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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow 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).

Hot Air

The last two or three months of school seems to be getting more and more fraught every year–for parents, certainly. I’ve just woken up to the fact that I’ve been offline for something like three months now–March! yeesh! Not because I had nothing new to say about food, exactly, but because I had three or four competing ideas and no time to figure out pictures for the posts. And as everybody knows, if you didn’t take a picture of it, it practically didn’t happen. Just like all those tourists who used go to the Grand Canyon and (back in the day of actual film) had to wait for their pictures to be developed to see what it looked like…

And now that school’s out, it’s hot. 107 degrees twice this week in Pasadena, smoke in the air from the San Gabriel fire not too far away, and no desire to cook, walk during the day, or listen to anything resembling hot air.

Because the recent spate of presidential campaigning has become poised to take away almost any American’s appetite for a while.  Just read a newspaper online and look at the prominent photos and bombastic quotations and examples of rank cowardice.

I mean, yeah, I voted in the California primary two weeks ago, and I even researched all the local judges and assemblypeople for my district this time, hoping to make something count or at least not to commit any hideous mistakes.

Contrary to what you might think, reading the candidates’ own statements will actually give you a feel for what kind of people they are, whether they give a flying leap about their prospective constituents and whether they know how to tie their own shoes. Reading through about fifteen last-minute write-in candidate statements for various assembly-and-county-supervisor-type posts was pretty entertaining, actually–most of the hopefuls (you could guess which parties) stated their qualifications as “I believe in God.” Seriously. Sum total.

Nationalistic and bigoted fervor seem to be going around, though. To wit, “Brexit”, which actually won the vote today. Not that I don’t understand Britain’s–and everyone else’s–frustration with the EU administration, but the vote results and the resulting–utterly predictable–mess announced this morning are really disheartening.

Some are calling it a shot in the dark; to me it looks like a solid a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot-why-don’t-you move. It’ll take at least two years to execute, cost an immediate fortune in lost business and one-downmanship, and probably cost a lot more time, money and headache than previously suspected to resolve with the EU countries. Let’s face it; if Trump (king of the gold-tone hot air vent) thinks that it’s a great idea, you know you’ve gone wrong somewhere. Scotland, where his fabled floundering golf courses are located, went solidly for “remain,” by the way…

So is it any wonder I feel like taking a major break from my computer, my kitchen, and possibly your kitchen as well? If only to soothe your eyeballs and your rapidly developing ulcer, for which I apologize profoundly. Oy.

Now that that’s over, I guess I have no more excuses. What was I going to post all this time, anyway?

Harking back to early April, it looks like I made a couple of tries at something about microwaveable side dishes for Passover seders. Yes, it’s now too late to care where I hid the afikoman, but I maintain that the ability to microwave greens like asparagus or broccoli to perfection in a couple of minutes at the drop of a hat can save a meal–Passover or not–and some heat in the kitchen. If you’re vegetarian or leaning toward it, some of the not-chicken microwaveable soups can also be kind of handy and quick to nuke and store in those big snaplock containers in the fridge and free up your stove.

I didn’t go so far as to try any microwave matzah balls. No idea whether that would be a great idea or a terrible one, I was too not-chicken to try it. What can I say–be relieved. Be very relieved.

However, a crustless Israeli-style spinach and feta casserole, basically a quiche but more rustic in texture, was a hit both conventionally baked and browned for a Saturday congregation lunch during Passover and later for us at home via the quickie microwave method (minus the crust, so you don’t need the oven at all). It’s less glamorous-looking, more get-it-on-the-table-and-don’t-heat-up-the-house.

Israeli-style spinach, feta and egg casserole

Unfortunately for the spinach and feta thing, it turns out there are a gazillion of these posts all over the web, especially on low-carber fitness sites. Which takes away some of the charm of posting about it. But it’s still a good and very simple dish.

