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

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.


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

An Appreciation of Lox

bagel with nova lox

Homemade bagel with nova from a local Los Angeles smoked fish company


For its annual Mother’s Day brunch, the Men’s Club at our synagogue always serves a surprisingly lavish spread with the woiks–lox, bagels, fruit salad, eggs and mimosas. Although I’m not a huge fan of big and slightly-kitschy gatherings featuring big and slightly-kitschy piano acts, I really deserved someone else making me a lox-and-eggs Sunday brunch right about then. But at the last minute I had to miss it in order to hock my kid about her last oversized ridiculous semester projects for 8th grade (due the next day, naturally). Better mothers complained to the principal, who just smiled nicely but did nothing useful. I just figured we’d get through it all so my daughter never had to be an 8th grader again. It worked–salutatorian, even–so, moving on but not required to give a speech: win/win.

But the lost lox! and the not having to cook or do dishes for Mother’s Day! Then I agreed to chaperone a school science camping trip the last week before graduation and  ended up with sand, grime, KP duty, outdoor showers, iffy Boy Scout Camp-style food, and not just one but 32 whole teenagers preoccupied with their hair and late to class.

So now that it’s all over I’m in serious need of payback.

My local Armenian greengrocer has locally-smoked nova lox (they have sable, too–I was tempted) and I had a bowl of dough in the fridge just sitting there waiting to be used up–so I made a few impromptu bagels the last Sunday morning of the school year, as soon as I’d gotten all the sand back out of everything and my kid was done with classes for the year. The bagels weren’t quite as dense as they ought to be because I used my standard pizza/pita/calzone dough instead of the genuine classic, but they did well enough because the dough was several days old, cold-proofed and straight from the fridge, and I boiled them before baking. And there was lox. Throw in a few once-over-medium eggs and some shmear and some fruit and hot coffee and you’ve got the ideal late-spring/early-summer breakfast, even if you have to make it yourself.

Now I know lox is a high-salt item–even the Nova. I anticipate it not for the salt, which I always think we could do with a little less of, but because it’s lox. A delicacy. Something to enjoy on the rare occasion when you get to celebrate. Something to treat with respect.

I’m not going to apologize for enjoying it, either. In the modern world of food publishing, people are forgetting how to do that. Even Jews. Maybe especially Jews, some of whom act as though our traditional deli and “appetizing” (bagels, cream cheese and smoked fish of all kinds) is suddenly something to shove under a rug or apologize for liking on the grounds that it’s not organic or locally sourced or Whole Foods or food-mag-trendy enough, and because it doesn’t include bacon or pancetta. Or kale.

The idea that enjoying lox simply because it’s lox isn’t cool enough anymore has gained a lot of traction in the past few years of foodieism. A couple of years ago, Martha Rose Shulman committed a serious travesty in the New York Times with “Lavash Pizza with Smoked Salmon” (she didn’t even call it lox). Toasted lavash is perfectly good for other things, but not for lox. Too fragile, and frankly too flavorless. I mean, why not rice cakes, as long as you’re being tasteless? But it wasn’t just the bread choice.

Somehow Shulman had abandoned the Joy of Lox. Shulman actually called her lox on lavash “a great way to work more salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, into your diet.” I have to ask, are most of us really having that much trouble “working in” more salmon? More to the point, does any lox fanatic really want to be thinking about fatty acids of any kind while eating it?

But at least she wasn’t agonizing over it as too Jewish. Mark Bittman pulled this inexplicable self-flagellation-in-print a few weeks ago in the New York Times, apologizing publicly for eating lox and bagels on a Sunday morning. In New York, yet. (Maybe it’s because he moved to Connecticut?) He’s kvetching about skipping his morning run, his usually-so-virtuous-but-betrayed-just-this-once-by-shameful-genetic-temptation stance on (gasp) farm-raised salmon, his devouring of shmear, which he says is too bland for the calories to like officially. He even had the nerve to blame his decision to eat it all on a sudden mental breakdown. And then he went further and called bagels and lox “comfort food.” As though it were in the same low-grade category as mac and cheese or mashed potatoes from a box.

Vey ist mir! I mean, come on. I’m pretty sure Woody Allen still eats lox without apologizing for it.

Bittman should be apologizing for being ashamed of enjoying lox (all the while glupping it). Along with apologizing for promoting pancetta and guanciale while professing a greener and more affordable diet. And for forgetting to add garlic to his recipes. That’s almost worse than deprecating lox.

