Where You Been, Uncle Ben? You Smell Like Chicken

These last 10 years, I’m tasting a lot of flavors in foods that weren’t there before.  I taste almond flavoring in some French vanilla coffee creamers. I taste caramel flavoring in cheap bourbons. Just minuscule amounts, you know, too little to be listed in the ingredients.

And I can taste — even smell — chicken broth in Uncle Ben’s rice once it has cooked.

Am I crazy — don’t answer that. Is it just me, or can other people taste the faintest hint of chicken broth in Uncle Ben’s freakishly white, fluff, regular grains?

Off-Putting South Asian Foodways

banh mi sandwich

There’s a market not too far from me that carries banh mi sandwiches. It used to be just Tuesdays and maybe one other day, but they’re stocked every time I’m there, which isn’t always a Tuesday.

    • They’re not the finest

banh mi 

    • – that would require real roast pork slices, and a long time ago, the market sold those very sandwiches, with rich, red, crusty slices of roast pork, ruffles of cilantro, incendiary slices of small Vietnamese peppers, thick, high-quality mayo, tomato slices, cucumber and carrot shreds. Instead, this

banh mi

     uses some kind of ham-like matter and what I call Vietnamese bologna. A sliced-from-a-roll,  smooth textured lunch meat that I’ve seen for sale only once, understandably.

It’s worth speculating on how many aspects of a sandwich you can degrade and still maintain the sandwich’s desirability. This one still makes the cut, but barely.

    The sandwich price seems to change occasionally, or for me anyway. That’s the MO of the market. On three visits, the item I’m holding is somehow, so-mysteriously mismarked with a price that’s to low by up to 50 cents.  “That price mark wrong,” the owner will say. And a higher price is mentioned. Once I naively paid it. Another time I paid it, knowing I was being overcharged, but the item (white peppercorns? coconut milk?) still cost much less than in a conventional grocery. And once I put the item back on the shelf.

It’s not against the law, what the store is doing. Chicanery, yes. Illegal, no. There’s a long, fine tradition of special Anglo pricing. Now that I’ve figured out what’s going on, I confirm the price of everything before I get to the register. Or I am prepared to put it back  on the shelf.

    Why do I go there? Because it feels so good when I leave.


Halloumi Salad

I could eat salad every day. Something about the combination of different textures and flavors, all dressed with a good, homemade dressing just grabs my palate.

    But you can fall into a rut, and we do. It’s so easy to use tender green leaf lettuce and cut up an apple and crumble some blue cheese and throw on toasted almonds. Not that it isn’t good because it is, especially when there’s a tiny touch of Dijon mustard int he dressing, and maybe we pick up a fennel and slice a little of that in there, you know, if we’re feeling flush.

Sometimes I have to break out of the box and make myself go find another salad. Explore new green avenues. The spinach salad in the prevoius posting, for instance. And this little paradigm-shifting fried cheese salad.

    We ate a lot of halloumi cheese in England. Vegetarians like it because you can grill and fry it, and there are a lot of vegetarians in England. The low milk fat, high protein profile causes haloumi to cook rather than melt. Fry it like a patty, serve it on a bun. Stuff it into portobellos. Top a salad with it. We were so sorry that we couldn’t  find it here. Big Fella was told that’s because one company controlled the distribution for this part of the country and they preferred to sell halloumi in industrial amounts rather than consumer-size packages.

Lately, we’ve been spotting it in a Middle Eastern market on Nolensville Road. Two very similar recipes on recipezaar.com pointed in the same general direction: a warm caper vinaigrette. The recipe is from Delia Smith, who is sort of the Julia Child of England. Or maybe more the Marian Cunningham. Solid, dependable, unflashy but innovative. I like that in a recipe as much as in a person.

Fried Halloumi with Caper Vinaigrette Over Salad

Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tabelspoon balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons capers
1 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 block halloumi (it’s usually around 8 to 10 ounces)
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper
Oil for frying (just a little)

Whisk or shake the dressing ingredients to blend. Pat the cheese dry and slice into 8 slices. Coat the slices with a little flour and fry in just little oil until go

A Relic of the Seventies

When I think of Spinach Salad with mushrooms and bacon, I think of the 1970s and patchwork granny skirts, and those really short tennis dresses women wore. I think of Harvey Wallbanger cake and fondue and Mark Spitz.

