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College Students & Hunger

Oliver Twist asking for more.You knew that college students in the United States were being crushed under a mountain of debt. In fact, in this country the total amount of college debt now surpasses the total of all credit card debt. But you probably didn’t know that student finances have reach the point where some students are going hungry – they can’t buy food and pay college costs at the same time.

Sara Golrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,is also the director of the Wisconsin HOPE lab which researches, among other things, the financial hurdles that financially strapped college students face nowadays. The lab has uncovered some worrisome statistics. It turns out that poorer students are simply going hungry. Or as the HOPE people put it, “food insecurity is a growing problem on college campuses.”

Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a “…social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In other words, sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Surveys by the HOPE lab reveal that some students can’t afford to buy enough food to stay in college. They have to choose between food and, say, rent, family needs, or the courses required to graduate.

A survey at ten community colleges across the nation discovered that half the students said they were struggling with food and/ or housing insecurity. A whopping 20 percent were hungry and 13 percent were homeless. Professor Golrick-Rab’s team began to interview low income students at Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges back in 2008. At that time 27 percent didn’t have enough money to buy enough food, and 5 to 7 percent had gone an entire day without eating.

The problem of hungry students isn’t insoluble. One suggestion by the people at HOPE is for our government to make students eligible for food stamps by treating going to college as similar to going to work. That would certainly help.

(You’re right about the image at the top. The kid with the bowl isn’t a community college student. He’s Oliver Twist asking for more.)

Pi Day equals 3/14/15 or 3.1415926

Pi Pie

Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acoustics

Pi day (π day) comes every year, but this year’s pi day is special and there won’t be another one like it for a hundred years. If you write pi to two decimal places, you have π=3.14, and you can read that as March 14. But if you write it out to four decimal places you have π=3.1415. That’s March 14th, 2015 and that happens only once every hundred years!

Some of you reading this don’t feel the excited need for an exclamation point at the end of that previous sentence. We’re sorry about that. We realize that you have to have a certain affection for mathematics and a love for pi in particular to get excited about seeing it carried it out to four places in decimal notation and on your calendar.

Though pi may not be exactly loveable, it’s definitely special. There are certain numbers that keep turning up again and again, and some of them are so omnipresent that mathematicians, wanting to save time and space, have used symbols to represent them. Pi, as we say it,  or π, as we write it in mathematics, is certainly the most famous. Among mathematicians, e is almost as famous as π, but if you gave up on math when you left high school you may still remember something about π while you haven’t heard a thing about e. But let’s put e aside and get back to pi.

In mathspeak, pi is an irrational number — not to imply that 3.14159 is a particularly wacky numeral, but simply that you cannot get it by dividing a number by another number. Or, to speak mathematically, it isn’t the ratio of two numbers and, hence, it’s irrational. So, it’s not equal to 22/7, which many students pick up in high school.

You can calculate pi by drawing a regular hexagon inside and outside a circle, and you can use the sides of the hexagon as the base of triangles whose vertex is at the center of the circle. It’s simple enough to calculate the areas of the triangles and hence the hexagons, and you know that the area of the circle is bigger than the inside hexagon and smaller than the outside hexagon. Archimedes did that and kept doubling the number of sides until he had a 96-sided polygon. Then he was able to show that pi was bigger than 223/71 and smaller than 22/7. And that’s where 22/7 comes from.

Our pi is transcendental. That sounds more unusual and ecstatic than it is. Again, in mathspeak, a transcendental number is not algebraic, which is to say that it’s not a root of a non-zero polynomial equation with rational coefficients. (Satisfied?) Most real numbers are transcendental, but if we start discussing what we mean by that previous sentence we won’t enjoy much of the day.

Pi — everyone knows you know this — is the number you get when you divide the circumference of a circle by it’s diameter.What’s interesting — or amazing, if you’re in the mood — is that when you compare the diameter and circumference and try to divide the circumference by the diameter, you get a number which is clearly just a little bit bigger than three, but it’s impossible to discover exactly how much bigger. Or look at it this way, you can divide the diameter into little equal pieces with nothing left over, or you can divide the circumference into little equal pieces with nothing left over, but you’ll never find a size of equal little pieces that that will work on the circumference and on the diameter, too, with nothing left over. Far better to eat your Pi pie.

