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Emergency Éclairs 2.0, Even More Microwaved

 

plate of eclairs

All the components of an éclair are at least partly microwaveable, flavorful and pretty forgiving. Even if you have to serve them upside down.

Here we go again, because it’s been Valentine’s Day this past weekend and I have pretty loose time standards for such things…I did actually make these before dinner on the 14th, so it counts. Not that you really need VDay as an excuse.

Éclairs are a lot simpler than they look in the pastry shops, and a lot cheaper than you’d think to make at home–in fact, cheaper than almost any American-style dessert in terms of calories, sugar, fat, salt… A surprisingly small amount of ordinary pantry staple ingredients goes a very long way and makes a bigger show than if you tried making brownies.

If you have a microwave, they can also be a lot quicker than most cookbook recipe specs, even though there are three separate parts to prepare and assemble–the filling, the shell, and the chocolate topping–rather than the usual American one-bowl dump-mix-and-bake scheme.

Éclairs don’t hit you over the head with sweet–they rely on the contrast of textures and flavors between the mostly unsweet pastry shell, the delicately sweet pastry cream, and the deep chocolate (or other flavor, but it has to be an actual flavor to be good, not the typical flavorless, oversweetened canned cake frosting) topping.

Éclairs have also become something of a canvas for artistic expression in Parisian bakeries; David Lebovitz has some great photos of ones with reproductions of paintings screened onto the tops, woodland scenes in colored icing and fondant and flavored marshmallows, fruit fantasias, and I don’t know what else, not to mention the fillings. They’re gorgeous to look at in the glass pastry cases but you couldn’t walk down the street, find a park bench, and just eat them with your fingers. You’d end up wearing them.

So the classic chocolate-topped, pastry cream-filled éclairs are still my favorite, partly because you can’t find them in most of the bakeries here.

Baking the dough is the one part you can’t really do in the microwave, more’s the pity (although you can do it in the toaster oven for a small batch). But otherwise, I can say it was worth it and–although I needed to step on a scale Monday morning to be certain–not that devastating dietwise…or even diabetes-wise. But, as with rugelach, you probably shouldn’t do this too often. Holidays and sharing are a pretty good idea. Leftovers are not. Limit the dietary badness.

Unromantic morning-after nutrition stat check: At the medium-small size I made, they weigh in at about 22 grams of carbohydrate, 160 calories, 6 grams of fat (mostly saturated, from the butter and chocolate plus egg yolks) and maybe 40-50 mg max of sodium apiece. Verdict: Not too shabby for a French dessert. Could be worse and often is. Stick to one apiece, plus some fruit, and eat it with a light supper that includes a green salad and you should be reasonably fine. Also svelte, happy, and able to sing «Non…je ne régrette rien…» the next morning. But please don’t. Not before coffee.

Even if you eat two at a time after supper because you’re not sure how long you can store the extras in the fridge so they don’t go all soggy the next day, it shouldn’t hit you like a ton of lead…well, not too much like a ton of lead. At least they weren’t full sized; they were pretty filling. Afterward, when we were lying in a daze on the couch recovering, my husband suggested just freezing any extras next time. He had a point.

About halving a recipe

I was in a hurry and couldn’t find the lower-saturated-fat recipe I’d used successfully for “Emergency éclairs 1.0” so I went with the recipes for choux paste shells and pastry cream in the “basics” back section of the white Silver Palate Cookbook. The dough and pastry cream worked fine in the microwave, as I think almost any standard recipes would.

Since there are only myself, my husband and our daughter here for dinner and eligible for éclairs (plus the cat, who is miffed that we didn’t count her), I cut both recipes in half–I repeat, limit the dietary badness…

The pastry cream was fine, but I hadn’t read all the instructions for the choux pastry, or I’d have known that the 3rd egg was for a completely unnecessary egg yolk glaze. When I halved the recipe I used an extra egg white as the “half egg,” and when the puffs puffed, they left nothing behind, no base, just a hollow, once I peeled them off the foil. The result was still fine for us but a little awkward for presentation–I had to sit them upside down like boats to fill them, and then cover the filling with the ganache. So definitely go back to the right proportions for the choux recipe (repeated below).