More recently, Melissa Clark met with one of the scions of Russ & Daughters, which by now you’d think was the only serious lox and whitefish emporium left–it’s the subject of a documentary I just missed at the last LA Jewish film festival. The two laid out a spread for at least thirty or forty very lucky people, by my standards, but I think they were doing it mostly for a few family and friends–maybe 10-15 people–and posing it all on the table for the camera. It was beautiful but way too much. At least, though, she was both thrilled and nostalgic, the right way to be when faced with a complete beauty pageant of smoked fish.

Altogether, I could only think Shulman, Bittman and Clark all grew up in big cities with too much lox around. Because when I was a kid in the small-town South, we could only get lox twice a year when one or another set of grandparents came down from New York.

Other people’s grandparents bring toys. Ours brought pastrami, corned beef, half-sour kosher dills, pickled green tomatoes, real bagels, serious breads you just couldn’t get down South, and lox. All of them were special, not just to us but to our grandparents–real deli was part nostalgia, part roots, part pride, part simply great eats.

Pastrami and corned beef to go with the pickles and the tough, chewy pumpernickel and rye with the union label pasted on the end (you were supposed to fight for it)–these were the working people’s foods of their youth on the Lower East Side and the Bronx,  and they still loved them. And so did we.

My mother’s parents, born in the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine, came to America as children and, thank G-d [only instance of poverty being worthwhile], couldn’t afford to go back when their parents got homesick.

Fast forward to the ’70s: My Grandma Thel, short, plump but ladylike, coiffed, and wearing those pale oxford pumps I used to think of as librarian shoes, would step off the little regional plane in Charlottesville loaded down with huge grocery bags full of chewy, crackle-crusted bagels, Jewish kornbroyt or “corn bread” (a heavy European wholegrain sourdough; no actual cornmeal except what’s dusted on the baking sheets to keep the loaves from sticking), rye bread laced with bitter caraway seeds, sometimes a babka, and always, a huge half-wheel of her own light chocolate-flecked sponge cake (for which I’ve inherited the recipe but haven’t tried it yet–will post when I get it right). I hope the other passengers were smart enough to be jealous. The aromas alone should have clued them in. Grandpa Abe, of vishniak fame, was a lucky man.

On the drive home from the airport, Grandma Thel would tell me and my sister how she just managed to argue another customer at Andell’s or Goodman’s out of the last loaf of kornbroyt with seeds because she was bringing it down to her very special grandchildren so we would grow up knowing the real thing, and that the other lady Continue reading

Paula Deen and the diet that bites you back

This week’s “revelation” that Paula Deen, “the Butter Queen” is now a Type II diabetic was a surprise to nearly nobody. Deen, who revealed a harrowing backstory in her memoir of a bootstrapped career in catering, has enjoyed a surprising rise to fame on television. Two weeks ago, following in Emeril Lagasse’s footsteps, she appeared as Grand Marshal for the Rose Parade right here in Pasadena.

Of course, her otherwise ordinary “Southern Cooking” has been exaggerated out of all recognition with extra excess butter and sugar and mayonnaise, and so for years now cads like Anthony Bourdain have called her a scourge on the culinary scene (well, actually, he called her a lot worse than that, but he’s Anthony Bourdain. I’m paraphrasing politely, even though I kind of agree, at least foodwise).

With the revelation that she’s Type II, which everyone knows and fears due to their own increasing girth, Deen is bound to be the butt of predictable jokes this week and next, or until the next big Kardashian “revelation” that newspaper readers apparently care deeply about, or at least they do according to the reality TV networks footing the ad bills. (Even the New York Times has wasted column inches on this kind of drivel this year. Journalistic standards are dropping all over the place, I tell ya.)

But tell the truth, y’all: she ain’t the only one responsible. Not by a long shot. Read any “major” chef’s cookbooks and magazine offerings, other than perhaps those of Nobu, who deals mainly in raw seafood unadorned by carbs or noticeable layers of fat, and you’ll quickly realize that MOST of them exaggerate the salt, sugar and fat content of their dishes well beyond reason. Very few of them deal out plain vegetables on the plate. Very few deal out meats or fish without big sauces.

The other big, big feature stories on food in the New York Times this week:

1. Mark Bittman doing a quasi-deep bankruptcy commentary on Hostess that manages to recount his entire childhood consumption of Twinkies and co. in loving, fine-grained detail. He still attempts to sound self-righteous about it by the end because the ingredients include “ultra-processed flour”.

2. David Tanis of Chez Panisse, waxing lyrical about French lentils (du Puy or Die) as a salad with vinaigrette, hard-boiled eggs (so far, so good), some lettuce and….big fatty slabs of pork belly on top. Five or six of them per plate.

