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Blast from the Past

Blast from the Past

bassine de confiture ancienne

[I’m up against a bunch of deadlines, and just don’t have any blogging mojo right now, so here’s an oldie but goodie from the archives. Back soon.]

Behold, my gorgeous Veritable Ancienne Bassine A Confiture en Cuivre, 10L. I got it on eBay France (which is a very dangerous site), although if you click the link above, they’re also available on Amazon. I first saw the Beautiful French Jam Pot in this piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about small jam-makers in the Bay Area. There was a charming photo of Rachel Saunders of the Blue Chair Fruit Company making jam, and behind her on the stove you can see one of these pots. I emailed her, asking about the pot, and wondering whether the fact that it’s unlined copper is a problem. She pinged me right back and said this: “Actually, these are THE classic pots for jam making. Once the fruit has been combined with sugar, it will not react with the copper — in fact, quite the opposite; it does not affect the flavor at all, unlike aluminum and various other metals, and it makes the cooking SO much easier. I can’t recommend it enough; the only thing to remember is, don’t put fruit by itself into a copper kettle, or it will react!”

So off I went to eBay France, which is, as I said, a very dangereuse place for someone like me, and I found this great pan, with a big long copper and brass spoon to match, and it was expensive, but not outrageously so — I clicked PayPal, and six weeks later, look what arrived at my door (along with a very sweet little ceramic candleholder that the seller threw in as a petit cadeau). I was beside myself with joy, and the first thing I did was go down to the cellar and clean out all the frozen plums that have been languishing down there since last fall. We’re so far behind the season this year that there isn’t any new fruit, but as you can see here, I had plenty to fill my gorgeous bassinefull of fruit I pitted them, and weighed them as they went in, and it was about 20 pounds of fruit. Of course, I forgot that I’d need room for 15 pounds of sugar (I generally go on a ratio of one part fruit to 3/4 part sugar for jam), but with some melting and stirring, it all fit. Then I used my mini-chop to whiz up the zest from four lemons, and a big chunk of fresh ginger, which I stirred in as well.

I love love love this pot. Rachel was right — the temperature control is fabulous — there’s enough room with that wide top that it didn’t boil over, and there wasn’t any sticking or scorching. Through no fault of the pots, I did overcook it some — there was so much liquid that came off the plums that I kept thinking I needed to boil it down some more. My mistake — the jam is very thick, almost like a fruit leather, but it tastes great.  The ginger and lemon zest add just the right zing — I’ve been eating it the past few mornings on leftover frozen pecan biscuits (that I made for my Easter party — I got a little carried away and had a couple of dozen frozen leftovers — but they’re great — you can just pop them frozen into the toaster oven and there you go). Anyhow, I’ve been taking a pecan biscuit, splitting it open, slathering it with yogurt cheese and then drizzling some of this jam over the top (a minute in the microwave makes it drizzle-able). Yum.

plum ginger jam jars Here are the fruits of my labors. Ten pint jars and a dozen half-pints. Hostess and holiday gifts … and just yumminess on the shelf. Yay. Summer is here. There’s jam to be made and a gorgeous pot to make it in ….

The First Morels!

The First Morels!

There they are — the first morels of the season. The Sweetheart and I found them up behind his cabin yesterday — eleven of them, nearly 12 ounces total (yes, I’m a nerd, I weighed them). It never gets old, the thrill of finding a mushroom in the grass.

I also found a couple of nice clumps of early oyster mushrooms. Little bitty ones, which sauteed up beautifully. So last night we had mushroom pizzas — one with morels and red onion and sausage and one with greens from the hoop house and sausage and both kinds of mushrooms (someone doesn’t like the oyster mushrooms, he only likes the morels).

I’ve written about mushroom hunting so often that I’m sure you’re all bored with hearing me blather on about how it’s my favorite outdoor activity. But it is. You get to hike very slowly, you’re outdoors, in some cases, like yesterday morning, you’re with someone you really like, and then you get to come home and cook delicious mushrooms in lots of butter and garlic. Here’s a shot of the oyster mushrooms cooking down:

Go Roast a Chicken

Go Roast a Chicken

photo credit:

Continuing the discussion about cooking, and having time to cook, Michael Ruhlman threw down the gauntlet at the IACP event in Portland, Oregon last week when he called “bullshit” on the idea that we all lead such busy lives that we don’t have time to cook. Ruhlman’s point is that we all have the same number of hours in the day, and we choose how to use them — many of us may choose not to cook, but by claiming we’re “too busy” we’re just buying into propaganda the food industry has been selling us, nonstop, for the past 30 years.

