Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rice Culture: Up Close and Personal

Long ago, when I was living in Sri Lanka, I had a roommate who was rom the Netherlands. He was the most courageous traveler I had ever met, having no fear of wild animals or snakes or the jungle, all the things I will never get accustomed to. From where we lived outside the town of Kandy, he would deliberately take a route into town that took him through the jungle, while I would always walk safely on the road. He'd routinely encounter snakes, and if it was one he'd never seen before, I would hear about it at length that night over dinner. Lucky for me, he was as good a storyteller as he was courageous.


And Kaziranga National Park was everything my roommate had promised it would be. We went into the park each day by elephant, and we got right up close to one-horned rhinos, wild buffalo, wild deer. In the late afternoon we'd hand out with the mahouts (the elephant keepers) as they'd wash down the elephants. Sometimes in the morning while we were riding on the elephant, the mahout would take the kids up with him on the elephant's neck and teach them how to steer using their toes to touch behind the elephant's ears. One time I dropped a lens cap from my camera and it fell into the tall wild grass below, but the mahout simply spoke to the elephant and the elephant stopped, dropped her enormous trunk down into the tall grass, and then swooped her trunk back up and over at me, handing me my tiny lens cap. Once our elephant stopped in her tracks, lowered her head, and moaned several times, sniffing with the delicate tip of her trunk at a pile of scattered broken bones on the ground. "Elephant graveyard," said the mahout. We were there a long silent moment, then she set off again through the grass. ...
Rereading this book, I marvel again at Jeffrey Alford's and Naomi Duguid's skill in communicating a sense of place. As with all of Alford's and Duguid's books, they combine outstanding photography, personal stories, simple recipes, and extensive background materials. The result is that the reader almost feels as if they have visited a country or also followed on the track of a single food around the world (such as rice or flatbreads). Best of all, the recipes are easy to understand and every single one I have ever tried has worked, deliciously. (Give this Beef Sauced Hot Lettuce Salad a try and you'll see what I mean.)

Every so often I begin a rereading trek on these authors' trail. It looks as if I'm off again ... finishing up the rice trail for now. If you haven't tried any of these authors' books do go try your library. You will get both a virtual vacation and tasty meals.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I always wondered what liquid smoke was ...

... and now, whether we want to know or not, here is the answer.
What is liquid smoke?
Liquid smoke is very simply smoke in water. Smoke usually comes as a vapor, but there are ways to condense it and turn it into liquid and that liquid can then be carried in water.

How is it different from regular smoke?
Regular smoke is a vapor, and it is difficult to store.

SlashFood has all the scoop on liquid smoke.

A Taste of Heaven for Body and Soul

A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns

Mount Saint Mary's Abbey
Near Wrentham, Massachusetts

Tourists in New England expect to see lobsters. The crustaceans appear on menus, license plates, and store shingles. There are lobster candies, cookie cutters, and key chains. Of course, real New Englanders know to go down to the dock for live lobsters, fresh from the trap. What neither tourists nor natives expect to see here is a creature who looks like he was headed for the Inca ruins of Peru but ended up at an abbey closer to Boston: a llama named Oblio. Llamas are sometimes called "camels of the clouds" for their ability to haul mountain loads, yet Oblio looks like he's dressed for a dinner party in a snowy white tux with black tails. Visitors who buy the abbey's wool blankets can thank Oblio for protecting the sheep from coyotes.

In addition to a llama, this monastery is home to some of New England's best candy. Mount Saint Mary's Abbey was founded in 1949 by nuns from Saint Mary's Abbey in Glencairn, Ireland; it was the first American monastery founded by Cistercian nuns. The abbey church is austere in a way that reflects Trappist traditions; its stark white walls and low ceiling make the space feel humble and intimate. However, one's eye is drawn to a detail that is as unexpected here as a llama in Massachusetts: the Salve Regina window, which was made for the nuns by a monk from Holy Spirit Monastery in Georgia. It is so colorful that it looks as though the glass had been fused with celestial fire. The nuns agree that it's unusual, but like the way its light capture the tone of each prayer throughout the day.

Candy lovers in New England fondly remember Crand's Candy Castle in Enfield, Connecticut. Its owner was a Greek immigrant named John Crand who taught the nuns how to make candy He insisted on using the best ingredients regardless of cost and that's the way the nuns make candy to this day. ...
Although it is difficult to communicate it without including an entire chapter here, this book covers much more than indicated by the subhead "A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Nuns and Monks."

On one level, this is a guidebook to finding delicious viands made the really old fashioned way in the U.S. and Europe, by techniques honed over hundreds of years in some cases. Not only do we find foods to purchase but recipes have been included which either use featured items as ingredients or which duplicate fare one would likely eat while visiting.

On the other hand, it is a tour guide of interesting, historical monasteries, abbeys, and convents to visit. Scherb gives a good sense of place for each site, some of the area or order's history, and tips from food authorities. For example, in the Holy Cheese section, tips are featured from master cheesemonger Steve Jenkins for selecting and buying the best monastery cheese. Additionally, the author is thoughtful enough to include suggested itineraries for areas that have a lot of sites one might want to visit.