    Spinach Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing was at every potluck or dinner gathering my family attended. Sometimes it had hard-boiled eggs in it, and sometimes not, but that’s about all the variation I remember. It always had a warm dressing made with bacon grease, sugar and ketchup and vinegar. If it was freshly made, the vinegary fumes would get in your nose, which was not entirely unpleasant.

In the early 1980s, I began noticing that people were using Russian dressing, and thereby depriving the salad of the very important temperature contrast between cold crisp greens and warm oily dressing, not to mention the whole bacon-sugar-vinegar combination.

    I found myself with bacon, mushrooms, and spinach a few years back and was inspired to make it from an old Southern Living recipe using balsamic vinegar in place of white vinegar but retaining the ketchup. I gave it a topping of toasted sesame seeds. Divine. It was like tasting it all over again.

This time around I tried a few innovations. I wanted it to be a main dish, so I doubled the mushrooms and used really good center-cut bacon. I don’t love raw mushrooms, so they got a turn in the hot bacon grease with the lid on so they began cooking but retained some firmness. I caramelized shallots and red onions then added a little blueberry-pomegranate syrup, and a spoonful of sugar, then the vinegar. I topped it with two generous handfuls of deeply toasted almonds.
“Sometimes I think you should open a restaurant,” said Big Fella. “But then I think it’d be too risky.”

    I’ll say. The salad only works if the onions are caramelized just right, the dressing cooked down to a syrup. That’s the kind of work that’s hard to replicate in big batches, in a busy kitchen. And even if you could find people to do it right, every time, breaking a wonderful dish into a process might somehow take the magic out of it. And when the magic is gone, the food falls flat.

Because the real joy of cooking is that extraordinary moment when you put that first bite in your mouth, and it’s even better than you expected and you aren’t sure why, but whatever you did must have worked.

Seventies Spinach Salad with Bacon Dressing

10 ounces good quality bacon
2 8-ounce packages fresh button mushrooms
1 red onion, sliced into rings
2 shallots, sliced into rings
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup, fruit syrup or jelly
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 to 8 ounces fresh spinach (depending on how many you’re feeding)
1 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Cook the bacon in a skillet until it reaches your preferred doneness. Drain and chop. Cook the mushrooms in the bacon grease, covered, until they release some liquid. Remove them with a slotted spoon.
Cook the onions in the mushroom liquid and about 2 tablespoons of the vegetable the oil until they are tender. Add the fruit syrup and sugar and cook, covered, until the onions and shallots are fully caramelized, tender all the way though, and a deep color. Add the vinegar and cook, stirring, until well blended. Add the remaining vegetable oil and mix well.
Pile the spinach in the bowl. Top with the almonds, then the mushrooms. Pour (or spoon — it may be too thick to pour) the dressing and onions over the salad. Toss 

The Curse of Adam and The Lethal Brew

I caught a squirrel climbing down my plum tree last week, munching a plum. I charged toward him, he dropped it, and bolted up a maple tree. I like to think he crapped in fear as he scurried up his tree. But that doesn’t get my plum back.

    • My suburban backyard is either dreadfully or delightfully full of creatures, take your pick. I found a baby box turtle meandering through last week — a baby box turtle! — and my neighbor claims to have seen deer sauntering through the lawns. These sitings expand the long list of residents, including birds, squirrels, possums, snakes, mice, moles and rabbits. Something is eating the chard. Cabbage loopers skeletonized a plant.

bug eaten cabbage

And while a certain gray furry “natural predator” is taking a nap so profound it qualifies as a coma,snoozing kitty the chipmunks are leaping through the air, performing flying high-fives on their way to my cucumbers. It looks like a scene from frakin’ Willard back there in the mornings.


    So I hunted up the garden journal I kept back in my post-hippie, professional garden days to find the exact proportions for The Lethal Brew. It’s simple, but it used to work.

The Lethal Brew
Grate a couple of tablespoons of Ivory soap into 1 to 2 cups of water. Gotta be Ivory — the other bars on the market are detergent. Detergent harms plant foliage. Ivory is the last real soap, except for the handmade artisan types.

