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    Microwave-roasted eggplant salad

    This simple roast eggplant, pepper and onion salad is one of the first microwave recipes I ever posted and one of the most versatile.

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    Copyright 2008-13Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Breakfast without Matzah Overload

Last night we were very much in the spirit of Pesach–a total rush job at home, to the point where I realized I was supposed to have a boiled egg somewhere on the seder plate just as it was getting pretty far past sundown. Organization isn’t always our strong suit, especially on school nights. Last year I posted my Bart Simpson-style Passover Chalkboard Litany of kvetches and survival tips. This year: how to deal with matzah when they won’t sell you anything less than enough for 70 people for $2.99–such a deal! (well, okay, it is). You could feed nearly the whole Sanhedrin (because in our family, everyone argues about everything and I’m sure my 13-year-old is ready for law school as we speak. Good thing I can’t afford it yet!)

As with any style of food, too much of a good thing is still too much. I think I learn that the hard way every Passover. How to eat mostly vegetables and lean proteins and fresh fruit and yogurt…and not just sit there eating matzah like it’s going out of style? There’s more than enough matzah to go around–even in gefilte fish, especially in gefilte fish, which I’ve lost my taste for over the years since discovering how to cook regular fresh fish well, aka “not-gefilte”  (though I still buy a jar for my noncooking husband for lunches during the week.)

I don’t do matzah kugel, sweet or mushroom (a waste of mushrooms in my jaundiced opinion). I’m not a huge fan of matzah brei (exception: matzah brei “blintzes”), matzah lasagne, mina de espinaca, or any of the other matzah-plus-egg-heavy adaptations of regular food. Although I have seen one attractive-enough looking picture of a mina de espinaca, I’d still do it without the matzah sheets…

I try hard these days not to make matzah balls either, though this year I might make an exception–once–for my poor daughter who never gets any because she’s vegetarian and the “not-chicken” soup at Shabbaton this March didn’t have any flavor and there were no matzah balls in it like there were in the yes-chicken soup. Oy! Maybe it’ll be a weekend project to figure out a good from-scratch version–we have school and taxes this week. A lot of school and taxes.

My mother, who is famous for not cooking more than necessary, taught me how to make pretty-good fresh-tasting haroset Russian Jewish style (’cause that’s what we were). Apples, walnuts (though almond flakes are also just fine with me), cinnamon, sweet wine or grape juice, maybe or maybe not honey, chopped coarsely so it stays crunchy. But I’ve been to a couple of community seders out here in Pasadena where the haroset was mashed down like baby food and to add insult, had matzah meal in it. I know, matzah bits probably started out as a less expensive alternative to nuts, and I can’t blame anyone for that in their own homes. A professional caterer is quite another story. There’s really no excuse in California, where nuts are pretty plentiful (both the human and the arborial kind).

Well, anyway. Second seder is tonight, but what about the rest of the week–after taxes, as it were? Passover brings on a lot of nutritional challenges if you eat dairy or vegetarian. How not to eat too many eggs in a single week? How to stay away from the canned coconut macaroons and other assorted “Kosher for Passover” horror sweets my husband brings home because he thinks that the kashrut labeling makes up for the “nutrition” labeling (which really oughtta say, “WHAT nutrition?! This is pure sugar and potato starch, buddy! And palm oil! And artificial colors and flavors! Almost as good as Froot Loops!”) I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s because he’s a boy, and there’s nothing much to do about it except shudder, put the box of “goodies” in some inaccessible place on a low shelf, preferably behind the broccoli, which is merely green and mysterious or better yet, okra (which he fears more than taxes, and that’s saying something).

Note it down: ALL the packaged cake and cookie substitutes are a bad deal for anyone diabetic or even marginally thinking about becoming diabetic–very, very spiky, and almost never worth it. Also guaranteed to induce repetitive eating and the false sensation that you’re “starving” about three seconds after you eat them. And in the last 20 years, they’ve been faked-up further–even the kichel, a dry, stiff, barely-sweet puff halfway between an empty creampuff shell and a biscotti, has had artificial flavorings added recently–why bother?

