Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving Dinner Idea: One Sweet Potato

November 24, 2007

I was alone this Thanksgiving, and the big dinner had been highly untraditional: Seafood Gumbo prepared by my sister at her house. Delicious and comforting, it nonetheless left me wanting a little something more in keeping with the season for supper.

I came home to find one sweet potato and an orange in the house. Oh, I had more items, but decided to make a meal of these two finds.

A fan of baked potatoes that are actually baked -- and this includes sweet potatoes -- I set the oven at 350° and pierced the potato all over and smeared it with butter. I let it roast in the oven for about 50 minutes.

In the meantime I combined about two tablespoons of butter with an equal amount of brown sugar and grated the orange rind into it. Then I peeled and sliced the orange into sections and mixed the orange with the creamed butter and sugar.

When the sweet-spud was done, I sliced it down the center and cut it crosswise into chunks and spread it with the orange butter. The result was a perfect meal for one!

You don't have to wait until next Thanksgiving to try this. It's a nice trick for any day of the year, and easy to prepare for as many as you like.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Nice Diet Breakfast

September 7

I discovered some time ago that a little artificial sweetener (I use Splenda) mixed with cinnamon is almost undetectable. I also add about half as much sugar as the ersatz stuff just to deflect attention.

Therefore, this is how I make cinnamon "sugar" for one: A few generous dashes cinnamon, one teaspoon Splenda, one-half teaspoon sugar. Mix well.

For breakfast this morning I had half a piece of pita bread, toasted in the toaster, spread thinly with butter, sprinkled with the cinnamon mixture with about three walnut halves and about four raisin tucked in.

Delicious and nutricious. Whether it's low in calories or not I don't know, but I tell myself it is. And the amounts, completely under my control, could make that difference.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

How To Make Popcorn

September 6, 2007

If you're worried that the popcorn you're accustomed to may be saturating your air with the harmful compound called diacetyl (added to impart the flavor of butter), I have a simple suggestion.

Popcorn is as easy to make as anything you can do, and it's fun too. Here's how to do it.

Buy a can of unpopped popcorn. Pour about a tablespoon of unflavored oil -- canola is the least harmful -- into a saucepan and turn the heat to medium beneath it. Then pour about 1/4 cup of popcorn into the simmering oil and put a lid on the pot.

Soon you'll hear the delightful sound of pops, one at a time, from the pot. Old directions suggested you start shaking the pan, but this is really not necessary. It adds to the fun, however, and makes you feel a part of the process. Those accustomed to using microwave popcorn will not miss feeling part of the process, but you might try it if you're a pro-active kind of person.

Turn the heat to low and keep it on until the pops slow from a crescendo of activity to a gentle, occasional pop, pop, pop. Then immediately remove from the heat until the pops stop altogether. You may then remove the lid, pour in a tablespoon or two of melted butter (yes!), and add some salt. Toss well. One or two kernels may still have a pop in them; that's part of the fun.

You will have a nice pot of delicious popcorn, probably three or four cups full. And you will have had fun too. And you won't be poisoning yourself or anybody else.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Holy Trinities

August 29

You'll notice I've blasphemed by pluralizing in my title, but I'm not talking about that holy trinity. The path to cooking salvation includes many deities, and I'm going to cover just a few here.

In New Orleans, so many recipes begin with the sautéing of chopped onion, celery and bell pepper that the three became known as the holy trinity in the cuisine of that very Catholic city. There are a great many other elements to New Orleans cooking, including local seafood, local coffee, a roux the color of chocolate, ground sassafras root known as filé (feelay), ham stock, turtle eggs, and on and on -- but everybody in New Orleans knows the holy trinity, intimately.

Other cooking styles require other basic ingredients, and interestingly they come in threes as often as not. To cook Italian, you must have this three on hand: Olive oil, Parmagiano Reggiano cheese, and garlic. A tomato also helps (canned is allowed, or in paste form). Other cheeses can be added, juice of a lemon is often added at serving time, and of course either red or white wine often enhances the dish. But everything from salad to meat requires a nodding acquaintance with the holy trinity of Italian food.

Basic food can be made to seem Asian with the addition of this three -- Toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, and grated fresh ginger root. I have added this trinity to slaw, to stove-top-rice-based casseroles, to vegetables and meats with equal success. A real specialist in Chinese, Japanese, or Thai cooking would suggest a range of other additions, but if you have the Asian trinity in the mix, you're getting there. Garlic and honey add something to Chinese; cilantro and lime at the finish make Thai. I know there's more to it than that, but I'm talking basics.

When I want to make a dish with a Mexican flair, I add some cumin, some Monterey Jack cheese, and I might squeeze a fresh lime over all. It's not a holy trinity, and it's more of a finish than a basic, and I don't know if it's really Mexican, but it will pass. It's not take-out, and the amounts are up to you.

God bless good cooking!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Yogurt, Better than Ice Cream

August 18

It's blasphemy, even to me to consider yogurt to be better than ice cream. But if you're watching your caloric intake, and your carbs as well, and thinking about your general health, and you have figured out a couple of ways to make yogurt actually taste good, then you must admit that at least in some ways it's a little bit better than ice cream.

We all know it has health benefits. Because of its additional cultures, it is more healthful than a commensurate amount of milk. Yogurt cultures are composed of unique living microorganisms which make it easier to digest than milk, and it is an excellent source of calcium and it also offers benefits to the immune system.

I make my own with a yogurt maker I bought for a dollar at a yard sale a couple of years ago. I had one of these devices that I had discarded and when I saw that the new ones cost upwards of $30 I began scouring yard sales until I found just what I wanted. It has five milk-glass cups in it and has served me very well for three or four years.

Making yogurt is easy and you get a wonderful product. I use 2 per cent milk and the yogurt comes out creamy, soft, and a little tart to the taste. To it I add articificial sweetener which cannot be detected -- I use less than a teaspoon to 3/4 Cup size glass -- and add a drop of vanilla extract and a drop of almond extract. This can be used as a sauce for blueberries or any fruit you like, or eaten as is.

It's hard to stop eating it, and I often hear myself saying out loud when I have a spoon of it, "This is better than ice cream!"

Of course, I don't eat much ice cream these days anyway.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Cole Slaw To Die For

August 15

One of my 93-year-old mother's favorite foods is cole slaw. Never a cook, as far as I know she never tried to make it, but when it's served at the nursing home, she lights up like a Christmas tree.

I've taken to making batches of it to take to her for snacks, and she eats it with gusto. In the process, I've gotten a bit hooked on the stuff myself. I've got a couple of ways to make it.

The basic is made by shredding about a quarter of a head of cabbage. Carrots grated on the shredder can be added, as well as one paper thin slice of onion. Chop all pretty well together and add the dressing, which is made of a couple of tablespoons of a prepared mayonnaise, maybe half a teaspoon of some sweetener (of course the original recipe was sugar, but I find that Splenda cannot be detected. I also like to try a little agave nectar, which is a diabetic health food sugar substitute available at any health food store). To this about a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and dash of salt.

Today I had a few pears off Mama's old La Compte pear tree that I had to dispose of before they spoil on me, so I chopped up a small one and added it to the slaw. I had a box of raisins so about half a dozen of them went in. If I had had Craisins I would have used them instead.

Coleslaw with pears is a delicious variation. You have my word on it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Teaching Men To Cook

August 11

First, I've discovered that because this blog is misnamed, many people find it when they are searching for recipes for "fair food," meaning food that is served at fairs. Why anyone would want to cook such food I cannot fathom, so I must tell any new readers that that is not what I write about.

But I have a few male readers who want to know the principles of cooking. They say to me, give me a recipe, give me a shopping list, give me some good equipment, and set me on the road to cooking. One of them wrote me a very clever comment on this blog asking for just such information. Another writes his own blog and seems to want the same kind of straight and simple directions for cooking.

For one thing, I think both these guys have a little A.D.D. The blogwriter openly owns it. Their minds, therefore, don't work like mine does: Just think it through before you start, and organize as you go. They need a roadmap. They insist on specifics. They can work with a recipe, but it had better not leave anything out, for example, at what time in the proceedings you set the water to boil, when does the pasta go in in relation to the garlic in the sauce, and how many dishes, bowls, spoons, pots and pans am I going to need?

This is so admirable to me, a cook of forty-something years. I try to turn back the clock to when I didn't know how to make anything but fudge. What did I do? How did I equip myself to get to the level I now enjoy?

I remember this vividly: I was a bride who had never made anything but fudge. My mother hardly cooked at all, but was great with a can opener. I said to myself, I know I can learn this, and I bought a basic cookbook and decided to make everything in it, recipe by recipe. I learned in the process that I loved it. By the end of a year I had mastered the basics.

But these are working guys, youthful and seething with testosterone. They are not obedient little beginning housewives. They want to achieve, and they want it fast. They are willing to tackle any challenge -- if they are given clear instructions including lists and timetables.

I'll do it. Just post some questions to let me know what it is you want to make, and I'll tell you what I know.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Drinking Breakfast...and Lunch

August 1, 2007

Sometimes a quick lunch is all that's called for. Mine was a smoothie made of about half a cup of tofu, half an old banana (I can't eat overripe ones, but they work fine for smoothies) about 1/4 cup of orange juice, a dash of non-fat dry milk solids, and 1/4 cup of blueberries. Quick and delicious. Let's see if it holds me through dinner.

When I'm watching my diet (which is almost always, but this being the beginning of the month it's a perfect time), I sometimes make what The Snowbird Diet calls a Banana Blend for breakfast. This book pre-dates the Smoothie trend, but is clearly an early incarnation. With the extra dry milk it can be a bit gluey in texture, so you may want to pour it over ice.

Banana Blend

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup non-fat dry milk
1 banana
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (vanilla or almond extract make a nice substitute)
4 ice cubes, crushed

Combine first four ingredients. Blend for 30 seconds, or until smooth. Add ice cubes and blend an additional 15 seconds. Makes two 1-cup servings at 96 calories each. A piece of whole-wheat toast would not be amiss.

