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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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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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Rosh Hashanah DIY: Coming around again

Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jewish food goes through phases of trendiness in America, and it’s coming around again.

When I was about twelve, in the mid-1970s, The Jewish Catalog by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld sparked a renaissance of enthusiasm among younger and non-Orthodox Jews for everything from Israeli dance to Hebrew calligraphy to tying the knots correctly on the corners of a prayer shawl (the early 1970s was not just the “me decade,” it was also the era of macrame). Siegel and the Strassfelds took a DIY approach to creating a full Jewish life outside the shtetl. They made it hip, interesting and fun to observe Shabbat, understand the holidays, gather friends to plant trees, bless the sun and the new moon, cast bread on the waters, pen your own Hebrew inscriptions, and make–and of course blow–your own shofar. The book quickly became a top bar and bat mitzvah gift and influenced not only the way our synagogues practiced and our religious schools taught children but how young adults, affiliated or not, felt about being Jewish in public. Everything became more hands-on and more celebratory.

What would a Jewish DIY catalog be without food? The diagrams for how to braid challah in three, four or six strand loaves were unprecedented. So were the cartoons, which leavened everything but the homemade matzah. Cartoon matzah balls flirted at the edge of the bowl before diving in, one of them tipping his kreplach hat. A man up to his armpits in a garbage can full of grapes asks if this is really the way zaydeh (Grandpa) made his Shabbos wine, and another explains ruefully to his girlfriend that he thought more yeast would make the challah lighter, not more aggressive, as it overflows the bowl and oozes toward his foot.

The Catalog also introduced a lot of people to their first taste of Israeli and Sephardi food–felafel and hummus recipes were included alongside the chicken soup and cholent, even though they were admittedly limited to ingredients most people could find in a suburban supermarket in the mid-’70s.

All in all, The Jewish Catalog set a very high bar and is still something of a classic.

By the mid-1990s, though, bagels were mainstream American food and very different from the real, crackle-crusted deal. Rye bread was soft and bland and delis were dying. Meanwhile, Sephardi and Mizrahi food were becoming more familiar and more popular in the US and UK. Prepared hummus started appearing in supermarket refrigerated cases along with spinach-artichoke party dips. Hummus from scratch started requiring dried chickpeas, not canned.

In the past few years, delis have been making a comeback–though mostly not kosher ones–and so has traditional Ashkenazi baking, though mostly via cookbooks. Kosher and otherwise Jewish cookbooks of every culinary stripe have been churning out of the big publishing houses, and Jewish authors are prominent in vegetarian and vegan cooking as well. We’re in the midst of another DIY Jewish renaissance–though more foodie- than observance-oriented.

The Gefilte Manifesto is one of the newest and possibly best of the books from a new generation of Jewish food artisans and restaurateurs, and it manages to capture some of the spirit of The Jewish Catalog.

Authors Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a pickle maker and fermentation enthusiast, and Liz Alpern, a former aide to Joan Nathan, own and operate the Gefilteria, a millenial-style craft food business based on their gefilte fish and accompaniments. It currently combines a line of frozen gefilte fish loaves and jarred condiments with direct sales at farmer’s markets and pop-up catered events in several cities around the country.

This book is the product of that collaboration, and it’s remarkable this year not least because its authors actually respect the traditional Ashkenazi foodways they’re representing. There’s no braggadocio (eep! hints of 3 pounds of bologna on white bread! sorry!) and no slavishness toward food glam, or what the Los Angeles Jewish Journal likes to call “foodie-ism.” They keep the recipes kosher and avoid the temptation (such as it is) to add tired treyf tropes like bacon or shrimp (although they do have some kimchi-infused recipes). Instead, they refresh the classics by making them fresh, with real ingredients and good technique.

Gefilte fish becomes an elegant terrine with herbs or smoked whitefish (the authors’ limited-distribution frozen signature gefilte loaf,  featuring a whitefish base and a pink salmon top layer, is also pictured in a picnic shot but not given a recipe in the book). Horseradish gets a citrusy twist, and pickles range from classic half-sour dills to cardamom-spiked pickled grapes. Soups–mushroom barley, borscht for those who like it (I unfortunately never have, except for the color), chicken, blueberry, and an unusual one–zurek, an unusual Polish soup based on rye sour starter. Kreplach–Jewish ravioli–join pieroshki and include both meat and vegetarian fillings.