Do we really even need such matzah-filled “delights”? Nowhere is this poverty of product more evident than in the kosher-for-Passover cake “mixes” (for which I always hear Julia Sweeney’s line “Where are yer mixes, hon?” from God said, Ha!). Last year’s example, which I’m not letting happen again: the Manischewitz Blueberry Pancake mix box my husband proudly brought home one day “on sale! it was 99 cents!” And naïvely suggested I could make for breakfast–this upon seeing that I’d just finished making cheese blintzes from scratch with real ingredients, and real raspberries. Don’t squint at me like that–he’s still breathing. I just decided his sudden brainfreeze in the wife department had been caused by jetlag, and contented myself with reading the ingredient box back to him.

The man is not a cook and is pretty happy not to be. Still, he does like to eat. And read. Somehow it never occurred to him to read in service of eating by checking what’s actually on and in that pancake mix box. It had 20 ingredients, no nutrition, and no blueberries. “Blueberry bits” contained–are you ready?–food coloring, sugar, artificial flavor, and sodium alginate. So suddenly you can’t tell the difference between berries and blue goo?

I had to go into extra innings with the cauliflower and broccoli and eggplant and asparagus and tomato/artichoke heart salads just to overcome the unusually high crap factor, even though I didn’t use the mix. Just reading it was enough to require emergency grapefruit. I was too ashamed to donate it to a food pantry, either.

So….real is definitely the best way to go with food for the week. Breakfasts can be tricky–matzah and jam, matzah and cream cheese, matzah and almond butter…it gets pretty tired pretty quick. And on the other hand, blintzes are for weekends only and frankly? I’m still annoyed about that pancake mix incident a year later! Nu…

Three relatively low-crap, moderately-low matzah alternative breakfasts that are (most important!) low-labor for those post-Seder mornings when you are Done and Off Duty to your nearest and dearest (except for coffee):

1. Matzah-nola, what it sounds like, ingredients straight from the cupboard or freezer. There is actually a product out commercially this year called “Matzahnola”; my version I invented a year or two ago out of desperation against the nutrition-free Passover version of Cheerios my husband brought home, but I didn’t think it was that good a name–who knew? Anyway, I’m not bitter (though the fresh-grated horseradish is still stinging my sinuses from last night).

2. The old-style Israeli breakfast, not the modern endless hotel breakfast buffets–more like the kibbutz specials where you’re expected to get out there and weed a cotton field right afterward. Which I have actually done in my less cynical youth.

3. The bonus “I can haz CAKE?” breakfast, a favorite of fridge-scrounging champions everywhere Continue reading

Taking the chaos out of batch cooking

When my husband and I were much younger, we stayed a week with the children of some friends who wanted to go off skiing on spring break. In preparation, the mother batch-cooked a huge dutch oven each of chicken breasts and brisket for the week–just for their two young children and us. She left elaborate instructions about how to reheat it (I’m not sure she trusted us to know how to cook anything). I can tell you that even in my 20s I thought that was an awful lot of meat, and by the end of the week we were really, really tired of it. Even the kids.

On the other hand, a friend out here who has something in the range of adult ADD has a hard time cooking anything that takes longer than about 5 minutes because she’s so easily distracted she forgets to eat. Keeping track of multiple cooking steps  is genuinely daunting to her, as it is for many people with ADD and ADHD. She’s taken the expensive brown-rice-bowls and organic-microwaveable-freezer-meals-for-one route (keeping brand names out of it for the moment) but wishes she could find a better and cheaper way to deal with dinner. I suspect she wishes my east coast friend could supply her with a couple of dutch ovens’ worth of meals…

I bring up these two friends because lately I’ve started running across Meals-for-a-Month how-to books. They pop up every once in a while in the cookbook aisles of your favorite bookstore (or the 641 section of your local library). They’ve been reappearing since at least the early 1970s, when a major recession under Nixon led people to rethink their household budgets. Now these books are back in “For Dummies” and “Everything” versions, complete with tie-ins to About.com and other popular web portals.