What to do with the extra tofu? Check my earlier post, "The Inscrutable Tofu," by typing the name in the little search rectangle in the upper left hand corner of the blog.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Benefits of Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Chai

July 26

On my recent trip to New York I spent a lot of time in Starbuck's. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not what I usually do, and I only went there because there were so many of them, and I needed that wi-fi connection.

I limit my coffee intake these days to two cups at a time, and then only two days a week, usually Saturday and Sunday. Breakfast. Heaven. Limited, but heaven.

At Starbuck's it was not easy to limit caffein or calories, but on an early visit I decided to spring for something called an iced chai latté: How bad could it be?

Turned out it was delicious! Spicy, creamy, chilly, redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg. And I got the small ("Grande" in Starbuck's language), which was practically the cheapest thing on the menu. When I got home I looked it up, and went to the health food store and bought myself a box of Redbush Chai Tea. It's nice hot in the morning, or over ice as a pick-me-up at any time of day. And it's good for you, too!

I never thought of cinnamon as anything but a taste treat until I learned that all the spices I associate with Thanksgiving and Christmas -- cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove -- offer health benefits too. Cinnamon does not only taste good, it also contains Anti-Clotting and Anti-Microbial actions, Blood Sugar Control; it boosts Brain Function; its Calcium and Fiber protect against Heart Disease and improve Colon Health, among other things.

Those capital letters come from the Internet, and I decided to leave them in. Makes everything seem more important.

Now I add cinnamon and nutmeg to oatmeal, and I can't wait until Christmas. Think of all those health-promoting sticky buns!

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Wonders of Flour Tortillas

July 20

When I buy one of those roasted chickens at the supermarket the first things that go are the thighs. Because I like dark meat I have no trouble disposing of the drumsticks and wings next. Then of course I'm left with a carcass and a lot of breast meat.

A week or so ago I bought some of those prepackaged flour tortillas. I actually bought the white flour ones even though I'm basically off white flour in any form. But these little pancakes are such a great way to make a lunch out of leftovers that I gave them a try.

Here's what I did with one -- the last one -- for lunch today. I had a fresh tomato which I chopped and warmed in a little olive oil in which I had poached a chopped clove of garlic. I had some leftover cooked spinach from last night and added that. Then I took the tortilla and dropped into a heated frying pan and turned it when it began to bubble up. Onto this I put about an eighth of a cup of shredded cheese and piled the spinach-tomato mixture on top. I added about a half a cup of white meat of chicken. I happened to have some bottled salsa in the refrigerator so I dropped about a tablespoon of that into the mixture and a few capers.

I was about to say the last two ingredients are optional, but actually all the ingredients except the flour tortilla and the chicken are optional. Use the cheese of your choice and the leftovers of whatever you happen to have.

The flour tortillas are a great invention, I don't know of whose. I don't know if they are Mexican, French, or actually American. But they are a wonderful shortcut to a delicious and easy lunch -- or supper or breakfast, for that matter. Try one.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Savoring Summer -- Tomatoes, Basil and Pasta

July 14

At this time of year it's almost a sin not to use up the bounty of tomatoes in something fresh and delicious. This is one of my favorite ways to do that -- taken from the American Women's Club of Geneva Cookbook, published in 1983, submitted by the Country Living Committee Chairwoman Peggy Cleveland:

Summer Pasta

1/2 cup olive oil (I sometimes use a bit less)
1 teaspoon salt
6 twists of a pepper mill (Here I think Peggy was being a bit persnickety)
3 or 4 cloves garlic, crushed (I use the garlic press this time)
4 large tomatoes, chopped (Peggy says: "thinly sliced lengthwise, then in half to conserve juice." I never could figure out what she was talking about.)
1 large green pepper, sliced in thin strips, then halved
25 leaves fresh basil, torn in quarters (Me again: julienne or chop as much as you like!)
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 1/2 cups pasta

At least 1 1/2 hours before serving, combine all ingredients except cheese and pasta in a large serving bowl. Let stand at room temperature, turning ingredients gently once or twice. Add pasta, warm, to the tomatoes, then the cheese, just before serving. This actually is best slightly warm, but can be served at room temperature.

It will keep a day or two in the refrigerator, but I do not eat it cold. If I've saved any, I nuke it a few seconds just to take the chill off.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

New Fruit

July 12

I am old enough to remember when the nectarine was a new fruit -- unknown to us, anyway. It was so delicious we thought it had to be what it seemed, which was a hybrid between a plum and a peach. Turns out, it wasn't. It was and is a fruit on its own, as old as both the plum and the peach (but bearing a resemblence in texture to the former and in taste to the latter).

The first time I tasted a fresh lychee I thought it tasted like a cross between a pear and a yellow grape, although clearly, from its appearance, it was no relation to either.

Now the New York Times reports new fruits I didn't know existed. I've seen pluots in the produce bins but assumed it a was a marketing name for prune plums, devised as a way to get reluctant consumers to try them. The name put me off more than the moniker "prune plums" would. (Doesn't it mean "tears" in French?)

You have to click on the blue New York Times above to read the rest of the story. I say this because nobody ever does that no matter how diligently I work to put links on both my blogs. It's a short article, very informative -- and if you're interested in new fruits, you'll get some useful information for your daily life.

Now off to stalk a half pound of apriums or plumcots!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Tawkin' Right

July 8

Having posted yesterday on Pecan Bars, and referring to Ina Garten's demonstration of her recipe on Food TV, I omitted a pet peeve -- the mispronunciation of the word "pecan."

I grew up in Alabama, and I never heard it pronounced any way but "puh-cahn," with the accent on the second syllable. Occasionally we had to straighten out a Yankee who came to town, obviously one who'd only read the word and never heard it. They tended to say something that sounded strangely like pee-can, offensive in the utmost to our delicate ears, but amusing, perhaps, to four-year-old boys.

Until Paula Deen, who has an accent I find delightfully authentic. I have actually heard her defend her pronunciation, "pee-can," and tell people that she grew up in pee-can country and that's the way it's pronounced! Even Ina Garten believed her!

Well, I'm sorry. I lived in Atlanta for a few years, but have not spent much time in rural Georgia -- but I can testify that in Alabama and Mississippi, also pecahn country, I never heard it said the way she does, by a local. Never. I wouldn't even say it's a controversy. I have no doubt of Paula's authentic roots, and otherwise her Southern accent is impeccable. But I am flabbergasted if it's true that her Mamma and Grandmamma 'nem all pronouced the word that way.

So let me make this recommendation to all who inquire. Puh-cahn is the way to say the word. It's a delicious nut, so let's give it the respect it deserves. It just plain sounds better that way.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

My Own Favorite Pecan Bars

July 7

Yesterday I watched Ina Garten create a mouthwatering batch of Pecan Bars. I couldn't help thinking, "They look wonderful, but they're not as good as mine." I wouldn't turn one down if offered, but I'd wish for my simpler, more-to-the-point, delicious treats.

Ina's recipe calls for a shortbread dough -- mine is more like a piecrust. Then she uses heaps more pecans than my recipe does. Her caramel mixture is a bit different -- and she dips the completed cookie in chocolate. All delicious touches, but gilding the lily if you ask me.

So here's my version:

Pecan Bars

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter

Combine these ingredients and spread with your fingers into a 9 x 13 pan. Bake in a 350° oven for 12 minutes (until set but not browned).

2 eggs
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
dash of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat eggs together, then add brown sugar and pecans. Sift the two tablespoons of flour with baking powder and salt. Add vanilla extract. Spread mixture over cooled crust and bake again for 25 minutes.

When cool, make a glaze of one cup powdered sugar thinned with about two tablespoons of lemon juice and spread over cake. Cut into bars.

My original recipe had dried sweetened cocoanut, but I've never used it. Ina's recipe included grated orange rind and grated lemon rind. Both would be excellent in this recipe, but I like it the way I make it. Sometimes I've made the glaze with water instead of lemon juice, but found that was a flat-out mistake. Otherwise, you can't hurt this recipe.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summer: Time for Gazpacho

June 28

As a bride, one of my first discoveries was the lovely salad-soup from Spain called Gazpacho. I discovered it in my Blender Cookbook, by Ann Seranne and Eileen Gaden, published in 1961. I still have the book, although it's seen better days -- it's one of those batter-splattered treasures that, like an old teddy bear, has been well used since the day it was bought. I can say that thanks to this book I was the first in my crowd to know anything about Gazpacho.

Here is that recipe:

Into blender container put

1 clove garlic
1/2 small onion
1/2 green pepper, seeded and sliced
3 ripe tomatoes, quartered
1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons wine vinegar
1/2 cup ice water

Cover and blend for 3 seconds, or until the last slice of cucumber is pulled down into the cutting blades. Chill in refrigerator, or pour into serving dishes and serve with an ice cube in the center of each serving.

I must say that I was never able to get all this in my blender at one time, so I always make it in two batches, and sometimes I use tomato juice or V-8 instead of the water. I don't think I've ever used water at all. I also never served it with an ice cube in the center -- but I've served this soup all over the world. I just made myself some for lunch.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Peeling the Big Orange

June 24

When I was a kid my mother read in one of her magazines that children should be encouraged to eat the white part of the orange peel. According to the article, this usually-discarded part of the fruit is high in calcium.

A dutiful child, for years I ate that part of the peel, scraping it from the outer rind with my teeth. When I grew up I saw no documentation for its nutritional content, so I generally avoid it now. But what I don't understand is the constant admonition of every food writer that the white part of the peel be avoided because of its "bitter" taste. I've tasted it many a time, and bitter is not a word I would use. It's very bland, and has a texture that would certainly detract from its use in cooking, but there is nothing bitter about it.

My conclusion is that everybody says it's bitter because they've been told it's bitter. If they actually tasted it, they would stop saying that. They might find any number of reasons to tell us not to use this part of the orange, but bitterness would not be among them.