The greatest treasure in the book, however, from my point of view is that Scherb doesn't look at these places simply as purveyors of excellent food and drink. She is careful to consider each place as a whole, for not only what they can offer our bodies but also our souls. Necessarily this includes Catholicism as that is the basis for the religious life in these places. However, Scherb does an excellent job of providing each person with food for thought no matter their religious leanings. Consider this from the introduction.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the example of monks and nuns is that a life lived simply can be both rewarding and sustainable. Monks and nuns don't live to work, they live to pray. They work only as much as they need to, but they give it their best effort every day. They work whether they are young or old according to their abilities (an octogenarian nun was recently spotted making chocolates at Bonneval, while monks of a similar age staff the reception desk at Gethsemani).
More specifically, this example from the entry about Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Oregon shows that periods of quiet and contemplation away from the busy world benefit us all.
Dawn is the perfect time of day to read and contemplate. One can sit in a rocking chair in one's room and gaze out at the pond and forest while reading from J.R.R. Tolkein, Thomas Merton, or Thich Nhat Hahn (all are available in the bookstore). Or one can read Saint Therese of Lisieux (whose photo hangs in the monastery's book bindery) and contemplate just how different the world might be if everyone who visits a monastery were to practice a thousand little acts of kindness when they go home. ...
There are many benefits for both body and soul through A Taste of Heaven.

(This book is not yet published and will be released on August 6.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Food, History, and The Great Depression

... Two hundred and fifty thousand New Yorkers go through these silent processes daily in favorite or convenient Automats. Some are regular customers, others appear only on certain days, keeping a tryst with a favorite dish. No New York wife knows her husband until she has studied him in an Automat. And all suburban mothers have learned that on a day in town lunch at the Automat is the kids' delight.

A stranger entering these precincts is led by the crown toward a trim marble counter, in which are several plate-like depressions. A nickel is the unit of purchase, so coins or bills are here exchanged for scintillating shower of nickels, which are miraculously never too many, never too few. With a fistful of nickels, and wearing hat, coat, carrying brief-case or handbag, the crowd moves on toward the walls of food, assembling as they go trays, silver, and napkins. ...
The Works Projects Administration (WPA) came up with an amazing quantity and variety of projects designed to help employ workers during The Great Depression. Many of the roads, buildings, and public lakes (such as White Rock Lake, here in Dallas) we enjoy today were begun under those auspices.

I have long been curious about the WPA's Federal Writers' Project from the 1930's which sent well known (and lesser known) writers to explore and document regional food. I remember reading that it was abandoned in the early 1940's because of World War II and then stored away in archives available only to a privileged few.

Mark Kurlansky has seen the archives and the result is The Food of a Younger Land which takes a choice sampling of each region and reproduces it for us. The pieces presented here are not as they would have been seen at the end of the project but rather the unedited copy as it was submitted from all over the country. Part of the treasure here is Kurlansky's introduction which explains the projected scope of the project before it was abandoned. That makes it much easier to understand the unevenness of the writing, length, and range of the pieces from one region to the next.

I tended to appreciate most the longer, more thorough articles but also found that the very brief pieces revealed much about just how much the average cook was assumed to know. We can see this from a quick glance at "Georgia Possums and Taters" which begins, "After catching the possum 'before you go to bed that night, scald the possum with lye and scrape off the hair.'

Oh, thanks but no, I had that yesterday ...

Anyone interested in regional U.S. history, whether of food or writing, will be rewarded by the content found in The Food of a Younger Land.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Score One for Low Tech

Last week's Hive Five demonstrates that no matter how packed with technology our homes and lives become, some things are best done the traditional way.

Edging out all of its digital competitors by a long shot, paper takes home the crown for best recipe management tool. Lifehacker readers used paper in a variety of forms: index cards, notebooks, and three ring binders all served as repositories for your favorite recipes.
Lifehacker tells us what I already knew. My technique is to keep the files in an InDesign file (hey, I'm in graphics; its easy for me that way) and print out the pages for my three-ring binder. Which I also gave one each of to the girls when they went to college and apartments with kitchens.

Thanks to Tom for the heads up on this!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Little Summer Cooking ...

No, not from me. I have been cooking and have both recipes and book reviews to post soon.

However, in the meantime, the report from the homefront is of others cooking for us. Which is pretty fantastic, I must say.

Pretty in Pink ... Ice Cream
Rose suddenly became interested in ice cream recipes and that is nothing but delicious for us. She whipped up a quick little number featuring raspberries, cream, a pinch of salt ... and maybe a bit of milk? I'll have to get that recipe up for everyone. It was simple and the essence of summer on the tongue. Not to mention that glorious, natural, almost-glow-in-the-dark pink!

Is There a Chef in the House? Why, Yes There Is.
Hannah's boyfriend was in the mood to cook this weekend and on Saturday made us smothered steaks, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and fruit with yogurt-lime dip for dessert. Mmmm, that boy is a good cook, I have to say. Not sure which brand of can the biscuits were from but the rest of it was all fresh and made from scratch. The smothered steaks weren't what I usually see recipes for. This was a steak, seasoned and pan-seared, "smothered" with stir fried vegetables (red and green bell pepper, red onion, mushrooms) and grated mozzarella. Delicious. The red potatoes were mashed with sour cream and the skins left on. Again, not what I usually would think of, but delicious.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Simple Chorizo

This recipe is for anyone who wants real Mexican flavor but doesn't have access to a deli or butcher who makes chorizo. Funnily enough, we get our "real" Mexican chorizo from a German deli. Hey, sausage making is sausage making. Am I right or am I right?

I think I picked this up from one of Matt Martinez's cookbooks. Both Matt Makes a Run for the Border and Matt Martinez's Culinary Frontier are great since Matt has a real knack for simplifying techniques but keeping authentic flavor. However, both are also at home and I'm doing this from work.
Simple Chorizo

1 pound ground pork
1 teaspoon salt
2 cloves minced garlic
2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon white vinegar

In a bowl, mix all together and refrigerate overnight. Or, freeze it.
Hey, I told you it was simple!