Throw in a couple of inches of a cheap cigar or a plug of chewing tobacco the size of a half-dollar

Add a hot pepper pod at least 2 inches long, or a spoonful of red pepper flakes

Let the brew soak for at l east 12 hours. Strain it and add enough water to give it a sprayable consistency. Spray it on plant leaves, tomatoes, apples every couple of days.

tub o goo

    It still works — on some things. It stopped the cabbage worms and tarnished plant bugs (which suck the green out of bean leaves until the leaves look bronze).  It isn’t vile enough to keep the squirrels from eating the apples. Or rather, taking one bite of an unripe apple and then dropping it. And then doing the same thing the next day — how stupid are squirrels? And it doesn’t keep the rabbits (or some creature) from eating the chard. If you have a solution — besides a fence — I’m game to try anything.


Square Foot Garden Experiment

square foot garden

Partly it was the 12 deliveries of kale involved in last year’s CSA, and partly it just seems like the thing everyone is doing. Must be  zeitgeist.  But mostly it’s because I’m writing a cookbook called the All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook. This year, if all goes as planned, I’ll be growing my own in my Square Foot Garden.

It was fate, I believe. In November or December we decided not to sign up for a share from a local organic farm. Just not enough of what we like (broccoli, green beans, fennel, carrots) and lots of vegetables that make the family grimace. I like okra, but they don’t. I like the occasional eggplant, and the family will eat it once a year, which left about 10 more to deal with. Etcetera with squash, kale, and more. Every Tuesday night was a cooking marathon to make room in the fridge for the next delivery. Every dinner time was a power struggle to get even a bite or two past the lips of Sweet Cheeks. I know, I’m a bad parent. Pass the margaritas. And hand me that lighter.

In February, the garden spot — there’s only one in my shady yard — was plowed up. In mid-March I was days away from starting a row of lettuces when I was approached about writing a cookbook to follow the zillion-selling All New Square Foot Gardening. Was I familiar with the book? You bet — I had a job at a Waldenbooks in the mid-1980s, and we sold a lot of SFG in its previous edition.

Since I’m writing a book about gardening, I need to walk the talk. I built garden boxes from patio bricks that were pulled up last year for our master bedroom addition. Most people build wooden boxes, but I’m going for decorative as well as functional. Plus, I can’t build stuff. If I’d been a pioneer on the prairie, I’d have frozen to death before I got a cabin built.

Because I can’t build stuff, the most daunting task was building the uprights. The author of All New Square Foot Gardening, Mel Bartholomew, is a genius (more about him in another post) and developed a method of growing vine crops vertically. It’s incredible — cantaloupes hanging 4 feet in the air. They develop a hugely thick stem to support themselves. Anyway, Mel’s frame design is simple enough for most people, but I’m an idiot if the task involves more than a drill and a screwdriver. I didn’t have to decide for several weeks, thank goodness, because the winter squash and cucumber plants sulked in the cool, overcast and rainy days.

Finally, though, the rain stopped and the sun returned, and the day of reckoning came. I had to build the supports for the upward-training of the cukes and squash. And hey! It went exactly like the directions said: just a screwdriver and maybe a hacksaw.

vertical growing supports

The first cucumber is one inch long. The first five arugula salads have been eaten. So far, so good. I’ll be writing about the garden this summer, probably every 10 days or so. Drop by again soon — I’ll have something for you.

Snack Wreck

I went to the strangest charity party last week. The venue was weird (a bank), the charity was weirdly targeted, the various associated partnerships (a cola, a magazine, a liquor store) were a weird combination. It was as if the organizers had put all the elements (cause, event, venue) into a big barrel and drawn them out, like a game of Clue. Professor Plum in the Conservatory with a knife. Dinner for free musical instruments for kids in a fabulous home. Coffee in a hotel lobby for kids in need. Food drive for community pantry in a school gymnasium. Wine in a bank to raise money for disadvantaged children’s camps.

    Even the guest list was unfathomable. I don’t attend a lot of charitable events, but I do see the same faces at many of them. So it’s probably a good thing that there was a new crowd there.

Except it didn’t look like a crowd that was breaking out the check books. It wasn’t a hail-fellow-well-met crowd. It wasn’t the frosted-hair-and-fake-nails set. It wasn’t the earnest, well-heeled matrons. Instead, there were modestly dressed seniors sporting windbreakers and big inexpensive handbags, rushing the buffet and complaining about the food. And a few youngish people in branded sports gear.