3. “The Miracle of Bo Ssam”–which turns out to be David Chang of Momofuku’s recipe for pork shoulder slathered in salt and brown sugar–twice–and cooked down for six hours in the oven. Caramelized barbecue. In fact, “crack” barbecue, to match Momofuku Milk Bar’s world-famous (to bloggers, anyway) “crack” pie made with most of the same ingredients.

Now people. With all of that going on, with Thomas Keller still boiling his vegetables in brine and poaching his lobster bits in butter, with the Culinary Institute of America instructing its naive young students to salt, salt some more, and salt yet again to achieve that perfect degree of salting in each dish (Coronaries ‘R’ Us), and with Congress sucking its collective thumb about local schools’ move this year to exclude french fries and pizza from the “vegetable” categories in their cafeterias—–

Does anyone really think that Paula Deen is NOT a woman of her time?

She’s nowhere near the worst–she’s just not as fashionable as all the tatted-up young bucks who get picked for Top Chef. She’s also not dishy, like Nigella Lawson, whose cookbooks, which started out about 10-15 years ago emphasizing lighter fare like Vietnamese salads with chiles, have also drifted drastically in the direction of high-calorie “indulgence” foods–some of them utter unmitigated goo-fests (avocado, mayo, roquefort? peanut butter, corn syrup, marshmallow fluff, chocolate bars? puff-pastry chicken pot pies-for-one?). Lawson makes the national news, at least in the UK, when she comes back out in public looking svelte again after puffing up too far past the point where male reviewers are still drooling. Will her next book of recipes slim down commensurately?

Unlike the more fashionable TV chefs on her network, Paula Deen is middle-aged and looks it. She’s fat, she’s gray though beautifully coiffed, she’s politely made up and decently dressed–no orange signature clogs–and she smiles. Maybe a little dippily, but if you didn’t know who she was, Continue reading

The Minimalist Makes His Exit – NYTimes.com

You’ve probably already seen this–Mark Bittman is stepping out of his role as The Minimalist at the New York Times.

The Minimalist Makes His Exit

I don’t agree with some of his recipes. Desserts with more butter than they really require to be good, expensive Italian hazerai (Yiddish for “that greasy pig stuff”) in a lot of the food, and too much reliance on salt as a flavoring, though he’s nowhere near restaurant-standard. To my mind, these could use a remake. I also don’t think Bittman always walks the walk when it comes to touting nonmeat meals and affordable, commonsense ingredients.

But you can’t fault his enthusiasm and you definitely can’t fault his sense of fun on video. I don’t really think he’ll be able to parlay his next NY Times gig, on food politics and the like, into personal parodies of Blue Man Group, The Thin Man’s Return (He Couldn’t Resist the Spaghetti), or Legend of the [you-name-it Kung Fu] Master.

But I could always be wrong. In the meantime, he’s given us more loose-jointed “101 variations” kinds of roundups for summer salads, Thanksgiving side dishes, etc. than almost anyone else and has written two gigantic tomes on How to Cook Everything –even though I’m not sure I’d really want to cook everything. I mean, everything? Too many dishes to wash. Makes me tired just thinking about it.

Turkey breast with ta’am

I’m not a big fan of cooking meat–never really had a great knack for it, and the lack of easy access to kosher butchers and fresh, unfrozen meat for most of my working life has made it easier to move to dairy, vegetarian, and fish dishes as my mainstays. Out here in Pasadena, my Trader Joe’s carries reasonably priced kosher chicken, turkey, and occasionally beef. But in recent years, the Post, Iowa slaughterhouses that supplied the west coast kosher markets were treating both their cattle and their workers so badly before they were shut down that I just stopped buying meat altogether for a while.

In the past two months, though, I’ve tried to get back to cooking chicken once in a while–Trader Joe’s started carrying Empire poultry again, and my daughter and husband have been clamoring for it. But once you lose the habit of cooking meat, it’s hard to go back.

For one thing, chicken and turkey are so dense compared with fish and dairy. Doesn’t really matter how many or how few pieces you have, it still takes the better part of an hour to cook all the way through–something I’d forgotten about. Even microwaving doesn’t seem to help much. Contrast that with a fish fillet or steak in 15 minutes or less, an omelet in 5 minutes, filled pasta in 10. No wonder I don’t gravitate towards chicken now that I have a kid.

Still. I had a nice-looking half of a turkey breast, recent vintage (i.e., purchased a week or so before and stuck in the freezer, rather than one that had been buried in the freezer for 4 years unused and unloved. My personal record for this year: an abandoned rock cornish game hen from 2001!)

I knew from sore experience that it would take more than a day in the fridge to thaw properly, so this time I started 2 days ahead, and it seemed to go better from there. I also figured out enough time–at least 2 hours just in case, on a day when I wouldn’t end up frustrated and furious.

