertoobz. Clever you! I can't wait to sample your handiwork.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Every Word That Was Ever

Pete and I live under towering oaks, which means we're also up to our knees in drifting leaves.

Pete: We're gonna blow the leaves to the driveway and you'll push them into the backyard.
Tata: So...there's nothing for me to do until you're done with the leaf blower?
Pete: Not really, because I have two. Would I hog all the fun?

For two hours, we blew leaves all over the place, though it seemed much longer because "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" was stuck on the mental jukebox and I fucking hate Billy Joel. I was hoping for "Ghostbusters" but not such luck. Anyway, we had a blast tossing a giant pile of leaves into the leaf shredder and dumping piles of mulch around our trees for the winter. Hooray! Before we went in for the afternoon, I cut a daunting pile of fresh herbs, then we fell down and took short naps, during which I cursed Bill Joel's ancestors.

Many moons ago, I fell in love with the idea of making compound butters, but lacked the nerve to try it. Pete tossed the cleaned and stemmed herbs into the food processor, and two pounds of butter into the stand mixer; he combined the butter, herbs, some ground pepper and white wine and took it for a spin. We tasted it and opted for more wine and ground pepper. Pete wrapped three separate portions in parchment paper (though we could just as easily have glopped it into Gladware), labeled it and shoved it into the freezer.

I had absolutely no idea it was that easy to make. No idea. Pete says for decades he's put all kinds of things like sun dried tomatoes, shallots and spices into compound butters. Tomorrow night, I want to try making compound butter with tomatoes I dried in the dehydrator and herbs from the backyard. Suddenly, I see what I might find at the farmers market in a new light.

And now I'm much too tired to come up with a punchline.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Was To Know That You Are

The other day, an old friend was early to a meeting and sat down in my cubicle to chat. We talked about his son, now in a special program at Fort Dix. It's a miracle the boy survived childhood, so knowing his future opens before him is special indeed. We talked about how a mutual friend tried in vain to teach me to use a sewing machine, about Miss Sasha's headstrong toddler, about my experiments in jarring and canning. I mentioned Dad had left a dehydrator without instructions and early this summer, storage became a real issue when everything I dried turned blue and grew fur. Gene actually pointed at me and laughed.

Gene: What color fur?
Tata: Blue. Duh! So I bought a food laminator contraption, which is driving me nuts. I steam greens to freeze them but even drops of water bollix the thing.
Gene: Freeze the greens first, then use the gadget.
Tata: ...No water into the machine. Thanks, Gene!

After he left, I suddenly realized I should have known all along he'd know what to do. He always learns something five years before it crosses my field of vision. He could tell my what he's studying now so I might pencil that into my datebook.

So. Gene has answers to my questions. I am going to make a tremendous nuisance of myself.


Monday, October 26, 2009

So Many Times I'm Almost In Tune

I get stage fright. Then I get even with me.

A funny thing happened on the way to jarring tomatillo sauce: I succeeded. Yeah, I don't know how that happened. Except it was all pretty simple: Sunday, I bought a metric assload of tomatillos, peeled off the sticky papery peely thing and tossed them into bowls of water. After the tomatillos quit being sticky, I quartered them and dropped them into a giant stockpot, where tomatillos turned into tart green goo. Today, I re-heated the goo, burr-whisked it, pushed it through a strainer to remove seeds, which sounds labor intensive but that's silly because I'm very lazy. Anyway, jars boiled, then I filled them with tasty goo and boiled them some more. Now they are sauce!

And, crap, I totally ran circles around the person who wasn't sure she could do it.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Blood Is On The Table

To continue Wednesday's mile-wide rampage: Lou Dobbs can fucking bite me.
On Monday night, Lou Dobbs did a segment on how "Meatless Monday" is being adopted by the Baltimore city school district in an effort to cut costs and get children to eat healthier food. The segment showed schoolchildren eating vegetarian chili and grilled cheese sandwiches, and CNN reported that they found no parents who objected to the policy.

The news network also noted opposition to the one-day-a-week of vegetarian food by the American Meat Institute - a trade group that represents meat processors and packers with obvious financial interests in meat consumption. Without pointing out factors that helped fuel the initiative, such as childhood obesity and a national school budget crisis, CNN reported that the AMI is concerned that "students are being served up an unhealthy dose of indoctrination." The institute's Janet Reilly claims the policy was depriving students and parents of "choice."