    There was just a token buffet. Snacks, really, plus lots of flowers. It was gone in a flash.

buffet table remainders

And then, just like that, the party was over. I just had to tell someone, so thanks for listening.

Rise Up, SAF Yeast!

loaf of brdI’m nothing if not curious and tight-fisted.

For a couple of years at the start of my cooking career, I made mediocre bread from Mollie Katzen’s book, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. It starts with a sponge, which is a mixture of yeast, water and flour that bubbles into a puffy foam. Then you mix that puffy foam with 1 cup of liquid and 3 cups of flour and the other ingredients, like flour, sugar, eggs or butter and it puffs up the whole mixture.

    Sponge is an old-world way to bake, and presumes you’re skimping on yeast. It just takes a little yeast, less than a spoonful, to make a sponge. The yeast cells multiply in the flour-water mixture, creating more yeast and a greater volume. You can save a little of the sponge from one baking session to another so you always have yeast on hand. Bread was raised that way for hundreds of years until someone figured out how to make active dry yeast.

Unfortunately, it makes dry bread. To me, anyway. Since I didn’t know there was a way to fix that problem, I just kept making dry bread. After all, that’s what butter and cheese are for — making dry bread edible. Katzen came through town on a tour to promote the 20th anniversary of the Moosewood Cookbook, I told  her about my dry results. She said I wasn’t the first person to tell her that.

    • Looking back, it’s possible that any number of other things were going wrong — sorry Mollie! — but when I switched cookbooks, the breads undeniably turned out better.  The

Joy of Cooking

    •  has good basic bread recipes, and James Beard’s bread recipes are just about my favorite. When I want to make something Southern or colonial, I use

Bill Neal’s

Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie

It’s the book I used for making the anadama bread.

The English muffins were made from Beatrice Ojakangas’s Great Whole Grain Breads, about which I’ve gushed many times. Nearly every recipe in it gives great results, which is really kind of a feat, since she’s working with dozens of cultures and dozens of different flours, bread shapes, rising and baking techniques.The book has been in and out of print twice, and is now back in print. If you’ve ever published a book, you knowhow easy it is to get lost in the crowd, and how good the book has to be to get back into print, twice.

    But I digress. Some time between the anadama bread and the English muffins, the kilo bag of SAF Instant yeast sort of lost its fizz. I never pay attention to expiration dates, especially on yeast. Because archaeologists, like, find yeast in the pharoahs’ tombs that can still be used to make beer. So I didn’t hesitate to buy the kilo of yeast in mid-2006. I really like SAFG yeast — it powers dough mightily upward, smells better than other yeasts and gives that nice smell to the bread.

Then the amount of baking in my house slowed greatly for work and dietary reasons.

    When I cracked open the yeast again for English muffins in the fall of 2008, Inoticed that most of it didn’t “bloom” in warm water. So I tried again, using warmer water and setting the bowl on a warm stove. A little more bloomed. But then the dough didn’t rise well — after 3 hours it still hadn’t doubled. I used it for English muffins, so that worked well.

stacked Eng muffns

But I’m still left with about a pound of lame yeast. WTF? What to do with lame yeast? Anyone else ever have this problem?

The wreck of Christmas parties past

From December 7 to December 27, we spent just 4 nights at home. The rest of the time, we were either going to a party or throwing a party or cooking something to take to a party or sleeping off a party or washing clothes to attend another party. On the 20th nearly-consecutive night of parties, we attended a “festive casual supper” of 42 people, all relatives of ours, stretching to second cousins once removed and ex-step-aunt-in-laws.

    One efficient party-giving gesture is cooking big pieces of meat. For one party, we semi-smoked a turkey (more on that below). For another, we made gumbo from the turkey. For another, we made our own homemade honey-baked ham. And finally, the beef roast, but that’s a story for another day.

Semi-smoked turkey was a huge success. We roasted a 12-pound turkey for about 3 hours, so it wasn’t yet done, but approaching it. We fired up the smoker and stoked it with mesquite, then put the turkey in a roasting pan and into the smoker for an hour. When it registered 150 degrees, we called it “done,” tented it in foil for a while, then  rushed it to the cutting board. It had  just the right amount of smoke flavor and was perfectly moist. And truly, I did not hing but oil and salt the skin, then put it in the oven, then transfer it to the smoker. People were arriving in minutes, so we didn’t shoot a photo.