Here’s a Wendell Berry quote on the same subject from “The Pleasures of Food”:

“The food industrialists have by now persuaded milions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. THey will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so. We may rest assured that they would be glad to find such a way. The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.”

This essay was published in 1989, and as the popularity of “nutrition drinks” like Ensure and whatever the horrible one is that they try to get people to feed to their kids (I saw a TV ad the other day urging mothers to give their kids this drink when they won’t eat vegetables) all I could think of was Berry. I’d also argue that the fast-food drive-through window is in many ways the equivalent of Berry’s consumer strapped to the table. Passive consumption, consumed while passively restrained in an automobile.

I sometimes worry about preaching about cooking since I work at home and I don’t have kids — the two excuses people cite most often about why they can’t cook. Working at home is a choice I made, and one I’ve paid for in reduced income on a couple of occasions. What I’ve gotten in return is a level of autonomy that is worth more than money to me. It’s a choice I made. Every time I saw an opportunity to work at home I took it, starting in my twenties. We make choices. And I know it’s a shitty economy right now, and anyone with a job is being driven to work as many hours as the corporate machine can get out of them, but I think that one of the larger issues these discussions about food and cooking and home life are bringing up are questions about whether those choices make sense. In some ways I think what the food-and-cooking advocates who question the industrial food paradigm are also questioning is the industrial work paradigm. There aren’t any easy answers, but it’s my hope that the recent economic crash might have distracted everyone for a moment from the incessant acquisition of useless crap, that maybe it’s given us all a chance to come up for air, to question whether commuting in a car for long distances to a job that eats up all our time just so we can make enough money to pay for the car and the gas and the house in the suburbs that we’re never in because we’re so “busy” working so hard, well, maybe it’s giving us a chance to ask whether this system makes any sense at all.

Which brings us back to cooking, and time. I’m old-fashioned. I believe in meals not snacks, and I believe in cooking for yourself, not letting some anonymous, safety-challenged industrial force do it for you. I’m also a sort of artsy hippie weirdo, who reacted to my first office with florescent lights twenty-five years ago by trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there. So take it as you will. But I’m with Ruhlman on this one. “No time to cook” is bullshit. Everyone seems to have time to commute, or shop, or as he puts it “dick around on the internet.” How can we not have time to cook? To feed ourselves and our families? It’s not rocket science people, it’s just dinner.

Over the Easter holiday, my adopted family was back in town, and because we all miss them, their house is full of people when they’re home. They’ve got five kids of their own, and most evenings there were at least eight or nine kids in the house, and anywhere from three to five grown-ups. And we cooked dinner. One night Elwood threw a couple of chickens in the oven, and a pan of potatoes. We made a big salad. When the chickens came out he put them on a big board, and chopped them up almost Chinese-style. The kids all ate chicken, and hot roasted potatoes, and salad. The next night, we threw a ham in the oven in the afternoon, and twenty minutes before serving, threw a sheet pan of asparagus in along with a loaf of bread. Again, plenty for everyone, and no big deal. Meat, veg, and a starch. A big long table full of chattering kids passing food around, helping the littler kids out, while we stood around the kitchen with glasses of wine, catching up and filling our own plates. It wasn’t hard. There were no tricky recipes or big-deal meal planning involved. We all pitched in with the kids and the dishes and we did what makes us family, we ate together.

Or perhaps, if you need some extra incentive to start cooking, you might consider Ruhlman’s suggestion for using the hour it takes to cook a roasted chicken and some vegetables — repairing to the bedroom and reconnecting with your beloved. Because at root, this is what it’s all about, the cooking thing. Being there together. Feeding our loved ones, taking care of them and ourselves. What’s any of the rest of it worth if we’re not doing that?

The Snack Issue …

The Snack Issue …

So I was browsing around this morning and came across A Year of Inconvenience, a blog written by a woman who manages a food co-op and yet, who after watching Julie & Julia, and reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, decided to see if she could spend a year avoiding the central aisles of her own store, the place where the “convenience” foods reside.

Like a lot of these “project blogs” I would probably quibble with some of her definitions of “convenience foods.” As far as I’m concerned, canned tomatoes, canned beans, pasta, and reasonably plain crackers (I’m a big fan of the Stoned Wheat Thin) are staples. And I’m not really her target audience — I rarely shop the middle aisles, and when I do I’m in there for staples like flour or rice or pasta or beans, or Asian condiments. I don’t buy mixes, or “simmer sauces” — I don’t even like spaghetti sauce in a jar because it tastes too gloppy to me. I just don’t think about cooking that way, in part because I like my own food better than most prepared stuff, and I’m cheap — the pre-packaged stuff seems so expensive most of the time for what you get. But this is all ground we’ve been over time and time again.