The ganache…is always very chocolate, very microwaveable, very forgiving of awkwardness and therefore perfection itself. It covers a lot of sins and makes you feel much better about them.

Mostly Microwaveable Éclairs

This is half-recipes all the way: it makes 6-7 half-size éclairs, 3″ rather than the standard 6″ monsters at the bakery. We each had two after supper and were completely stuffed.

Timing: If you’re doing the whole thing in one go, start by preheating the (regular) oven to 400 F, then make the pastry cream, which is really fast, and chill and stick it in the fridge, then do the choux paste, because as soon as you make that you need to dollop it out and bake it right away. If you use the microwave for the pastry cream, and you should, the choux will be ready to go just about when the oven beeps. 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

Passover Dessert Challenge: No Eggs!

 Passover-eggless-chocolatealmondtorte-halfsheet

Bear with me, I’m still a little hyper (see below). Three days before the first Passover seder, and I’ve been asked to bring a non-fruit, non-macaroon dessert. With a few caveats.

This is the ultimate, I think: a fresh dessert, preferably deep chocolate, with no dairy (serving at a meat meal), no fake stuff (because I can’t stand it) and obviously for Passover, no chametz (forbidden grains like wheat, barley, oats, etc.) or kitniyot (legumes, corn, rice, peas and green beans, some seeds, nuts and spices, plus some vegetable oils derived from them, like sunflower…). Also, for reasons of the requesting family’s allergies, no pistachios, hazelnuts or cashews, or cinnamon.

Or, and here’s the kicker for Passover desserts–eggs. No eggs! And it’s got to be moist and fabulous, or at least obviously better than the standard choke cake box mix, and prettier than the all-real-but-undecorated apple-almond cake I served a couple of years ago. And it’s got to rise and still be kosher for Passover under Orthodox Union rules. Which I had to look up on line for some of the possibilities I had in mind.

It’s not dread in my heart, surprisingly, but a little tinge of excitement at another chance to mess around and come up with something decent.

I’ve done a few home desserts that weren’t bad and that didn’t contain most of the forbidden items. My first best hope is something as close as possible to my favorite, Sacher torte (because I’m unoriginal and because at least I’ll like it). I’ve been working on this for a while and I thought, I can get by without eggs as long as I have some other way to raise the cake and keep it from turning into a rubber brick.

And eggs aren’t the only way to raise a cake or make a cookie without violating the kosher-for-Passover rules. It turns out that some brands of baking soda, including Arm&Hammer and a number of smaller and store brands, are processed under sufficient supervision so there’s no contamination from cornstarch or grains or the like, and are now considered kosher for Passover under O-U rules–it’s worthwhile looking them up. So is all unflavored bottled soda water, even without a kosher certification mark. That one I remember from my student days, when somebody said you could pour seltzer into matzah ball mix to lighten it.

Another item that turns out to be okay is linseed–aka flax. So if you grind linseed and bring it up with water, you could do a kosher-for-Passover dessert without eggs for the kinds of things flaxmeal works for. Consult a vegan dessert book (aside: a lot of the authors are Jewish! Maybe not so surprising), use matzah cake meal and/or almond meal instead of standard flour, and you might be in like Flynn (or at least like Feldman).

Other key ingredients to check are K-leP (kasher lePesach; kosher for Passover)…

The chocolate, obviously. Elite makes so-so quality but certified pareve kosher for Passover bittersweet bars, and they can definitely be put to work. Hershey’s plain (not Special Dark) non-dutched cocoa powder is accepted by the O-U even with just its regular certification mark. Some cider vinegar is probably certified–but fresh lemon juice or orange juice might work too, in case I can’t find an O-U-labeled version. And unflavored raw almonds, walnuts, pecans and almond meal from Trader Joe’s are also all approved, at least this year. Also white cane sugar and non-iodized salt with a regular year-round O-U certification mark.

Other items:

Plain dried fruits as long as they’re not coated with vegetable oils or the like.

Plain fresh fruits other than raspberries and their kin, which are hard to inspect for tiny bugs among the drupelets (but which the O-U has a whole procedure for inspecting at home to make them okay–it boils down to washing and looking carefully. So much for the mystery…).

