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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow 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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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Why you shouldn’t buy precut veg

I know perfectly well that I’m preachy about buying bulk produce because it’s cheaper by far, the supposed “convenience” of precut amounts to less than a minute’s time difference in many cases, and the fiddly little precut plastic bags are a lot less fresh. But the current recall for a number of precut packaged veg products at Trader Joe’sand elsewhere reminded me of something my mother (who cooks reluctantly, very reluctantly) used to point out when I was a kid.

She would wash everything well under the tap and then (in a rare show of good lab technique) trim the cut ends off further because, as she pointed out, a lot of the produce is cut out in the field, where dirt and pesticides abound. People harvesting out in the field are not washing their hands or their knives every few minutes, nor are they in a position to wash the produce well before cutting it off the stalk or vine. It wouldn’t really improve things that much if they did.

The fancy precut veg producers are doing the washing and cutting up under less dusty conditions, but they’re actually creating more risk of contamination. Every time you cut into a vegetable, you’re exposing an inside surface. That’s usually fine when you’re cooking or serving it right afterward. But let it sit around, especially in a plastic bag, under dubious refrigeration, for several days, (how many more questionable conditions can I pile on here)–as the precut prepackaged veg does in the supermarket, and you’re pretty much begging for something to go wrong. The peel is there for a reason–it seals and filters out a lot of the bacteria and fungi that are always around in the soil, the air, the water, your hands.

Usually when fruit and vegetables are hand-harvested with a knife, it’s on an inedible stem or stalk, and if left in the open air, the cut will dry and more or less seal over–think how cauliflower and celery stumps look, or the dryish root ends of broccoli or cut asparagus. Not particularly appetizing, and generally that’s the bit you’d discard. The rest of the vegetable stays pretty fresh for several days–it’s essentially still alive (sometimes, as with bok choy, even still growing new shoots from the cut stump), so the plant’s own internal chemistry provides another natural hedge against outside bacteria.

But when it’s bagged and cut in small pieces, all the exposed surfaces provide a lot more opportunity for contamination and the plastic bag lets whatever moisture is lost collect on the outside of the pieces. Not good. So the less your vegetables and fruits are cut up before you buy them, the fewer chances to contaminate the inside parts of the vegetables.

Ice Cream Therapy

Chocolate Cherry frozen yogurt

Just in time for my daughter’s return last week from college in a part of the northeast where it was still snowing in May, Pasadena entered its first major heat wave of the year–and our AC broke down in honor of the occasion. Fun times!

Today’s topic, as last year and the year before, when I first started this post (and then got side-tracked with all the college application stuff and the very unpleasantly named FAFSA)… and every year at this time, once the heat starts hitting town, is ice cream. Well, ice cream and a couple of lighter, more flavorful and frugal home-brew variations because that’s what’s uppermost on my wishlist, other than cooler air here and cooler heads everywhere. So anyway, imagine it’s two summers ago, not now, for at least the next two parts of this adventure…

Gelato

It started with gelato.

Right before the fourth of July two years ago, I found out that I could take my daughter’s sharps containers to a local sheriff’s office for disposal instead of having to drive to the CleanLA site in west Glendale (not a nice area, and the guys in white hazmat suits make you stay in your car and pop the trunk. They’re not mean about it but it’s still unnerving). When I looked up the Altadena sheriff’s office online, the map showed an unexpected gem across the main street: Bulgarini Gelato, which in 12 or so years of operation and despite its tiny size has become nationally known in the food world.

A friend has been after me for years to visit and try their pistachio gelato, insisting that it’s the real thing because they use Sicilian pistachios and it’s all natural (you know the kind of friend who speaks in italics). Despite or possibly because of how holistic she made it sound, I’d never gotten over there.

It’s a shame, in a way, because Bulgarini is the living result of a rescue operation–the owners did an apprenticeship in Italy to learn the old-style from-scratch processes for making real gelato, just as all the old guys were retiring and all the gelato shops were going to factory-made, synthetically flavored powdered mixes.

My husband and I had been to Italy… 25? can it be? years ago for a conference (the only way we could have afforded it then), when real gelato was still available. We quickly figured out how to order anything at one of the bustling gelaterie in Florence: sharpen your elbows and your tongue, know which of the 30 or 40–or more–flavors you want (spinach? avocado? rose? fior di latte? kiwi? cassata?), get to the front of the throng and have your money ready, because it’s gonna cost you. But a tiny cup–at an outrageous 3000 lire (right before the Euro took over)–held two or three distinctive flavors you ate with a tiny spoon and that didn’t melt as fast as ice cream, so you had more time to keep tasting as you wandered around the city, taking in the sights.