But turkey–I’ve never eaten turkey that was actively good. Well, not the white meat, anyway. Ta’am (“taste” in Yiddish and Hebrew), my grandmother’s first criterion for whether food was worth eating, is something I never really associated with turkey breast, and probably for good reason. A duty rather than a pleasure, and I always think it would have been better if it were chicken. What to do?

Then I thought about the way I often cook fish–brown an onion in oil, sear the fish on both sides, then microwave covered until the middle is just barely cooked through and still moist. The microwave didn’t seem like a good idea in this case because of the dense meat and my extreme impatience, but it’s pretty classic restaurant technique to brown poultry and then stick it in a hot oven to finish. Would it work for me? Continue reading

Microwave tricks: Pasta You Don’t Have to Babysit

Mark Bittman’s post-Thanksgiving look into the brave new world of absorption pasta and Pete Wells’s “Cooking with Dexter” piece in the New York Times yesterday on the virtues of a pot of boiling water have me thinking hard about why neither of them has even tried the microwaves that must be sitting on their counters. Especially Wells, who has not one but two very young and active children to watch out for.

You can cook standard dried or frozen pasta very well in a microwave, with only a few minutes of actual cooking time and almost no need to stay close by. You can cook rice too–and we’re not talking Minute Rice, either. Basmati rice, the queen of difficult rices, cooks perfectly in a microwave.

The setup for microwaving tortelloni

The setup for microwaving tortelloni and other filled pasta

I started cooking pasta in a microwave when my daughter was a toddler. She was pretty active and I couldn’t leave a pot boiling away on the stove to go and chase her–either the pasta or I would have boiled over. By the same token, I had nightmares of her getting over the baby gate and into the kitchen as she got bigger and more impatient. My mother-in-law still has extensive scars from having a boiling pot tip over on her when she was a child, and it’s one of the reasons I decided to try microwaving pasta instead. Even though my daughter is now kitchen-savvy, it worked so well I’ve never been tempted to go back. Continue reading

How to Eat Vegetables and Lose Weight and Save the Planet (Without Really Trying)

One of my favorite stops at the New York Times online is Mark Bittman’s “The Minimalist” column, a series of 5-minute videos in which he demonstrates simple but pretty good cooking with clear and manageable directions and an easy close-up view of the pots and pans in action.

I’d say he takes a no-nonsense approach to cooking, but that would be misleading. He takes a full-nonsense, marble rye approach to the patter while doing some very basic common sense things like cutting up, mixing, and sauteing. And he features vegetables prominently.

Bittman,  recently seen schmoozing around Spain in a top-down convertible,on PBS yet, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Stipe and occasionally Mario Batali and trying to look interested in the food (which somehow got upstaged, can’t imagine how), is the author of several big yellow cookbooks, notably How to Cook Everything in both meat-eater and vegetarian editions.

This year he’s come out with a new, slimmer volume called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating* (and the asterisk leads to: *With More than 75 Recipes).

Unfortunately, we have to disregard the fact that Bittman’s title manages to evoke both Phil McGraw’s Self Matters and David Reuben, M.D.’s 1970s classic romp, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* … *But Were Afraid to Ask (or, more happily, Woody Allen’s movie send-up of same). This is a Serious Book. And like many Serious Books today (and anything at all with a “go green” theme), it’s a hybrid vehicle.

Between the asterisks on the cover sits a Granny Smith apple photoshopped with a map of the world and a red label, “Lose Weight, Heal the Planet.” The back blurb reads, “…the same lifestyle choice could help you lose weight, reduce your risk of many long-term or chronic diseases, save you real money, and help stop global warming…”

Food Matters is Bittman’s argument for getting the lard out and the greens in, for the sake of health, looks, and planet (quick, look holistic and place your hands reverently over your heart, if you can find it). The first half of the book is a set of essays reporting on the state of Big Food in the U.S., the state of obesity, the state of greenhouse gases and the global cost of raising a serving of beef as opposed to a serving of broccoli or tomatoes or whole grains.

Following Michael Pollan’s now-famous dictum “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” and citing him heavily, Bittman sets out to encourage readers to replace at least some of the earth-taxing meat and dairy in their daily eating with…plants. Which makes sense, of course.

The second half is a primer, with recipes, on how to eat more vegetation. Given that his pitch is geared at least partly to a male audience (he also writes a food column for Men’s Health, and the tone here is similar), you’d think his advice on the quickest route to getting vegetables into one’s diet would involve the least fuss: just wash and nosh. But no.

Bittman used to edit Cook’s magazine and the cookbooks he writes today do tend to feature recipes. It’s a common downfall, but what can you do? Continue reading

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