    • You may be one of those people, like me, who love flavor pyrotechnics, so here’s one we conjured around the party table. A hunk of semi-smoked turkey, a swipe of wasabi mayo, a single

zinfandel-simmered cranberry

     and a chunk of pickled watermelon rind. Searing hot, sweet, firm, chewy, tender. Da-yum. Took a photo of it, but accidentally deleted it.

(Just an aside on the smoker itself: my brother bought it from a guy who sells them from the empty lot near the 12th Avenue branch library in Nashville on Saturdays in good weather. The guy is a welder from Mt. Juliet. He converts discarded water heaters into smokers just the right size for civilian use.)

    • It’s not every day that someone tosses their best easy recipe your way.  The

home-baked honey ham

     was one of these. My mother-in-law makes a refined-tasting ham for holiday breakfasts, and just rattled off the formula one afternoon. Buy a canned ham or a semi-boneless ham. It should say fully cooked, or ready to at, which you wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. Wipe off or rinse the ham, dry it a little so the honey will stick, then coat it with honey. Wrap it in two layers of foil and seal it well. Bake it in a roasting pan at about 300 degrees for 3 hours. Cool and slice. Two steps, great ham.

If I’d shot just three photos per party, that would have been 48 pictures. Besides the professionally shot photos of party number two, I only have two to offer. This is Spicy Nut Mix from recipezaar. Despite the name, it’s not especially spicy, and it’s a nice offering for the noneaters of sweets.

Festivus Cookie Discoveries

It was a good party season f0r homemade baked goods: this year I discovered some great cookies. This is our cookie tray from last night’s party.

    • Starting at the top and moving clockwise: lemon-butter wreaths from

our cookie gun

    ; Maida Heatter’s Chocolate Cracks; black walnut bars made with black walnuts from our yard; shortbread with a caramel-pecan top layer; lemon-glazed persimmon bars; jubilee wafers.

We learned a new way to “frost” the chocolate cracks, which by themselves aren’t so Christmasy, but they’re really chewy and fudgey, so you want to invite them to the party.  We add peppermint extract and frost them with Shirley Corriher’s technique: roll the dough balls in granulated sugar first, then in powdered sugar. The granulated sugar layer prevents the moisture in the cookie from wetting the powdered sugar, so the cookies stay frosty-looking.

    I only make black walnut bars every couple of years. Black walnuts, they’re a lot of work. You have to gather them in either a basket (that you never want to use again for anything else) or a paper bag. Let them sit in the basement until the hulls soften and turn dark brown (and the bottom of the bag disintegrates). Pour  them onto the driveway in the tracks of the car tires. Run over them to remove the hulls. Wear gloves to pick them up and wipe them off, or even rinse them off. Back in the basket to dry. Crack with a heavy rock. Pick meticulously. One hour of picking will give you about 1 cup of nuts. Hardly anyone sells black walnuts — they’re a pain and they don’t keep well — so if you want them, you do them yourself. Their dark, almost fermented flavor is ideal for adding to a toffee cookie bar.

Lemon-glazed persimmon bars: I’ve looked for years for something to do with the persimmons that are abundant most years in the yard. In the past, I sometimes made persimmon pudding, which is a pudding in the English sense of something baked and of a soft, spoonable texture. The bars are easier to eat, to transport and to serve. They are nicely spiced, and dates add some extra chew. The recipe is from Epicurious and I love it so much I wish I could move to a persimmon island and eat them full-time.  A photo of persimmon puree. 

    Jubilee wafers came from the 1973 Joy of Cooking. I wanted a refrigerator dough that I could make in advance, then shape and decorate later. I’ve made every roll cookie in the Joy, I thought, but somehow I overlooked Jubilee wafers.  Jubilee wafers call for a lot of honey, a lot of spice, and half a cup of bourbon. Jubilee, I’ll say. They were also supposed to have nuts and fruit, but I left those out. It’s a chewy, spicy cookie with a little touch of jubilee. A keeper.

Not on the tray were Jennifer’s little miniature gingerbreads, made from a great Williams Sonoma Thanksgiving cookbook recipe. Good molasses flavor, lighter texture than most gingerbreads, with a little orange flavor. And Ashley’s layered stacks of sugar cookie alternating with jam. They looked like accordions, sort of, and I admired all the work that went into them, and how good they were.