Spices are more of a pain–some, like caraway and fennel, are considered kitniyot, even though very similar ones in the same family, like anise, are acceptable. Not that I was going to put any of these in a chocolate cake, mind you, but I like to keep my options open for other, non-chocolate, possibilities. Ground spices need to be certified for Passover, and most of the supermarket store brands aren’t.

Finally there’s the taste/texture issue, the 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Serve No Choke Cake (not even before its time, and thank you so much Paul Masson).

You want something raised with seltzer or baking soda and no eggs, you’re taking your chances on a pretty dry item. Almond meal contributes oil and moisture without making things oily as long as you remember to cut down on oil ingredients to compensate. But depending on how light or springy you want your cake, you may need more matzah cake meal for structure, which really dries things out if you go too far with it. Weighing the matzah meal is better than measuring into a cup because it’s dryer–already baked–so it’s denser than regular flour. You need more liquids if you use matzah meal–hence the usual eggs. Without eggs, you want something that will retain moisture in the cake and still give a bit of structure. Apples or applesauce would be my best bet, substituted for whatever oil, margarine or butter your cake recipe calls for, just slightly lower volumes to avoid making the batter too wet.

Pumpkin I’ve also tried in my callow youth. While it’s fine and occasionally impressive for a non-chocolate dessert and for plenty of savory dishes, something about it suppresses the essence of chocolate. The one time I tried canned pumpkin for fat-free brownies, the texture came out near-perfect, but it mysteriously sucked all the chocolateness out of the air while the brownies were baking. And then there was a serious blank in the chocolate department when I tasted, even though the texture was good and I’d put in a lot of cocoa powder. Life is unfair. And on the other hand apples won’t let you down, and even a little applesauce works beautifully instead of oil both in chocolate box mixes and in from-scratch cakes. Should work for Passover versions too.

Lest you wonder whether it’s possible to do a decent pareve frosting suited to a Sacher Torte Occasion, which–no surprise here–is what I’m aiming for, I’ve just done a test run (Wednesday) on the whole cake recipe I had in mind, thinking I might have to adjust before Friday.

This cake is a cocoa-flavored version of the basic gingerbread (cake, not cookie) recipe from the Silver Palate cookbooks. I’ve used it for honeycake at Rosh Hashanah with good results—even in the microwave. I almost always substitute unsweetened applesauce or grated apples for any oil in standard cake recipes or box mixes.

Here I’m also increasing the baking soda a little to compensate for the lack of an egg and substituting almond meal for most or all of the flour (and not adding molasses or ginger, obviously). From the typical nutrition label, I estimate the almond meal is about fifty percent oil by weight, most of it polyunsaturated fats. You really don’t need any more fat in the cake. It’s not low-cal even so, but the advantage healthwise is that most of the oil is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, plus the almonds have fiber and protein. Beats adding sticks of butter.

The Silver Palate gingerbread method is pretty classic: you mix the dry ingredients together. Stir in the egg and oil (in most recipes) or in this case just the apple or applesauce and extra baking soda. Then you pour on fresh hot coffee or boiling water and stir quickly to get things just mixed to a batter. A little vinegar or in this case, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, stirred in at the last minute before pouring into a sheet pan and sticking it in the oven, helps the coffee activate the baking soda.

The pareve, egg-and-butter-free chocolate cake didn’t rise a ton, probably because I included exactly zero matzah cake meal, and just a tiny token bit of potato starch, probably not quite enough to keep the rise. The cocoa powder itself provides a little backbone as it cooks, but probably next time I’ll add either another two or three spoonfuls of potato starch or a single sheet of matzah, crumbled into the coffee grinder and turned into fine grind cake meal.

But even as it was, first time around, this cake came out like you wouldn’t believe. Excessively fudgy cake, insanely good, and the attempt at a completely nondairy ganache without nasty creamer or margarine-type additions went so well I’m going to have to patent it or something.

