December 9, 2010
All the hubbub about Wikileaks has me thinking about another kind of dish from an underground source…leeks!
When my father-in-law sent us home from Thanksgiving with a bag full of fresh leeks from his garden, I thanked him (diplomatically, of course), but was secretly befuddled. Having seen leeks only in restaurant dishes, I’d assumed they were something smaller, closer to scallions. These were white cylinders nearly as wide as soda cans, lopped off at the top as they grew greener.
After a bit of online research, I learned that late-harvested leeks like the ones I got are bigger than spring ones, with a stronger flavor that’s still milder than most onions. These bulbous vegetables have been called “the poor man’s asparagus” in France, but in Wales, people wear leeks (yes, wear them!) as a treasured national symbol. Ancient Egyptians and Romans apparently loved leeks, too.
Leeks can be cooked in many different ways. A few suggestions:
1) Potato-leek soup. A classic, easy-to-prepare winter comfort food. I made mine without a recipe, first sauteeing some chopped leeks and butter in a saucepan for about 10 minutes, then adding chopped potatoes and broth to simmer for about 20 minutes (until soft), and pureeing it with an immersion blender. I added some plain yogurt, creme fraiche and rosemary for a richer taste and texture, and crumbled a bit of blue cheese on top before serving. Yum. For a more precise recipe, see Pinch My Salt. Simply Recipes also has a creamless version with a kick, and NPR’s The Splendid Table offers several variations on Julia Child’s classic leek and potato soup recipe.
2) Risotto. I’m a little addicted to making risotto, as my husband, Charles, can attest. Cold weather only makes me crave it more. But at least my repertoire is expanding! This caramelized leek risotto from Daily Unadventures in Cooking is phenomenal. Cauliflower or butternut squash would be tasty additions, and if Charles didn’t hate mushrooms, I’d also be trying The Kitchn’s mushroom and leek risotto. (That blog also has a helpful explanation of how to clean leeks.)
3) Latkes. Add another one to Jess’s list of not-so-orthodox latkes! One of my favorite blogs, Food & Style, recently featured an enticing butternut squash and leek latke recipe, although carnivores may prefer these leek and beef latkes. Along the same lines, WGBH’s The Daily Dish has a recipe for shredded potato cakes with leeks and cheese.
5) Bread Pudding. Smitten Kitchen wins the prize for most creative use of leeks with this Leek Bread Pudding recipe adapted from the Ad Hoc cookbook. Doesn’t that look great?
Also, a recipe to keep in mind for spring—Martha Rose Shulman’s grilled leeks with romesco sauce make me dream of warmer weather.
Do you like leeks? How do you use them?
December 6, 2010
Today’s featured writer is Jane Pellicciotto, a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon who keeps an illustrated log of her fresh produce purchases and contributes occasionally to the Portland Farmers Market blog.
Pass the Gravy
By Jane Pellicciotto
Whenever we visited my father’s family in New York, it was with a mix of excitement, curiosity and a little dread.
Brooklyn had what the Maryland suburbs lacked—subways rumbling overhead, the Chinese five-and-dime, colorful accents, and Grandma Pell’s cooking. But it also meant a nail-biting journey in the car with my father, for whom driving was sport. He would jockey for position among the black Cadillacs on the narrow avenues, while I’d slide down the vinyl seat so I couldn’t see the too-close cars. Instead, I’d try to think about the pizza awaiting us.
Grandma Pell, whose name was Lena, was born in Manhattan in 1908, a year after her parents emigrated from Italy. She’d never been to Italy herself, but maintained her family’s ways around food. Put oregano in the pizza sauce, never in the marinara. Fry sausages in olive oil, but the meatballs in vegetable. Soak the eggplant in salt water first; fry the slices not once, but twice.
Rules were not universal, however. An argument once broke out between my uncle’s sister and her husband whether to stuff peppers with raw or cooked pork. Heads turned when a hand came down hard on the table. Raw won.
The kitchen was always grandma’s domain and from its small space came humble, but glorious food: unadorned pizzas, stuffed squid, spaghetti pie, green beans stewed in tomatoes, and eggplant parmesan that melted in your mouth like butter. We saw these visits as an excuse to eat with abandon—salami and proscuitto and capacollo, slabs of salty wet mozzarella, extra helpings of rigatoni and meatballs. But most of all, for me, it was about the stuffed artichokes. One by one, I’d savor the slippery metallic leaves and the slow journey to the heart.
