Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Living, Loving, Losing ... and Cooking

Comfort Food: a novel by Kate Jacobs
"I am actually a very nice person when someone takes the time to get to know me," huffed Aimee. "I just have a lot of responsibilities."

"The UN stuff," said Carmen.

"Among other things," said Aimee. "But that's how I know Spain produces 36 percent of the world's olive oil. I work in trade and development," she explained.

"Very good," said Carmen. "You may just be the smart one out of this bunch of idiotas."

"I speak Spanish too."

"¿Ahora si entiendas lo que digo?"

"Yeah, I hear what you mutter in the kitchen," said Aimee. "Like when you called my mother a--"

Carmen held up her hand to stop her from speaking.

"It's unexpected," admitted Aimee. "You swear like a sailor."

"Well, what do you expect," said Carmen. "I spent years in beauty pageant dressing rooms."
Aimee's mother is Gus [Augusta] Simpson who, after she was unexpectedly widowed years ago, turned her cooking into a career. First owning a restaurant and then with a long running cooking show. Gus is a problem solver who not only strives to have her life go perfectly but also engages in well-meaning meddling in her two daughters' lives. They are not appreciative as one might expect. Gus's world comes crashing down when her ratings take a disastrous dive. Deemed to "old school" and boring, she has Carmen thrust upon her as a co-host. Carmen is a former Miss Spain whose claim to cooking fame is a short YouTube cooking video. Not only that, but most of Gus's immediate family and friends, who are most emphatically noncooks, wind up on her new show which is done live. This is outside everyone's comfort zone and leads to all sorts of complications, most of which Gus cannot fix, naturally.

I am not a fan of chick-lit which is what this could be deemed, however, this book was captivating enough to make it very difficult to put down. Part of the charm is that it is told from many points of view. As the perspective changes, we also see that the myriad misunderstandings and misinterpretations that have been foisted upon us by the previous narrator's insecurities or flawed vision. No one in this book is a villain or truly malicious but there are enough actions prompted by these misconceptions of everyone's motivations that the plot is soon taking gentle twists and turns which intrigue us.

I defy anyone not to take a delicious enjoyment of the "team building" weekend to which the ranking network executive subjects everyone. It is hilarious while simultaneously breaking everyone out of their regular routines enough to move along their development as people. Add to that the liberal sprinkling of cooking throughout and one has truly enjoyable light summer reading will be perfect for vacation. In fact, I have already lent my copy to a friend for that very purpose. (I must add that a special relief to me was that the author kept the occasional sexual liaisons to a minimum, appropriate to the characters' motivations, and mercifully without detailed descriptions.)

I enjoyed this so much that I will be looking into Ms. Jacob's previous book, The Friday Night Knitting Club.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Now Serving Hot LInks ...

The Lost Ravioli of Hoboken
Tea and Cookies gives a great review. This already was on my reading list after hearing an interview with the author but reading Tea's subsequent venture into ravioli making is the icing on the cake ... now I must get that book!

It's Too Darned Hot
Barbara at Tigers & Strawberries has some very good observations on the recent trend to broadcast celebrity chefs swearing like sailors. Be sure to click through to the NY Times story that prompted her thoughts on the subject.

Cooking for Pope Benedict
I have a school friend in Italy who designs ceramic tiles and plates. I called and asked if he could do this in time. He said he could, so I flew to Minori, Italy, my birthplace. I told him I needed a 12-inch plate with the Vatican logo in the center. At the same time I wanted to create something that showed my dedication to my Catholic upbringing and my cultural background. So I decided each plate would be hand-painted with the logo in the center surrounded by a traditional blue ornate leafy floral border, characteristic of my region. Inscribed on the back of each plate are the following words: "On occasion of the 81st birthday of His Holiness Benedetto XVI, Apostolic Nunciature, Washington, D.C., April 16, 2008." There were 24 plates, all individually crafted. The pontiff's plate was larger, about 16 inches, and was decorated with a gold and blue leafy floral design.
Franco Nuschese hosted the Pope's birthday lunch for the Apostolic Nunciature. Think he was excited about it? That wasn't the only set of plates he had designed. Check it out. Via The Anchoress.

Mouth Wide Open by John Thorne ...

... begun over at Forgotten Classics where you'll also find loads of cooking links and a podcast highlight for Baba the Storyteller. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cooking the Books

You know this is not an everyday book club when the moderator announces ground rules for the gathering:

1.Wash your hands.

2.Don't throw knives.
Clearly it's a trend ... book clubs where you read and then get together to cook the recipes. There is the story linked to above from our newspaper and now I see this story about a similar thing from the blog at Parties That Cook.

I never really stopped to think about how many sorts of books feature food and sometimes recipes until reading these articles. Also, it cracked me up thinking of how many errors the book club cooks have found ...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sorry I Missed You; Back Soon!

Closed sign 4

On the road to visit my parents ... with limited internet access.
Emails and comments will be answered, just not very quickly.

"On Food and Cooking" - Is the Updated Version Better?

I am reposting this review and comparison from early 2005 because many of the people dropping by now weren't coming by then. Recently I pulled out both books for a similar comparison to that below and again was struck by their complementary nature.