Yoskowitz and Alpern update cholent, brisket, chicken and tsimmes. They show you how to cure your own corned beef and pastrami, work out gribenes and knishes, and offer a selection of desserts both traditional–rugelach–and not so traditional, as in beet-chocolate ice cream.

DIY pantry items like homemade sour cream and farmer cheese, spicy mustard, wine vinegar and “everything” butter join fresh salads and breads and several varieties of pickled herring or trout. Drinks include beet kvass–there’s a general direction toward fermentation, one of Yoskowitz’s specialties–and flavored syrups for nostalgia sodas along the lines of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray and Cream sodas.

The book isn’t comprehensive but exploratory. Yoskowitz and Alpern trade cooking and tasting notes, childhood and family memories, and their experiences discovering and recreating Ashkenazi foods they didn’t necessarily grow up with. Along the way they adapt recipes and refer readers to a number of other Jewish cookbooks and authors whose ideas and food they’ve liked.

The results are attractive, modern, humorous and appetizing. Except perhaps for the shot of the two of them grating horseradish–and wearing safety goggles and kerchiefs soaked in vinegar or, as Alpern puts it, “classic protest gear.” Altogether, a Jewish Catalog-worthy production.

Yoskowitz and Alpern are touring the country this fall to promote The Gefilte Manifesto. Locally they’re staging a couple of tasting events across Los Angeles in early November and will appear at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair.

 

 

Another Greek salad

Greek cabbage saladWhen we think of Greek salads here in the US, it’s mostly horiatiki (a version of which is my current favorite lunch)–chopped tomato, cucumber, maybe peppers, some onion, feta and olives. Lahano salata, a shredded cabbage salad with lemon and olives, is less familiar and served, according to cookbook author Rena Salaman in The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food, (Aquamarine/Anness Publishing, NYC ©2001), as a winter side dish–because you always have cabbage available, and lemons are a winter crop in the Mediterranean (and southern California). All you need to add are garlic, parsley, olives and olive oil and you’ve got it. Actually, that really sounds like a perfect summer thing to me.

I picked up a green cabbage today at my local greengrocer’s because it was there, it was cheap, I already had a red cabbage at home for other stuff, and besides, you can’t just hang around your local greengrocer’s picking up seven or eight pounds of fabulously ripe Fresno tomatoes all on their lonesome every couple of days. People will suspect you of becoming a tomatoholic. You need to branch out. And besides, I’d already made a tomato-cucumber-pepper salad pretty much every day for the past two weeks for lunch (as noted above). Not that I’m bored with it, but it gives me permission to do something else for dinner.

This Greek slivered cabbage salad is something I’d had in the back of my mind for half a year or so since paging through Salaman’s cookbook and its gorgeous food photos. But since it’s summertime, limiting the herbs to parsley seems like a missed opportunity when there are so many fresh herbs going wild in my fridge.

Dill, basil, mint, scallions–my current favorite mix for the lunch salad would probably also be good with shredded green cabbage. So I did a variation using those and foisted it on my unsuspecting nearest and dearest, who were both in need of something lighter than usual for supper. It went pretty well and we all agreed it would be a good filler for the salad part of a felafel pita.

I mixed this salad up about an hour before serving and stuck it in the fridge. I realized belatedly that the abundant lemon juice in the dressing would probably start wilting the cabbage, and it did slightly. It would have retained more crunch if I’d mixed it right as we were about to eat, but we still liked it and it wasn’t actually limp, just a little softened. I didn’t think the leftovers would hold up more than a day in the fridge but they did okay and didn’t wilt further overnight–perhaps because I poured off the excess liquid before storing the salad in a snaplock container.

One thing I like about cabbages is that they go a long way. You can take a quarter, wrap and refrigerate the rest and it should stay good for a couple of weeks. You might have to shave off any dried-out cut surfaces the next time (certainly for red cabbage, which also discolors a little at the dried surfaces) but the rest should stay pretty fresh.