What struck me reading A Year of Inconvenience is how ubiquitous “snacks” have become in our society. One of her concerns is replacing the snack foods — and to her credit, she goes ahead and makes hard pretzels!

I was raised by parents who were deeply opposed to snacks. We got three squares a day, and in Junior High and High School a very modest after-school nosh, but the concept of something like a “snack drawer” or “snack closet” in our house was unthinkable. Even after-school snacks were something like a toasted bagel with cheese, or homemade cookies (an ongoing source of war between Patrick and the not-yet-beloved Stepmother in junior high — she believed in rationing, he’d sneak them from the bottom of the tin). We never had chips, or store cookies, or packages of stuff in the house, just as we weren’t allowed to drink pop as kids. My parents were so pro-milk/anti-pop that even at the horse shows my mother ran when we were little, the catering guy, the legendary Mr. Pasquesi, kept those little cartons of milk in his ice chest for my brother and I, and wouldn’t sell us pop.

So the explosion of snack foods is something I’ve never really paid any attention to, and since I don’t have kids, I’ve been spared the tyranny of snack duty for school teams and activities. I still don’t fundamentally understand snacking. We eat dinner really late around here, so sometimes I’ll have some olives, or cheese and crackers around five (it’s a long time until our 9pm-ish dinner time), but the appeal/lure/siren song of snack products is something that’s thankfully lost on me.

The struggle with weight is one I’m not unfamiliar with, but it seems that this idea that we need to have food at our fingertips at every moment of the day (like the idea, pushed by the bottled water people that if we’re not clutching a beverage at all times, we’ll perish of thirst), is one of the reasons our population is growing larger and larger and larger. And perhaps, as we start weaning ourselves from packaged food in general — the frozen dinners, the “mixes” the sauces in jars, the horrible pre-cooked meals in the meat case (really? you want a pot roast cooked in a factory somewhere?), the snack issue will begin to recede as well. Once you start seeing food in boxes and bags as odd, and full of weird ingredients and too much salt, then “snacks” start to look weird too. I don’t know, if you need a “snack” make some popcorn — on the stove, in a pan, with a little oil. It’s really good.

New Bookslut Column

New Bookslut Column

My new cookbook column is up at Bookslut. And weirdly enough, it’s on a similar topic as the Bourdain Techniques show I also wrote about this morning. Here’s a little excerpt:

There are a lot of cookbooks that wash up at my door these days, and while they’re all interesting, most of them are just full of recipes. Often, they’re interesting recipes, and many times they are recipes I’d like to eat if someone served them to me, but I’m probably not going to go out and source them just to cook one recipe. What I want are more cookbooks that teach me how to get away from recipes, and just to cook.

What is “Real” Cooking?

What is “Real” Cooking?

It’s that time of the month when I write my Bookslut review (will post link when it’s up) and the topic of why we cook, and what constitutes “real” cooking, and what we go to cookbooks and food websites and food blogs looking for has once again bubbled up to the top of my head.

I love my cookbook review gig, in no small part due to the stream of cookbooks that is flowing toward my house these days. I love cookbooks. As a teenager I used to read them like novels, and my very first professional job out of college was working as an editorial assistant on the Best of Gourmet series, and the encyclopedic Gourmet’s Best Desserts. And yet, so many of the cookbooks that come across my threshhold seem merely to be collections of recipes. There are a lot of interesting recipes, and often I find a combination of ingredients I wouldn’t have thought of (beets and grapefruit this winter, much to the horror of the Sweetheart). But too often, I’m left feeling that that’s all there is, a collection of recipes; that despite the gorgeous photos and all the rest, these cookbooks are more about individual dishes than they are about cooking.

As I was mulling over this issue, I came across this terrific post over at A Life of Spice, about how some readers of cookbooks, and cooking blogs, see a complicated recipe as a sign of authenticity. A Life of Spice is written by Monica Bhide, author of Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen. In this post, she tells the story of a reader, who accosted her at an event, claiming her book was “too simplistic”. Bhide was shocked, she’d tried to write a cookbook for busy modern cooks. What did this woman mean?

I probed her a little, and her response surprised me even more. She loved the dish, and so did everyone who ate it. But it did not fulfill her cooking aspirations. “Indian cooking is supposed to be hard,” she said. “And this book made it seem easy. That isn’t real Indian cooking, right?”