Bulgarini was almost the opposite experience. At mid-afternoon on a hot July day, the whole shopping plaza was silent and dusty and it took some time to locate the gelato shop in a group of new indie businesses off to the side of the deserted RiteAid. The gelateria was dead quiet, just a few customers trickling in at a time, though steadily. No need for elbows or decisiveness. Leo Bulgarini, the owner and artisan gelato maker, stood to the side with his arms folded, not saying anything as he supervised the girl behind the counter, who spoke a tiny amount of English and was obviously pretty new. There were only ten or twelve flavors in the case, reasonable for handmade in such a small shop, and none of them spinach or avocado–also reasonable, since most customers here probably wouldn’t be ready to chance them.

As in Florence, the prices on the chalkboard were authentically astronomical–the smallest cup was $7 for up to two flavors, plus an extra dollar for the Sicilian pistachio. Which I got anyway because that was the mission, even though I kind of gulped as I forked over a twenty, and asked that the second flavor be nocciola–hazelnut. I figured the super-dark chocolate and the fruit flavors were things I already knew I liked, and they might clash or overwhelm the subtleties of pistachio. The hazelnut would be just different enough to be interesting as well as a test of truth in flavor, because chocolate and fruit are easier to be convincing about and because commercial hazelnut flavoring tends to be disappointing–oversweetened and often synthetic.

In any case, I tasted and was floored. Really floored, but too shy in that environment to say anything.

When the silence threatened to become extra-awkward, I ducked out into the shaded courtyard and tasted it again. The Oregon hazelnut was so clean, so crisp, so exactly and precisely hazelnut and nothing else–not faint, not sweet or faked with extracts or overdressed in any way–that it was actually more impressive and possibly more Italian than the Sicilian pistachio that followed. The texture was right too–slightly stretchy, not super-rich, and it didn’t melt right away, so there was time to eat it in small experimental tastes.

Was it worth seven or eight bucks for a 3-4-ounce serving? There’s no way I could make a habit of it–it really is too expensive for a snack. But for a special occasion, the real thing is worth a try. My husband was overscheduled for his birthday that year, and we were away the next, but he’s just going to have to clear his slate so I can drag him back before his next birthday. Maybe tomorrow, actually.

Ice cream parlor ice cream

A few weeks after the Bulgarini experience, we flew east to see my mom and do college tours in Boston and then hung out with my sister in Maine. After a day or so of dank heat we finally admitted it was more than we could handle–what can I say, we’ve gone soft since moving to the land of 10% humidity or less. We gave in to temptation that afternoon and sampled hand-cranked ice cream at a local ’50s-style ice cream parlor. There was an impressive list of flavors on the chalkboard–easily more than 40, including licorice, various berries and several different variations on chocolate, caramel and coffee. We all liked it well enough, but I was the only one who got something other than your basic oversized milk-chocolate-caramel-cappuccino.

I came away with an important realization: Ginger just isn’t as common as it should be, it’s a great flavor that really deserves a comeback. But it shouldn’t be stuck in sweet, bland basic vanilla superpremium ice cream that’s starting to drip before you even get out the door. Even after I told the girl at the counter to give me only half the softball-sized scoop she was aiming at my cone, and she complied, puzzled that anyone would ask for less instead of more, it was just way too much. My husband went for two flavors, two full scoops. I’m still not sure how he possibly managed it, and I was watching (queasily). Oy. Boys are just into stunt portions is how I explain it.

When we got back home to California, our cat was fine, the kitchen hadn’t crawled away, and reality sat waiting on the doorstep: school was only a couple of weeks down the road and it was hot here too–though not as humid, at least. I suggested ice cream (light, not Haagen-Daz)–and my daughter glared; after the excess version from Maine, she was trying not to, which was probably smart for all of us.

The skinny versions

If you can’t get to Altadena or Maine, and you’re not sure a $5+ pint of ersatz supermarket gelato is the real experience (it isn’t) or you want a flavor that’s not so predictable, you can make gelato yourself for not very much money. Cookbooks from the 1990s abound with recipes (though probably not the spinach or rose flavors), and you might be able to find a Brazilian recipe for avocado ice cream online.