After watching the segment, Dobbs described this as "a real political storm in the making." Um. Really?

Embedded video from CNN Video

Yesterday, I explained to the dumb fucker writing in the New York Times, for crying out loud, that his article made no sense. He insisted it did. I told him I'd sent that article to ten smart, interesting people, asking, "What is this guy's point?" Most of them wrote back to say they had no idea. The writer then said his OpEd was intended to be tongue in cheek, his facts were correct and the editor did a slash job on his prose so his point was garbled. I told him that part of basic composition is to learn the difference between what you think you wrote and what you actually wrote. On the page. See? We then told each other to fuck off in colorful terms. It was brilliant, really. When he tries, he really can compose a sentence!

Part of our problem when we discuss poverty, nutrition, obesity, health care, insurance, reform of any kind, politics - anything, really - is that we are working in the medium of language. We do not agree what words mean. Good example: I said he is a bad writer whose work will hurt people. He thought I was saying I was a crazy person who found his email address and pressed the send button. It's a mistake anyone could make. It's not entirely his fault. We were using words and a lot of people, even smart people, don't know what words mean or what they're saying.

Example: if someone says to me, "We need to get more people on insurance and the problem will be solved" I hear ordinary words married to deceptive ideas, producing an argument that doesn't hold water. It's pretty simple if you're actually listening. Let's count off the problems:

* No one needs insurance. Everyone needs health care.
* The agent that needs more people on insurance is the insurance industry.
* The problem, in the case of that speaker, is not how does America solve its health care problem; no, the problem is how does the insurance industry increase its profits.
* The pronoun We is used to create a tribal identity that includes the speaker and the listener where no bond may exist, certainly not a shared need.
* That people who are not insurance industry flacks repeat statements like this is a function of successful advertising and public relations.

Statements like the above quoted signal that I am talking to a person who is not thinking about the topic anymore. His thoughts have been codified for him by an outside source. This person has gone to sleep. He probably does not know that; it is a waste of time to talk with him. That's a lot to learn from one sentence. Imagine if we listened all the time?

Back to Lou Dobbs, who can still fucking bite me: presenting the American Meat Institute as an aggrieved party is HILARIOUS. Asking if anyone in this country talks straight anymore is a spittake waiting to happen. And tossing off that little lie that most children don't get enough protein is a deft touch. Most Americans get more protein than their bodies need - so says the American Heart Association, but maybe Lou thinks the AHA is a bunch of pinko slackers.'s research nutritionist Debby Demory-Luce says if your child refuses meat altogether, don't have a cow.
The only time I worry about protein intake is when a child is on a restrictive vegan diet without dairy or eggs. If your child follows such a diet, either by your choice or because of his own food whims, you may want to consult with a registered dietitian who can help you devise ways to make sure your child gets enough protein from alternate sources.

The truth is that most Americans get twice as much protein as they need.

There's nothing even the tiniest bit controversial about going meatless one day a week. There ought to be a very heated discussion, however, on the subject of Lou Dobbs.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Got A Bad Case Of Steamroller

I have all the emotional maturity of an eleven-year-old. Ew:
Human Pee With Ash Is a Natural Fertilizer, Study Says

That sound I just made? Heard only by dolphins. What's this, then?
The scientists fertilized several groups of greenhouse tomato plants: one with human urine and birch ash, another with commercial mineral fertilizer, and another with just urine.

Plants fertilized with urine and ash yielded nearly four times more tomatoes than nonfertilized plants.

This compared favorably with commercial mineral fertilizers, which produced roughly five times as much fruit as nonfertilized plants.

To the team's surprise, urine alone produced a slightly greater yield than those of urine and ash together.

But the urine-and-ash plants became larger than the other groups, and they bore tomatoes with significantly higher levels of the nutrient magnesium, which is key for bone, muscle, and heart health, among other biochemical functions.

Recently, I took a gardening class. That endeavor wasn't entirely successful in that it took me an hour to figure out what we were talking about and about a minute to realize the topic would never apply to my gardening. After that, there remained 59 minutes of listening for useful bits of information and sucking down as much coffee as my kidneys would allow. Gardening instruction is often abstruse and assumes that the student knows both nothing and everything the teacher knows, so I was surprised to learn something simple and useful: when planting nightshades like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, put a spoonful of epsom salt into the hole first and the plant will develop better roots. Good roots might've come in handy this year. Even so, no one at any point in this gardening class suggested fertilizing with pee. I bet there's a pretty specific way it's done so no one gets cooties. Speaking of cooties, let's just get this out of the way:
A group of 20 taste testers ranked tomatoes grown by all methods as equally tasty.