On Food and Cooking
by Harold McGee

Anyone who is really serious about cooking already knows all about On Food and Cooking. This classic work was the first to look at how real science relates to cooking. It has influenced major chefs, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and plain old regular cooks like me. I remember how amazed I was when reading about food properties and realizing how I could use some of the principles when I cooked.

When I heard about the new 25th anniversary edition coming out I could not wait to get my hands on it. Of course, I haven't read the entire book yet but I must say that this is much more approachable and spends more time relating the science directly to the cooking. There is quite a bit more information about various subjects than in the previous edition. Just one example, McGee fleshes out the cookie section with a lot more information. The original contained one short paragraph explaining that cookies are much higher in sugar and fat than bread dough. The revised version has several pages about cookies that cover ingredients and textures, making and keeping cookies by variety, and a chart of ingredients and typical proportions of various cookies.

I read an interview with Harold McGee where he said that he had to drop some of the information about human physiology and additives (if I remember correctly). That was disappointing but I understood how a lot of that info might already be incorporated into other sections of the book. And then came that fateful dinner last week when I served red beans and rice. I mentioned that red beans and rice combined to make a complete protein and Rose told me that I was wrong. Her Honors Biology teacher had just finished teaching them that the body manufactures protein itself and, according to Rose's way of thinking, this made any need for combined protein unnecessary. Never mind that this was not a really logical argument. Hell hath no certainty like a 14-year-old in Honors Biology. The only thing that would convince her was written information. No problem. I pulled out the new On Food and Cooking ... but couldn't find anything on complete or incomplete proteins. It didn't matter if I looked under protein or legumes, there was nothing about combined proteins, and this was a fact that had been drilled into me since I don't know when, using examples like beans and tortillas.

So, with Tom double checking the new book, I pulled out the 1984 book. The third paragraph under Grains, Legumes and Nuts read:
Seeds are much more convenient than meat, milk, eggs, and other sources of protein that are quick to spoil. But they have an important drawback: unlike meat, milk, or eggs, any particular kind of seed is usually an incomplete protein source for animals, because it is deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids. Over the millennia, however, widely separated cultures have learned to combine different seeds in their diet so as to balance their protein intake. For example, the Asian diet of rice and soybeans and the Central American diet of corn and common beans have been traditional for many centuries. Today we now that the cereals are deficient mainly in lysine, the legumes in sulfur-containing amino acids; but when the two foods are blended together, these deficiencies are canceled out.
This was pretty good but now Rose was talking about how we have most of the amino acids we need; that we don't really need any extras or, if so, only a few. And, if our bodies already made protein then why did we need more? She needed more facts or we were going to have this argument all night long. So I turned to the section about Protein and in the third and 4th paragraphs found this:
We need protein in our food because it constitutes the basic machinery of all life. Take away the water in our bodies and most of what is left in our muscles, organs, blood, cells, skin, nails, hair, even our teeth and bones, is protein. The enzymes that build up and break down other molecules, disease-fighting antibodies, oxygen-carrying hemoglobin, certain hormones like insulin: all these chemicals whose incessant activity keeps us going, are proteins. they are continually being used up or worn away, and protein from our diet is used to replace them, or, in growing children, to build them up. Like fats and carbohydrates, proteins can be burned for energy, but this happens only when supplies of these preferred fuels run low. Excess protein in an otherwise adequate diet will be converted to fat, but as one nutritionist has put it, this is analogous to buying fine furniture and then using it as firewood.

Twenty amino acids go to make up all human proteins. Of these, the adult needs a dietary supplement of 8, the growing child 9 or 10. Our cells can synthesize the others, and from them the necessary proteins. Dietary protein is classified according to its provision of essential amino acids. Complete proteins include enough of them to allow complete normal bodily growth and function. All animal foods -- meats, eggs, milk products -- are complete protein sources, because all animals have the same basic biochemical machinery. Plants are organized in a very different way, however, and so plant proteins are generally incomplete. there are some exceptions to these rules, and human manipulation can make a difference as well. For example, wheat germ and soybean proteins are nearly complete, while gelatin, which is extracted from animal skin and bone, and zein, the major corn protein, are so incomplete that they cannot sustain life at all. Between these extremes, whole grains, beans, and nuts are barely adequate. Each typically lacks sufficient quantities of a couple of amino acids, and these deficiencies lower the total amount of usable protein. If a food contains more total protein than we need, but has only 50% of the necessary amount of one essential amino acid, then it can provide only 50% of our overall requirement ...
I have since looked all over the 2004 edition thinking that being under the gun to produce facts made me miss the pertinent info elsewhere but it is nowhere to be found. Comparing the sections on Legumes and Proteins between the two books made me realize that they actually are complementary but written with very different viewpoints. The first book is all about the science. Some conclusions are applied to food but it always comes back to scientific information as the heart of the material. The second book is first and foremost about applying science to cooking. This may sound like a slight difference and there probably is a better way to describe it but it makes a world of difference when reading the book. Therefore the new Protein section is all about what happens to foods high in protein when heat is applied, or acid is added, etc.