The basic idea for gelato is to make an egg and milk custard and blend it with fruit, nut pastes or other flavorings before freezing. Some use cornstarch in addition to or as a substitute for some of the eggs, and that’s as traditional as all-eggs in some parts of Italy. The base ingredients are inexpensive either way. Continue reading

Windfall deals in the produce section

A weekly haul from my greengrocer's comes in under $30 even with coffee, spices and special items.

I looked up and suddenly it was June–and I realized I haven’t posted for a full six months. Not because I no longer cook or have an interest in it. But with my daughter away at college, I was cooking just for my husband and myself, we were both working long hours on other things and I kept figuring I’d get back to posting regularly in a week or so.

It’s easy to get bogged down–do we need more recipes for things? what can we say that hasn’t been said, and what does it mean in the face of my growing sense of unease about both the political and physical climate changes in this country? The damage, especially at the detention centers near our border with Mexico and the brute squad ICE raid tactics in our cities, is ongoing.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed as an individual, and I have rarely felt less like celebrating the 4th. I’m not good with big crowds or protest marches, even though they can be effective in the short run. But there are some specific and effective things we can do to help repair the damage and they can help us feel less awful, isolated and helpless.

First and foremost is to take action to protect immigrants being persecuted at our borders and in our cities. Definitely write to your congressional reps and senators, local mayors and DAs. But also try and help directly, even if you’re far from the border or can only contribute a few dollars of financial support.

The long-established Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which my grandmother used to volunteer with in New York, is partnering in Southern California with Jewish Family Services of San Diego. JFS has opened an emergency shelter for immigrant families released from ICE detention under a recent court order and basically dumped on the streets of San Diego–no food, shelter, clothing or contacts, nothing. JFS’s San Diego Rapid Response Network shelter helps several hundred families a week. In addition to their direct donations page they’ve set up an Amazon wishlist registry for basics like underwear, coats, toiletries etc.

Migrant Family Shelter/SDRRN

Several such havens are being set up around the country by both Jewish and non-Jewish volunteer organizations, so donate to this one or look for one in your area. The ACLU and SPLC both have significant programs for legal aid and restoration of families, as do some state and local governments like California’s.The HIAS website also has a wide variety of social justice programming recommendations and sample action plans for getting your congregation involved.

Another area of concern–and more directly about food–is the likely state of the national food supply in the coming year due to the huge shifts in global weather patterns and unseasonal storm damage this spring, to say nothing of the tariffs. A month ago, the USDA was estimating that the midwest floods would lose us about 1.5 percent of our agricultural production of staples next year in wheat, corn and soy. Now farmers are deciding not to plant at all in those zones near the Missouri River, and the latest estimate as of this week is up to 3.5-5 percent loss in total US staple crops for next year. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but at that rate, given how loss projections often escalate over time, the eventual loss totals could actually be a lot worse–maybe as much as 8-10 percent of total US production.

What will that mean for food prices and availability? Nutrition and agricultural scientists have been concerned for years about the loss of diversity in our national average diets and farm subsidy crops, and the chokehold fast food and processed food have had on the American public. So you can imagine a 10 percent cut in wheat, corn and soy would mean Trump might have to cut back on his Burger King habit next year, and you’re probably thinking “boo-hoo.”

But for everyone else, losing these staple crops is no joke. In food deserts, urban and rural areas with no grocery stores or access to fresh produce, it could mean having to pay significantly more for the only food they can get easily. This in a country that has no real excuses for the degree of poverty we already have.

More than that, these staples, especially the corn, are also key ingredients in chicken and cattle feed, which means we could well see significant shortages and price hikes in dairy products, eggs and meat next year too.

Aside from attempting to hoard, though, what can we as individuals do about it? We can push our congressional reps and senators on climate change policies, lower our personal carbon footprints, and so on, but we can’t control the weather through our food choices–can we? Well, maybe we can. We can’t make the Trump administration see reason but that’s no reason to abandon our own considerable power for change.