SNAP or “Food Stamps” and Free Lunch

About 20 percent of US households are on “food stamps.” Conservatives look at that number and say, “Good grief! Twenty percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program logothe US is getting a free lunch, and the rest of us are paying for it!” Liberals, seeing the same number, say “Good grief! Twenty percent of the US lives in such poverty that they can’t afford to eat without government assistance!”

Some facts may provide a clearer picture of the “food-stamp program.”

First of all, it’s no longer stamps – it’s a card, an Electrical Benefits Transfer (EBT) Card. It used to be called the Food Stamp program, but now it’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It’s the government assistance program to help low-income households pay for food.

Last year, 2013,76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits go th these vulnerable household.

SNAP eligibility is limited to households with gross income of no more than 130% of the federal poverty guideline, but the majority of households have income well below the maximum: 83% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 100% of the poverty guideline ($19,530 for a family of 3 in 2013), and these households receive about 91% of all benefits. 61% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 75% of the poverty guideline ($14,648 for a family of 3 in 2013).

The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744; net monthly income of $338 after the standard deduction and, for certain households, deductions for child care, medical expenses, and shelter costs; and countable resources of $331, such as a bank account.

The statistics cited in this post come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. If you’d like more information on this subject, check out feedingamerica.org —  that’s what we did.

January Was National Soup Month

Pot of minestroneJanuary is coming to an end and we’ve neglected to point out that January is officially National Soup Month.  I don’t know who the national officials are who decide  these things, but Critical Pages was informed it was National Soup Month so, to be absolutely sure, and knowing that the Web never lies, I looked it up on the Web and, yes, January is National Soup Month.

The soup in that pot is minestrone. Maybe you already knew that. The Italian word for soup is minestra, and when you make it into a diminutive and say minestrina, that means you’re talking about a thin, clear soup, and when you use the heavy word minestrone, that means it’s a thick soup. Maybe you didn’t know that.

The soup pictured in this post was excellent. Here’s what went into it:

  • Tomatoes, 1 small can of diced tomatoes (14.5 oz). Whether or not to use the juice from the can is a judgment call. We used the juice.
  • Garlic, 2 cloves, diced.
  • Olive oil, 1 and 1/2 tablespoons. You can sauté the garlic in this.
  • Onion, 1 sweet white Spanish onion, or any other onion, chopped. Half an onion if it’s a big one.
  • Celery, 1 cup chopped.
  • Carrots 1 cup, sliced carrots. That’s 2 or 3 good thick ones.
  • Yellow summer squash, or zucchini, 2 of them at most, sliced or halved or quartered and sliced.
  • Spinach, regular or baby. I tore the spinach up into biggish pieces and I guess 1 or 2 cups full, but I don’t how to measure a cup of spinach.
  • String beans. Get a couple of handfuls and cut them up into bite-size pieces. I used a heaping  1/3 cup full and it was fine.
  • Bell pepper, sliced to bite size. I added half a red bell pepper. Actually, this was a mistake. It was OK, but I won’t do it again.
  • 3/4 cup of ditalini pasta. That was way too much. It’s best to cook up the pasta separately, otherwise it gets mushy.
  • Vegetable broth or water. One time I used 1/2 can of vegetable broth and 2 cups of water, and another time I used no broth and 5 cups of water. When I’ve included the juice from the small can of tomatoes, I’ve added 3 cups of water. If the vegetable broth has herbs in it, then you should be careful when adding herbs.
  • Wine. 1/3 cup of white wine. Some people add wine to every soup they make. I’m one of those.
  • Oregano and parsley, 1/2 teaspoon. of oregano and parsley. Or maybe neither; salt seems to be all you need. Season to taste with salt as you go along, or in the soup bowl.
  • Some people add ceci beans (also called chick peas or garbanzo beans). Those beans have all sorts of health benefits and I wish I liked them more, but I don’t.  If you like them, open a small can (14 oz), drain the beans and use however much you want.

Get a fresh loaf of Italian or French bread to go with this.

Heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic in the pot you’re going to make the soup in.  If you want to add the chopped onions, go ahead, but don’t add more olive oil. Add the broth and/or water and tomatoes, and stir it all. Then toss in the celery and carrots and stir some more. Next, bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. After it’s simmering add the softer stuff – the squash or zucchini, beans and spinach. The last thing to add is the wine and not quite a half teaspoon of parsley – and maybe a pinch of oregano. It’s best to add salt to taste, but that’s hard to do if the minestrone is too hot, so let some cool in a dipper and try it there. If you simmer it too long, things get mushy. A bit crisp tastes better.

By the way, a mix of carrots, celery and onions, roughly chopped and thrown together, is the starting point for a lot of soups, stews, stocks and sauces.  These three aromatics, as they are called, are found together in so many recipes that the French have a word for the group — mirepoix. We’re showing off our Italian and French today.

Critical Pages isn’t a recipe site.  This post is about what we got when we used these ingredients in this way. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, not even when we do it in our own kitchen. That’s true for a lot of things in life.



Grow Your Own Garlic

Garlic shoots in spring

In spring, garlic sends green shoots up through last autumn’s leaves.

Americans are using more garlic than ever in the history of the Republic, so we’re going to talk about garlic. There are many types of garlic, but essentially they come from two big garlic families – hardneck and softneck. Maybe you’ve seen garlic braided together in a long bunch and hung over the counter in a specialty food shop or an Italian restaurant. Those are probably softneck garlics. We at Critical Pages are located where the winters are honestly cold, suitable to our grumpy temperaments and the growing of hardneck garlic.

 Garlic is easy and rewarding to grow, so long as you remember to plant it in the fall. Around here, we do that around October 15th. Plant the garlic cloves about two inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart, putting the root end down and the pointy end up. Cover them with autumn leaves or some other kind of mulch, lay a few light twigs over the leaves to keep them from blowing away, and that’s that. Some weeks later, before the hard frost, you can peek under the leaves — very carefully and only once! — and you’ll find a small green shoot has emerged. Now forget about them.

 In spring the garlic will sent up a strong green shoot, up through those decaying brown leaves or mulch, and that shoot will rise through the early summer, unfurling into long leaves and eventually sending up a long scape that curls as it grows. If you want, you can cut this when it’s about 6 inches or so, when it’s tender and before it begins to curl, and it’s edible – when tender, cut it into salads, and when less tender, sautee it and toss it on pasta.

Garlic ready for harvest 235

Garlic ready for harvest.

 The Big Question for garlic growers is when to harvest. Around here, in mid-July the lower leaves begin to turn yellow and dry. There’s lore about precisely how many lower leaves you should see turning yellow or brown before you harvest, but at Critical Pages we’re messy gardeners and know we’re not going to be perfect, so when it’s clear the lower leaves are dying, we harvest.

 Don’t harvest the garlic up by grabbing the stalk and pulling it up! And don’t cut off the leaves. Gently loosen the soil around the garlic and dig it up carefully, because at this point the bulb is delicate and easily bruised. Shake off the dirt gently, don’t wash it off; you can clean the bulb later.

 Now there’s even more lore about how to cure garlic bulbs. If you go online you’ll find authorities differ but, for us, curing means laying the garlic plants — remember, you haven’t cut anything off yet — in a place where they won’t get rained on, where it’s neither hot nor cold, and arranged so that air can circulate freely around each garlic bulb. We laid ours out on a soil screen, a crosshatch wire net — you know, something that lets air pass freely,  something reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections. Anything will work!

 A couple of weeks will do it. You can gently remove the dirt, but washing the bulbs is asking for trouble. Store them in the cellar or some other cool shade-filled place. You’ve grown your own garlic and it’s yours to enjoy.

Garlic harvested

Some harvested garlic.

Fiddlehead Ferns

Ferns  The ferns in the photograph above belong to the group called fiddleheads. The fern emerges from the soil  tightly coiled, and as it grows the top unrolls and resembles the head of a fiddle or violin. Fiddlehead ferns  contain  omega-6 and omega-3  fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber; people in some parts of Europe and Asia eat them. The indigenous people of North America ate fiddlehead firns, but the population of that continent doesn’t much dine on them today. Nobody at Critical Pages has tried to eat a fiddlehead fern and we hasten to add that some varieties are said to be carcinogenic. But we like the way ferns look and we think their design is terrific. In fact, when we took the photo we were reminded of this remark by Thoreau — “God made ferns to show what he could do with leaves.”