Israeli Spinach and Feta Crustless Quiche

Per casserole dish:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 c. milk (skim is fine)
  • 1 lb. thawed and squeezed-out frozen spinach
  • 1 lg clove garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • 2-3 chopped scallions
  • handful of chopped dill or 1-2 T dried
  • 6-8 oz. crumbled feta

Toss the spinach, herbs and feta lightly in the casserole dish so there are visible clumps of cheese (i.e., don’t blend it too fine), mix the eggs and milk together and pour them over. Optional–grate or sprinkle a pinch of nutmeg on top. Either bake about 35-45 minutes at 350F, which makes it all pretty, puffed and browned on top, or (as I see it, the better option for Pasadena weather), just nuke it covered in a microwaveable stoneware casserole for about 7-8 minutes until puffed and cooked through to keep your kitchen from sweltering.

…Are we sensing a theme here? I hope so–because yes, it’s actually been 107 degrees this week in Pasadena. I’m not that good at keeping my cool or not cooking at all (don’t ask about the sourdough I “rescued” by baking around midnight with all the doors and windows open when the temperature dropped below 90…) But I’m trying hard not to cook.

When it’s this hot, dinner becomes a pastiche of sort-of-niçoise salads with beans or canned tuna added, maybe some cold hard-boiled or medium-boiled eggs. I’m also not above making a dinner of wedges of leftover cauliflower omelet reheated (or not) in the microwave, and either tomato-cucumber salad or some sliced tomatoes with vinegar, olive oil, maybe basil flowers from the struggling plant outside.

box of winter salad

The big box of grab-and-go salad vegetables is still looking like a good strategy too–veg that doesn’t wilt in an instant is as valuable in summer as in winter. As is shredded Greek cabbage salad. Cold raw or microwave-blanched green beans, romano beans, cauliflower or broccoli with mustard dressing, Italian-type vinaigrette, or a yogurt-based dip is also a relief.

Here are a few other hot weather ideas dragged from the depths of my blank-book cookbooks, which I now realize I’ve been keeping more than half my life.

Cold marinated tofu

Tofu is actually pretty handy to have in hot weather–either nuked with vegetables instead of stir-frying if you can stand to eat it hot, or else sliced cold and marinated for ~ half an hour with jao tze dipping sauce ingredients poured over it. Continue reading

“The Dorito Effect”: Fervor over Flavor

So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She  also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)

Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.

Kroger Superbowl recipe booklet

I’ll spare you the inside pages, but the closest to nutritious was Kroger’s own recipe for double-coated baked cauliflower “hot wings”–ingredients: a head of cauliflower, a little flour and water, garlic powder, Kroger’s store-brand hot sauce, and some melted butter to doll up the cauliflower florets before dipping in…ranch dressing. 

Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.

It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.

He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…

Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.

Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.

Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.

Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers. Continue reading

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

Stolen!

Toucan-beaked finjanim (coffee pots) from the Ethnographic and Folklore Museum in Akko, Israel

Brass finjanim (coffee pots) and tin plates from the pioneer days in Israel. Exhibition at the Ethnographic and Folklore Museum, Akko, Israel

Can’t decide whether I’m more heartbroken or flattered–maybe just surprised?

The Wall Street Journal 

a) has a food section (who knew?)

b) which is currently featuring a 4-part series of recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi.  (I’m actually in favor, and hoping for his book Plenty for my birthday–my husband  floated the suggestion a few weeks ago and I was really flabbergasted that he’d even heard of Ottolenghi. Must have been listening to  something on NPR.) Why is Ottolenghi favoring the WSJ, though, of all food column venues?

c) Said series is calling itself “Slow Food Fast” — the goniffs; can I charge them for it? wouldn’t you? — but it probably shouldn’t.

I’m not just saying that for my own sake (though that’s a big part of it, don’t get me wrong. I’m–the heck with neutrality–too annoyed to be giving a link to this).

Ottolenghi’s recipes aren’t really either slow-slow (stews, beans from scratch, etc.) or incredibly fast (microwave)–a lot are lightly fried or grilled, with a sharp mix of flavors, a lot of herbs, middle Eastern sauces and a tossed salad of some kind on the side. Soft-boiled eggs in a salad, corn latkes with a salad, pan-grilled mackerel on a pita with pistachio pesto and Greek yogurt (bet he’d rather have labaneh but can’t find it in New York or London)–etc.

Which makes them good eating, Israeli and Arab style. But not really slow food done fast.