I wonder if it's true that it is high in calcium. I can't help but think it is. It's white as milk, and soft as beans. It has a blandness that makes one think of high-calcium foods. It is part of an extremely nutritious fruit. I'd like to think that it is worth doing something with, if only eating as is after peeling and sectioning an orange. I wouldn't use it when candying the peel, or when grating it, but I wouldn't be afraid of it. It isn't a bit bitter, and it may actually be good for you.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cold Cure: Garlic Soup

June 22

I noted yesterday a bit of dryness in my throat, that telltale first sign of a cold, and by morning it was clear that I had to embark on taking every cold remedy in the house. Luckily I had a few supplies, including that new high vitamin stuff that comes in tablets like Alka-Seltzer, but, dropped in water, taste like Seven-Up. Besides being fun and tasting good, the drink actually helps knock out a cold.

I'm taking care of myself today, and yearned for my favorite cold cure, Julia Child's French garlic soup called Aigo Bouido. Not having time or ingredients to attempt the full thing today, I took half a can of chicken broth and started on my own version.

Here's what I did: Take three cloves of garlic, smashed them to release oils, removed the skins and drop them all into a mug of canned chicken broth. I microwaved the mixture for one minute and left it to steep while I prepare the liaison.

For the liaison I separated an egg and whipped a few tablespoons of good olive oil into the yolk. It's sort of a mayonnaise, which thickens hot soup the way the French do. I put about half of this mixture into a soup bowl, reheated the broth for about 30 seconds, and removed the garlic cloves. While hot, I whisked it into the liaison. I happened to have a piece of bruschetta left over from my birthday party last month (I had them in the freezer), so I put that in the middle of the bowl. Grated Parmesan cheese is supposed to go on top, but I committed the kitchen sin of using some cheddar that was on hand, and it was wonderful! I hope nobody finds out.

My cold feels better already. And I can use the rest of the liaison in my next salad dressing, and add the extra white to my morning scrambled egg!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Professional Salads You Can Make at Home

June 13

When traveling in such a food-laden city as New York, we must resist the temptation to stuff our bodies at every meal. It’s so easy to get a full breakfast, from a bagel shop where what they call a “schmeer” is more like what you’d call the better part of an 8-oz package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, to a simple egg and toast at a diner (with about ten slices of bacon, of course, plus a cup or two of crunchy, fat-fried hash browns).

So I try to go light at lunch. Just a salad. Day before yesterday I found a lovely Italian restaurant in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Not intending to review it, I didn’t note the name, but it was something like Pastissima, meaning that it purported to specialize in pasta dishes. But I was focused. I was going to have a salad, nothing more.

Of course, salads in Italian restaurants come with trays of lovely Italian bread, and this one had a bowl of oil with herbs and chopped olives, just to make it interesting. The salad I ordered was Goat Cheese over Arugula, with sliced peppers and Balsamic dressing. Just a few thin slices of goat cheese that had been doused with a bit of Balsamic vinegar, not the French breaded-and-sauteed goat cheese I expected. But the arugula was fresh and tasty, and the bread was just enough to make this simple salad a memorable meal. And it’s something you and I can do at home.

Yesterday I was in the West Village at lunch. I wanted a salad, and I wanted a place I could sit inside with air conditioning. New York is now a sidewalk café town, not as it was 20 years ago when I lived here. It’s been awfully hot, and the city is not so dedicated to air conditioning as we are in the South. Today I wanted it.

I chose a restaurant called Paris Commune, on the corner of Bank Street and Greenwich. I was drawn in by the house special salad, but on closer observation of the description on the menu I realized it was that bistrot special made of frisée, lardons, and I think goat cheese and maybe an egg. There is nothing that can induce me to eat frisée, that tasteless, briar-textured green so adored by salad lovers everywhere, especially in France. Not this salad eater. So I opted for the Duck Confit salad, which was only a couple of bucks more, and it was fabulieux. I mean, good.

Confit of Duck is a process by which duck, already a rich and fatty fowl, is poached for hours in, of all things, duck fat! I don’t believe I’d ever had it before, but I hope I do again. Duck cooked this way is crispy and tender, and tastes every bit as ducky as a duck can. The salad was light, put together with very fresh, very special greens and just a hint of dressing. Both my restaurant salads here make me think maybe I overdo the dressing when I’m making a salad. I like the dressing better than the greens, so I drown them. These people, at least at the French Commune, may not even be using olive oil, but a lighter tasting choice like canola. I must learn a little restraint from the French. Remind me of that when I get back to my kitchen.

Okay, so under the warm duck leg, there was this plate piled with elegant, very fresh salad greens (mesclun, to the French, a cut above what you get in a bag at the supermarket, but that will work fine) lightly tossed with a touch of vinaigrette – and topped with craisins! And sunflower seeds! If you will check on the archive of this blog you will learn that these are among my favorite salad ingredients these days. And there they were at this very fine New York French restaurant. I thought they were the perfect touch.

I wonder if these sumptuous salads are saving me any calories. Nah. Well, we can't ask for too much.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Place To Eat

June 12

I found an unusual restaurant in this neighborhood the other day. So far I’ve eaten there twice and recommend it to you without equivocation.

That is, as long as you’re not daunted by items like Cow’s Foot Soup on the menu. I see something like that and think, “Now this is my kind of place!” Not that I’m looking for a nice comforting bowl of Cow’s Foot Soup, but it does my heart good to know that it’s there.

So here’s a little info about the place. Specializing in Cuban and Dominican cuisine, it is called Calidad Latina. Prices are very reasonable as I’ll detail later. The cozy little restaurant is located at 132 Ninth Avenue, between 18th and 19th Streets, open Monday through Saturday from 11 A.M. til 11 P.M. and Sundays from 1 – 10:30 P.M.

The first time I was there I was in the mood for soup, and I saw some lovely bowls of it being passed out, so I ordered the soup of the day, which was Beef Tripe. I didn’t recognize any particular bits of tripe, but the soup was hearty and had a big chunk of what I think was chicken in it. It was on a bone, hacked up a bit, but looking as if it had originally been what is known as a “Drumette,” that little drumstick-looking part of the wing. There was a big potato-looking vegetable, too starchy and gummy to be a potato, likely yucca (or manioc), which served the role of potato. There were three or four generous chunks of plantain as well. A large, soul-filling bowl cost me only $6.95, and there was a tray of delicious garlic-toasted bread slices to go with it.

The second visit I was ready for a real meal. Before, I had seen the orders of fish being placed on other tables, accompanied by neatly mounded red-colored rice known as “yellow” rice, and bowls of beans – red or black – being served with it. I noted that the special of the day on the takeout menu was cod, for $9.95, so I had decided on that. It turns out that the takeout menu gives lunch specials, and cod is not on the dinner menu, so, no problem, I ordered Flounder in Lemon Sauce and was not disappointed. I even sprang for a glass of white wine. The whole meal, fish, rice, beans, wine, and the lovely garlic toasts again – and a tip – only set me back $25. And it was excellent.

The atmosphere of the little place is very pleasant. My waiter, a handsome man, dark and Latinate, could be the owner; he was that solicitous. Yet he was never obtrusive. He had a ready smile and seemed to like his work. He had his eye on his tables, and he pleased us all. It just seems like a place that is run by a family, for a family, and I felt like one of them after just two visits. I’d like to take someone there, but -- just in case I can’t do that this trip -- let me send you, on your next visit to New York.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Notes on Eating in New York

June 9

I’ve been eating my way around New York for a couple of days. Excellent food at good prices…it’s hard to tell what the common denominator in a good restaurant is, if there is one, but I think excellent food at good prices is the place to start.

I had lunch with a friend at a place on the Lower East Side called “Elephant,” which has an Indian décor and staff but a sign in the window describes it as Thai. Chopsticks are offered wrapped in the silverware napkin.

My friend was paying, and he had eaten there often. He recommended the salmon with cucumbers, and we both ordered it. There must have been a whole cucumber on each plate, chopped and marinated in a light vinaigrette which may have contained lime and definitely had mint chopped among other herbs. I think there was some fresh tarragon. He said he had tried over and over to duplicate it but couldn’t. A chunk of grilled salmon sat atop the cukes, and a swirl of finely spiral-chopped marinated beets adorned the place. It was a satisfying and economical lunch – gourmet level, with the bill of $5 per person. There was nothing skimpy about the servings, and the ingredients were fresh and made a wonderful combination.

Back in the neighborhood of my hostelry, I had passed a place with the name of “La Grainne Café” which I assumed to be vegetarian. I couldn’t recall the word grainne from my rudimentary French, but think it might be the same as “grain,” which would suggest health food.

Yesterday and today a chalk board out in front of La Grainne Café proclaimed “Carrot” as the soup of the day. I thought a soup would be nice, so in I went.

I discovered, rather than a “grain” restaurant, that I had stumbled onto a truly French café, with fresh salads, crêpes, moules, mousse au chocolat, and other French specialties. The walls were covered with hammered tin painted a bold yellow overlaid, as is now the style, with an orange wash. I ordered the ham, egg, and cheese crêpe, thinking it would be kind of a supper version of breakfast. First I was brought a couple of slices of a tasty white French bread with that extra-fat, unsalted butter the French are famous for. There was a large wine bottle on my table which I discovered, by observing other diners, was my drinking water.

The crêpe, produced with whole wheat flour, was wrapped around its filling of Gruyere, diced ham, and an egg, in a way that no Frenchman would ever eat for breakfast. It came with a fresh salad of mixed greens that even made a little frisee, my least favorite thing to find in a salad, palatable. The meal set me back $9.75, and even with a tip I was able to stay well under any budget I could have imagined for the day. Of course it doesn’t hurt with someone else is doing the buying!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Mighty Burger

May 31, 2007

Everywhere I look I see recipes for hamburgers -- magazines, television, even The New York Times. I don't get it. Who needs instructions for making a hamburger?

Apparently lots of people. There are variations, of course: Lamburgers, turkeyburgers, burgers made with soy meat substitutes, etc. Some have exotic spices -- a little curry powder in ground chicken, rosemary in the lamb, things like that -- but basically you've got ground meat in some kind of roll. It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to come up with a new incarnation. It's up to the cook.

The best hamburgers I have ever had were served at the swimming pool at Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama in the 1950's. They used top grade beef and some special pickle relish that I've never been able to replicate. The atmosphere for eating a hamburger was perfect -- the faint smell of chlorine wafting in the breeze on a hot summer day...and of course you would be admonished by the beautiful lifeguards not to go in the pool for an hour after eating.