Breathing through the mouth...two...three...four...Okay, then. Final specifics:
Urine can be collected from eco-friendly, urine-diverting toilets. Or farmers could just collect their pee in cans.

The researchers estimate a single person could supply enough urine to fertilize roughly 6,300 tomato plants a year—yielding some 2.4 tons of tomatoes.

The farmer would just need to give plants ash three days or more after applying urine.

Once again: this summary assumes both that the reader knows nothing and everything the farmer knows. Perhaps you've had conversations like these:

You: My stomach is upset and tooting like a trombone.
Helpful Friend: Mint will help that.
You: Mint what? How much? What kind? Applied where?

You: How did you grow such enormous pumpkins?
Enthusiast: I milk-fed them. It's old school.
You: You watered pumpkins with milk?
Enthusiast: No. Yes. Sort of.

You: My house is so haunted my cats look like someone ironed them standing up.
Serious Person: Get some sage.
You: Am I decorating or cooking?

Helpful hint: do not braise your cats if furniture is rearranging itself. My point here is not that people do not know what they're talking about; it's that people teach and explain so poorly in general that where fertilizing my food with human waste is concerned I might miss my cue to be nauseous, and in no way is nausea a better late than never scenario.

Turns out, peeing outside is not just old news, it's some folks' new habit and a money-saving proposition. There's even a Facebook page for One commenter pees into a bucket of sawdust. One says add a teaspoon of baking soda. How the outdoor animals would react if the garden beds of suburban neighborhoods smelled like human pee? I have to give this some thought. The idea of accidentally tipping over a bucket of Pete's pee in the basement fills me with dread. On the other hand, who am I to argue with people who walk it like they talk it?

Well, that's a good question too because Pete keeps talking about putting a composting toilet into a downstairs closet, but he's kidding. I think he's kidding. He may already be planning for our well-fertilized future.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Smoke On the Horizon

Previously on Poor Impulse Control: Dad died in 2007 and left us homework. In 1997, a healthy portion of my shiny-shiny brain was wiped clean and I had to re-learn basics like Who am I? and How many fingers am I holding up? For a decade, learning was both everything I did and too exhausting to contemplate, so when Dad explained nothing and left us professional kitchen equipment, I was not so sure my brain was going to refill up with fancy thoughts. Surprise! Even a terrible functional memory is not preventing my brain from frothing over and thank you very much, do you have a towel?

Yesterday, Pete and I bought a food sealer contraption on sale at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Oh ho, you say, Aquarius with Scorpio-Scorpio, you know better than to purchase appliances while Mercury is retrograde. Isn't your laptop kerflooey? Indeed, that laptop is a paperweight and I do know better but wait: dude, it was on sale, the box had been opened and the contents rifled, one easily replaceable part was missing and I had a coupon, so the contraption that was on sale for $139.99 - 20% for the coupon and 20% for the rifling = $83.99. But it's only a bargain if it works, so we restrained ourselves in the store and the parking lot and on Route 1 and across some back roads and while Pete fixed a plumbing emergency at Trout's house and through the grocery store and most of the way home. I may never have been so rational in my entire life. I don't know how you people do it.

See, the thing is I have this dehydrator. I don't know why Dad had it or what he used it for, but it sat in Pete's basement for two years before I said, Well, maybe I should sorta kinda probably attempt to figure out what that does, and brought it upstairs to try it. I've been drying fruit and herbs and vegetables and it's all been very interesting but about 1/4 of everything I dried turned blue and fuzzy. Blue and fuzzy in a sweater may be grand but in the pantry or the fridge it is alarming. Pete maintains that everything dried should sojourn in the freezer until employed. Well, crap. Potatoes went blue and fuzzy in Ziploc bags, tomatoes went blue and fuzzy in Ball jars. Up from the recesses of ancient memory bubbled some of Dad's advice: You need a vacuum food saver machine. Vacuum food saver machines are bitchin'. It was a very ancient memory.