Contrary to what we usually believe, our individual choices definitely can make a difference in climate within a surprisingly short span of time. Certainly the pollution damage of any decade carries nearly immediate consequences, but it works the other way too. Consider the ozone layer–once we could actually see the disappearing heat shield from satellite photos, government policy  did the heavy lifting on banning chlorofluorocarbon emissions, forcing companies to find better refrigerants and ways to apply deodorant, and making hairspray a lot less popular. Did it work? Only a few decades later, the shocking ozone layer bald spot of the 1970s and ’80s has actually recovered, even if Final Net™ sales haven’t.

Or consider the California standards that led to the Clean Air and Water acts. We all take unleaded gas, catalytic convertors, hybrid vehicles and energy-efficient appliances as desirable standards these days partly because of those efforts. Do they make a difference? LA’s air alone improved so much in one generation that I can see 20-30 miles worth of the San Gabriel mountains just north of town. They’re literally walking distance from many neighborhoods in Pasadena, but they were completely masked by lead-lined smog in the ’60s when my parents lived here.

How then could we use our ordinary weekly food shopping to mitigate climate change on a scale that would come anywhere close to these successes and maybe make up for the crop shortfalls?

One possibility is to start diversifying what we eat–more beans and lentils; more bulk vegetables, less fast and processed food–to cut our overdependence on the top-three crops for most of our daily diet. Ironically? maybe not so ironically, this might push growers to diversify and plant more greens, which would use up some of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and choose more legumes, which put nitrogen back in the soil as they grow.

We can also waste less food by using more of what’s already been grown and harvested. Ever since last May, when I wrote about food waste documentaries, I’ve been thinking more often about what goes to waste in my kitchen each week–not that much, actually, because I’m an undignified veg freak and a competitive cheapskate. But go to your local big-chain supermarket and you’ll see just how much still-good food gets culled every hour or so from the vegetable bins to maintain their corporate image as a guarantor of sterile, sanitized, pristinely packaged neatness. Only a tiny portion of it gets repackaged for a last-chance sale, even though most of it is probably still quite useable.

bargain-bin romano beans

Unpurchased fresh produce, I’ve decided, is an opportunity waiting to be recognized. Using more produce could not only save us a bunch of pocket money each week but also cut back the costs we pay for farm resources (many of which taxpayers subsidize pretty heavily), including gasoline and diesel, pesticides and water. Between all that and just not stuffing the landfills with methane-belching food waste, it’s certainly worth a try.

The supermarkets may have one or two bags of discount apples or peppers–almost indistinguishable from the new ones–somewhere in a corner at the back of the store, but you really have to hunt to find them. They and most of their customers, stuck on boxed and pre-made packaged food, and often afraid of getting their hands dirty with bulk produce, obviously think there’s some shame in it.

The ethnic neighborhood greengrocers have no such inhibitions or delusions. At my local Armenian greengrocer’s in a back corner of the store is a wire rack with large plastic bags of fruit and vegetables that are bruised, slightly wrinkled, or too ripe to last much longer, and a bag holding two or three pounds might be going for a dollar. They know their customers cook often and in quantity, and are generally careful of their food money. Vegetables and fruits are still a large part of traditional kitchens, and many of the customers will check the back bins for end-of-the-day bargains.

Why would you even look at these last-chance buys? What are they even good for?

First, it’s a couple of dollars to spare in my pocket and a couple of extra pounds of fresh produce every week for a pittance–so I don’t have to feel self-conscious about the cost of playing around. Second, buying them, even at a discount, gives a little back to my local smalltime greengrocers, who would otherwise take more of a loss and still have to pay for disposal. Third, whatever I can use (or compost, at a last resort), stays out of the municipal landfills.

This spring I’ve come out of the greengrocer’s several times with two or three loaded-down shopping bags full of my regular purchases to which I’ve added one or two extra bags of marked-down veg or fruit snagged from the back bin. It’s a small hedge against hard times, and a reminder not to waste food or just throw things away. As with our grandparents’ generation and all the ones before, we need to look ahead and develop some lost survival and innovation skills in this area.

It is not actually hard to do something good with a bargain bag of produce, and because it’s cheap, you get to exercise your creativity, your inventiveness and your willingness to take a chance on something you don’t already know how to do or do well. That is just as much of a lost skill and one we definitely could use more of. Continue reading

Three-Hour Sourdough

Three Hour Sourdough

I love sourdough–eating it, anyway. Baking? That’s enough of a challenge that I’m elated when it turns out relatively edible. Because even with my standards, which are a bit loose, there are times when the outcome is decidedly not up to expectations. I have trouble getting the dough risen well enough and into the oven before the acid chews up all the gluten. In other words, it tends to overproof and then flop. Few of my loaves–I can face it–have ended up risen enough to consider serving other people, and most of them are a bit coarse inside–partly because I want rye or whole wheat rather than just white bread.