“Real” cooking. It begs the question, what kinds of cooking do we consider “real”? Is cooking an everyday skill that we use to feed our friends and family, or is it some arcane hobby that we pull out to impress dinner guests or to prove to ourselves that we can master something difficult?

I guess I’d argue that it’s both, although my inclination is always to avoid the “hard” cooking — I have less than no interest in learning how to use any of the techniques of molecular gastronomy; I don’t want to cook food that gets stacked in a tower; I avoid recipes with long lists of ingredients; and in general, I gravitate toward home cooking rather than restaurant cooking.

But on a social level, I’m less concerned about cooking enthusiasts who want to play around with “hard” recipes than I am by the steady erosion of basic cooking skills in the general population. I’ve written before about how I’d love to see mandatory (and interesting) home economics courses taught in schools, courses that include not just basic cooking and sewing, but budgets and checkbooks and credit as well. Our local food bank recently ran a promotion where they gave people slow cookers, so they could begin to learn how to feed themselves and their families real food, despite their busy schedules.

And yet, even in this terrific profile the Sacramento Bee wrote about Elise Bauer, of Simply Recipes, she mentions that she started the blog because:

“I didn’t know how to make a roast,” she recalls. “I knew how to make quesadillas.”
Her education began by watching her parents cook and using their recipes. Bauer’s blog – originally at – incorporated that learning and used short, homey stories to introduce carefully described, workable recipes.”

Even after building one of the most successful recipe sites on the web, Bauer tells the Bee that: “I don’t claim to be a cook,” she said. “My mom knows how to cook a meal. I know how to cook one thing at a time.”

Which begs the question, what are we trying to learn here? How to cook recipes, or how to cook for our families? What’s the point of all these blogs and TV shows and magazines and cookbooks if people still don’t have the basic skills necessary to look around the house, count heads, and pull basic ingredients out of the fridge and the pantry to make a meal for them? A meal, nothing fancy, just dinner.

Makin’ Bacon

Makin’ Bacon

Although I’ve made pancetta a couple of times (once even landing myself in the local paper for my efforts), I’ve never made plain old bacon before. Because of my Bookslut gig, there seem to be an increasing number of cookbooks about canning, pickling, and preserving washing up on my doorstep. For bacon, I turned to Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It: And Other Cooking Projects (sorry Ruhlman, wanted to branch out).

I had one slab of pork belly left in the freezer, and we’re running out of bacon around here, so I thought I’d make a go of it. This was a terrific recipe. Salt, sugar, pink salt (I used Morton’s Tender Quick which contains all of the above), then I added aleppo pepper and black pepper. Into a ziploc bag it went, and into the fridge, where I flipped it over once day for about a week. Then comes the interesting part. With pancetta, this is where you rinse it, roll it, and hang it for another couple of weeks. Karen Solomon’s recipe has you cooking and/or smoking the bacon at this point. Smoking is a frontier I haven’t yet explored, so I went with fake smoking. I mixed three tablespoons each of liquid smoke and maple syrup, and brushed that all over the bacon. Then it roasted at 200 degrees for a couple of hours. The house smelled wonderful, and I now have a slab of delicious, meaty, local bacon that came from one of Isabelle’s pigs up on the Cokedale road … yum. If you have a reliable source of good pork belly, this is easy and delicious, and totally worth the very minor effort.

Potato-Chipolte Love …

Potato-Chipolte Love …

I had to go to Bozeman yesterday to do some errands, and I had lunch at my favorite little restaurant, La Tinga. There aren’t many things I miss from California, but taquerias and Asian food are among them. I had about ten minutes before my haircut, so I ducked in for a taco or two, including one that had chicken and potatoes and a mildly-hot red chile sauce. It blew my mind. I hadn’t really expected it to, but something about the plain mealy potatoes and the chiles, with a little chicken in the mix, it was delicious. On the way home, I was still obsessed with that flavor, so I broke out the Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless cookbooks, and went to work. I wound up pretty much following a recipe from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant flavors of a World-Class Cuisine for Smoky Shredded Chicken and Potatoes with Spicy Roasted Tomatoes. Well, as much as I’m capable of following a recipe anyhow.