When we finally got home, I set up the machine and discovered the easily replaceable part was actually inside the machine. I can set up things I've never seen before because I am mechanically inclined and members of my family are allergic to manuals. Most devices are pretty simple anyway as long as you remember they were designed by people who would rather be watching cartoons. So. I set up the machine, stuffed steamed chard into a bag and pressed the button. ZOOSH! The machine sucked the moisture right out of the bag and sealed the bag. It was all very loud, so Pete came in from outside and paraphrased an old Garrett Morris line: "I was driving by when I heard you using that appliance." Then I stuffed steamed beet greens into a bag and ZOOSH! Out went the liquid and the machine sealed the bag. The the Tray Full light went on and the machine would not seal, forcing me to read the manual. I am still recovering from this trauma, but I did figure out how to open the machine and empty the liquid from the tray, which is not very large. Note that beet juice looks great on hardwood floors.

Anyway, Mercury in retrograde is the time when people are supposed to backtrack and fix broken stuff or re-think plans that went awry. I spent the next hour sorting everything I'd dehydrated all summer, stuffing it into quart bags, using the machine, labeling everything and organizing the fridge. I was very pleased with myself and I discovered that apparently I have all the eggplant in Middlesex County, which is very exciting when one considers Pete won't touch eggplant. Guess what I'm eating all winter!

The machine is so loud I'm sure my neighbors were thrilled when I quit. This morning, Pete was still in bed when I took apples and beets out of the dehydrator. I'll deal with those later. In the meantime, it's worth considering what it means when you have gear that requires the purchase of further gear, which has its own accessory gear, and that I've alphabetized my fridge. I am learning a great deal at a crazy speed. Next week: I'm taking a class on cold frame gardening, another plunge for my brain. Hang onto your towel.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Dance And Have Some Fun

Let's pretend we're in our footie pajamas!
A new food-labeling campaign called Smart Choices, backed by most of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, is “designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices.”

The green checkmark label that is starting to show up on store shelves will appear on hundreds of packages, including — to the surprise of many nutritionists — sugar-laden cereals like Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops.

“These are horrible choices,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health.

...from his secret underground fort made of couch cushions. Kapow! Kapow!
Dr. [Eileen] Kennedy, [president of the Smart Choices board and fairy princess] who is not paid for her work on the program, defended the products endorsed by the program, including sweet cereals. She said Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.

“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”

...from her turret on the Barbie Dream Castle and Unicorn Sanctuary, no backsies!
“Froot Loops is an excellent source of many essential vitamins and minerals and it is also a good source of fiber with only 12 grams of sugar,” said Celeste A. Clark, senior vice president of global nutrition for Kellogg’s, which makes Froot Loops. “You cannot judge the nutritional merits of a food product based on one ingredient.”

Dr. Clark, who is a member of the Smart Choices board, said that the program’s standard for sugar in cereals was consistent with federal dietary guidelines that say that “small amounts of sugar” added to nutrient-dense foods like breakfast cereals can make them taste better. That, in theory, will encourage people to eat more of them, which would increase the nutrients in their diet.

...from her perch on the edge of the top bunk where her head is wedged between the guard spindles, and she is so gonna tell!
Michael R. Taylor, a senior F.D.A. adviser, said the agency was concerned that sugar-laden cereals and high-fat foods would bear a label that tells consumers they were nutritionally superior.

“What we don’t want to do is have front-of-package information that in any way is based on cherry-picking the good and not disclosing adequately the components of a product that may be less good,” Mr. Taylor said.

He said the agency would consider the possibility of creating a standardized nutrition label for the front of packages.

...from his ZOT! ZOT! ZOT! laboratory behind the bookcase, where he knows you've been eating his pet microbes again, loser!
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, was part of a panel that helped devise the Smart Choices nutritional criteria, until he quit last September. He said the panel was dominated by members of the food industry, which skewed its decisions.

“It was paid for by industry and when industry put down its foot and said this is what we’re doing, that was it, end of story,” he said. Dr. Kennedy and Dr. Clark, who were both on the panel, said industry members had not controlled the results.


Despite federal guidelines favoring whole grains, the criteria allow breads made with no whole grains to get the seal if they have added nutrients.

“You could start out with some sawdust, add calcium or Vitamin A and meet the criteria,” Mr. Jacobson said.

...from his big two-wheeler in the driveway but not all the way in the street because Daddy said, you jerk!
Nutritionists questioned other foods given the Smart Choices label. The program gives the seal to both regular and light mayonnaise, which could lead consumers to think they are both equally healthy. It also allows frozen meals and packaged sandwiches to have up to 600 milligrams of sodium, a quarter of the recommended daily maximum intake.