Most Israeli cooking that’s still Israeli (and not nouveau-Italian, complete with oversized bowls of pasta and seven different cappuccino/macchiato/etc. kinds of coffee drinks) falls into three categories.

The old-fashioned stuff is long-cooked roasts or stews for meats and poultry, maybe stuffed vegetables or an eggplant or spinach casserole or couscous or pilaf. Traditional Romanian, Hungarian, and Moroccan restaurants and some home chefs (usually older women) serve these sorts of long-cooked dishes, but there’s no real shortcut for them.

Israeli street food (not western, engineered “fast food” like McD’s) mostly appears at lunch counters and road stops that specialize, but again the ingredients are real. Felafel, shawarma (even though they’re mostly using a mixture of turkey and beef instead of lamb these days), lahmajoun (ground-meat pizzas). Or else burekas, trays and trays of puff-like flake pastry layered with cheese or eggplant or potato or mushroom filling, and you stop in for lunch and have a huge slab of one with maybe a bit of salad on the side and some tea. All of these take some preparation–the fast part is you walking up to the counter and getting takeout.

In between these extremes are cafés that serve individually-cooked dishes–more informal than casseroles and stews, less casual and more varied than street food. Grilled or fried vegetables (peppers, onions, eggplants, tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkin? potatoes?–more eggplant) and beans, grilled fish or chicken, hummus and baba ghanouj, assortments of cooked salads,with a fresh salad and dishes of olives, turnip and eggplant pickles. A lot of olive oil and garlic and lemon and cumin, yogurt, vegetables, and water-flour-yeast-salt kinds of flatbreads. Street food stand sauces like tehina, salat turqui, harissa, and hilbe (sour yellow fenugreek sauce, kind of mustardy) are still part of it, but so are vinaigrettes and more complex flavorings, and a lot of fresh herbs make an appearance.

This is Ottolenghi’s kind of cooking, and I love it, but it’s neither slow food nor slow food done faster. It’s rustic, village-style food, even though he’s dressed up his version for London diners. At its best you feel like you could walk into the restaurant and fit in fine whether dressed for a theater evening or still dusty from hiking with a water bottle still hanging off your backpack. As though if you walked to the back you wouldn’t be that surprised to see the chefs squatting down over a little pine fire in the courtyard, grilling the food Bedouin-style,  on the back of a broad, battered skillet or skewered on a long thin stick.

They’re not really doing that in Tel Aviv or Haifa, of course, but desert camp cooking is still a key part of the local food lore. People still grill things like chicken hearts and livers outside on little pine fires in their courtyards at home with great pride. Or char eggplants and peppers directly on the gas stove–sort of smelly but undeniably authentic. They point out  za’atar, hyssop and other forageable herbs on wilderness hikes; they know how to make a quick camper’s flatbread of flour and water and a few sprigs of foraged maluakh (a salty plant found in the Negev) over the back of a frying pan. And they know how to brew botz — Turkish coffee–with a flourish.

It’s a part of Israeli life I fervently hope won’t disappear with all the new software companies and car dealerships and cappuccino joints that have popped up over the last couple of decades.

As for the use of my blog’s name, I’m thinking I should take the attitude Monty Python did one time when Margaret Thatcher made free with their Dead Parrot Sketch in a political speech for the Eastbourne by-elections: they announced that given the results of the elections, they thought it not only served her right, but that she had suffered adequately and publicly from her folly that they could save themselves the barristers’ fees for a lawsuit.

Me? I’m waiting til Tuesday. Somewhere else in the WSJ online was an editorial actually praising John Boehner’s plan for the debt ceiling. Feh.

Cooking (and other important) Resolutions

(Of course)–I couldn’t leave 2010 on such a bitter note as the one in my last post, even though I think bitterness is a good, energizing, creative thing. Or as the great Eric Burdon once–or actually, quite any number of times–told an interviewer about his ordeal with getting paid for House of the Rising Sun, “I’m not bi’eh. I’m bi’ehsweet.” I have a thing for Burdon’s early stuff–voice like a hammer, great blues timing, pure nerve with a sense of humor, and clearly, a good appetite.