Hamburger memories extend into childhood, when we lived at 52 Semmes Avenue in Mobile and walked a couple of blocks away on weekend nights with Daddy to The Cotton Patch to have a hamburger "with everything," which included a slice of onion, a few pickles some lettuce and tomato, mayonnaise and catchup. The meat with hardly even noticed. It was incidental. Luckily so, because it was the thin, packaged patty that came to restaurants. Later I stopped eating onion on my hamburger, but I can still taste that loaded burger with a chocolate milkshake. Nothing like it.

But anyone can make an excellent hamburger, and I don't know why these chef-instructors bother with demonstrations. Rachael Ray has practically hung her whole career on them. Bobby Flay dresses them up and puts them on a grill. I don't think there's a single Food Network host or hostess who has not featured his take on the burger, as if there were some mystique or unknown recipe. You take some ground meat, season it, cook it (on the grill or not) and put it between bread with whatever you like. That's it. You've got it. Happy summer!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Party Countdown Hustle

May 22

The party is Saturday night and I've been straightening (I almost said "cleaning," but that's going too far) the house for a week already. I've also made five loaves of bread and two cakes that are in the freezer, bought champagne, wine, and assorted chips.

The main course will be my crabmeat salad, for which I'm ready to make the mayonnaise. Before that, we'll have Italian garlic toasts, for which I've baked the bread. Spreads for the bruschetta will be tomato-basil, Tuscan bean puree (simmering on the stove now) and tapenade which I made over the weekend with some super olives I had trouble parting with. I'll thaw the bread Friday and spend the day Saturday making the toasts.

Friends have offered to bring shrimp salad and a tasty green salad, and maybe the delicious Hawaiian raw tuna dish that stole the show at my luau three years ago -- are you reading this, Rex? I'll have guacamole and another dip along with nuts and cheese along with drinks to launch to party. I'm thinking of setting up a drink table outside as this is kind of a welcome-to-my-new-landscaping event. It may just be too hot, but if the day is as nice as it's been the last week, we'll be outside a lot.

The big question is, "Would homemade ice cream be just too much?" I don't mean too much for the guests, I mean too much for the hostess. It will mean making the mixture ahead and hauling out the machine twice (two batches) during the party. But the peaches are delicious already and ice cream would be a nice touch with the Italian Almond Cake.

I haven't decided yet. Right now I've got to get to my mayonnaise.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Paula Deen: Your Roommate's Mother

May 20

At some point a couple of years ago I, along with a few million other cooks who watch the FoodTV Network, became endeared to a classic Southern character named Paula Deen. She is one of those larger-than-life ladies who might be living next door if you live in the South; a lovely face, a wonderful laugh, and a way with food that makes your mouth water. She is what they call a natural; she talks to that camera as if she were addressing a personal friend, and at the end of her show you just feel kinda good.

Not that I would make all the things she cooks. I'm on a diet, for one thing, and all that butter, cream cheese and heavy cream can't be good for any of us, including Paula and her devoted husband. I worry about them a little.

I love the way she looks. She has a beautiful, happy face, and the body of a woman who likes to eat what she cooks.

Another little problem I have with her cooking style is the many shortcuts she takes. My mouth waters at her many variations of what she calls "Gooey Butter Cake," a cake mix recipe with added butter and sweet ingredients. I haven't made it because if I want to bake a cake, I want to make it from scratch -- it's no more difficult, and much more rewarding, to my mind. To each his own, and I'm sure I'm in the minority here.

But she can cook okra and tomatoes with the best of them, and I don't begrudge her the frozen okra even though there might be fresh out there. At least she's showing us how to do it. She keeps extra bacon grease in the freezer; I hadn't done that for years until she reminded me of it. (My mother used to make bacon for breakfast every morning and wouldn't have dreamed of throwing out the grease. She had vats of it all around the kitchen.)

I loved the coverage of Paula's wedding, and her coverage of her son Jamie's. I like it when her boys help out in the kitchen and when she shares New Orleans recipes she got from her husband's brother ("Father Hank").

But I cannot accept her new show "Paula's Party." Here, I think the network is misusing Paula. They assumed her talent for people would carry over, I guess, as they assume Emeril's has (I hate his show, but love his food). But her easygoing, intimate style becomes self-conscious before an audience. In her "Cooking Class" segments she avoided this because she was basically teaching a class. The party format requires a performance, and, natural extrovert that she is, she complies by laughing way too much, trying to make jokes, and entertaining guests as if to explain everything they say or hang on every word, big-eyed and open-mouthed. Her real talent is her ability to be at ease, and on this show she looks anything but.

On a kitchen design show, she remodeled a kitchen for a married couple. When asked how they felt about Paula Deen, the husband said, "You can't help but enjoy her -- she's like your college roommate's mother!"

She has become an American institution now. Recently she made an appearance locally to promote her new memoir. It was so overbooked that crowds were calling the newspaper for days. They felt a kinship with Paula, and probably expected to chat with her. Her new show won't hurt her popularity, even with me, and I'll continue to check out her half-hour segments, even though I must have seen them all by now, and the re-runs on the Food Network are endless.

I'm happy to hear her talk, her stories, and her comfy cajoling me to cook odd things. I've gotten some wonderful recipes from her, like Ro-Tel Grits and Watermelon Salad. Sometimes I'm tempted to buy a box of cake mix.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Party Planning

May 19

The party will be next Saturday; lists, schedules, and phone calls and shopping trips are being made round the clock. I could write a book about party planning, but I think that's been done.

People tend to ask, "What can I bring?" or "Can I bring anything?" At this time of year I like to serve cold champagne with foods at room temperature -- maybe with one hot dish -- and this year I'm answering the question with "I'm having salads and hors d'oeuvre...if you want to bring one or the other, feel free. But don't feel obligated because there's going to be plenty of food."

I'll provide a few chips and dips, including a killer guacamole with baked corn chips, a big bowl of crab salad and probably a green salad too, maybe with orange sections in it and a blue-cheese walnut dressing. I was going to do Julia Child's Deluxe Chicken salad because there is one guest who won't eat seafood, but it's labor intensive; although beautiful and delicious, it's probably just one thing too many. One of the guests has already volunteered a shrimp salad, and another has said she'd bring a salad.

I've baked five loaves of bread already. I make a rustic Italian bread for my own consumption, using equal parts whole wheat and white flour. I always have an extra loaf at parties, and it disappears in no time. The recipe makes three small round loaves, so I baked them a week ago and put them in the freezer. I decided to use the recipe for a white bread this time and see if I could shape it into baguettes, which gave me the idea of serving bruschetta, which I've always wanted to try.

The white loaves were as close to a disaster as bread can be, because it is always delicious. But these were difficult to work into loaves, and they both look like giant lumpy beanbags rather than baguettes. Oh well, for bruschetta I'll be slicing them anyway, and toasting them, then rubbing them with garlic and drizzling with olive oil. I'm already at work with the three toppings. I have a large jar of excellent Niçoise olives which I'm pitting one by one (natch) in advance, and will buzz into a Tapanade paste with anchovies, olive oil and basil. I've laid in some cans of cannellini beans to cook with sage and mash for another choice. On the day of, I'll chop some tomatoes with basil and drain for the third shmear for the tasty toasts.

All of this and the salads, some extra wine, and of course Ginger Lemonade (see my posts from April 2 and April 4) will assure that nobody goes hungry. I hope you're coming!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Victories and Salad

May 17

Those of you who read this blog regularly are probably waiting breathlessly for the salad recipe I promised a few weeks ago. I'll give it in a minute.

I'm a bit euphoric today because I seem to have lost some eight pounds since beginning my new diet/exercise program a couple of months ago. I decided to reward myself -- not with Craisins -- but with some fresh tomatoes that looked pretty good. While I was at it, I went ahead and made the salad I promised to impart to you before.

This is called Stobo Castle Salad, and it comes from my diet cookbook but modified to include a little oil here and there. I looked up Stobo Castle on the Internet and discovered it's a famous spa (in a castle, naturally) in Scotland.

To make this salad, you do have to plan ahead. You'll need some cooked broccoli, some canned tunafish (the tasteless kind packed in water), feta cheese, and you'll have to make a couple of dressings. You'll need a tomato, a bit of red onion, and some lettuce as well. After all this preparation, you'll be happy to learn it's a lovely salad and you'll be glad to eat it.

I steam broccoli by bringing about an inch of water to boil in a small pot with a lid on it. Then I chop almost all the stem off the broccoli and stand it up in the steaming water and replace the lid. I like it very well cooked, so I steam for about 7 minutes.

Then I dump the can of tunafish in a colander and start making the dressings. Dressing #1 for the broccoli is a light vinaigrette, which I've described here before. I make it by whisking some dijon mustard with salt and vinegar to taste and then drizzling olive oil until it looks about right. Tasting is the best way to check. Toss it lightly on the greens you've chosen and add a tablespoon or so of chopped onion and a few wedges of tomato.

Make a second dressing for the tuna by combining equal parts of mayonnaise with yogurt, squeezing on a wedge of lemon juice and salting to taste.

As soon as the broccoli is cooked, remove it to a bowl and chop it into bite-size chunks and marinate for a minute in the vinaigrette.

Now you're about done (except for the cleanup). Serving just one, I use half a can of tuna. Pour the yogurt dressing on the tuna, and arrange tuna and broc on the salad. Sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese and salt and pepper to taste.

You'll lose lots of weight and not suffer one bit. Makes you want to take a trip to Stobo Castle, doesn't it?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Collard Greens: The End of the Ham

May 12

You may remember a post a month or so ago about the Dogpatch Ham, the big ole ham that just keeps on giving. Well, I cooked one for Easter and finished off the last of it for lunch today, the day before Mother's Day. (That is, not including a bag of ham slices I've got in the freezer.)

I did a lot of things with the ham, slicing off bits for days and weeks, until there was nothing left but a ham bone with a few chunks of meat clinging tenaciously to it. This I submerged in a pot of water with about a teaspoon of salt, more or less, and a splash of vinegar. The vinegar is good for extracting calcium from a bone -- a nice tip whenever you're boiling anything that has a bone in it. The whole thing simmers slowly for two to three hours, so by then there is no taste of vinegar.