Lahano Salata (Greek Green Cabbage Salad, Summer-style)

(Adapted from Rena Salaman’s The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food; ingredient amounts are “use your best judgment”)–for 3-4 people as a side dish or pita filling as a bed for other stuff like felafel or kebabs. If you use a whole head of cabbage as in Salaman’s original recipe, increase everything by about 4-fold or to taste.)

  • 1/4 head of a washed green cabbage (the two outer leaves peeled and discarded, the rest rinsed under the tap)
  • small handful of herbs–a sprig or two each of dill, basil, and mint; parsley is okay too–finely chopped
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 3-4 pitted Greek-style olives (kalamata, Alfonso, Gaeta…), slivered
  • juice of a lemon or to taste–half a very large lemon was pretty lemony for just a quarter of a cabbage. For a medium or small lemon, taste and add a 3rd half if you think it needs more
  • 1-2 T olive oil

Shred the cabbage finely with a sharp knife and chop into manageable lengths unless you like the shreds long (Rena Salaman’s book had a pretty photo with very long straight shreds, almost like angel hair pasta. She mentions that the cabbages in Greece are different from standard American or northern European ones, so that may be part of it. Ours are curlier when shredded). Add the herbs, scallions and olive slivers, squeeze on the lemon and drizzle on the olive oil, then toss with two forks until everything’s well mixed. You can let the salad soften a little in the fridge for half an hour or so, or you can serve it straight up while it’s still a bit crunchy–it’s good either way.

Persian Posh and Jewish Soul: Two Veg-Friendly Cookbooks for Spring

"The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian" (aka "Veggiestan" in the UK) by Sally Butcher, cover photo from amazon.co.uk "Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh" by Janna Gur. Cover photo from amazon.com

 

Passover week didn’t exactly go the way I’d hoped, with loads of new vegetable dishes to play with and experiments in microwave gastronomy that would wow the most cynical reader…

After the optimistic start with the chocolate almond torte and the microwave shakshouka for one, I suddenly caught a bug–my husband caught it first, suffered a day or so, got better and then kindly passed it to me, and I ended up sick for the better part of the week. We all agree we got it from a kid he was sitting next to at seder. Now that our kid’s a teenager, we’re no longer used to it. Clearly we’ve gone soft.

So I was–shall we say–less than enthusiastic about cooking the last week or so, and ended up with lots of ideas that stayed in my head while I stayed in bed, attempting to keep up on tea, rice, poached eggs and applesauce. And feeling really embarrassed that every time I opened the fridge and saw all the beautiful vegetables I’d bought for the week, I peered at them suspiciously–how much trouble would they cause me? Was it really a crappy virus or was it maybe secretly food poisoning, even though everyone else was able to eat? Maybe tomorrow–and closed the fridge door again and groaned. It took a couple of extra days to start looking at vegetables with any enthusiasm at all.

This, I thought, is what most of the country thinks about fresh vegetables if a dolled-up superstar chef isn’t holding one on the cover of a glossy magazine (or even if he is). Maybe with a little less queasiness or dizziness than I experienced, but with that lurking suspicion that vegetables have dirt on them, that you have to wash them off and then cut them up and do something to them, that they’re not sterile and wrapped in plastic for your protection, and that it’s all too much bother. What a lousy, paranoid way to live.

So anyway, now that I’m better the vegetables are looking good again, and the (four or five) leftover matzah boxes have been relegated to a top shelf for sometime when I’m not sick of them and want to experiment a bit for next year.

Two bright and sun-filled new (or newish, anyway) cookbooks that make lavish and hearty use of vegetables were languishing on my desk for the entire week of Passover (and two weeks before that, when I was too busy to do more than look at them wistfully). Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan is a collection of pan-Middle Eastern vegetarian recipes that centers on her husband’s family Persian cuisine and their experience as the proprietors of a Persian specialty grocery in London. Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh is Israeli food writer/editor Janna Gur’s second major English-language cookbook, and it focuses on Jewish “grandma” food from all the cultures Israel is home to.