The other challenge is the perennial one for sourdough cultures–it takes several days to build a decent-tasting and stable mix of flour, water, wild yeast and lactobacillus culture with no undesirable bugs or off-flavors and odors. And in the meantime most instructions tell you to take a small bit of the mixture, feed it fresh water and flour, and toss the majority. Wasteful–both of ingredients and time.

So for the past year or so I’ve wondered whether I couldn’t somehow just get a running start past all that by using commercial yeast (a big no-no according to sourdough experts) with some commercial lactobacillus culture–yogurt, maybe?–and flat-out cheating. As in, faux dough. Well, more precisely, perfectly real dough, with a real-enough sourdough taste and texture, only about 4 2/3 days faster. At least. Without just caving and paying 6 bucks at Whole Foods for a small decorator loaf.

Yesterday I wondered it strongly enough to hunt around online and see if the yogurt idea had occurred to anyone else–and it had.

Ladyandpups.com is the food blog of a sometimes cranky, sometimes poetic, impressively prolific and creative baker named Mandy Lee. She has a “fraudulent easy sourdough” recipe that uses more than a cup of plain yogurt with a small amount of yeast and 3.5 cups of bread flour–no added water, apparently–and some salt for a firm dough that rises either 18 hours at room temperature (1/4 t active dry yeast) or 6 hours (3/4 t. yeast) and comes out tasting right and looking beautiful and crackle-crusted via the Jim Lahey no-knead-but-preheat-the-dutch-oven method.

And that’s all to the good.

But I’m even more impatient than that, and most of my sourdough faux pas have to do with letting the dough sit too long before baking. Even a 6-hour rise seems like too much. I also wanted a whole-wheat sourdough (so half whole wheat, half bread flour), which means it’s already comparatively gluten-challenged. So I wanted a really short, sharp rise that would get the dough puffed up and bakeable before the acid got to the gluten too badly. With luck, the yeast would win out just enough to outpace the acid buildup and resulting hopeless flop, but still allow enough to develop a good tang, which is the whole point of sourdough in the first place.

That meant changing things a bit:

1. Less yogurt, only about half what Lee calls for–half would still have plenty of lactobacillus culture to reproduce, but wouldn’t contribute as much acid right up front.

2. Some water to dilute the initial acidity further to delay the inevitable gluten-chewing effect. More water also gets the dough smoother and the gluten developing more quickly even when there’s no acid-producing bacteria to worry about. That’s an added benefit since I was going whole-wheat.

3. Not too much yeast either. Normally, adding more yeast means getting a faster rise. But even 1/4 t. is about what I usually go with for a slower-rising dough with 5-6 cups of flour, and that only takes 3-4 hours to more than double in my kitchen, at least with a hot rise. I didn’t want so much extra yeast at the start that it outcompeted and inhibited the lactobacilli from the yogurt altogether, because no sour culture equals no sour flavor. Continue reading

Halloween Candy Carb Guide

Halloween is coming…if you have a diabetic kid, as I do, it’s more difficult than Valentine’s Day to deal with the ups and downs. This year my daughter is in college and making her own decisions, but we’ve been strategizing since her first Halloween with T1D (Type 1 diabetes, the kind that requires insulin round the clock) about how to handle the (several pounds of) candy haul safely without spoiling all the fun.

She will tell you I spoiled it by throwing out one or more pounds (out of 3, more than we even handed out) behind her back a couple of years later, and she still feels ripped off. I will tell you that she eked out at least 2 of her 3 pounds of junk for over a month of getting to eat a piece or two every day with a meal, so what’s she complaining about?

Now of course she prefers actual chocolate, high-percentage, with some actual chocolate flavor instead of light-brown oversweetened waxy mush. But the appeal of trick-or-treating lasted a long time and is probably still going strong.

The point being, people with Type 1 diabetes still like candy and can in fact eat some of it with insulin to cover it, just “in moderation” as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation puts it. In moderation meaning a little at any one time, preferably not on its own but with an actual meal that contains protein and vegetables and fiber to help de-spike it (for Halloween, I suppose I should say, “defang it”). And always with known and limited carb counts and the right amount of insulin to cover it.