The basic premise sounds ideal: shop and cook just once a month, the books promise, and you get a month of frozen real-food reheat-and-serve meals at your convenience, and you still save money. I keep hoping there’s some kind of solution in them for people short on time, cash and kitchen tolerance, but so far I’ve been disappointed.

Read one of these books and you quickly realize why almost no one follows them for long. First, if you hate to cook, you’re going to hate cooking marathons even more. Especially if they look like all-kitchen circus-style nightmares of boiling chicken and roasting AND stewing beef and slicing ham and cheese while also cutting vegetables while mixing sauces while separately packaging just enough gingersnaps for each package of the sauerbraten (assuming you even like sauerbraten or know what it is anymore) and finding the right sized bags and labels and and and and….

If you batch-cook the way these books suggest (in the intro section “game plan” complete with NFL-style charts), your once-a-month cooking scheme will probably take you all weekend (shopping alone is a full day) and wear you out from dawn til dusk. One weekend a month. I bet this is where most people flipping through to see if it’s the solution to their dilemma quietly shut the book, put it back on the shelf and edge away as quickly as possible.

These books also seem to replicate the worse aspects of frozen tv dinners, only without the convenience. The food’s too elaborate and long-cooking–mostly heavy meat stews and casseroles taken straight out of the 1950s Americana repertoire, and the scale-ups still only stretch to two or three meals for a family of four. If you go that route, you’d need ten recipes, and a huge freezer.

Also, there are no, and I mean no, shortcuts. I’ve looked. Each main dish is an hour or more by conventional methods. The reheats alone typically take at least half an hour and some extra cooking steps–and this is after having thawed the packages overnight in the fridge. Have the authors never heard of a microwave? Wasn’t avoiding repetitive, excessive cooking the whole point of once-a-month cooking? Do you really want to have to plan so much and follow so many steps–especially if you’re on the ADD end of things? Or even if you aren’t.

It would make so much more sense to simply buy a big resealable bag of frozen chicken parts and some bags of frozen vegetables and large cans of beans and tomatoes and boxes of spaghetti and relearn some cheap, easy and fast-cooking techniques from your college student repertoire. Wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, this is not the way people who traditionally have to cook big on a tight budget cook. Most people don’t have as much money at any one time as they’d need to pay for a month’s worth of food in a lump sum, nor do they generally have a dedicated extra freezer to fit it all in.

But batch cooking itself can work out and still treat you gently on a more modest scale. You just need to choose what makes sense to cook in multi-meal batches, and not do every possible big job all at once.

Unless you hunt and dress venison for the winter or have a garden with enough produce that you need to harvest and put up in bulk at the end of summer to keep it from spoiling, you don’t really need to do marathon-style cooking. Continue reading

Purim options

standard cookie-dough hamantaschen

Regular hamantaschen with prune lekvar

Almond meal-based low-carb hamantaschen

Almond meal-based low-carb hamantaschen

Purim is here tonight, a little late thanks to the “leap month” this year (drawbacks to a lunar holiday calendar) but none the worse for it–it’s over 80 degrees here, which means it’s almost time for Purim. Los Angeles is the only place I’ve ever been, including Israel, where people were slathering sunblock on their kids and gasping for water bottles at a Purim carnival well ahead of lining up for hamantaschen and games. It was 94 degrees that year. Fifteen years of this and I’m still not used to it.

Purim, of course, means manic baking, heat wave or no, because the adults’ reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) had…ummmm….last-minute planning and no one thought about hamantaschen as part of the refreshments until midweek. I think I’m the only one left in our  shul who still doesn’t care about having a fabulously original themed cocktail party for the adults afterward. Any kind of cocktail party is more drinking than I want to do, and I’m damned if I wanna dress up in full office battle array again after so many years sidestepping all the suits in my closet, just so I can fit in with the Mad Men theme. I’ve never even seen the show.

But I actually make hamantaschen at home once in a blue moon instead of schlepping over to the Valley to buy them from a kosher bakery.