Both books run something along the lines of Yotam Ottolenghi’s approach to food–appealing, vegetable-filled, exotic, and fun to cook and eat. But the food is generally simpler and homier, more traditional and with fewer trendy/haute touches or UK-specific ingredients like salsify or seabeans that you just can’t find most places in the US. Butcher and Gur each have a foot in both professional and home cooking, which may make the difference. The recipes here are not chefly so much as cookable. Eminently cookable, and they make me want to run right out and try so many things (especially if I can stuff any of the steps into the microwave) that I’m just going to have to get them both and give back my overdue library copies.

The authors share an approach to traditional and modern Middle Eastern food that is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, ecumenical and–I’m not sure how to say it exactly, but  neighborly comes close. Reading these books is like hanging out in the farmer’s market and the kitchen with a friend who knows how to make all the dishes your grandmother might have made but never showed you.

Veggiestan is the original 2011 UK title of Butcher’s mid-sized cookbook, now out in trade paperback,  but the publishers thought that title would be too controversial for the US (land of “freedom Continue reading

Taking the chaos out of batch cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instant Pickles, Hold the Salt

Fast-marinated cucumbers, half-sour kosher dill style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferran Adrià for the rest of us?

Library run–big display–white coffee table book with silverware on the cover–The Family Meal: Home Cooking with……Ferran Adrià?

I had to pick it up. I had to.

It’s not that I don’t believe the inventor of gelatinized “pearls” of just about any liquid from vinegar to champagne and mushroom soup can cook food that might actually satisfy in under 300 minicourses. Somebody’s got to make dinner, after all. Man cannot live on foams with three flavors, one of them sea urchin, alone.

The immediate impression was “wow!”—loads of clear, bright overhead step-by-step photos that actually replace standard written instructions. A few captions in balloons over the corners of the photos, but it all looks simple, doable, and good-tasting. You start to get a sense of elation, along the lines of, “Hey! This is real food—from El Bulli! I can handle it!” Short ingredient lists back up at the top—very pared down. And all recipes scaled—only a restaurant chef could manage this with ease—for four different levels of cooking—dinner for two, intimate dinner party for 6-8, something bigger for 20 or so, and banquet for 75. This could be pretty handy, you think.

But then I started to look through a little more carefully and wonder. You could, I suppose, prepare things the way he shows in the pictures—but the pans are sometimes an odd choice for home cooking. Big baking sheet set over the burners for browning garlic in oil—an awful lot of garlic simmering away there, actually. It looks right in the baking sheet, because that’s what he’s used to and you’re only seeing one corner of the pan in the photo. And I can see that setup in a restaurant quantity, but on my small stove? At the dinner-for-two-or-three level?

The sauces are good, basic—too basic, or just classic?—and you can make them in big enough batches to keep in the fridge or divvy up for the freezer so you don’t have to start from scratch each time. That’s pretty good cooking technique and commonsense. But then you peer down at the photos and see Adrià boiling his garlic cloves—twice, in changes of water—and also his basil Continue reading

Weighing in on kitchen scales

Digital kitchen scale

Farhad Manjoo, better known for his columns on computer and phone technology, has now tackled kitchen tech for the New York Times in his  ode to the electronic kitchen scale.

And while I applaud the general idea that it’s a valuable tool–after all, we use ours daily–I’m both stunned and unsurprised at the same time at the limited perspective he shows [chorus, because he’s a boy]. For Manjoo, as for the food bloggers he quotes (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen), using a kitchen scale is about cooking more precisely and with fewer measuring cups, spoons, bowls, etc. Which is fair enough, I suppose, if you’re really worried about whether you already cook well, or if you have ambitions for exactitude.

But why do most Americans who actually have a kitchen scale get one in the first place? The fact that our kitchen scale came with a “The Biggest Loser” sticker on it might give you a solid clue.

We got our scale because our daughter developed Type I diabetes at age nine. Although we started out with half- and third-cup measures for simple foods like beans or plain pasta, we really needed to be able to calculate how much carbohydrate was in more complex or variable-density foods like breads and baked goods so we could give her the right amount of insulin for them.

Our school office manager said she’d gotten one on doctor’s orders after suffering a stroke in her early 40s, and she swore by it to help her cut back significantly on carbs and get her portions right.