“The object of this is to make highly processed foods appear as healthful as unprocessed foods, which they are not,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University.

Mom, why is my Ariel underwear all bunchy?

h/t: Wintle.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Faces At the Edge of the Banquet

The other night, we were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner and Pete groaned, "Oh noooo." Two bananas had turned to gooey compost and taken the Cuisinart Bread Machine recipe book with them. There was no salvaging the book. We faced the terrible truth: we were on our own.

Tata: Bread machine recipes?
Siobhan: King Arthur Flour is my go-to. I'm rocking the Ancient Grains Bread.
Tata: Why do you know this stuff?
Siobhan: Magic 8 Ball.

On Fridays, Pete and I take our time wandering around the farmers market - after we make a beeline for the bread guy, where every week we buy a loaf of garlic, spinach and mozzarella bread. It is so good the co-workers I've been dragging to the market also buy loaves they conceal from their mushrooming teenage children. A few weeks ago, I finally developed enough confidence in myself and the bread machine to suggest we make this bread at home, then I had a better idea.

Pete: I'd say we should find a recipe but you're incapable of following one.

That's not a swipe. It's the truth. Tuesday, I took this poor, defenseless recipe and made a sponge by combining the water, bread machine yeast and one cup of whole wheat flour. I covered it and left it huddled and alone in a big bowl under a clean cloth dinner napkin. After twenty-four hours, the yeast had bloomed a little differently than when I'd made sponges before, and the mixture was watery. I substituted molasses for honey, added 1/4 cup wheat bran and most of the other ingredients in roughly the correct order, with the sponge going into the bread machine last. Pete watched the dough come together and wanted to add some water, which we took from the draining spinach. In the meantime, Pete put olive oil and a mess of garlic cloves into a small saucepan to simmer gently. Then he said something terrifying.

Pete: I'm going upstairs to exercise.
Tata: What do I do when the machine beeps?
Pete: It's not going to beep for an hour and a half.
Tata: That's what's supposed to happen. What do I do when the machine beeps?
Pete: I see. The first time it beeps is for add-ins. Are you going to add anything to the dough?
Tata: Garlic.
Pete: I thought we'd put that in with the filling.
Tata: Yes, and in the dough. Cold & flu season is upon us, baby!
Pete: The second time it beeps is when you take the paddle out, but in this case, we're going to turn off the machine and bake in the oven. Got it?
Tata: I almost certainly don't, so go exercise and hurry back.

Pete retreated to the attic, which was very, very far from the kitchen, and almost immediately, the bread machine beeped. I tossed my laptop on the couch and sprinted to the kitchen as cats scattered, then gave chase. I fished garlic cloves out of the oil, mashed them into bits and tossed them into the bread machine. Pete came back down slightly fitter; we giggled like teenagers. When the machine beeped again, I tossed the laptop, cats scattered and gave chase, Pete grabbed the dough and I grated mozzarella. Pete rolled out the dough, laid out spinach, cheese and garlic, then folded the dough so beautifully I sighed. He brushed the top with the garlicky olive oil and sprinkled on kosher salt. Then we tried not to stare at the oven and growl, "COME ON...BAKE!"

We stayed up until 12:30 watching bread cool. We've become bread nerds. This summer, we started out jarring because we spent the last two summers learning how to jar. Then I dug out Dad's dehydrator and gave it a few whirls. This has not been an unmitigated success. An example: every dehydrating instruction ends with store in a cool, dry place. This summer, no place in New Jersey is a cool, dry place, so a whole pint jar of dried apples grew blue beards on their way to the compost heap. After that, we stored baggies of dried fruits and vegetables in the fridge, which was frustrating. One reason we chose to dehydrate was to build a pantry outside of the refrigerator. But, we're learning. The other day, I learned that drying parsley and oregano is a cinch, and some of those skills I learned in the seventies came in handy. Don't ask. Drying chives was much harder, and I'm considering repotting the remaining plants in kitchen-friendly, cat-discouraging pots. That will probably involve some exciting science I haven't worked out yet.

The bread is important. Spinach and cheese in wheat bread with garlic and molasses is actual food, by which I mean it's completely good for me. The other thing to consider is Pete's got thirty years in professional kitchens under his belt but not in breadbaking, whereas I am a complete idiot with or without a recipe book. This is a big step for us. It means that we are ready to take on more real-food breads. Even so, the joke's on me: next week, Pete's going gluten-free.

We will start over.

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