So I wish you all a Happy New Year, good eating, good cooking, good reading and good company, and thank everyone who’s visited and especially those who have taken the time to subscribe to Slow Food Fast. For myself, I’ve come up with about 11 new resolutions for 2011 (but as usual for me, it may will definitely run longer, since I’m terrible about following directions, even my own, whether cooking or resolving):

1. Learn the Dirty Dozen a little better and plan the weekly budget (see #3) to include buying these vegetables and fruits organic only. (I’ve got celery, potatoes, pears and strawberries down so far, but I know there’s gotta be at least 8 more, right?) Find places to buy them cheaper than Whole Foods.

1a. Learn to garden? Umm. Learn to schnorr backyard fruit from friends? More likely, ain’t it? Ok, ok, make more friends, schnorr backyard fruit and veg. And rosemary, which some people grow as a hedge here in Pasadena. Envy, envy, envy–turn it to a good purpose and offer to take some of the excess off their hands.

1b. Exercise basic civility towards other people’s food choices–your eat local is my eat kosher is his eat organic is her eat affordably. Everyone’s got different priorities, and you don’t know who is eating a particular way because they feel like it and who really needs to so they don’t end up in the hospital. Food shouldn’t be too huge a source of personal arguments. I mean, really, people, save some energy for the real issue–dark or milk chocolate?

2. Get the weekly food budget back down under $100 a week (holidays take it outta me). Make a list and (I cannot believe I’m saying this) check it twice. With a calculator. Include toilet paper and napkins and so on.

3. Use all the vegetables I buy sometime in the same week I buy them. This goes triple for any herbs. No brown broccoli (not usually a big problem in my house, actually) or rubbery carrots (didn’t mean to confess that). And NO cilantro or fresh dill left until it turns slimy while I dither over what to use it in… when in doubt, make soup (see #4), or with herbs, wash and freeze in baggies.

4. Make one big batch of soup each week (see #3 if necessary for motivation) and eat it.

5. Make one pound of beans each week and eat it in fabulously creative ways, or at least edible ones. Eat them as a substitute for, not addition to, fish or meat at least one dinner per week.

6. I’m stumped. Maybe I should make each of the previous resolutions count twice? Naaah. Put on some blues and think again.

The real #6: Eat vegetables at breakfast, Israeli-style.

7. Wash fewer dishes–make my kid do them! (oh, yeah, I’m rollin’ now!)

8. Reduce my dependence on oil–starting by using cocoa powder instead of a full-cocoa-butter chocolate fix…damn those holiday gift boxes. Hate See’s, hate it with a passion (unfortunately, not really)…

9. In the same vein–cut down to half-caf this week, decaf in two or three weeks. Start today. Too much hoppin’ around after midnight (or maybe just too much listening to Eric Burdon on YouTube–wait. Is there such a thing as too much, at least of his early stuff?).

10. Shop my neighborhood greengrocer’s first instead of the big box market. Buy and try a small amount of one new Silk Road ingredient each month (red pepper paste? knoug resin? green almonds? sea buckthorn nectar?)

11. Get a few new implements as long as they have a real multifarious use and a small kitchen footprint: stick blender? I hear it calling my name. Pasta machine? not so much–the box instructions say not to immerse in water. How are you supposed to wash it then? (see #7)

12. Make bread at home again.

13. Revamp a classic every so often, preferably with the intelligent use of a microwave to help speed things up where it will actually help. Like choux paste (at least for heating the liquid ingredients before adding the flour and eggs–that’s actually been done before, and not by me) or pretty-good fake-smoked whitefish salad (which is mine, see the end of this post). Continue reading

The Hummus Debate

Hummus from scratchHummus is a highly politicized food these days, a situation most eaters outside Lebanon, and at a guess, most inside as well, consider slightly ridiculous. “Owning” hummus has become a point of national pride for a few higher-ups in Lebanon, which has in the past year or two followed Greece’s feta-labeling strategy and tried to appropriate sole credit for authentic hummus. At its more light-hearted, this struggle for hummus supremacy takes the form of an annual stunt in which chefs produce a hummus bowl almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool (or at least an Olympic-sized wading pool) and the triumphal photo makes the international news. But those who really take the Lebanese official origin issue seriously and grimace whenever hummus is served somewhere else are, as far as I can see, only hurting themselves.