So I did the stupid, crazy thing and volunteered. How many people? I asked–maybe 60. So I have SIX batches of dough sitting in my freezer relaxing. It took about half an hour, about 5 minutes apiece,  to do all the batches in the food processor, one after another and weighing out the ingredients so they’d be consistent. And yet…after all the excitement from two weeks ago, I’m just not all that geared up to roll it all out and bake it just this minute. Maybe when things cool down slightly–half an hour? Maybe?

Friday happens to have been Pi Day as well–and to my daughter, who was supposed to be my second-in-command for this delicate operation, and to her algebra teacher this morning, that meant Pie Day. They had about four different kinds of pie for all the math classes, and none of them had to calculate the areas or volumes of the wedges they sampled. My daughter, of course, was so elated that she ate two entire meals’ worth of carbohydrate in about fifteen minutes, and still came out with a pretty good blood glucose number an hour later–good on the calculated guesses, there–but at the cost of running through insulin that could have lasted her three or four more hours if she’d eaten an ordinary lunch. Teenagers! Mothers of teenagers!

Still, not to lose the spirit of things too much. It occurs to me that hamantaschen qualify as very small pies, only triangular. So we eventually started the process of inscribing a triangle inside a circle–240 times, if we can get through all the batches before showtime. Me, I’d settle for 3 or 4 batches and call it a week.

The raspberry jam filling–all that hard work for the first batch of rolling and filling–leaked all over the place. Too bad there isn’t still a vogue for vampire-everything; the first batch would have qualified! Too thin. You need a thick serious filling to stay in place during the baking.

So–time to nuke the prunes for lekvar and the figs for the heck of it (plus toast a small sampling of the poppyseeds in my freezer to see if they’re still okay to use for a filling, and to make sure I don’t pour in the bag of nigella seeds instead by mistake!). I rarely see these anymore, but I still believe in doing traditional fillings alongside the modern, newfangled apricot-jam-and-chocolate-chip ones. It’s true that if we keep skipping the prune filling, we might not turn into our own grandparents, and if we miss out on the poppy seed filling (known in Yiddish as mohn) we might pass the all-critical drug tests (à la Seinfeld) with no interferences, but then again we’d miss the ta’am, and what’s the joy of hamantaschen without a taste of the past?

Hamantaschen Recipes

Low-Carb Almond Meal-Based Hamantaschen

My version of Joan Nathan’s Hamantaschen, with four fillings: poppyseed, prune, apricot/chocolate, labaneh/cheesecake

Microwaveable dried fig and dried apricot fillings (originally for fillo pastries, but still good for this, and a lot less drippy than jam)

However–if you are feeling “Mad Men”, you might think of reconfiguring the hamantaschen motif for cocktail party fare instead. I was thinking about this Thursday but figured it would be too weird. Then I saw an article about it yesterday in one of the big three newspaper cooking sections–dammit! scooped again! In any case, if you’re feeling a little avantgarde, you could do a batch of savory hamantaschen if you feel like it. Use rugelach, bureka or olive oil tart dough instead of the standard sweet dough. Roll it out fairly thin, and fill with feta or bleu cheese mixed with labne or very thick sour cream, plus a little onion and some thyme, maybe a pecan or two. Or something with very cooked-down mushrooms and onions (so they don’t get soggy). Or pesto and cheese. Or spinach with cheese and nutmeg and lemon rind. Or tapenade. Etc.

Chickpeas of all sorts and descriptions

Since Esther supposedly refused meat and ate only chickpeas, chickpea recipes are also more or less relevant to Purim. Mine are not particularly traditional–look up Iranian Jewish recipes elsewhere on the web.

Chickpea crêpes  These can be savory or sweet, and they don’t require eggs or milk

The “other” moussaka–eggplant and chickpea stew

Hummus from scratch (aka how to nuke dried chickpeas)

Fast Hummus made with chickpea flour (microwaved)

There’s also the possible “nahit”–fry chickpeas in olive oil, drain and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Or a cold chickpea salad with mint, scallion, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar.