As I’m sure (and sorry) is apparent, due to the serious cocoa-and-hot-coffee content, plus the elation that it wasn’t a flop, I found myself on a caffeine high and completely unable to shut up about it while driving my kid home from school. She discovered I wasn’t wrong. We both recommend thin (half-inch) slices to avoid shock, caffeine highs, and that feeling afterward like you’ve just eaten Monty Python’s wafer-thin mint. You will be satisfied–a little goes a long way.

This half-inch slice is seriously enough for a serving. It's that rich.

This half-inch slice is seriously enough for a serving at the seder. It’s that rich.

Anyway, this is going to work and it is SIMPLE. And tastes fabulous. Fabulous, very definitely. If you like flourless chocolate cake and ganache, try this at home. Even though, as I say, it has no butter. No eggs. And no crap. And it’s not too slow (though the baking time kind of is; 40-45 minutes because it’s very moist and stays that way after it collapses back down and shows light cracking–see photo at top of post). Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Rapid Red Cabbage

microwave sweet and sour braised red cabbage

When I was almost twelve, the year of All the President’s Men (go rent or borrow it from the library if you’ve never seen it), a classmate of mine came back from the weekend raving about a new restaurant his parents had taken him to.

Now, almost no one in my 7th grade math class, particularly not boys, either knew about or talked much about food above the pizza and burger level.

My friend’s family had spent the previous year in Italy–you could tell whenever he grumbled about real soccer with strategy vs. the weak substitute they were teaching us in PE that he was sorry they’d come back. Clearly it wasn’t the only thing he missed–this was the first “real” restaurant he’d been to in the US, and it was way out in the countryside.

The Bavarian Chef (which after 40 years is still open in Madison, VA, and now in Fredericksburg as well, I’m happy to see), had a menu like no other in the area: fondue, a magic word I’d never heard before and which my friend had trouble describing. One fondue with Emmenthal-type cheese for cubes of toasted bread, the other with a red sauce (tomato? redcurrant?) for spicy meatballs. Veal or maybe chicken Cordon Bleu (their current menu still has veal). The side dishes were distinctive as well, particularly the sweet and sour red cabbage…it was gourmet. European gourmet, the real kind, and possibly the first upscale restaurant in our part of Virginia.

In any case, my friend was enthusiastic enough about this place that (and I don’t remember this bit at all) I came home and said something to my parents, who were friends with his parents. The next thing you know, my folks schlepped me and my younger brother and sister out of town–half an hour’s drive and  into the next county–to try it out for my birthday. And my friend was right about all of it.

The cheese fondue was a completely new experience and a lot of fun. So was a glowing magenta side dish of sweet-and-sour red cabbage–it would have been fun for the color alone. Although that has not held true for me and beets, so maybe I shouldn’t say so. But luckily it, unlike beets, was  delicious. And so different from anything else I’d ever eaten that it impressed me even more than the chicken (or veal) with the ham and cheese in the middle, and I can’t remember anything at all about dessert.

Sweet and sour red cabbage, when you think about it, is completely contrary to American standard tastes, even those of 40 years ago when people still ate vegetables and cooked most dinners at home. If you had to describe it to someone at school–what would you even say? The ingredients–and the flavors–are pretty simple individually but surprising together: red cabbage, vinegar, sugar, cloves, salt, maybe black pepper. Maybe a bit of apple or onion in some versions. How could that go together? But it does, and I’ve loved it ever since.

And yet I never ever make it at home, because it takes up to 2 hours of simmering on the stovetop, depending on the recipe you have. The one time I made it, back in my 20s, when I was trying to recreate the experience, the whole apartment smelled really, really sulfurous. It reeked. Even though the cabbage did come out ok.

Too bad I didn’t even own a microwave until my mid-30s. But I’ve been rethinking it since last week, when I saw a picture of it in a Mario Batali cookbook from about 10 years ago. The combination of a German-style dish in an Italian cookbook reminded me of the whole prealgebra food debate and my friend’s unprecedented idea that good food was worth traveling for.

But you don’t have to travel far for this dish, and you certainly don’t have to spend 2-3 hours on it. There’s got to be a way, I decided (as usual). How hard could it be to microwave it?

Well,  it worked almost perfectly, at least as a test case: Continue reading

What happens when you age champagne?

