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.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Starting with Cookies

March 25

Just for the hell of it, I decided to start another blog. I write on life and its many ramifications on a little ole blog called Finding Fair Hope but I never say anything at all about food over there. On this blog I will write about food, eating and cooking it, and how it fits into life and its many ramifications. That sounds about profound enough. I think I'm up to it.

I'll jump around and comment on restaurants I visit, shows I see on food shows on cable, recipes and magazines I love, and what I had for breakfast. See if you find it interesting.

My sister has to prepare some cookies for her book club Tuesday. She's an excellent cook but she hates cookies so I have no idea why she volunteered. If I were in her shoes, I would love the job. I love cookies, and making them gives me a great excuse to snatch a bite of dough, lick bowls and spoons, and "test" the cookies by trying five or six hot out of the oven.

I would make Loaded Oatmeals. I got the recipe from Martha Stewart, who got it from her friend Torie Hallock, but I changed it by cutting the butter in half, doubling the eggs, substituting 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour, for the same amount of white flour, decreasing the amount of white sugar, cherries, toffee bits and chocolate, and adding raisins and salt. I also bake them longer -- the original recipe said 8 to 10 minutes -- because I like cookies crisp.

1 cup of all purpose flour
1/2 cup of whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 stick butter (at room temperature)
1/2 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of brown sugar
2 eggs (at room temperature)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups oatmeal
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup toffee bits
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped nuts, if desired

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together: flours, baking soda, salt, and set aside. Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, mix on high speed. Add vanilla. Scrape the beater and sides of the bowl. Slowly add the sifted flour, on low speed. Remove the bowl and mix in the oatmeal manually, followed by the fruit and candy bits and your choice of nuts, if desired.

This dough can be formed into rolls, chilled and sliced, or dropped as is by spoonfuls onto parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake at least 20 minutes until crispy.
Cool on a baking rack.

I never got anything but raves for this recipe. It almost makes me want to join the book club!