Or channa masala dal, something like the red lentil dal but with chickpeas (and not mashed)

Post-Kiddush: our leftovers are better than yours

Round spare spanakopita just for us after the big kiddush

Round spare pinwheel-style spanakopita just for us at home. The big ones for the brunch had three pounds of spinach apiece (and were cut in small diamonds), but they still went together pretty fast–except for squeezing all that spinach dry…

This weekend I did it again–I made the kiddush, or in common speech a lunch buffet, for my congregation’s Saturday morning service. My husband kind of volunteered us for this week and because he doesn’t cook, most or all of the cooking, shopping, chopping and schlepping landed on my shoulders.

Last time he volunteered us, it was for our anniversary, and  I was ready to skip ahead to the divorce until I got over it, because it’s a lot of work to cook for 60 or so people who like to eat. And kibbitz. Especially when the 60 suddenly turns into 80-plus and having to use the synagogue kitchen with the more complicated and confusing rules on only a week’s notice. As they did this time…..

Soooo….a two-day hell of shopping and then marathon cooking-and-juggling in my little galley kitchen. The microwave got a serious workout. So did the food processor and the oven. Sometimes all at once. And it was raining hard for three days, so bringing things over to the synagogue kitchen as I went got a little tricky. I triple-wrapped the chocolate cake and stuck it in a USPS Priority Mail box so it wouldn’t get left out in the rain. Same idea for the spanakopita trays.

A few hints about cooking big and real for a synagogue brunch, learned the hard way by moi and passed on for your edification and safety (and sanity):

1. You can buy a 6-lb can  of chickpeas for massive half-gallon batches of hummus (Mid-East brand, maybe Goya as well). Cost? about $5. But–as I found out, and I’m glad no one was filming the process–industrial-sized can equals industrial-strength steel. A dinky hand-operated can opener is no match for such an item. I got just far enough to be able to pry open a kind of spout but there were tears and long-fluent-repetitive-all-throughout-the-house swearing sessions involved.

Still….

2. If you have a good corner greengrocer, you can buy quantities of eggplant for cheap–eleven or twelve eggplants made for a large tray of roast eggplant and onion slices (with garlic slivers and za’atar sprigs and olive oil) plus a large vat of baba ghanouj. Only the five eggplants I nuked for the baba ghanouj didn’t feel like cooperating fully when it was time to peel them. Might have been easier to peel first, then nuke, since it was all going into the food processor eventually. Next time…

3. Whole smoked whitefish for whitefish salad comes two ways–cold-smoked or hot-smoked. What’s the difference? I asked the counter guy at my favorite Armenian grocery. “Cold-smoked is a little less hard,” he said. So I bought it, thinking he meant the hot-smoked was tough as shoeleather and twice as chewy. I was wrong. Cold-smoked actually means the fish is smoked raw, like lox, only a little drier and tougher. But you don’t necessarily want to put it in whitefish salad that way. Man, it still had the scales on too. I couldn’t get it off the bones for love or money, and there were a lot of bones.

However, the microwave came to the rescue. I cut the fish in half and Continue reading

Starting with Breakfast

“The Well” blog at the New York Times has posted a new interview with pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig about his new book, the Fat Chance Cookbook, and about the possibilities for treating obesity in children with a better, less processed diet.

Two or three takeaways from the interview surprised me by echoing things I’ve either thought or written about here since my daughter became a Type I diabetic four years ago.

Almost always, we see an obese kid come in with an obese parent. And when the kid loses weight, the parent loses weight, because the parent actually changed what’s going on in the home.

We do something called “the teaching breakfast.” Every kid comes in fasting because we’re drawing blood. So they’re all hungry. They go to the teaching breakfast with their parents – it’s six families all at a communal table – and our dietitian spends an hour with them. The dietitian narrates exactly what’s on the table and teaches the parent and the kid at the same time….We make sure four things happen. No. 1, we show the parent the kid will eat the food. No. 2, we show the parent that they will eat the food. No. 3, we show the parent that other kids will eat the food, because they have other kids at home and they have to be able to buy stuff that they know other kids will eat. And No. 4, we show them the grocery bill, so they see that they can afford the food. If you don’t do all four of those, they won’t change.

