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 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 23, 2010
There’s usually at least one relative who asks prying questions, tells terrible jokes or talks too much about their latest doctor’s appointment at the Thanksgiving dinner table, isn’t there? When you need to change the subject or fill an awkward pause, just look to your plate for inspiration. A few suggestions, based on recent science news:
Please pass the…
1) Turkey: Have you heard the good news? Researchers are almost done sequencing the turkey genome, which could help breeders improve the quality of the birds’ meat for future Thanksgiving dinners. Also, did you know that turkeys were initially domesticated as a source of feathers rather than meat?
2) Rolls: Hey, speaking of flour…new archaeological evidence shows that humans were making flour from plants like cattails as long as 30,000 years ago!
3) Lima beans: These little rascals are smart. They can tell the difference between day and night, and play some sweet defense during daylight hours by secreting a nectar that attracts ants, whose presence repels hungry herbivores.
4) Yams: Did you know yams are a daily staple food for more than 60 million people in Africa? That’s why the Global Crop Diversity Trust wants to collect 3,000 yam samples to preserve biodiversity in the African “yam belt.”
6) Chocolate cream pie: Cacao may be even older than we thought. Kinda like Great-Aunt Matilda…uh, never mind!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
November 18, 2010
Remember that alphabet of maple treats I posted earlier this year? I have a new “V”: maple vodka from Vermont.
On a trip home, I discovered Vermont Spirits, a small St. Johnsbury distillery that makes vodka from the fermented sugars of maple sap instead of potatoes or grain, the usual suspects.
“We’re the only ones I’m aware of in the world who do this,” the company’s distiller, Harry Gorman, told me. “Others are using maple as an additive or flavoring, but we’re actually making alcohol from it.”
A builder by trade, Gorman met the company’s founder, Duncan Holaday, while building a house for him. Gorman mentioned that he’d been experimenting with making his own beer, wine and cider for decades, and Holaday eventually recruited him as a distiller.
Vermont Spirits has existed since 1998, but this is the first year it has been able to offer tastings to the public at events like the craft festival where I encountered it. (Before a 2009 change in Vermont legislation, distillers could only sell bottles in liquor stores, with no sampling.) Now that word is spreading and business is picking up, the micro-distillery plans to move into a larger, better-located facility next year and start offering tours.
“People go around looking for a gift, and maybe they’re used to buying maple syrup and other things made in Vermont, but they’re usually surprised to see this,” Gorman said.
The vodkas from maple are called Vermont Gold and Vermont Gold Vintage; the company also makes a Vermont White using milk sugars. The idea in both cases, he said, was to use ingredients that represented the state.
“Maple is a very expensive source of sugar for fermentation—potatoes or beets would be much cheaper. But Vermont doesn’t grow as many potatoes or beets as it does maple trees,” Gorman explained. “Plus, it just makes an extraordinarily good vodka.”
To make the Gold, he starts with something between sap and syrup, since sap is only 2 or 3 percent sugar and syrup is at least 66 percent, while about 20 percent is best for fermentation. The distillery ran its own sugaring operation at first, but it was “a huge project,” so now they buy syrup in bulk and dilute it with spring water. The mix is fermented with yeast in a temperature-controlled tank for roughly a week.
“At that stage it’s about 9 percent alcohol, so we call it a beer, although it’s not a particularly good one,” he said. The first distillation stage separates the heart (ethanol) from the heads (other compounds) of this “beer,” and the heart continues into a “fractionating-column still” for evaporation. The third and final distillation refines any remaining compounds (tails) out of the alcohol. You can see the process in this photo gallery on VPR’s website.
“I think one of the big secrets to distilling good vodka is making absolutely certain than you’ve made a clean cut between the heads and the heart, because heads really make the flavor go bad,” Gorman said. “After making that cut you’ve got 192-proof pure spirits, 96 percent alcohol, which is as pure as you can distill.”
After adding distilled spring water to dial the alcohol down to 80 proof, he runs the vodka briefly through a charcoal filter “to take the sharp edges off, but ensure that we’re not removing the flavor,” and then it’s ready for bottling. Vermont Spirits produced about 30,000 bottles this year, which retail for $40 and up.
Technically, there’s no maple in Vermont Gold, just alcohol—but the taste somehow lingers through the distillation process, giving the vodka a very subtle sweetness and hints of buttery caramel.
“People have often said that good vodka has no flavor; it’s supposed to be a clear, neutral spirit for mixing,” Gorman acknowledged. “But making it from these sources produces vodkas with a very different character. The Gold has such a unique flavor that I would only have it neat, personally. I use a lemon twist and that’s it.”
Neat is right.