Regular candy bars come with nutrition labels and carb counts, and you usually only buy one at a time, but Halloween throws everything off. The little minis and fun-sized and so on? And artificial sweeteners aren’t really the answer, especially not for kids, because there are some emerging health issues. If your kid (or you) have a candy haul with no labels, how do you carb count?

There are three ways to deal and you’ll want them all.

Start with the eyeball method

This is good for when you’re still on the street or at a party, or whenever you don’t have better measurement methods or official info handy…

If it’s a chocolate, the square minis (less than an inch on a side) are about 5 grams of carb apiece, and so are the small wrapped hard candies (“boiled sweets” in the UK) like Brach’s or Kraft peppermints and butterscotch, regular-sized thin 1″ plain lollipops and so on.

The slightly bigger 1 1/2″ long by 1/2″-5/8″ rectangles of standard chocolates are about 8-11 grams apiece.

The JDRF’s annual official guide to Halloween candy carbs

Once you get your haul home, or if you have a smartphone on you, use the official carb counts for any common candies with brand names. The  JDRF Halloween Candy Carb Guide is a PDF list you can print out and stick on the fridge or keep handy on your smartphone. They update it every year to keep it current.

When in doubt, weigh it out

Your best bet for any candy without a label–gummy worms, home-made or unwrapped chocolates, candy-bowl candy, etc.–is to weigh it on a scale that shows grams. Almost anything but sesame halvah (which you’re unlikely to pick up trick-or-treating) will be more than 85% carb by weight. (Halvah is about 50% by weight because it’s half sesame paste, half sugar syrup, but really. It’s kind of the exception.) Regular fudge is similar in texture but in terms of carb, it’s right up there around 90% like most commercial candies.

Most mass-market chocolate candy (i.e., Mars and Hershey, not the high-percentage bars) is 85-95% carb by weight, so if you weigh it in grams, multiply by 0.9 and you’ve got a pretty good estimate at least in reasonable single portions (1-2 pieces of candy, half an ounce or so). Hard candies like peppermints or butterscotch, Jolly Rancher, Lifesavers, etc. are basically 100% carb, so whatever they weigh in grams is the number of grams of carb. Jelly beans and gummy worms are in-between but figure 90-100% carb by weight.

Those percentages are a bit finicky and not everyone needs to know the carb to within a gram or so. If you don’t have a head for math or a calculator handy, just weigh it and figure it’s all carb, keep the portions limited to half an ounce (15-20 grams of candy) and and you won’t be off by more than 1-2 grams of carb.

For more tips on helping a young kid deal with diabetes and candy at Halloween, and more on general carb counting by weight for regular foods, check out the Carb Counts page (or just click the tab at the top of the blog).

Days of watermelon and roses

frozen watermelon slices

We spent much of August getting my daughter ready for her first year of college in upstate New York, about as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in the lower 48. Last-minute saves in the kitchen this time around included about a quarter of a small watermelon–5 or 6 inch-thick slices that I stuck in the freezer in a bag with the air squeezed out, hoping they wouldn’t be completely awful to use up somehow once we got home. I assumed it would be as hot when we came back as it was before we left, and that frozen watermelon in any form would be just about right.

Of course, today Pasadena is in the 80s and Boston and points north are in the 90s for a massive heatwave. Everything seems a bit topsy-turvy in this country to tell the truth, and as I’ve remarked more pointedly before, has for some time.

But at this moment, a world without Aretha Franklin in it– daring, flashy, cantankerous, exuberant, frank, funky, ambitious and endlessly talented–doesn’t seem right.

I have a treasure of hers that I picked up from the local Goodwill’s vinyl bins a couple of years ago: a red-labeled 45 whose B side was in perfect, untouched, glossy condition–“Prove It,” a number I only realized later that I had heard before, because honestly it was unremarkable even with her singing it.

The A side, on the other hand–scratched, worn down, dusty grooves, battle-hardened, loved to death and beyond, deservedly so. I quickly snatched it up for $1.99 and took it home, protected inside the cover of a hardback. Would it still play, was there any magic left? I stuck it on the turntable, nudged the needle arm over and lowered it as gently as possible.