The trouble with demanding official status is that both feta and hummus long predate the borders of the countries trying to claim them. Both are simple enough to make and so consistent from batch to batch that they don’t really exhibit much in the way of “terroir” the way aged cheeses, wines, vinegars and so on might. Feta–equally good, equally real, equally part of the native fare–is made in a lot of places neighboring modern-day Greece. Places like Bulgaria, which don’t have as much political clout in either the EU or the Slow Food organizations, and which don’t get half the international tourism. Also places further away, notably Denmark and France, which still have reasonably large sheep’s milk production. Greece may actually have succeeded for the moment in the food labeling tug-of-war, but it’s made the country look somewhat silly and petulant, unwilling to face the fact that they’ve closed the barn door at least a century after the sheep got out. Will they profit from the exclusive labeling? doubtful–and it might have been better ambassadorship to claim credit for spreading feta’s popularity and offer more recipes and products made with it.

Much to the chagrin of whoever decided in the past couple of years that hummus should be exclusively Lebanese, this simple spread is made and eaten in lots of other countries. In Egypt, it’s made with a half-and-half mixture of favas and chickpeas. And Israel, which is probably the “other country” being targeted most directly by the Lebanese hummus campaign, has eaten, breathed, and slept a more or less chickpeas-only version of hummus as an essential food (along with felafel) for longer than the state has been independent.

Unlike the partisanry in Lebanon (not that Israel has no partisanry of its own), when it comes to food, everyone in Israel–Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druse–gives credit with a certain degree of pride that hummus is Arab food, especially if they’ve made it themselves rather than trotting down to the corner grocery to buy the bland ready-made version from a vat in the deli at the back.

That’s because everyone likes to eat it. It’s also because being a good host is really important and something of a formal habit and a chance to show off just a little–actually, I think that’s still true all throughout the Middle East. Everyone expects friends and neighbors and friends-of-friends to drop by at a moment’s notice, without invitation, especially on the weekend. The least you can do is have a bag of roasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds and a pot of hideously sweet mint tea to bring out if they show up to schmooze after supper, but in the afternoon, better if you can bring out a platter of pita, vegetables, and a bowl of hummus.

Hummus is simple Arab fare at its best–humble, nutritious, appetizing, and (now that we have food processors) easy to make a lot of so you can bring out a wide platter of it for your guests and drizzle a little olive oil and some za’atar or sumac or cumin or paprika over it for the finishing touch–right before everyone tears pita and dips in. The ceremonial thing is what makes it good hosting and is part of the fun.

Here in the US, most people buy their hummus in little plastic containers at the supermarket–not elegant at all, and a lot of money for what you get. Kind of depressing, even. Look at the ingredient list and it’s as long and discouraging as any other processed food–that’s so it can be shipped nationally and stored for a week or two in case it doesn’t all sell out the first day. Look at the nutrition label and you see highish salt, lowish protein and fiber. It’s been fluffed out with canola oil to stretch the expensive ingredient, tehina (sesame paste), and there’s not so much in the way of chickpeas even though they’re supposed to be the base.

While I’m not so much against the fluffy smooth stuff (it tastes ok, if all you’re expecting is a spoonful or two of party dip), I prefer homemade because it’s denser and more nutritious, with more iron and protein from the chickpeas, something you could eat packed in half a pita for lunch and not be starving within an hour. Continue reading

Prunes and Lentils II: Prune Sauces for Savory Dishes

Following on from Sunday’s post (have you recovered yet? Should I be selling Tums futures?) I should add that NOWHERE in Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible can a mention be found of prunes paired in any way, shape, or form with lentils. Don’t have the faintest why not. They do state that plain old green lentils have more flavor than red or brown.  They also pair prunes with olives, mushrooms, gorgonzola and walnuts as well as sweet spices and red wine. Somewhere in that crossroads there’s got to be some confluence of flavor, but wherever it is, they haven’t considered it.

