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Tomatoes And This Brief Life

TomatoesSummer is going to end too soon, so we suggest you take up a salt shaker, go into your vegetable patch and pick a tomato — one of those ripe red tomatoes that have soaked up the sun and internalized its heat and color. The garden is looking bedraggled by now, because you’ve stopped pulling weeds and the tomato plants themselves are sprawling over each other.  The air is sultry with the tangy odor captured under the tomato leaves.  Now bite into the tomato and, while you’re enjoying its warmth and juiciness, sprinkle a tiny bit of salt where you took that bite and take another bite. You can finish the tomato that way — just the very slightest amount of salt for each bite. You’ll be a mess, of course, your hands and chin soaked and dripping with tomato juice, but you’ll have eaten a real tomato such as no one who lives in a fancy apartment in the city will ever know. Let them eat their hearts out! You know how to live.

Julia Child

Julia ChidThe hundredth anniversary of Julia Child’s birthday is being celebrated this August, especially on television where she  was  one of the most popular TV figures ever. But why did she become so popular?

By now you’re probably familiar with her books or, at least, you know that she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and maybe you’ve seen the movie, Julie & Julia, with Meryl Streep as Julia. Julia Child’s early shows appeared back when television was in black and white, not color, and those were the days when shows were often not prerecorded — if Julia fumbled a pot or dropped a spoon, that’s what you saw.  (And if you actually saw those black-and-white programs you’re one of the older readers of Critical Pages.)

Everyone has an answer to the question of why she became so popular. (And so do we.) Yes, she knew French cooking and wanted to teach others how to enjoy cooking and, yes, she had a sense of humor and, yes, certainly, she was authentic — a word that’s often used to describe her TV personality. But maybe the more obvious is being overlooked. Julia Child was a big, tall, plain-faced woman with a terribly screechy voice.  It’s worth noting that the  excellent “Saturday Night Live” parody of her show didn’t use a woman but featured Dan Aykroyd as Julia.

Viewers who found Julia Child found her not on the big popular networks but on PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. What they saw was a woman who wasn’t better looking than they were, a woman more awkward and more ungainly, a woman who had a voice they would have been ashamed of. But Julia Child didn’t seem to notice her own glaring deficits. On the contrary, she appeared happy and self assured. So people watched, maybe a bit interested in French cooking, certainly interested in how a person who had so little going for her could be so cheerful and so ready to share what she knew with them. This was a person they could  listen to as an equal, or even feel a bit superior to, but maybe learn something from — maybe about French cooking, or maybe about how to be comfortable in your own skin.

Eating & Not Eating

Jack SpratApparently the United States is suffering from two opposed epidemics at the same time. On the one hand there’s anorexia — that’s the eating disorder where you can starve yourself in a mistaken attempt to achieve an impossibly thinner, more perfect self. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia is “a hidden epidemic.” On the other hand, we have obesity – a not so hidden epidemic.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association as many as 10 million girls and women, and 1 million boys and men, have eating disorders. And the peak onset among girls comes at ages 11 to 13. At the same time, Cynthia Ogden, PhD, a CDC epidemiologist, along with other researchers, made a study of weight in the United States and discovered that 31 percent of adults are obese.  Not only is one-third of our population obese, but two thirds are overweight. And obesity begins among the young: 15 percent of children and teenagers age 6-19 are overweight. Furthermore, Ogden reports that the proportion of obese people has been growing for the last few decades, particularly among blacks — 50 percent of all non-Hispanic black women are obese.

Whereas anorexia, or more properly anorexia nervosa, is a disorder of willful not eating, obesity comes partly from overeating but mostly from eating the wrong foods and drinking the wrong drinks. Obesity appears to be by far the greater of these two health problems. Indeed, if current trends continue, the health problems spawned by obesity alone will overwhelm our health system.  We’re reporting these twin epidemics just in case you haven’t got enough to worry about.

♦♦♦

The illustration above this piece is, of course, Jack Sprat, who ate no fat, and his wife, who ate no lean. And if you don’t know the Jack Sprat nursery rhyme, we’re really sorry about your neglected childhood. Our particular version of the couple who licked the platter clean was done, we believe, by Frederick Richardson for Mother Goose, the original Volland edition, in 1915. We don’t know what Jack Sprat is doing with that knife, but we think it will give little children the wrong idea of how to handle a cutting utensil.

Breast Feeding Time Magazine

Time magazine cover May 2012We at Critical Pages always thought we were keeping current. We figured we were in the swim with the rest of the culture. We supposed we knew society, its older conventions and its newer, younger ways of doing things. But, OK, we were startled by this cover of Time magazine. I mean, TIME magazine!