I live in the South where collards are readily available. These odd vegetables are in the cabbage family, but they grow on stalks and have hard stems and a tendency to be buggy, so if you're buying them fresh you have to wash them very well. However, today I found out that they can be purchased pre-cut and bagged just like salads and spinach, so I exercised that option.

If I had bought a fresh bunch it would have been way too big for one person anyway, even though the greens do cook down. And I would have had had the job of chopping off the stems and removing the center vein, rolling the greens into packets of two or three and shredding them as the chefs on the Food Network do with basil, and I would have "chiffonade" of collards, which might be more elegant but is a lot more trouble.

So what I did was empty half a bag of greens into about a cup of ham broth and cook them for about an hour and a half. Even I, who know full well it takes this long, had my doubts and tried them after about an hour, but they were tough and inedible. After the proper cooking time, they were tender and tasty -- and, best of all, there was about a quarter up of the most delicious pot liquor I ever had.

A word about pot liquor, for those of you who have not been introduced to it. Both my grandfathers lived with us for a time at the end of their lives, and they relished the juice from greens more than any part of the meal. I respected both men -- who could not have been more different -- and have a family heritage of old-fashioned eating as a result.

I recommend you make your stocks as tasty as possible, and you'll always have the secret joy of drinking the leftover pot liquor in the kitchen after the meal is done. As Julia Child used to say, "A little something extra for the cook!"

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Cutting Back on Knives, Etc.

May 9

An article in today's New York Times suggests that too many pots, pans, knifes and gadgets do not a better cook make.

The writer is Mark Bittman, a Times columnist, food writer, and author of one of my favorite cookbooks, How To Cook Everything, so he must be right. I myself have been poking through the pantry paring down everything, putting it into yard sales, as part of my general cleaning-out-life process for months.

Among the excess baggage in my pantry were a stock pot the size of Lake Michigan, a fancy whisk with about 90 tines, duplicate mixing spoons of every size, a colander with a handle on it, better to scoop the pasta from the water. Before my last yard sale I had to ask myself if I actually need two basic colanders, and decided I did. Never mind that one of them had been given to me by my daughter for a long-forgotten birthday or Mother's Day -- sentiment has to be put aside in this process -- but I frequently have to use two colanders at pretty much the same time.

How many knives does one need? Got to have a serrated one (I often bake my own bread), a paring knife for vegetables, a good medium-sized "chef's" knife. I also have a boning knife and another one which is long and narrow and I never quite know what to do with. I use the boning knife for chicken, and often for vegetable, but not as much as I used to. I have a block to keep them in, so the set doesn't take up much space. Also, as instructed by the many chef's on Food TV, I hone each knife after every use, and have it professionally sharpened once a year.

More to the point, what big, heavy appliances are absolutely indispensable? I use my stand mixer for bread, cakes and cookies. I have a big food processor that almost never gets used. I use the blender often -- for gazpacho, smoothies, hollandaise sauce and bread crumbs. I use the little food processor that lives in a drawer for pesto, and to chop vegetables or make mayonnaise when I choose to do it (not that often). I love the little hand blender for soups.

Every once in awhile, it's time to go through the drawers and ruthlessly rid yourself of those catalog items or those you saw on television that looked so appealing but didn't fit into daily life. I have apple corers, ginger graters, melon ballers, and all sorts of measures and probably about 50 mixing bowls of all sizes. Don't tell me which ones to pitch! I'll have to decide for myself. Just not today.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Whatever Happened to Tunafish?

May 6

Time was when a can of tuna yielded a delicious mass of soft, oily, fishy flesh -- great with a little lemon juice, mayonnaise, onions and pickle relish to put between pieces of white bread. Something in the processing (hours of cooking, I'm told) gave it a distinctive "tuna" taste that was edible right out of the can, or placed in a classic Salade Nicoise -- a composed salad with sections of cooked potatoes, green beans and tuna on lettuce.

Somewhere along the low-fat way, the product changed to a dry -- "packed in water" -- chewy-textured, undistinguishable block of something else. The only way to get anything like the old tuna is to pay through the nose for imported products, packed in olive oil.

Never mind. The new stuff can be converted by draining and marinating it in olive oil, but it won't be quite the same. If you don't remember the original, you may actually enjoy it.

I like the dressing I make using yogurt-cheese, that is, yogurt that has been drained for at least 24 hours, with equal parts of mayonnaise, with a little lemon juice and salt added, as a sauce for the new tuna. If you want to make a tonnato sauce for chicken or veal, you'll have to use the Italian oil-packed tuna or add extra olive oil to the mixture.

Dry tuna just doesn't make the grade. It may be acceptable to those who have grown up deprived of the old canned variety, but even they should appreciate the enhanced version. I just wish we could convince American canners how much money they'd make if they'd revert to their old ways.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Do Something with Carrots

May 4

Next time you pick up a bunch of (preferably organic) carrots, here's something to perk up lunch: Grate them in your food processor, add a couple of tablespoons of grapefruit juice -- I forgot to tell you to pick up a grapefruit when you're buying the carrots -- a little fresh dill (I forgot to tell you, buy some fresh dill when you're shopping), mix it all together and let marinate for 15 minutes before scarfing it down.

This is known in my diet book at "Carrot Toss." I found it quite refreshing and crunchy. But to my mind, it needed something. So I added a little dressing made of equal parts yogurt and mayonnaise, a twist of lemon, a dash of salt, and adding to the salad -- here's the trick -- a handful of dried cranberries! (See my previous post to learn of my new craze for "craisins.") The color is a delightful contrast to the carrots and the texture and taste is a perfect complement.

Of course this is a variation of that old carrot-and-raisin salad from the cafeteria line. I always had a weakness for that. But this update is tasty, easy, and, if you can stop eating it, or if you just stick to the original version, diet-friendly.

That is, unless you're on Sugarbusters, which forbids even looking at a carrot.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Cravings and Craisins

May 2

I had to tell somebody, and you're it. I had my evaluation by the trainer at the gym, and since my last eval I've lost three lbs. in weight -- four being fat pounds, and then I gained one pound of muscle. Our long term goal is 20 fat lbs. gone, so we are well on our way. Or at least I am. Gaining muscle, they tell me, only helps to metabolize the fat.

At the "Wellness Center" as it's called, I have been given a program of exercise that includes five mornings a week -- only 25 minutes per time -- alternating strength training with aerobics. At the same time two weeks ago I started on a very low calorie, low fat diet that certainly kicked in. On my scale at home I lost five lbs. the first week and then gained back three the next. That's why I decided it was time to get an objective evaluation and see if it was fat I was losing or muscle.

All this means I'm more obsessed with food than ever. I shop very carefully, as instructed by the Snowbird Diet book, but when it looked like the weight was melting off, I couldn't resist browsing in the grocery store. I came to the dried fruit aisle looking for prunes and saw that something called "Craisins" were on sale for two bags for $4. I know it's the marketing word for dried cranberries, and thought, well, how good could they be, knowing cranberries to be strong-tasting and sour. I look for treats that I don't like too much so I won't eat too much. And, being the prudent shopper than I am I opted for just one bag.

In a snack mood later, I opened my "Craisins" and was surprised. They've dumped enough sugar onto these babies that they taste like candy! The bag says, "You'll be surprised how sweet they are!" and indeed I was. Checking out the nutrition, they are as sweet as candy and almost as fattening.

But of course, I was hooked. In a few days the bag was empty and I kept wondering if the sale was still on. Cranberries are good for you, after all. There is something delicate in their light weight and chewiness. I was developing a craving.

I went to another store and thought I'd just happen by the dried fruit and see if they had the same sale on Craisins. They didn't even carry them! Oh, well, good for now. There are none in the house; that means I won't be eating them. Another day I was in another store. They don't carry Craisins either. I'm lucky these things haven't caught on yet.

So I drive around with dried cranberries on my mind. I can say I'll use them in muffins or cookies for little children -- too bad I don't have any little children -- or that surely there is some nutrition left in the berries after all that processing. Surely some store will have them on sale, two for $4, and that I won't gain all that weight back just because of a few little cranberries.

Monday, April 30, 2007

A Can of Beans

April 30

For those of you who like beans, but not sweetened with molasses and the like, here's something delicious, easy, quick and as cheap as a can of beans can be.

You do have to buy a few things for it. Fresh sage and/or thyme, while not absolutely essential, is a great help. Olive oil surely you have. Garlic likewise. A can of tomatoes or tomato sauce. And a can of beans. I personally prefer navy beans, but for some reason they are considered inferior to their Italian cousin, cannellini. Either will do very well.

Drain your can of beans in a colander and rinse with water. In the meantime, warm a clove of garlic, smashed, and a few sage leaves in two tablespoons or so of olive oil. Keep the heat low and poach until the leaves begin to curl a bit, and the garlic gets little bubbles round the edges. Throw in a stem or two of thyme if you have it. Next add all the bean and simmer for a few minutes. It's tasty just like this, but to make it really wonderful, add half a can of stewed tomatoes or a portion of canned tomato sauce to taste. (I used half an 8-oz can of Hunt's "With Basil, Garlic and Oregano" and it was excellent.)

It's best to extract the garlic before serving, because it can be mistaken for a bean which could be disastrous.

This is a one-dish meal that will be better the next day. A salad will only make it more memorable.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Makes a Salad

April 26

Since you should be eating at least one salad a day, you have to stock up on the makings, and keep refreshing your greens as they don't keep all that long. Living alone, I still manage to have two heads of lettuce and a bag of those pre-washed greens in the fridge at all times.

To make a salad, I usually make enough dressing to last a couple of days, but it's better to avoid the temptation to make a big jar. It's easy enough to make it as needed, and the results will be much better with a fresh dressing.