Even though our speakers are o-l-d and not that great to begin with, the music just leaped out at me. Hearing the classic twang of the guitar intro and Aretha’s intricate runs on Chain of Fools puts shivers up my spine anyway, but this was the real thing. Vinyl, even old scratched vinyl from the ’60s, when I was three or four years old, is so much more evocative than the sound you can get from an mp3 it’s a sin.

Red is always how I’m going to think of Chain of Fools and Aretha Franklin, but looking back, she often chose a light pink for herself–one of her outfits on Soul Train for a live performance of Rock Steady, several of her later appearances too. I’ve never been a big fan of pale pink or Cadillacs, but I still love her exuberance and a song that full of juice and humor.

And that brings me back to the frozen slices of watermelon and what I did with them yesterday.

I knew that once it was frozen, the watermelon would probably have to stay frozen, because thawing it out would almost certainly cause it to collapse into limp mush, and what a shame (although I didn’t actually test that out, I would put good money on it).

snaplock container of watermelon sherbet

You can’t really buy watermelon ice cream or sorbet in this country, not at the supermarket anyhow, and I’ve never actually eaten any, not even as gelato in Italy, where (at least 25 years ago, when the artisanal gelaterie were still making it traditionally instead of from powdered mixes) they had just about everything you could put in gelato form and all the flavors came out really specific and vibrant and fresh.

I wasn’t sure a watermelon ice I could make at home would actually taste good on its own, and I had something a little more offbeat in mind for the flavor since watermelon is kind of subtle. But it’s popular world-wide, from Africa to east Asia as well as throughout the western hemisphere, which gave me a few ideas.

Right before we left for New York I’d interviewed someone who was born in Iran about his father’s legacy, and then while we were traveling I saw David Lebovitz‘s blog post on “booza”–the Lebanese version of Turkish dondurma or “stretchy” ice creams in exotic flavors. So I was thinking maybe rosewater and a pinch of clove with the watermelon. And maybe a dollop of yogurt in there somewhere for body so it wouldn’t be too much like a granità. And maybe…

Well, it could either be good, inedible or just plain strange–and it turned out something between good and a little strange, so I’m counting it as a good rough draft, and we’ll call it unusual, exotic, still a bit subtle but flavorful, specifically watermelon with rose. And pink.

My experimental ices tend to be low in sugar and fat, so the texture is a bit icy, sherbety or snow-cone-y rather than creamy. They’re still refreshing and I try not to let anything be cloying–rosewater can be, so I kept it to a teaspoon for what made about a quart in volume, and I added lemon juice, which helps a lot and keeps it from becoming “soapy.”

I don’t know–maybe this would be better as popsicles or paletas, but I like the snowiness, and the watermelon flesh definitely contributes that delicacy even without an ice cream maker.

And this one was pretty encouraging–cool, smooth, both down to earth and exotic, unexpected. Maybe a little like the Queen herself.

 

cup of watermelon rosewater sherbet

Watermelon Rosewater Sherbet

makes about 1 quart

  • 1-1 1/4 pounds (500ish grams) watermelon slices without rind or seeds, sliced and frozen all the way
  • 3-4 T sugar or to taste
  • squeeze of lemon juice and/or pinch of citric acid, sparingly, just to taste
  • 3-4 T nonfat milk-and-cultures only Greek yogurt
  • 1/2-1 c. skim milk, just as needed
  • 1 t. rosewater
  • pinch of ground cloves, optional–this was the part I’m not sure I’d repeat; it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t quite ideal either in combination with the watermelon, the rosewater and the tartness. So probably leave it out.

Microwave the frozen watermelon slices 30 seconds on an open plate, just enough to thaw a tiny bit so you can cut them into inch-or-so chunks for the blender or food processor and not break the blade. Add the lemon juice or citric acid, the sugar, the yogurt and rosewater (and pinch of clove? leave it out?) and a splash of milk, pulse to start it blending. Pour just enough extra milk through the processor spout to create a smooth thick icy milkshake-like blend, then pour the mixture into a 2.5 quart snaplock container with a lid and still-freeze, stirring briefly with a whisk after half an hour and returning it to the freezer.

If you want an actual sorbet with no dairy, make a simple syrup by boiling equal amounts of water and sugar for a few minutes to dissolve and thicken slightly, cool it to room temperature and blend it with the frozen watermelon and flavorings, leaving out the yogurt and milk and regular sugar. The usual sorbet proportions are about 3/4 cup of sugar (so about 3/4 c sugar, 3/4 c water, boiled up to a syrup and cooled) for a quart of finished sorbet. I find that a bit much sweet-wise and not as refreshing but it will deliver the kind of standard texture and cohesiveness you get in commercial sorbets.