Also, and I think this is my favorite:

…my wife is Norwegian… When she’s mad at me, she bakes…My wife has learned by experimenting that she can take any cookie recipe, any cake recipe, and reduce the amount of sugar by one third, and it actually tastes better…. And you can taste the chocolate, the nuts, the oatmeal, the macadamia – whatever is in it.

Right on!

Back to the top, though, I’ve got to say I love the idea of the teaching breakfast. My one concern is the reality of time cost for families with school-aged children, because eggs and vegetables, two of the (sometimes) inexpensive staples of the UCSF clinic’s teaching breakfast, take more time to prepare than a bowl of cereal, and require more cleanup. On weekdays, that might be a real challenge, especially for families with two working parents and/or long drives to school. A lot of the families I know in this situation (long drives and no school buses being a common problem in Southern California) are used to tossing their kids in the car with some kind of makeshift breakfast to eat on the way–often resorting to bagels, pop tarts, or bananas, none of which are great choices.

Perhaps if the dietician showed some simple microwaveable 5-minute meals like oatmeal or an easy vegetable-filled frittata (with some of the yolks left out) that can be made the night before and refrigerated? The plain yogurt with fresh fruit idea is also quick and simple but not especially cheap–these days a quart of plain non-Greek yogurt goes for $2.50 at Trader Joe’s, almost the same as a gallon of milk, and costs even more at the local Ralph’s (west coast Kroger affiliate), but it serves only 4 if each serving is a whole cup. Cereal with milk is a lot cheaper–but it could certainly be better cereal, high in fiber and low in sugar and salt, and measured by the cup or on a scale before pouring it into the bowl to make sure you don’t get more than you think you’re getting.

Cutting up fruit and vegetables takes time that parents usually feel they don’t have. And berries, which don’t need cutting up, are relatively expensive fruits, even when frozen. So showing parents a couple of “instantly grabbable” ways to serve the less expensive fresh (or fresh-frozen) fruits and vegetables instead of Froot Loops might be key.

A simple “just wash and nosh” approach would probably be a good start. I know I generally rail against buying precut, expensive little baggies of manicured (and dried out) vegetables in the supermarket, but the big bags of “baby carrots” that don’t require peeling and are finger-food size would be an okay starting point to get kids and parents to think about vegetables as a good snack or even breakfast choice. My daughter lived on them for lunches (along with a PBJ on whole wheat and an apple) for most of her grade school years, and even though she has (and will probably always have) a mean sweet tooth, she still seeks out raw green beans, wedges of red cabbage, roma tomatoes and broccoli or cauliflower branches to break off, rinse under the tap and nosh on after school.

Ganache

chocolate ganache

Ganache–the most versatile Valentine’s Day dessert in the world–takes about 5 minutes to make. If that.

This post started out being about Valentine’s Day 2013, if you can believe it,  and all the lame, anemic, inferior, chocolate-free pastries being touted in last year’s February food mags–Thomas Keller’s very, very plain beige custard tart without any decoration on it comes to mind as one of the worst offenders. He named it–get this–”Pomme d’Amour”. If you served me that as a Valentine’s date dessert, without so much as a raspberry or a mint leaf on the side, much less a caramelized-sugar top as for crème brulée, I’d be very unimpressed with it and probably with you. Especially at French Laundry prices. I’m not giving the link for it. If you’re genuinely hung up on Keller’s recipes, go away and don’t come back until you’ve convinced yourself that I’m right–a lot of fuss for so much bland. Because…..

Valentine’s was meant to be about chocolate. Or, if you’re very lucky, chocolate sauce. I don’t hear any dissent out there–except perhaps among the lovers of beige food. Takes all kinds…

So anyway, it should surprise no one that I’m late for this by an entire year. And dinner is tonight. In any case, you should know this post has morphed, thanks to time, tide, procrastination that knows no bounds, and my deep, deep love of chocolate ganache (because it is bitter and because it is my heart? Hell no: because it is unbelievably simple and quick and fun to play with and tastes damn good and impresses people who don’t know any better. Why else?)–Ahem! This post has morphed into a couple of ways to impress people who no longer cook. Including yourself if you’re one of those most of the time, and even if you’re not, because tonight you don’t want to spend a lot of time fussing over the food, you want to be taken out to dinner or else, if you’re snowed in, you want something delicious and very quick that takes only very simple, not too expensive ingredients you probably (hopefully) already have on hand somewhere at the back of the cupboard.