I take a little bowl and dump about a teaspoon of Dijon mustard into it and add about 1/4 teaspoon -- no, maybe less than that -- of salt on top. Using a fork or whisk, I begin stirring the two as I add about 1/8 of a cup of vinegar. When that is well mixed, and still whisking, I dribble enough good extra virgin olive oil to suit the dressing of the day. Measurements depend on my needs of the moment, but it's roughly three parts oil to one of vinegar, always with a little mustard to emulsify the mixture. Everything else is up to you. Sometime a drop of honey is warranted, and I add more mustard if I want a decidedly honey-mustard flavor. I got that trick from watching Bobby Flay. Sometimes I add herbs, fresh or dried, and I almost always smack a clove of garlic and throw that in -- unless it's honey-mustard.

Different oils and different acids can add interesting taste. If I want a dressing for a salad of mixed greens, walnuts, and fresh orange sections, I might use canola oil combined with walnut oil, and lemon juice in place of the vinegar. Usually I want my salad to taste of Italy, but this one has a decidedly French tone.

I once made a dressing I got from O Magazine which was very low in oil and substituted orange juice concentrate. It was delicious.

Some people contend that what makes a salad is the little touches: One of my husbands thought every salad should have some fresh onion in it (I use red or Vidalia for this); my daughter adds toasted sunflower seeds; and capers, feta cheese, or crumbled bacon are special favorites of mine. You don't need to add all in every salad; in fact, your choice of any one from the above list, or one of your own, will make your salad memorable.

My diet book exposed me to a very delicious salad, which I'll share with you another day. Wouldn't you like to tell me what you think makes a salad?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Greening of the Green

April 24

I for one am always buying limes and forgetting I have them until too late. If I'm not planning to bake a pie or make some killer guac, the lime is underutilized in my kitchen. I just found one which has been in the kitchen for some time and remembered a valid job for it.

I was starving, and, as I've noted, I'm eating very carefully at the moment. I actually passed up a plate of cookies and went to the health food store where I passed up "energy bars" and Newman's Own chocolate for some carrots, broccoli and blueberries. Enough of that; later today I'll probably slip into a bowl of Haagen Das Crème Brulée ice cream, but now I'm feeling virtuous and I haven't even told you what I did with the lime that was drying up in my fridge.

I bought two kiwi fruits the other uninspiring choice at best, but I've found that peeling it, slicing, and squeezing a wedge of lime over it does wonders to brighten up the greenness of its flavor. It's a very nutritious little fruit, and -- need I say -- low in calories. With the addition of lime it becomes quite refreshing.

The second trick, which is the same as the first trick only with a different fruit, is to squeeze a wedge of lime on honeydew melon the next time you have it.

Then, some day in the distant future when the pounds are behind us, I'll have you over for a meal that includes killer guac and ends with Key Lime Pie. In the meantime I have the rest of one lime to use in salad dressings and wherever I might have used lemon juice.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Inscrutable Tofu

April 20

The mysterious edible substance of the East, tofu, is usually about the last thing I think about when at the supermarket, but when I buy it I realize I should do this more often. If you never think about buying tofu, you should change your ways and get to know how to work with it. It's very high in protein and soy isoflavones -- and you just know you need more of that. So get a chunk of tofu and work with me here.

First of all, if you have little kids, you should be making a lot of smoothies. A little tofu added to a smoothie is undetectable, tastewise, and makes the drink richer and smoother, as if it had ice cream in it. Smoothies are easy, just made in the blender with fresh fruit, a little juice, a few crushed ice cubes...and then sneak in about 1/4 cup of tofu per person. Don't overdo it or you'll defeat your purpose.

What to do with the rest of the tofu in the package? Here's a step you might not have heard about: Slice the slab into two-inch pieces, wrap them in towels and put a heavy weight on the bundles for about half an hour. The water will be pressed out, and you will then have tofu cutlets. Wrap them in saran and plan to use within 24 hours.

I've been told that tofu's main characteristic is its versatility. It will take on any taste you want. This encouraged me to make it Italian by rubbing the cutlets with crushed garlic and salt, bread them by dipping in flour, egg, and seasoned bread crumbs. These can be sauteed in a mixture of olive oil and tasteless vegetable oil and topped with tomato sauce. Guess what -- served with pasta, it's tofu parmagiana, but I wouldn't call it that. Let's just say it's a new Italian dish.

Similar cutlets can be made by rubbing the cutlets with salt, dipping them in flour, egg, and seasoned corn meal. I call this dish tofish and serve it with catsup or fish sauce of choice.

A more traditional dish is made by cutting the slices into cubes, marinating in soy sauce, chicken stock, garlic, ginger, and any Asian spices you like for several hours, and then baking at 350° for about 45 minutes. Serve with rice, broccoli, and whatever condiments you would have with Chinese or Japanese food.

If you're still daunted by these recipes, just make a lot of smoothies and don't forget to throw in the tofu.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Asparagus Tips

April 18

There are lots of myths in the tips about asparagus, one of the delicious spring vegetables. Right off, although the methods of prep are somewhat daunting to the freezer-to-microwave generation, it's comparatively easy to work with and always uniquely delicious.

First off, it is nonsense that the way to determine where to cut off the stems is to take a stalk and break it -- that it will naturally find its own best breaking point. There is no mystery about where the hard part ends, and no magic to finding a certain spot. Just lay your stalks together on the cutting board and cut at the place where the white part turns green. It's usually three to four inches from the bottom. Slice it with a knife! There is no right or wrong spot. Got it?

Another myth is that the European white asparagus is more elegant and tastier than the green American counterpart. I lived in Switzerland for six years, where asparagus is celebrated, and every restaurant bears a sign in the window "Asperges" announcing the first days of spring when fresh asparagus was on the menu. The asparagus they treasure is the white kind. It is fatter, has to be cooked longer, and invariably has little taste, no matter what is done with it. I used to yearn for our crunchy green stalks.

What to do with asparagus when you've got it and sliced the ends off? Lots of answers to that one. My sister used to slice every stalk on the diagonal into about 3" chunks and sauté these in butter or olive oil until tender; then sprinkle with fresh lemon juice, salt, and parmesan cheese. My daughter roasts asparagus in a pan with a little olive oil at 400° for about 15 minutes, turning once.

What I do goes back to my old Julia Child training (which I got from lengthy hours at the tv in the early 70's). I actually peel the asparagus -- a very old-fashioned French technique that is of course unnecessary and labor intensive, but always produces a superior result, in my mind. You almost have to watch someone do this to get it, but it's not difficult. Take those stem ends, chopped off, and, with your paring knife, not your vegetable peeler, gently pull off about three inches of the outer peel all around. This is time consuming and tedious. You don't have to do it. But if you do, I promise you you'll eat every bite of every stalk.

I then drop the stalks into simmering water for about six minutes, drain in a colander, smear them with butter, sprinkle with salt, and squeeze the juice of a wedge of lemon over them. Like the Europeans, I eat asparagus by hand (and it's much easier with a crisp American stalk).

You may recognize my all-purpose green vegetable dressing from my post on spinach. I'm not one of those people who rhapsodizes about vegetables; I suspect I like vegetables less than most people do. However, with a little lemon juice, butter, and salt, I could eat almost anything.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Dreaded "D" Word

April 16

It's happened again. Someone took a quick picture of me and when I saw it I realized she is back.

She is a woman of my approximate age and size, who wears my clothes. From time to time, in fact practically every time there is a camera handy, she jumps in front of me to get her picture taken. Nobody ever sees her, not even me, but she's always right there in the shot, blocking me out and looking exactly like me but older and much fatter. It ruins almost every picture ever taken of me.

I can outsmart her if I watch what I eat, but the pictures I saw on Friday convinced me it's time for a full-out diet. No cheating, no kidding myself, no snacks, no desserts. I've been loosely following Dr. Atkins for a couple of years, and over that time my weight has varied about four pounds down and then back up again. I think it's that "loosely" that did me in. I weigh once a month, and the scales were back up where I started two years ago.

The time has come for a new plan. This time I'll use "The Snowbird Diet," one I found in a bin of reduced-price books about 15 years ago. It promises 12 Days to a Slender Future -- and a Lifetime of Gourmet Dining! -- so from time to time I trot it out. It's a very low-calorie, low fat diet created by bariatric experts and Paula Wolfert, well-known cook, teacher and cookbook author. Its recipes are good and its plan, although developed for people with a more serious weight-loss need than mine, is not impossible to manage.

Today is Day One, and I just had a soft-boiled egg on a piece of my own homemade whole wheat bread (the diet specifies 2 pieces of Kavli) and a sliced kiwi fruit.

Okay, so you're not on this diet with me. I think you'll still be interested in what I'm having for dinner so I'll share the recipe. It's for the ubiquitous diet food, chicken breast, but prepared in such a light and delicious way you'll be happy to serve it to guests, your kids, or anyone. I wouldn't tell you about it if it wasn't good.

Here's the Snowbird recipe, serving 2:

Ginger Chicken

2 7-ounce chicken breasts, skinned and boned
1 ounce fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
4 water chestnuts, sliced
4 scallions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup cooked rice (I use brown rice)
2 teaspoons parsley, chopped

Place each piece of chicken in its own piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil (of course you can use parchment for this). Sprinkle each with pepper, ginger, and sliced water chestnuts. Top each with 2 whole scallions. Divide soy sauce between each packet, sprinkling evenly over all. Seal tightly and steam 25 minutes in over at 350° or in steamer. To serve, open packet and pour juices over cooked rice. Arrange chicken on the side and garnish with chopped parsley.

I am to have this with steamed fresh Chinese pea pods, which I don't care for so I'll substitute spinach (not butter today; I'll just a fraction of a tablespoon of olive oil and lots of fresh lemon juice). Also I get Swiss Chard Salad, but there wasn't any chard in the market yesterday so I'll use romaine, with a low-fat dressing; and yoghurt with fruit for dessert.

I've got 12 days ahead of me with such food, and then I'll step on the scale again. Maybe I'll show you a before and after picture, as long as that old fat woman isn't around to get in my way.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Fate of the Devil's Food

April 14

I used Nick Malgieri's 1942 recipe to make the cake of which I wrote last. The recipe was perfectly serviceable but made two rather skimpy 8-inch layers rather than the 9-inch the recipe promised (I was going to make it in my 8-inch pans anyway, since I made myself a cupcake to try it out). I was less than overwhelmed at the moist devil's foodness of the texture, but I still say it was better than a mix.