Here’s what I did: chopped and sauteed an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, then added a can of tomatoes, about four chipolte chiles with a little bit of their sauce, a generous tablespoon or so of the oregano I dried last fall, and a big sprinkling of the New Mexican Chile that my friend Deb sent me from Chimayo. It looked a little dry, so I added a half-pint jar of my own tomato sauce I put up last fall, which is kind of watery. I let that simmer for a bit while I peeled and diced three big russet potatoes, and cut a package of Coleman Organic chicken thighs into little pieces. The Sweetheart came home about then, cold and tired after a day of roofing in spring snow squalls, so while he climbed in a hot bathtub, I added the chicken and potatoes to the sauce and let the whole thing simmer on low for about an hour or so while we chatted and read the papers and hung out.

We ate it last night with warm tortillas, chopped scallions and cilantro, and sour cream. This morning, I heated up a burrito and topped it with a fried egg. I am crazy in love with this flavor. It’s not too spicy, and I think it’d be just as delicious without the chicken (or you could also add pork instead of chicken). Something about the potato and chiles together is really wonderful. This might become a staple around here, especially for breakfast.

Nori Lunch

Nori Lunch

I’ve been obsessed with nori rolls lately. I got the idea from Cathy Erway’s delightful book, The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, which I reviewed for Bookslut about a month ago. After this long winter, I’ve been craving crunch, and veggies, or maybe there’s something in the seaweed that my body craves, but it’s been nori rolls for lunch for a couple of weeks now.

The thing is, nori rolls are actually quite easy. I like the rice warm, so I either make up a fresh batch in the rice cooker, or simply scoop out about a rice-bowl’s worth of leftover rice, add some rice vinegar, and heat it in the microwave. Then spread it out on the nori sheet, and add whatever is around. For a while, I was eating leftover steak, cucumber, and scallion nori rolls. Lateley, I’ve been making a little salmon salad with my near-miss Costco salmon then adding a few slices of my homemade pickled oyster mushrooms (sadly, I’ve run out of these. Thank goodness spring is on its way), some cucumber for crunch, slices of pickled ginger, and a generous sprinkle of chopped cilantro. Roll it all up, slice, add a sliced orange, and it’s a nice lunch. Filling but mostly veg and grain (since the Someone doesn’t eat veggies, I try to load up at lunch). And nice. Pretty. I think it’s good to have a nice-looking meal. It cheers a person up, especially a person who is beginning to worry about the freelance life. Look, doom is not at hand. It’s a lovely lunch!

I’d also think this wouldn’t be a bad choice if you had to go into an office. Not difficult to pack, you can always slice it up in the lunch room or break room, and there you go, nice clean food you made yourself, that didn’t cost you eight bucks. (One reason I often brown-bagged, not only do I like my own food better most of the time, but I’m cheap.)

Go-To Recipes?

Go-To Recipes?

So all this talk about cooking, just ordinary cooking, has gotten me thinking about go-to recipes, the ones you rely on and can do without really thinking. For Michael Ruhlman it’s a roast chicken. Which I’ve got to second. I use Marcella Hazan’s “recipe” which is nothing more than a roast chicken with a lemon stuck full of fork holes inside it. The lemon does wonders.

I’m having the girls over for Oscar night on Sunday, so I’ve been thinking about what to cook.There’s going to be a bunch of us (the Sweetheart is fleeing to his cabin, not a fan of pop culture is he) and we’re all going to be talking on top of one another and swilling wine, so I’m thinking something simple. I’ve got a couple of big roasts in the freezer — I know there’s at least one pork shoulder down there, and a chuck roast, but I might wind up turning to an old favorite, penne with vodka sauce. It’s a great party dish because it holds pretty well, you can make it in enormous quantities, and I’ve never fed it to anyone who didn’t really like it. With bread, and a salad (I’m thinking the marinated beet and grapefruit salad from Urban Italianby Andrew Carmellini.

The penne vodka recipe I use (well, I think I’ve memorized it by now) is from one of the first books I ever worked on, back when I was a starving editorial assistant in New York: The Glamour Food Book, now sadly out of print. It was a collection of recipes that Glamour Magazine pulled together and reprinted, most of which were fast, easy, and reasonably cheap since their target market was young working women who were just starting out. I still have it, and I still cook from it.

So there’s a thought. A mainstream fashion magazine in the 1980s that had recipes, for real food, for food you’d cook for a little dinner party, or to feed yourself on an evening after a long day at work. And it wasn’t considered “cooking from scratch” or anything exotic. It was just cooking. It was just what you did, especially if you were young, and didn’t have much money, and wanted to entertain. Hmm. No wonder I’m such a dinosaur.

So readers, what are your go-to recipes? The ones you use when you don’t want to think about a recipe. When you just want to cook something you know you like, and that you know your friends and family like?