Saving summer

Between the continuous stream of political, humanitarian, economic and diplomatic firestorms set by the Trump administration and the actual forest fires here, it’s been a long, hard, hot summer in California and much more stressful than summer should be. I water cautiously, keep moving forward, and try to keep my family healthy and myself from letting it take over.

I’m also looking for an effective civil rights and humanitarian aid group to contribute to–the Southern Poverty Law Center is one; there are also several mothers’ groups raising funds for legal representation for immigrants separated from their children. As I discovered last year during hurricanes Harvey and Maria, making donations for humanitarian aid is an important way to help yourself as well–it’s something concrete you can do that will actually make a difference, and it makes you feel less overwhelmed and powerless as an individual.

Whenever I step back from the newspapers for a bit, though, I look around me and see the brighter side. I consider that my daughter has finished high school with both honors and friends, and for a change doesn’t have summer homework. She’s working in a job she loves, is learning to drive and is nearly on her way to college, which we are all looking forward to. She’s ready and I’m proud of her (although I’m still not quite ready to see Ladybird).

I’m working for a community book festival this fall that promises some fun and challenging authors, I have some interesting new freelance assignments, and my first e-book project is nearly ready for publication. And I’ve started experimenting again in the kitchen–something I really didn’t have the time or concentration for during graduation and its immediate aftermath.

The heat wave is a big factor in my cooking; Pasadena tends to get over 90 F most days of summer (and plenty of times from September to April too), and the past few weeks have seen temperatures in the 100s midday. So the freezer and microwave are essentials in my book. So is eating or preserving enough of the bounty of summer produce while it’s at its best to keep it from going to waste even in the fridge. Because I always tend to go overboard at the greengrocer’s–last year or the year before it was nectarines (this year too). This year it’s plums, strawberries, any other berries I can get at a good price.

Instant Frozen Yogurt

Most berries are good if you just wash and freeze them while they’re still in decent shape. Mix three or so ounces of frozen blueberries or blackberries with a 4-ounce/half-cup dollop of plain nonfat Greek yogurt and a teaspoon of sugar in a small plastic cup or snaplock container (the plastic is a better insulator than ceramic cups or glass) and you have nearly instant all-real and nicely purple frogurt–the small berries get the yogurt freezing the right way, right in the cup, within about 30 seconds as you stir.

But what if the berries are going a bit ugly and soft–like strawberries?

There’s nearly no point in trying for homemade strawberry frogurt or ice cream unless you really personally like it. Sorbet, I can definitely see, but for my money, strawberry ice cream is generally an insultingly pale pink, not terribly fresh, and tastes duller than plain vanilla. It would be a lot better to stick some actual fresh strawberries or a not-too-sweet fresh strawberry purée on the side of some good-quality plain vanilla because you’d have a real contrast between two actual flavors, not one mediocre pink in-between.

Well, what about jam?

Strawberries are one of my favorite fruits—fresh and raw or else frozen, unsweetened. But I actively dislike most strawberry jam—the cooked, oversweetened blandness bears no resemblance to the fresh, tart wild-tasting fruit I love.

Commercial strawberry jam is not only unbearably sticky-sweet and gluey but the fruit itself, when you encounter it, is usually a slimy dull gray lumpette with five o’clock shadow, something to pick out cautiously rather than savor. It’s not the best of the fruit to start with, and it’s now overcooked and showing it.

But there are still some really heavenly strawberries out there going overripe on the market produce shelves, and I had about half a pound left just a little too long in my fridge after a party. I discovered by fooling around that strawberry jam or at least compote that still tastes like strawberries is  possible to do at home if you microwave it lightly instead of cooking it to death. And I even liked it.

 

microwave fresh strawberry jam

 

Could I keep the tartness intact? Could I keep it lightly cooked enough to still taste fresh and like strawberries to me? Could I keep it from being slimy?

Based on a few of my other impromptu microwave fruit spreads (peach, plum, apricot, kumquat) and fruit-rescue attempts (faux sour cherry, nectarine sorbet) I decided I’d give it a quick try in the microwave Continue reading

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