The icing was every bit as difficult as I anticipated. It's cooked in a pan like fudge, but withdrawn when the candy thermometer reaches 220 rather than the 250 required for real fudge. Otherwise the recipe is very similar. Trying to be modern I beat it with my portable mixer rather than by hand, stopping before it really became firm. This is where it gets difficult. You have to pour the mixture, slightly cooled of course, onto one layer of cake and then add the the top layer. You're putting a layer of cake onto warm soft frosting, so it begins to slide. The trouble was that the the frosting was slow to harden -- that's better than it being fast to harden, because that way you get fudge and cannot spread it on the cake. I walked around the house looking for a way to hold the cake at the right tilt so that the top layer wouldn't slip off. For a couple of hours, off and on. I told myself, "This should not be part of the process."

I asked myself what Martha Stewart would do, but clearly this kind of thing has never happened to Martha Stewart. When asked how to handle kitchen disasters, the only one she can think of is when, as a bride, she cooked the bag of giblets in the Thanksgiving turkey -- and every woman in the country has done that. I asked myself what Paula Deen would do, and I realized that she would have dumped a box of confectioners' sugar into the icing as soon as she saw it wasn't hardening. Too late for that, besides I don't like confectioners' sugar icing (confectioners' sugar has cornstarch in it, and you can taste it). So I was stuck with juggling the cake -- until I thought of what I used to do to harden fudge, and put the whole thing in the refrigerator. This firmed it.

When I took my cake to the bake sale it looked like a despondent little lump amid the fancy decorated cakes, but I put a label on it that said "Home Made Devil's Food, Made from Scratch." By the end of the day I saw a child carrying it around proudly, having selected it from the table full of sparkling cakes covered with M and M's and sugar butterflies.

I hope it was good.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Me and the Devil's Food

April 12

The school's Spring Festival is tomorrow, and I've committed to bring a cake to be used as a prize in the cake walk. As I looked around the room and saw the mothers signing up and saying blythely, "I'll bring two more cakes," I realized I was the only one to whom bringing a cake meant first making the cake. Sign of the times; call me a diehard.

I remember bringing a huge three-layer Devil's Food Cake to the Fall Festival a few years ago. There were lots of homemade cakes there, lavishly decorated, but I don't think one of them was created without using a mix. I don't want to be a snob about this. It's happened in my lifetime, this universal acceptance of a cakemix cake being a homemade cake, but I am stuck in the time warp in which homemade is synonymous with made from scratch. And it's so easy, and so much more rewarding, I can't see why any stay at home mom could resist the siren call of baking. (I will say this, most of those mothers are not stay at home moms and have every excuse for taking any shortcuts they choose in any and every endeavor.)

But I went to my recipe books to find a guide for baking a Devil's Food Cake. What has happened to "devil's food"? Politically incorrect? And the old recipes always used buttermilk or sour cream; some used brown sugar. All the newer books have myriad recipes for chocolate cakes, but the name Devil's Food is not among them. You have your Fudgey Chocolate Layer, your Very Moist Chocolate Layer, and so forth. Luckily I have a couple of vintage editions of The Joy of Cooking -- they're sure to have a classic recipe. Nick Malgieri has one: "1942 Devil's Food Cake Layers." I think that's the one I'll go with. However, he suggests frosting it with fluffy white icing or whipped ganache -- both of which might be fine, but not the thing for an authentic Devil's Food.

The real thing must be iced with a cooked chocolate frosting, like a fudge, one of the trickiest things to pull off in any kitchen. You see, the effect you want is a cake and candy combination, that texture of the very moist cake layer topped with a firm fudgey chocolate. It's difficult because the icing has to be cooked until it will firm up, then beaten slightly, then spread onto this moist cake before it hardens. And then it has to harden but not be quite as hard as fudge. Wish me luck.

Why I would produce this masterpiece and give it away for the cake walk is a mystery even to me. I have cooked for years as an excuse to lick bowls and spoons and then to sample the product. I've tried to change my ways as my aging metabolism makes it ever more difficult to ward off then ensuing obesity such indulgence portends. No doubt I will take a swipe of tongue against spoon as I put it into the sink, but for now I am enjoying the mere anticipation of the fragrance of chocolate melting in my kitchen and permeating the air throughout the house.

Sometimes we have to be grateful for very small blessings. And wish the cake walkers well!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Today I Got Famous

April 11

My friend Justin Kahn made me famous today by allowing me to post a "guest" spot on his blog yesterday. If you want to find it click on the blue letters -- his name -- and read his post with the pic of Thomas Aquinas or somebody and my post below it on how to make I really nice scrambled egg sandwich.

Justin's blog aims at a specific fan base and seems to be quite popular with nubile beauties who live in the Cleveland area. This is not my usual readership, so I hope it brings some traffic here. I assumed I was writing to a college audience. I gave them an easy-to-make food which they could assemble in little time and eat with equal alacrity. It also happens to be nutritious and taste good. I wanted to call the post "The Better-Than-Sex Sandwich," but Justin had other ideas.

If you happen to be one of those who strayed over here from Justin's blog, scroll on down and read some more fun stuff to eat and cook. You may also click on the link to my other blog where I discuss the weightier issues of the day such as whether Daniel Craig is worthy of the name James Bond or whether Don Imus should be the subject of the nation's attention any longer. Or you can go to my website where I shamelessly promote myself and my book. You are welcome to do this even if you didn't get here from Justin's blog. Just don't miss my guest shot on Concept of Irony dated April 10.

Monday, April 9, 2007

My Dogpatch Ham

April 9

There used to be a comic strip that grownups liked even better than kids did, called "Li'l Abner." Written and drawn by the curmudgeon Al Capp, the strip was peopled by a unique group of characters who lived in the hill country of the Southern U.S. in a community called Dogpatch. The leading character was an oversized, gorgeous simpleton who meant no harm to anyone and whose main objective seemed to be to avoid marriage to the beauteous and well-endowed Daisy Mae.

The strip was so popular that when Daisy Mae finally landed Li'l Abner it made the cover of Life Magazine. Li'l Abner's ubiquitous mother Mammy Yokum presented the couple with a ham that was to last the life of their marriage, a tradition in them thar hills known as The Dogpatch Ham.

Whenever I commit to a ham, particularly now that I'm living alone, I think of it as a Dogpatch ham, because it will last until I wish it would go away. I bought myself a full, bone-in ham for Easter and baked it with a glaze of mustard, maple syrup and brandy, which was fine for one meal. But now what? What would Daisy Mae do?

There'll be sliced ham for sandwiches, ham and eggs for breakfast, chopped ham for salad, ham added to soup, ham mixed with breadcrumbs for croquettes, ham a la king, ham in casseroles, ham sliced and frozen in single-serving bags, and at last a hambone for cooking Red Beans and Rice or blackeyed peas, greens or other vegetable dish of my choosing. Right now I can only think of the ham I have sitting in my refrigerator, waiting to be dealt with. If you have any ideas, let me know.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Hard Boiled

April 7

Thursday I hard boiled eight eggs. Yesterday I dyed them.

Don't ask me why; I suppose the only answer is that old habits die hard. Hard boiled eggs certainly do. The weather has been beautiful; Easter is upon us; I was in the mood to create some Easter eggs. Now, without any grandchildren in the immediate neighborhood, what am I to do with them?

When I lived in Geneva, I was the head honcho of an American theatre company that was frequently seeking out bars to quench the thirst worked up by our frenzied rehearsals. During Easter season, these bars had little bowls of dyed eggs where in the States we would have found peanuts. Aside from this inventive use, what do I do with eight boiled eggs after Easter has come and gone?

Everybody knows egg salad. This I make in a very traditional way, with a bit of mayonnaise, mustard, and dill pickle relish. Luckily I love it, and the remains of my Easter bounty will find themselves there. Also, I have a ham which I will prepare today and eat all weekend. And I have the breast meat of one of those roast chickens now ubiquitous in every supermarket. Ham salad and chicken salad are greatly enhanced with chopped hard boiled egg. The basic recipe is always the same, some chopped celery, perhaps bell pepper, pimento-stuffed olives, chopped parsley, mayonnaise, mustard, and the meat of choice. When there is one on hand, as there is now, in goes the hard boiled egg. I could even simply add the egg salad.

The other recipe that belongs in this bunch is potato salad, essentially identical to the above, with the addition of more salt. In Geneva I used to blow the Americans away by producing this potato salad, while the locals made a lovely French pommes a l'huile which is simply potatoes to which a little chicken stock, a dash of vinegar, a few chopped scallions and parsley, and a generous splash of good olive oil is added while still warm. Americans went wild over my mayonnaise-y salad when I was in Geneva. In this country I serve the French style which has the advantage of being the only such on the table.

I don't worry that my hard boiled eggs may go to waste. In the meantime, there they sit on on the kitchen counter in their pastel, springlike glory, looking for all the world as if they were laid by a rabbit.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Wilt Your Salad

April 5

All ye who avoid bacon can jump ship right here; I've got a neat trick for two very different salads.

Let's start with the classic wilted spinach salad, one you seldom see these days but your taste buds will thank you for. While I love spinach, I'm not crazy about it in the raw state because of a texture that bothers me. This wilting takes care of that and the recipe smothers the stuff in tangy flavors. It smothers it in bacon fat too, but being a Dr. Atkins devotee, I believe in fats of all kinds in moderation. That means I eat this salad about once every six months.

Get your bunch of spinach ready while you fry up about four slices of bacon. (If you don't use it all this time, believe me it won't go to waste.) You should have about three tablespoons of fat left in the pan. While this is still warm, add about a tablespoon of dark brown sugar and melt it softly in the fat, being careful not to scorch. Now add two tablespoons of vinegar to the pan and immediately pour the sizzling vinagrette over the spinach and add the crumbled bacon to the top. Wanting desperately to wilt the leaves I sometimes toss the whole thing into the pan to heat it through and thoroughly coat the spinach. Salt to taste and serve immediately.