Grandma, who always wore a cotton housecoat, was methodical. She had a head for numbers, having been a bookkeeper despite her father’s orders to be a seamstress. And she was practical. Once, she overheard my uncle ask us if we wanted greens. Grandma came into the dining room, set down a bowl of broccoli rabe dotted with slivered garlic and said, “You don’t ask. You just put it!” Meaning, if someone wants it, they’ll eat it. Don’t fuss. (Then again, grandma would also ask over and over, “Did yas have enough? Have some more. It’s gotta get eaten.”)
My siblings and I were hungry for words and language and culture, keeping our ears perked for delicious turns of phrase like “just put it,” which we added to our own lexicon. Sauce didn’t just taste good, it “came nice,” as if a benevolent thing arrived at the front door. Dishes were “put up” rather than loaded into the dishwasher, and the ends of words were clipped while their centers were drawn out, adding bouncy drama to Madonna, calamari, mozzarella.
There is an edge to New Yorkers, not to mention Italians. And my grandmother had the misfortune to outlive her only two children—my father and aunt—by almost half a century. So I cherish one of the lighter moments in my memory. Back when my brother was a teenager, and very particular about clothes, Grandma announced on one visit that she had been saving a pair of dungarees for him. She returned with a relic of the bygone disco age. We looked at each other with alarm, but to our surprise my brother tried on the jeans. He emerged from the bathroom walking stiffly, stuffed into the jeans like a sausage. His flattened butt was emblazoned with metallic gold lightening bolts. We didn’t want to hurt grandma’s feelings, but none of us could contain the laughter, including grandma, who could see the jeans were painfully out of date.
It is no myth that getting a recipe from an Italian grandmother is nearly impossible. Once, I tried to get an answer as to how long she kept the marinated artichokes in the refrigerator, knowing that botulism could be a problem.
After many fits and starts, she finally offered, “not long.”
When I asked why, she said, “they get eaten.”
My sister’s efforts were able to extract more details of Grandma’s amounts and processes, until we had something resembling recipes. Try as we might, we can’t quite duplicate the flavors we tasted all those years. I’m convinced it’s about more than just ingredients. Taste is about place—the cold ceramic floor, the well-used paring knife, the loud exchanges, even the distant sound of car alarms. Still, when I prepare roasted peppers, I make sure never to leave a seed behind.
Grandma Pell died last summer just shy of turning 101. Salute.
December 2, 2010
Have you ever eaten zits?
Gross, right? But a century ago, the term didn’t refer to hormonally-induced epidermal horrors. It was simply a brand of cheese-covered popcorn!
According to the new book “Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History,” by William Woys Weaver, a Philadelphia company called Tassel Corn Foods made a snack called “Cheese Zits White Popcorn” in the 1920s.
Weaver provides a photo of the label, and offers this explanation of the word’s evolution:
This company also introduced the term ‘zits’ into American slang. Originally, the term…referred to a type of popcorn covered with powdered cheese. Zits were a popular snack at movie theaters, so doubtless sometime during the 1940s Philadelphia teenagers made this snack a moniker for something quite different. The term has since gone mainstream.
He also notes that Tassel used a type of corn with a naturally buttery taste, so that the company didn’t have to add butter to its popcorn products. That heirloom variety, called Pennsylvania Butter-Flavored Popcorn, still exists today—so why can’t we get that in movie theaters?
There are many other intriguing tidbits in Weaver’s book, too. Here’s just a few:
1. Bananas were once viewed a luxury food by Americans, so exotic that they deserved their own special glass dishes.
2. Being fat was considered a good thing in late-19th century America. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, a 442-pound teenager named Frank Williams was displayed as “a specimen of American achievement.”
3. “Magnetized” food used to be marketed as health food for babies. It may have actually contained powdered magnets—yikes!