Health concerns, not haute cuisine, are the most urgent reason to learn to use a kitchen scale. Not that better-tasting food isn’t important, but learning how to eat more moderately by measuring and knowing what’s in a serving would help at least two-thirds of Americans back themselves down off the high-BMI, pre-diabetic ledge. Especially since an international diabetes conference just reported something like 350 million people worldwide now have diabetes, double the number from 20 years ago.

Digital scales seem to do the most good, for us at least, in preparing homemade pastries or complex dishes (such as quiches or filled pastas). Our other best use is weighing out complex high-carb foods like pastries and candies that we’ve bought elsewhere, since they can be so variable in density or sugar content.

Unfortunately, weighing out treats is usually a big eye-opener for us as well as our daughter. That blackberry pie my husband lugged home from a specialty bakery run is worth a meal and a half of carbs if you do the picture-perfect wedge. We’ve started to cut our pieces a little thinner not just so our daughter doesn’t feel shortchanged but so we don’t get slapped when we step on the big scales the next morning.

Along the way the scale has helped us learn carb fractions for different foods and figure portions for them so it’s easier to estimate when we eat out.

It’s not so tempting to eat a whole doughnut for Sunday breakfast from the surprisingly good and inexpensive bakery three blocks away when you discover that even the relatively modest sugar twist (a real doughnut utterly unlike Starbucks’) represents 60 grams of carb, worth a whole meal without even accounting for a glass of milk, and the jelly doughnut is something like double that. And once you’ve eaten it, you won’t really feel full. Dangerous goods. Better to split the doughnuts and eat something more substantive with them.

Bonus points for my daughter’s practical algebra skills here: she’s figured out how to calculate carb fractions based on the nutrition labels for her own custom blend of low-carb, high-fiber cereal and ultra-carby granola on regular mornings, and she’s pretty fast by now. The extra flourish on the calculator may make me roll my eyes (and yes, at a certain point I’m always thinking, “Just pour it, already!”) but she’s having fun showing off. Even though she’s done the measurements and calculations often enough to be able to eyeball the amounts in a cup if she wanted to.

Because of course, it can be taken too far…

After all, you can’t lug a kitchen scale to school with you in your backpack every day. Most diabetics of longer experience count by eyeballing and estimating when they eat out rather than agonizing over every gram. You can get a little too involved and dependent on the precision a scale offers and forget how to trust–and train–your innate abilities.

Which brings me back to Farhad Manjoo’s column. There’s nothing actively wrong with the way he’s using his scale, I suppose–except for his exuberance about pouring flour straight from the bag into the mixing bowl, then pouring sugar straight on top of that. If you overpour, you should be taking some back out, but then what? Discard the excess sugar now that it’s contaminated with flour? Ignore the contamination and scoop it back into the sugar sack? Take it from a former lab rat, you’d have done better in the waste-not sense as well as the food safety sense to weigh each separately into a paper cup or onto a plate and then pour it in the bowl.

But that’s for things that really benefit from weighing. Manjoo’s using the scale to figure the exact portion of coffee beans to use each day. One of his interviewees is using the scale to weigh out the exact amount of sugar for his iced tea. These things would do fine by eyeballing–or just using a spoon like a normal person.

Do you really need a kitchen scale to figure out how much grated cheese you want in your mac and cheese? Wouldn’t grating it until it looks and tastes good to you work at least as well?

These guys have lost their trust in their ability to eyeball or cook by feel as they check and recheck their precision on the digital scale. Couple that with the cachet of doing as the French do (that is, when they bother to weigh ingredients instead of cooking by instinct, which they’re inordinately proud of) and you have a new American tech obsession parading itself as competence chic.

It’s like checking your e-mail every 20 minutes. Or bringing your new iPhone to the dinner table and looking up instant info on the Web every time your wife brings up a topic to which neither of you knows the answer. (AHEM!!!) Not that I’ve ever met (or acknowledged meeting) any certain husbands who got that obsessive over their apps. Trust me, it does NOT make them more competent or enjoyable conversationalists…even if they do occasionally bring home some serious pie.

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