This does not make the new book either superior or inferior. However, it is important to understand that it is a different book. Whether you use it simply depends on what sort of information you need and how you plan to apply it. I am still thoroughly enjoying McGee's new version and am sure it will all come in handy with practical cooking situations. However, when it comes to Rose and Honors Biology ... only the old version will suffice. In my view, McGee has produced a two-volume set and I plan on using both often.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Product Review: Snapple Anti-Oxidant Water

Me, I'm old-school. If I want vitamins, I take a tablet (if not actually upping the quantity of fruits and vegetables in my diet, which is my really preferred old-school way).

If I want water, I turn on the faucet.

So I'm not really Snapple's market. Although I do laugh every time I see it drunk on 30 Rock, especially after the episode about gratuitous marketing plugs on television (Snapple is a very good sport, I must say).

I also like their ad ... check it out above.

When Snapple sent me a sampler of their variously flavored anti-oxidant water, I thought it only fair to test with my contacts in their true market ... high school and college age kids.

Before the college kids got out of the house with their samples, we discovered a crucial factor ... these bottles don't bounce when dropped ... they shatter. So I can tell you that our boxer liked one flavor (can't remember which it was) very well as we enlisted her aid in cleaning the floor.

The high schoolers' reactions:
  • one person thought it tasted like medicine (that was for the Dragonfruit flavor)
  • two thought it wasn't flavorful enough (rather watery was their reaction ... fair enough since it is water)
  • two people liked it fine (these were non "vitamin water" drinkers)
  • the last person liked it a lot (this was the only regular "vitamin water" drinker in the crowd).
The college kids' reactions:
  • Hannah- It tastes like watered-down juice. I would like it if it had more substance. It isn't that bad, though, and I could at least drink it if I really wanted to, which is way better than Gatorade.
  • Jenny- I enjoyed this beverage because it has an interesting taste that is not overpowering. It's not too sweet, like some other beverages. Delicious!
  • Cindy- I enjoy this loads more than other flavored waters (ex. Lemon Dasani) The grape-pomegranate combination is unexpected, but tasty (especially the pomegranate). I like it a lot and would rather have it in a nearby vending machine over some sodas.
So overall, the consensus seems to be: Snapple's water is good!

My only comment would be that if you want to get vitamins in your water, this is probably a fine way to do it. One would be wise to remember that is it not noncaloric though.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Gone Til Tuesday ...

I am going out of town and will have spotty computer access at best. I will return emails and check comments occasionally as I am able.

Baked Penne alla Carbonara

A quick recipe to peruse or try out ... I made this for a group of Rose's friends when she had about 10 of them over before a scavenger hunt. It was a big hit and I still get comments occasionally from the kids when they drop by. Anyone who knows teenagers knows how rare that is!

My only comment is that something separated or rendered a lot of oil in the bottom of the casserole after baking. Perhaps making the sauce with milk instead of cream (which seemed overdoing it at the time but I followed the recipe. That is the only troubleshooting though ...

From Perfect Party Food by Diane Phillips.

Serves 10 as a side dish

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup flour
1-1/2 cups heavy cream (I will use whole milk in the future)
1/2 cup chicken broth
1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 to 1-1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Salt (optional) to taste
1 pound penne pasta, cooked according to package directions until al dente and drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 strips bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, coked until crisp, and drained on paper towels (app. 3/4 pound)
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Step 1
In a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter, add the shallots and thyme, and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the flour is cooked, but hasn't turned color, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the cream and broth and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Stir in 1 cup of the Parmesan and season with pepper and with salt if desired.

Step 2
Coat a 13x9-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray and sprinkle 1/4 cup of the remaining Parmesan over the bottom. In a large bowl, toss the hot penne with the olive oil.

Step 3
Stir the sauce into the penne, then stir in the bacon and mozzarella. Transfer to the prepared pan and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup of Parmesan.

Diva Do-Ahead: At this point, you can cover and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature before continuing.

Step 4
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the penne until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let rest for about 5 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Well Said!

When did it become sinful to fulfill a natural biological necessity for one’s survival? A person should not feel guilty about eating food -- unless they eat too much of it and be guilty of gluttony. People should feel guilty about sin. It is as if the bar that was set to judge one’s degree of guilt in the heart is no longer determined by the amount, nature, or degree of sin or sins one commits, but instead, by today’s standards, a guilty heart is the result of a high calorie diet. Since when did it become the case that the lower one’s caloric intake means the less guilty and sinful one is, while the higher one’s caloric intake means the contrary? With this line of reasoning one would assume that the starving in Africa are the pure and righteous of the world, while every person who dines on a Thickburger from Hardee’s is surely one bite from eternal damnation.
Paul at Alive and Young puts his finger on a lot of the problem in making food a social topic the way that some do. Don't get me wrong ... I'm all for conservation of the environment, ethical treatment of animals ... heck, I even buy organic more and more all the time. It's just that I see it taken too far a lot of the time in commentary.

Catalan Traditions: Calçotada.

Just when I thought that I knew soooooo much about cooking and ingredients from everywhere ... calçotada pops up.

Learn all about it at Barcelona Photoblog including the details about traditions in eating it. Mmmmm, now that sounds good!