4. Constipation was such a problem around the turn of the 20th century that the inventor of shredded wheat wrote a tract titled “The Vital Question and Our Navy,” about how to make things, um, go more smoothly on the high seas. The temperance movement may have unwittingly contributed to that problem, because it promoted baking-powder based breads based on a belief that “the consumption of alcohol in all its forms, even in natural yeast for bread baking, was a sign of moral decay.”
5. The term “moxie” got its start as a medicinal drink for women, marketed by a Lowell, Massachusetts doctor. It apparently had a “peculiar” taste, which may explain why the term is now a slang synonym for gutsy behavior. As Weaver puts it: “If you could stand to drink Moxie, you could face just about anything.”
November 30, 2010
Know a kid who’s interested in food—eating, growing, or cooking it—or who you wish would be? With the holidays coming up, one of these food-related children’s books could be the perfect gift idea.
Unless otherwise noted, all titles were published this year. If I’ve missed something great, please add it in the comments!
Picture Books (Elementary Readers)
1. Perfect Soup, by Lisa Moser, illustrated by Ben Mantle (Random House). This engaging, colorful story about a mouse’s quest to find a carrot so he can make “the perfect soup” is a creative way to teach kids the classic maxim that it’s better to give than to receive—and that you don’t always have to follow recipes exactly.
2. Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table, by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Blue Apple Books). Lively illustrations and simple rhymes celebrate a mixed-race family’s Sunday dinner by poking gentle fun at the relative whose “grace” drags on forever.
3. Three Scoops and a Fig, by Sara Laux Akin, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung (Peachtree). A sweet story about a girl who wants to help prepare a feast for her visiting Nonno and Nonna, this gives young readers a taste of Italian words and foods.
4. Oscar and the Very Hungry Dragon, by Ute Krause (NorthSouth). With wonderfully wry lines like: “The dragon, who had only eaten princesses so far, was amazed when he tasted Oscar’s cooking,” this fairy tale offers a lesson about the power of shared meals to turn enemies into friends.
5. Wolf Pie, by Brenda Seabrooke, illustrated by Liz Callen (Clarion). An impish spin on the classic fairy tale about three little pigs and a hungry wolf, this early chapter book will delight kids who love jokes and wordplay.
6. You Are What You Eat, and Other Mealtime Hazards, by Serge Bloch (Sterling). Award-winning illustrator Serge Bloch plays with food idioms. His creative combination of photography and cartoon sketches will make young readers “pleased as punch.”
7. The Gigantic Sweet Potato, by Dianne de Las Casas, illustrated by Marita Gentry (Pelican Publishing). Adapted from a Russian folktale called The Giant Turnip, the cute cast of human and animal characters in this watercolor-illustrated version work together to harvest a huge sweet potato from Ma Farmer’s garden. Includes a recipe for sweet potato pie.
8. Too Pickley! by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Genevieve Leloup (Bloomsbury). From the very first line (“I AM HUNGRY!”), this book takes the voice and perspective of a pint-sized picky eater. The silly rhymes and bright, playful illustrations encourage kids to experience food with all their senses.
9. Little Mouse and the Big Cupcake, by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by Jill Barton (Boxer Books). When a little mouse discovers a tasty treat that’s even bigger than he is, he must learn the importance of sharing and appropriate portion sizes.
10. A Garden for Pig, by Kathryn K. Thurman, illustrated by Lindsay Ward (Kane Miller Books). This whimsically illustrated story about a pig who craves vegetables also includes tips for kids to plant their own organic gardens.
Chapter Books (Middle & Teen Readers)
1. Noodle Pie, by Ruth Starke (fiction, Kane Miller). This pre-teen novel follows an 11-year-old boy raised in Australia on a trip to Vietnam, where his father takes him to explore his roots. Food becomes his touchstone for learning about Vietnamese culture, and the book includes several recipes.
2. When Molly Was a Harvey Girl, by Frances M. Wood (fiction, Kane Miller). A historically based story about the hardships and adventures faced by an orphaned 13-year-old girl in the 19th-century Wild West. In her job as a New Mexico railroad station waitress, she serves up American classics like chicken salad and peach pie, but also forms friendships that introduce her to Mexican food.
3. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (nonfiction, Clarion). A dense but engaging book that ties together many important and complex historical issues.
4. Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot,” by Michael O. Tunnell (nonfiction, Charlesbridge). This true story about an American pilot who started dropping candy for kids during the 1948 airlift in West Berlin teaches both World War II history and a deeper lesson about putting “principle before pleasure,” as its subject, Gail Halvorsen, writes in the preface.
5. The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids, by Michael Pollan (nonfiction, Dial, 2009). An easier-to-read, yet not oversimplified version of Pollan’s popular manifesto about sustainable eating, the young readers’ edition looks at the American food chain from four perspectives—Industrial, Industrial Organic, Local Sustainable, and Hunter-Gatherer—and offers plenty to chew on.
Cookbooks and Activity Books
1. The Children’s Baking Book, by Denise Smart (DK Publishing, 2009). Ages 7 to 12. With plenty of pictures, step-by-step instructions and a glossary, this book makes baking look both exciting and accessible to young novices.
2. My Lunch Box: 50 Recipes to Take to School, by Hilary Shevlin Karmilowicz (Chronicle Books, 2009). Ages 3 and up. This isn’t a book, technically—it’s a box full of recipe cards with colorfully illustrated ideas to get children excited about packing their own simple, healthy lunches.
3. Sam Stern’s Get Cooking, by Sam Stern (Candlewick). Teenage British cook Sam Stern aims this book at his “mates,” with simple recipes like My-Style Chicken Parmigiana (“a classic tomato sauce with the coolest chicken dish”) and Cheese and Potato Pizza, although he does sneak in more sophisticated dishes as well (Korma and Cucumber Salad; Chocolate Soufflé).
4. Kitchen Science Experiments: How Does Your Mold Garden Grow? by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Edward Miller (Sterling). Ages 9 to 12. Bright, curious young minds will enjoy experimenting with food to answer questions like “How do temperature and time affect the growth of microbes in milk?” and “What happens when you heat a marshmallow?” (Their parents might be slightly less grateful.)
5. I’m a Scientist: Kitchen, by Lisa Burke (DK Publishing). Ages 5 to 9. With sturdy, colorful pages and simple experiments such as mixing oil and water to understand density, this will whet kids’ appetite for science by encouraging them to play with their food.
Editor’s Note: For more holiday shopping ideas, check out our guide to crafty gifts made from recycled food packaging.
November 29, 2010
Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving! To ease you back into the work week, we’ve got a short, sweet Inviting Writing story about eating at Grandma’s house. Today’s featured writer is Elizabeth Breuer, an OB-Gyn resident in Texas who blogs about both medicine and food at Dr. OB Cookie.
By Elizabeth Breuer
Whirls of exhaled cigarette smoke filled my grandmother’s kitchen. She always stood at the counter with her lit cigarette, a neatly folded New York Times and a glass of wine, from a gallon jug stored neatly under the sink, filled with ice cubes. She incessantly flipped from The Weather Channel to CNN on a small television that sat just beyond the table, silently beaming out bold closed captions of the daily occurrences.
Her table was made gracefully. Atop a neat tablecloth perched an English porcelain bowl filled with fresh fruit—mostly grapes, though sometimes peaches or other local produce from the farm stand. While I sat the table sipping my orange juice, she would stand there puffing and thoroughly examining my life.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” That was always the first question.
Oatmeal cookies and blueberry pies would frequently end up in front of me. If they weren’t baked that day, they were taken from the industrial-size freezer—pies woken from hibernation to thaw in the spring for hungry granddaughters. We would sit and chat and nibble, the morning turning into afternoon to evening. A simple dinner of potatoes, shrimp and broccoli would suddenly appear, lightly drizzled in a thin layer of butter and a crumble of pepper.
Then we would eat more pie, with a scoop of vanilla Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. My grandparents would drink a whole pot of coffee and stay up chatting as I wandered up the creaky stairs of the 200-year-old house. In the morning, back down the creaky stairs, I would pack up my car with my clean and folded laundry, a tin of cookies and an “emergency” sandwich, and haul myself back through the mountains to school.
My grandma died a month before I graduated from college. I’ll always cherish the weekends we spent together in New England in her kitchen. I think she’d be happy to know that I love to bake pies and cookies, that I’ve still never smoked a cigarette—and that I do have a boyfriend, who I am marrying.