Others have, however–notably Nathan Lyon of the Discovery Channel, ABC’s “Beat the Chef” show in Australia from a few years back, Hello! magazine (OK, copying straight from the California Prune Board’s UK division–wait a minute, they HAVE a UK division?!–and borrowing its press photo)…Oh well.

The benefit to considering prune sauces is that you can serve them with a lentil dish if you’re ready for that or to lift a more familiar savory dish with meat, fish or poultry.

Pan-seared tuna steak with microwave prune and wine chutney

Pan-seared tuna steak with microwave prune and wine chutney

And yes, I said “lift”. Make of it what you will, but any one of the sauces below is better than whatever Hello! magazine has to offer, even if it were original.

Stéphane Reynaud’s Prune Sauce (excerpted for consideration from French Feasts, 2009)

This was designed to go with a simply pan-fried foie gras for six–probably 3-4 oz per person, which seems like a hefty kind of serving, even though I do like liver.  But the sauce–why 18 prunes? 3 per person? and it seems a heavy load of spice for a small amount of wine. Also he has you rest the stuff overnight at room temperature before finishing it. Not sure why–to thicken up, probably, like Elizabeth David’s recipe for peach jam, which also sits out overnight after the first boil-up before resuming.

  • 18 pitted prunes
  • 1 c red wine
  • 1 t ground cinnamon
  • 1 t quatre-épices
  • 2 star anise pods
  • 2 T light brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 T butter, chilled

Boil the prunes 5 min with the wine, spices and sugar, cover and leave O/N at RT. Remove the prunes and reduce the spiced wine to a syrupy sauce. Whisk in the butter, then return the prunes to the sauce.

Microwave Prune Chutney with Wine

My microwave version started out as Reynaud’s wine-based sauce and suddenly morphed, as I was grabbing things out of the fridge for it, with a half-remembered cranberry chutney recipe my mother-in-law served a number of years ago at Thanksgiving. This turns out to be a potent combination, aromatic and sharper, no doubt, than Reynaud’s sauce, with a definite suggestion of saltiness about it–but no actual salt. I don’t recommend eating it straight–too pungent for me, though it’s uncannily close to the relish my mother-in-law served and pretty decent with poultry and stuffing or rice and so on–but cooking 5 minutes or so extra in a saucepan over direct heat or with the food you’re saucing and some extra wine turns it into something pretty special. The whole cloves in particular (which you can take out before using the sauce) do something incredible for any meat or steaky fish you cook with this sauce. Like brisket but just…better, more sophisticated, elevated to the level of cuisine. In fact, put some of this prune sauce with cloves in your next brisket too. 

Makes about 1 cup

  • ½-1 c leftover dark red wine–syrah, aglianico, something inexpensive but rich
  • 8-10 pitted prunes, quartered
  • grating of fresh ginger (1/4 t)
  • grating of 1/2 decent-sized clove garlic or 1 small clove
  • 1/4 red onion, chopped
  • 1-2 t. wine vinegar
  • sprig of thyme
  • pinch of fennel seed
  • 4-5 whole cloves, loose if you can stand picking them out or else stuck through a scrap of onion

Toss the onions with the vinegar and let sit a few minutes while chopping the prunes into quarters–it cuts down on the bite. Mix the onions, prunes, and the rest of the ingredients except the cloves in a soup bowl with a microwaveable lid that can placed on with a gap for steam to escape. Poke the cloves into a larger scrap of onion and add that to the bowl so you can fish them back out easily after cooking. Microwave 1-2 minutes loosely covered on HIGH or until it’s boiling, let sit 5 minutes, stir, microwave again. The prunes will have taken up a lot of the liquid, the onions should be cooked through and garnet-colored, and the wine should be reduced and a bit syrupy.

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From France to China, then:

One year I was determined to make a low-sodium substitute for fermented black bean sauce with roast salmon. I soaked some prunes in a little boiling water and mashed them to a paste, then dressed them up with garlic, ginger and a few other things. It turned out, to my surprise, like homemade hoisin–-dark, glossy, tart and aromatic, less sweet than the commercial stuff, a little smoky from the sesame oil and scallions, with the suggestion of salt Continue reading

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