A couple of weeks ago on a Friday evening, the week before our anniversary, my husband and I were scrambling to find a bottle of kosher wine in the house for the Shabbat blessings and coming up empty. We didn’t even have grape juice. I took one more look in the last-chance box and realized one of the bottles was kosher after all. It was a bottle of Yarden 2000 champagne I’d picked up on an after-Passover sale several years ago (our local Kroger affiliate supermarket has a not-quite-tuned-in approach toward Jewish holiday ordering; sometimes the matzah boxes arrive and disappear a week before Passover; sometimes they hang around for months, and sometimes they sell good wines at a fire-sale bargain because of the kosher label).

I’d saved that bottle for a special kosher-requiring occasion that never quite arrived. Vintage 2000–definitely the oldest bottle I’ve ever opened at home. As old as our daughter. Has it really been that long since 2000???

(OK, given the sorry yet predictable result of the mid-term elections, I have to say it hasn’t been long enough. But still.)

The bottle was QUITE dusty–almost a prerequisite for experimentation.

Neither my husband nor I are usually all that impressed with champagne–even the expensive mid-level ones, at $40-100 a bottle. Not that we’re usually in a position to sample those at home, but sometimes people splurge on them at Thanksgiving, New Year’s, etc., and we wonder why. They’re usually not as good as the cheaper Spanish cavas–if I had to buy champagne-style wine, I’d rather go with something like Freixenet, not to be cheap but because it’s closer to that bone-dry, yeasty, buttered-toast style I prefer to all the more acidic and flat-flavored mid-level champagnes out there. Taittinger and Moët et Chandon both come to mind as severe disappointments at the $45ish level. Their top-level champagnes might be quite different, but these just seem to be trading on the brand name and pricetag for the naive American market.

For that kind of money, I’d rather have a good, deeply-flavored still chardonnay than almost any of the usual fizzy lifting drinks, and you can get a pretty decent bottle of chard for under $20. Actually, most of the time I’d rather have a decent red.

And frankly nothing is as good as the (once-only) bottle of Dom Perignon my husband brought home 17 years ago, when we finally decided to get engaged after all those years of dodging family and friends, celebrating with some couples and outlasting others. After a lackluster and slightly glum Sunday afternoon discussion that ended with, “Well…okay,” we called each other at work the next morning and agreed we should probably do a little better than that. We were getting married, after all. Oy. We clearly needed some bolstering before we broke the news and faced the inevitable hocking from our families.

A really nutritious dinner consisting solely of Dom Perignon and a (smallish) box of Godiva truffles, each of which looked exactly like Miracle Max’s big chocolate pill from The Princess Bride, seemed to do the trick.

Of course, under the influence of the DP and chocolate, we decided we could do the parts of the wedding we liked (huppah, food, klezmer music, line dancing, ketubbah signing, friends and family, more food, more dancing) and just skip the stereotypical parts we found laughable, uncomfortable or downright detestable in other people’s weddings and wedding-themed tv ads (tux, white puffy dress, veil, speeches, first waltz, which neither of us knew how to do, tiered wedding cakes, arguing with either of our mothers over invitation fonts, color-coordination of any sort or description…)

We ended up having fun at our own wedding, which never really seems to be the primary goal somehow, we only decided where to go on our honeymoon the next morning while sitting around in our pjs, and I maintain that we’ve just kept getting weirder ever since.

Which brings us back to the Yarden 2000. To be fair, Yarden has been making some very decent kosher wines the last 10-20 years. But kosher or not, 14 years for any champagne below the DP level?

Champagne is supposed to be the only white wine that can age–maybe it’s all the trapped carbon dioxide fending off oxidation, but I’d never gotten close enough to try it out. The chemist in me has been waiting for another crack at mad scientist status for a couple of years now, so this was it. Plus it was getting after sunset already and we were hungry and there was no regular grape juice in the house.

Well…if we were daring enough risk our stomach linings and our eyesight by trying mead that had been sitting around for more than a year, we could probably risk a 14-year-old bottle of kosher champagne, once I got the major dust coat off it, anyhow. I found a deep enough pot to improvise an ice bucket but didn’t really have enough time or patience to chill the bottle well.