The variation is a dish I saw Sara Moulton make on a Food Network re-run a few months ago and have gotten hooked on. It is made with cabbage instead of spinach so it requires a bit more cooking. You'll also need some bleu cheese for this.

Shred your cabbage. Fry your bacon and remove from the pan. Next add cabbage and steam it in the fat -- keeping the heat low -- for about six minutes, stirring frequently. Add a dash of vinegar to taste, salt and pepper, and top with crumbled bleu cheese and bacon. This is a surprising dish and very delicious. It can be served warm or cold, or at room temperature.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Ginger Lemonade Part 2

April 4

I inadvertantly omitted that the ginger lemonade of my previous post is a great addition to mixed drinks. With a little rum it is a natural drink for island-themed parties or just any old drinking fest. For brunch, try it in champagne -- I call this one the Mobile Bay Breeze. I haven't tried it with vodka or bourbon, but it should work well with either.

I did mention having it as an alternative to alcohol, but left out that while it's there next to the booze on the counter, it might enhance just about any bartender's repertoire.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Fun with Ginger and I Don't Mean Gilligan's Island

April 2

A few years ago a friend of mine offered ginger lemonade as an option for a lunch drink. Of course just the sound of it made us all choose it! She said Hilary had served it at book club -- everybody around here seems to be in a book club -- and since we all knew Hilary to be a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and sometime restaurant chef, it had the ring of success.

We all tried it at home, and it's become a staple at my parties for those who choose not to drink wine or mixed drinks. Something about that little kick of ginger at the end is reminiscent of an alcoholic slug.

It's easy to do and very useful to make for lots of occasions. I slice a knob of fresh ginger until I've got about a quarter of a cup and toss them into a pot of water, say, about four cups. Bring to a simmer, turn off the heat and steep for as long as you like. All day is not too long. But if it's steeped for ten minutes or so, it's ginger tea and you can pour yourself a cup for a quick pick-me-up. (Add sugar and lemon to taste, or you could add a teabag.)

Make a simple syrup of half water, half sugar, by bringing the two together to a boil and removing from the heat.

Now juice about ten lemons. I have a juicer, which is a nice little appliance that makes this easier. This is not the big infomercial model. Any kind of reamer will do, but if you make a lot of lemonade or fresh orange juice -- and I recommend both -- it's a good small item to have.

When the ginger tea is cool and the simple syrup is cool, simply mix all the ingredients together to your taste. It will be roughly four parts ginger tea to one part lemon juice and 1/2 part sugar syrup. Taste all along the way, because some like it sweeter than others, some more lemony, etc. You get the idea. Don't make it weak because you are going to serve this over ice.

The mixture can also be made into a delicious granita by freezing to a soft slush, scraping with a fork into granules and returning briefly to the freezer. You may have to fork it again before serving. I've always thought this would be a dynamite-gourmet palate cleanser to serve mid-meal after a garlicky course and before the real dessert, but I don't know when I've ever had a dinner party like that.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

How To Make Anything Delicious

March 31

When my first grandson was three months old his parents took him to Italy for the summer. A breast-fed baby, he had a wonderful time in many ways. Alison found a good pediatrician and the time came to introduce solid foods into the infanto's diet.

Get this: The first foods they recommended were olive oil and parmesan cheese.

Needless to say, he has grown to be a discerning 12-year-old with a taste for Italian food. He now lives in a little town in upstate New York but gets to travel to Italy often, lucky little devil.

Here's an Italian trick for making anything except dessert taste good. Crush or smack a few cloves of garlic and slowly bring to a simmer in about four tablespoons of good olive oil. I use extra virgin. If I have a fresh sage leaf or two, I add that. Thyme is also good. In an absolute pinch, dried herbs can be used, but always use fresh garlic. Let the seasonings soak in the warm oil for a while.

This can be tossed with any hot cooked pasta, and grated parmesan put on top. I also like to substitue drained beans, cooked by myself or the canned kind, rinsed and drained first. To be Italian, you should use cannelini beans, but I prefer navy beans and they're cheaper. A tomato, fresh or canned, can be added.

Simple and savory, it may be appropriate for baby's first food. It's nutritious and easy, and inhaling the aroma is like a trip to Italy! Almost.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


March 29

The other day I bought one of those huge bags of spinach. Managing to eat it all is quite a commitment, but I'm up to it.

Sometime within the last year they stopped selling any fresh spinach roots-on and put up all the spinach in bags. Then some of that got contaminated, and for a while there was no spinach to be had. Just as well -- I mean, I like spinach but I'm not willing to die for it.

When I was a little girl sometimes we got to spend the night at my Auntee's house, my mother's aunt who was the epitome of adorable little old lady, with long white hair pulled into a gentle bun at the nape of her neck. And she could cook. She prepared spinach in a way that blew my five-year-old mind. As Mama piled us into the car to go home we were raving about that good spinach, and Mama said to Auntee, "They never eat that at home," and we quickly squealed, "But this was different! It was good!" She said, "What do you do to it?" and Auntee said, "I always put a little lemon in it, don't you?"

She failed to tell Mama that of course it was fresh spinach, but anyway from then on our canned spinach was always enhanced with lemon juice (from a bottle), and it was way better than it had been before.

I'm not all that averse to working with the spinach roots and all, grit and all, but I suspect it'll never be on U.S. supermarket shelves again anyway. With the bagged spinach I pour about four cups of the loose leaves into a colander and run water through it anyway. (Cleaning the gritty kind is a little more complicated.) The water on the bagged spinach should clean it of e coli, but is mostly for cooking it anyway. When it's thoroughly drenched I pull off most of the stems -- an unnecessary step, but then I really don't like the stems and put it in a saucepan with a lid. I start the heat fairly high and reduce it when it begins to steam, about a minute.

It doesn't have to cook long. Just take tongs or a spoon and stir until it's all wilted evenly and has changed to dark green. Then pile the mess onto a cutting board and chop with your chef's knife, getting it all chopped pretty fine. Sprinkle with salt; smear with about a teaspoon of butter, and squeeze a wedge of lemon over all. Eat at once.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gaining Weight with Ina and Paula

March 27

I love watching FoodTV. I've gotten cozy with Tyler Florence, matter of fact man of food; observed Bobby Flay transition from awkward and camera-inept to cool, offhand and even charming; endured Emeril's obnoxious personality in order to commit to memory a particularly tantalizing recipe. Michael Ciarello is handsome and I want to go to one of his parties. I love seeing a man bake -- when any of these guys gets out a stand mixer and starts to cream butter and sugar, I am riveted.

On the distaff side, I have trouble with Sandra Lee, because she is doll-pretty in a way that I find difficult to like, and besides I don't like short cut cooking. Obviously for the same reason and for her incessantly cheery personality, I give short shrift to Racheal Ray, the flavor-of-the-month who seems to think cooking hamburgers in 30 minutes is an achievement no one could manage without her interference. Giada di Laurentiis bothers me because of that insane-looking smile, that body so clearly owned by someone who doesn't like to eat, and perhaps because with that name I suspect she doesn't need the job.

You may guess that I do cut Paula Deen and Ina Garten some slack. These are women with rich, full lives that revolve around their kitchens. They are both beautiful, in a way that only a woman with years of loving to eat and cook can be beautiful. I wish Ina would make something besides cupcakes -- I don't know anybody who likes cupcakes. Even kids, who get the most cupcakes, have the sense to lick the icing off and throw away the cake part. But I respond to Ina's spirit and what we might refer to as her lifestyle, all those happy people who love to help her test recipes and the like. I think the uneasy laugh that floats from her in her talk with Jeffrey and her party guests will abate after the intervention of an aggressive tv coach (although she's had her show for years and it must have been pointed out to her by now).

Paula Deen has a Southern accent. She is so herself up there, mixing food and gossiping with me as if there were nobody else she'd rather be cooking with. And her recipes, although a little heavy on the canned soup and mixes, are interesting and have a Southern heritage, just like me. I think the network is making a mistake by putting her into the new setting of the "Paula's Party" show, which makes her seem self-conscious and silly. I hope they yank that one and keep her churning out those little intimate kitchen fests she does so well -- her daily show. I hope she learns some new recipes and shares them with me and y'all.

There's something pleasant about having Ina and Paula in my living room, talking food with me. I've had to rein myself in from the temptation of going into my own kitchen and whipping up some of those cream-laden (Ina) butter-and-mayonnaise-laden (Paula) recipes as I watched my own girth expand. I've had to learn how to enjoy them without eating like them, by reminding myself that I don't want to literally look like them. Not that I don't like their looks, but something tells me that they don't go to the gym as often as I do either.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Fair Fish

March 26

Fish isn't what it used to be. I grew up on the Gulf Coast -- fish country -- where seafood was bountiful. We ate fresh snapper from the bay, king mackeral from the Gulf, flounder, shrimp, oysters, blue crabs, and all kinds of little fish like mullet. Mostly we ate them dredged in cornmeal and fried.

In 1988 I moved back home only to find the world of seafood had changed. Amberjack and grouper, trash fish in my youth, were both now menu favorites, and salmon, tilapia, catfish, orange roughy, and all kinds of new names were the flavor of the day. Not all that easy to find fried flounder or mullet on the menu. In fact, people thought mullet was a hairdo.

Saturday night I went with friends to a new seafood joint on a local tributary named Fish River, and got the fish basket. It was indeed a tasty, fresh-tasting something, and my sister and I were curious. We asked the owner, a personable young man, what we were eating and he said it was basa. Blank looks all around. He went on to explain that basa is a relative of the grouper. Not that we didn't trust him, but we couldn't wait to get home and Google this.

Turns out basa is a Vietnamese farm-raised catfish. There is "real" basa and "non-real" basa, that is, other fish sold as basa, so we were left wondering what we had actually been served. It had a nice texture, which would make it unlikely that it was frozen, and a mildly fishy, pleasant taste.

The Internet warns that basa is to be avoided as it is raised in cages and fed human waste -- but the article was published in 2002 so who knows what the story is today.

The fish of our local waters is seldom served today. We are dependent on varieties shipped from all over. The only fish monger selling local flounder and crabs just closed its doors last week. I will miss it.