Coffee Reduces Your Risk of Stroke

We drink a lot of coffee at Critical Pages. We admit it. We even glory in it. And today we learned from Dr. Yoshihiro Kokubo, MD, that a cup of coffee each day reduces the risk of stroke. Way to go, Kokubo!

The assiduous Dr. Kokubo and his team studied studied 82, 369 Japanese between ages forty-five and seventy-four. These were people who didn’t have any cardiovascular disease or cancer when the study began. They filled out questionnaires about their food frequency habits, most importantly about coffee and green tea, and they were followed for an average of thirteen years. In other words, it was a very large, long-term study.

The results were dramatic. People who drank at least one cup of coffee a day reduced their risk of stroke by 20 percent compared to people who rarely drank coffee. People who drank two to three cups of green tea every day reduced their risk of stroke 14 percent, and those who had at least four cups reduced their risk 20 percent, compared to those who rarely drank green tea.

So enjoy that cup of coffee. In fact, in these gray economic times, it’s good to recall that back in the Great Depression, when Herbert Hoover was President and things were going badly, Irving Berlin put it this way —

Just around the corner
There’s a rainbow in the sky
So let’s have another cup o’ coffee
And let’s have another piece o’ pie!

The video at the top of this post let’s you listen to the way it sounded back in the 1930s. The lyrics begin after the musical introduction and we think you’ll be amused, especially by the reference to President Hoover saying that now’s the time to buy — so let’s have another cup of coffee and let’s have another piece of pie!


The Sex Life Of Oranges

 Cara Cara orangesHere’s something to brighten your gray wintry day — a Cara Cara orange. The Cara Cara has an unknown parentage. It’s a kind of bastard orange. It’s believed to have sprung from a mating of the Brazilian Bahia navel and the Washington navel. The orange was found in 1976, growing shamefully on a tree that regularly bore Washington navel oranges at the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Valencia, Venezuela. It could be a mutation. But that kind of immaculate conception excuse doesn’t convince us. We’re not naive. We think this is what happens when young and foolish oranges fool around. (By the way, this is a true story. You can look it up on Wikipedia. Go ahead. We’ll wait here.)

As for the taste of the Cara Cara, it’s been described as having a bit of cherry flavor, but some tasters add that it also has a bit of rose petal and blackberry. We at Critical Pages haven’t eaten any rose petal, but we’ve dined on Cara Cara oranges. In fact, you might say we’ve binged on them. To our jaded palates they taste mostly like oranges. As our high-school teacher liked to say, “De gustibus, non disputandem est.” That’s Latin for “Don’t tell me what it tastes like, I’ll taste it for myself.” You can get into trouble that way, too.

Eggnog Season Again!

We have a nice post about eggnog that we made about a year ago. (We made the post about a year ago. We make the eggnog fresh every year. ) We’ll take you to it if you click here.

Pasta & Fresh Tomatoes , Basil, Olive Oil, Romano

Pasta With Fresh TomatoesHere’s a real fresh summer dish, especially now that your garden is producing too many tomatoes all at once.

Take a few tomatoes, remove the skins if you want or leave them on, cut the tomatoes in half, cut out the tough core, then slice them into big bite-size pieces. As you slice them, drop the pieces in a bowl so the juice will collect around them. Next, tear some fresh basil leaves into very small pieces, discarding the central stem, and sprinkle the little pieces into the bowl where the tomatoes are resting.

For this dish, the ideal is to choose a pasta that comes in short pieces that are well shaped to hold sauce or juice, shapes such as shells (conchiglie), or broad spirals (rotini) — in other words, avoid the long smooth featureless shapes, such fettuccini. That’s the ideal here, but the goal is to enjoy this process, so use what’s on hand. Cook up the pasta and this time it’s important to remember to salt the water a bit.

While the pasta is cooking, drizzle olive oil into that bowl of tomatoes and toss everything around with a big spoon. That’s enough, you can set the table now. An ordinary red wine would be nice, too. When the pasta has cooked, run it briefly under warm water from the faucet — just so it’s not too hot to eat – then pour the pasta into the bowl with the tomatoes and toss everything together with that big spoon you used earlier.

Serve it up and be sure to grate Romano cheese over it;  Romano is salty and goes perfectly with the tomatoes. This is excellent on a hot day.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.