“Do you want a towel for the cork? It’s probably lost all its zuzz, you know,” my husband said.

Just in case it hadn’t, I opened the bottle carefully and with approved champagne-opening technique (the point-away-from-people-and-twist-the-bottle-gently-away-from-the-cork routine, not the find-the-Napoleonic-era-saber-up-in-the-attic version). The cork actually made a proper popping sound and the usual CO2 fumes rose up. It wasn’t dead after all! (“It was only mostly dead,” I hear you chime in. Stop digging around in that Godiva box already, willya? We already took the good ones.)

Then we poured it, and it foamed up–zuzz intact. So we made the blessing over the wine, and my husband very generously said he’d let me take the first sip. Which I did, but…

“You haven’t gone blind yet, have you?”

I glared at him. Or at what I thought was his general direction.

Continue reading

Fennel Mania

way too much fennel for one salad bowl

This much whole fennel kind of overwhelms my largest mixing bowl.
What was I thinking?

I hear a lot of complaints, among those of my friends and relatives who subscribe to CSAs, about weekly baskets arriving at the doorstep with surprise odd vegetables in unusually large amounts, and what the heck do you do with it all? I’ve never experienced that myself–I’m my own worst (or best) CSA challenge. So I can’t really blame this dilemma on anyone else, because I do my own shopping at my local greengrocer’s. And because the prices are low and the vegetables generally better than what I can get at the supermarket, I sometimes go a little overboard. Fresno tomatoes, when they’re in, are so good I end up with a 7 or 8 lb sack of them every week while I can. If I had more room in the fridge (oh, sacrilege! but they’re already so ripe it doesn’t hurt them), I’d buy even more. An overload of good tomatoes is no problem. However…

too much fennel from the greengrocer's

This week’s hot purchase: fresh fennel at a fabulous–too-fabulous?–price. Fifty cents apiece for large, clean-looking fennel bulbs with about two feet of stalk attached. They’re never less than two dollars apiece in the supermarket, and usually more like three.

So of course I couldn’t resist. I bought FOUR. Yeah. Two dollars total. For what turned out to be more than five pounds of useable produce, because if the fennel’s fresh, it’s all good eating. After washing and cutting it up into useable sections (only a 10-minute operation, surprisingly; fennel’s pretty cooperative for a big frondy vegetable), I actually weighed everything on our food scale.

Three pounds of bulbs for salads or grilling or whatever, two pounds of cleaned stalks chopped into celery-stick-length batons, and about six ounces of the cleaned chopped fronds to use as anise-to-dill-like herbs in tomato vegetable soup, fish, etc.

i1035 FW1.1

But how to use it all in a small household? We have only three people, and I’m the one who likes the anise-y taste of fennel most. Can I freeze some of it for later use (other than the fronds, which I did)? Are we going to be stuck eating it every day for weeks? How long before it starts going bad? What the heck was I thinking?

But it’s enough, and cheap enough, that I get to play around with it. Maybe I can find something good and even original to do with it that doesn’t require long roasting steps (Italian), stewing, or cheese-and-cream-filled gratin-type disguises (French) for the anise flavor, because really, for that you could have just bought celery.

The most obvious thing to do with fennel is slice it up and nosh on it raw. The first time I ever ate it was at the home of a large Moroccan Jewish family up in the  north of Israel. The mother, who invited me over for Shabbat lunch, started the meal with hraime, fish steaks (served cold, thank g-d) in a garlicky broth with enough evil birds’ eye chiles floating in it that the younger children (all the ones under 20, anyhow) started whimpering. “Only one pepper!” their mother replied, but none of them were fooled. I, the self-conscious guest just out of college, took the first bite and nearly fell off my chair as all the brothers and sisters laughed. Luckily the rest of the lunch was pretty unspiced–brisket, long-cooked eggs, farro with chickpeas, a lot of little cooked and raw vegetable salad dishes. I was still recovering from the “appetizer” though; I reached repeatedly for both water and the sliced fennel. Actually, I miss Esther’s hraime still, these many years later…

But mostly you don’t want to just gnaw on raw fennel for relief from the evil chiles. Fennel is pretty. Continue reading