As I think I discussed in my post over the summer about the dangers of baking for one’s kid’s bat mitzvah (or other big celebration), many of these lost souls who never cook at all, to my great chagrin, can be counted among my close friends. To the point where making a cake of any kind, even from a box mix, is impressive.

Anyway, irritated by the selections I’d seen in all of last year’s February foodie magazines, I realized that most of my ideal recommendations, that is, the ones that I wasn’t seeing but wanted to, all relied on some form of chocolate ganache or fudge sauce–variants on a shockingly simple recipe. Even the French expert versions are just about this simple–mine’s better because I use a microwave and save washing a saucepan (always key), but the rest is history either way.

If you’re ready to mess around with the proportions until they feel and taste right, you’re my kinda cook. If you’re not, well, just consider that it’s “holiday season” (well, President’s Day, anyway, on Monday) and this is almost a free gift. Seriously, a five-minute (plus a little cooling time) recipe with two or at most five (fanciest variation) ingredients can win you a lot of unearned praise and maybe even a hot date.

All this is merely to point out that, if, like me, you have been tasked with dessert on short notice, you can skip the supermarket frosting horrors if you feel like it (and if your intended audience deserves it) and be amazed (and disturbed) as you flaunt instant and completely fictitious pastry “skills” that–and you don’t have to tell your heart’s desire or any of your friends this–rely almost entirely on some half-and-half and some dark chocolate chips or bars and a microwave. In short, I give you: Ganache.

. . .There is never a completely wrong time for chocolate ganache, except perhaps in the middle of a corned beef on rye with half-sour dills. OK, sorry I mentioned that. . .back to that romantic “cooking” thing. . .  Continue reading

Instant Pickles, Hold the Salt

Fast-marinated cucumbers, half-sour kosher dill style

One of the things that kept me motivated for blogging SlowFoodFast after the first fine careless rapture was my indignation at how popular over-the-top salting was becoming in popular food magazines, cookbooks, blogs and TV shows as chefs became celebrities, and how dangerous I knew it was for most people to eat that way regularly. A large part of my career a couple of decades ago was exploring the history of dietary sodium in cardiovascular research and writing about the DASH Diet.

What I’ve missed the past few years is just how many people, particularly younger ones, are starting to take up the challenge of cooking low-sodium and blog about their trials and successes. There’s a whole community out there, and they’re cooking pretty well. It is definitely possible, and generally easy once you get past the “how do I read a label and cook from scratch” aspect.

I just ran into Sodium Girl (aka Jessica Goldman Foung)’s blog-based cookbook, “Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook”. Diagnosed with lupus and kidney failure in her early 20s, she turned around her diet by dropping her sodium intake drastically to give her kidneys a rest in the hope they’d regenerate, and it worked. She’s been innovating with low- and near-to-no-sodium versions of favorite foods ever since, working with the National Kidney Foundation and other organizations. Her book, like her blog, is attractively photographed, full of cheerful writing and surprise takes on favorite foods.

One of the substitutions she makes that I have to approve of is a molasses-and-vinegar-based “faux soy sauce”. So I wasn’t the only one!

Another of her successful experiments is pickles. She goes for sugar-and-vinegar-style pickles, which makes sense, since they have no added salt in them, but I can’t help it–I have always cringed at sweet pickled anything. If it’s supposed to be a pickle, for my money, it’s gotta be a half-sour kosher dill and nothing but (or else an Indian lime or mango achaar pickle, or Moroccan preserved lemons, but that’s another story and still pretty high-salt at this writing. I’m working on it, but not yet holding out a lot of hope…)

Anyway, looking through Foung’s book reminded me of a simple, hearty and low-to-very low sodium version of my favorite pickles in the world. Continue reading

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