Breaking the Rules: Fish with Red Wine

tilapia fillets Veracruz-style, with smoky salsa, onions, garlic, alfonso olives, red wine and fresh za'atar or "wild thyme"

One way to cook fish well using red wine

Wine is something I drink mostly for taste, not volume–I can’t really hack a lot of alcohol at once, blame my ancestors–but I do like wine tastings, even though I have to limit myself to about three small sips per glass if I don’t want to wobble out the winery door. Focusing on the flavors in a wine, and comparing several side by side, sharpens your palate and makes you think very specifically about what you’re experiencing. It’s rewarding even for someone with my drinking limits.

I also like to cook with wine, maybe more often than I like to drink much of it. Decent wine has such a complex combination of flavors that when you figure out how to do it well, cooking with wine can make even rapidly cooked dishes come off like serious Slow Food.

We hear a lot about long-cooking stews and coq au vin and so on, but many simpler and less time-consuming dishes benefit from smaller amounts of wine. Adding a couple of spoonfuls of dry white wine to mustard vinaigrette tempers the sourness, the garlic and the mustard sharpness a little and gives the sauce a quiet depth. And if my experiment with giant favas marinated in rosé and rosemary was any indication, we should be thinking about wine a lot more often and a lot more creatively as a cooking ingredient.

So I’ve been on the lookout lately for clear and simple techniques for cooking with wine without wasting it, and for doing it in less than a three-hour stew, because to me that’s slow-food-slow in large crowd-feeding quantities, to be attempted a maximum of once a year. I want better, more sophisticated-tasting food fast, using at most half a cup to a cup of wine, not a whole bottle, and preferably without huge cleanup.

But these days, when so much of the cookbook aisle in your local independent bookstore is taken over by Food Network Channel collateral, cooking with wine is almost a lost art. Most of the popular TV chefs aren’t even doing it anymore. Everyone’s gone sorta-Asian (but without Martin Yan’s shaoxing wine-wielding expertise or sense of humor) or sorta-Middle Eastern or bacon-filled-Tex/Mex or wishful-thinking-Indian-or-Moroccan wannabe (if I hear the words “ras el hanout” mispronounced one more time by any TV chef, anywhere…)

Most of those cuisines don’t include wine as a regular ingredient because of religious restrictions against alcohol, which I fully respect, or, in the Tex/Mex case, because wine doesn’t go with football (the true religion of Texas, although if you see the documentary Somm, you might be surprised at how many American master sommeliers and exam candidates are former football players.)

The new vegan and vegetarian cookbooks don’t consider wine at all, as far as I can tell, even though there are plenty of  vegan-approved wines and organic wines touted throughout Whole Foods (and even a few at Trader Joe’s). And a number of seitan and bean or lentil dishes (and certainly Roman-style lentil soup) would probably do all the better for a tinge of red, white, or rosé, either in the sauce or as a marinade ingredient.

Even the French- and Italian-trained chefs don’t use wine on TV very much, and if they do they don’t really explain it–why they chose that particular type of wine, how much to use and why, how to get the best flavor out of it in the dish, what else you could make using the same technique. Or else they’re kind of wasteful about it, using a whole bottle of wine for a single dish. Most people cooking for themselves would balk at that. Should balk at that.

It bothers me that I don’t actually see a lot of solid advice about cooking with wine, or at least not specific techniques that make sense in a home kitchen with a standard family budget.

Where am I going to get this advice? Not from the churn-a-minute Food Network chefs, clearly. Not from Harold McGee, either. To my great surprise, he devotes a total of about three paragraphs to “cooking with alcohol” in his food science books. The most interesting thing he says, other than to make sure and boil out the alcohol (duh) is that tannins will concentrate unpleasantly if you boil down a tannic red wine, but adding a protein to pick them up will tame them.

But since most of my uses for wine so far are to do with fish, I guess I’m already doing that…

As you might expect from some of my odd microwave-centric ideas, I tend to cook fish with wine in ways that probably seem unorthodox to anyone professional. For one thing, I cook several kinds of fish with red wine (sound of Francophile traditionalists screaming, then fainting in shock). Continue reading

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