The cover photo is  certainly eye-catching. The striking  young woman in those stylish black leggings is Jamie Lynne Grumet, a 26-year-old mother, breast feeding her three-year-soon-to-be-four-year-old son. The mother has a blog called I  am not the baby sitter which crashed upon publication of the Time magazine cover.  In her Time magazine interview, Grumet says  that she herself was breastfed until she was six. Clearly we’ve not been keeping up with nutritional trends.

This might bring to mind the protracted breast-fed youngster in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the kid who was nicknamed all his life as Milkman. But, no. This isn’t literature, it’s science. And it isn’t nutrition so much as psychology.  And psychology is more or less a science. Well, sort of.  Maybe you’ve heard about Dr. William Sears and his wife, the nurse Martha, and their books on “attachment parenting.” As we understand it, attachment parenting means getting close to your baby, as much of the time as possible for as long as possible. Bring the kid to bed with you. It builds confidence in the child, we’re told.  OK, we’re cool with all that.  Every happy family is happy in its own way. We were just startled by the magazine cover, is all. And only for a moment. We’re cool.

Lean, Finely Textured Beef, or Pink Slime

Ground beeIf you haven’t heard of pink slime, you’re fortunate. Pink slime is gross. The meat industry calls it “lean finely textured beef,” a wonderful phrase which shows that poets and rhetoricians have an important role to play in industrial America.

Pink slime, or lean finely textured beef, is a meat filler that is routinely added to hamburger. Think of it as hamburger helper that you didn’t know was there. Most of the time when you buy a slice of meat the label tells you what part you’re getting – chuck, sirloin, tenderloin, and the like – but when you buy hamburger the label often says simply ground beef. And if you take the leftover bits of those named cuts, plus muscle, connective tissue and blood which would ordinarily be dumped, and heat all this, spin it to remove the now liquid fat, and compress the remainder you get what a federal microbiologist called “pink slime.” The name stuck, because that’s what it looks like.

Getting rid of the fat in those throwaway leftovers means that you can add this stuff to fattier ground beef and thereby reduce the percentage of fat in the total. That way you can end up with hamburger that’s, say, 80 percent lean, just like the ground beef that’s made from a cut of meat that’s naturally 80 percent lean. And since pink slime is made from beef it’s not considered an additive so there’s no regulation compelling the meat industry to label the mixed ground beef as having this stuff in it. Oh, it’s true that these leftover bits are more likely to contain pathogens, so the meat is gassed with ammonium hydroxide to kill them, a treatment considered safe and approved by the FDA.

Well, enough of this juvenile grossness! It’s estimated that 70 percent of the ground beef for sale in your local grocery store has got pink slime in it. You’ve already eaten a barrel of the stuff and you’re OK. Stop whining. Or regurgitating. If you want more on this subject, there’s a balanced piece  that was on NPR a while ago. Bon appétite!

 

Sugar Maples & Maple Syrup

Sugar maple & sap bucketsNow is the time to tap your sugarbush. Obviously, this isn’t a post for big producers with miles of plastic tubing and a forest of sugar maples. This is for anyone who has a couple or even a solitary sugar maple, and would like to have some true maple syrup.

Most innocents who drive to the supermarket for maple syrup  return with a bottle of “maple flavored syrup” or “pancake syrup” containing, at best,  a mixture of maple syrup and something else — most likely high fructose corn syrup. Whatever it is, the syrup is dark, has a maple flavor and pours nicely on waffles and pancakes. But if you tap your own tree and boil down the sap, you’ll discover the taste of true maple syrup. You’ll produce a range of colors and you may decide — it’s a matter of taste, of course — that a light golden syrup has a taste even finer than an amber or topaz color.

As you can see in the photo above, the bark of the sugar maple, though rough and irregular, has distinctive flat plates. If the tree is at least 10 or 12 inches in diameter, you can make one tap hole, and you can make another tap for every additional 8 inches in diameter. If you’re not so good at estimating diameters, run a tape measure around the tree and if it’s more than 32 inches around, you can take sap from it.

Drill a hole at a convenient height and go in about 2 or 3 inches,  using a 7/16 inch bit.  Next you put in your spout, called a spile, and hang a bucket to catch the sap that drips out. You could use any old piece of pipe, but you’ll probably be happier if you buy a  few spiles from a sugaring supplier. And while your at it, you can buy a sap bucket with a cover to keep out falling rain or snow.

Now it does take a lot of sap to make maple syrup. In fact, as you boil down the sap you’ll discover that it takes about forty measures of sap to make one measure of syrup. But it’s worth it. If you’d like to try, you’ll find a number of websites with more information than we have room for.  You’ll also discover that there’s a difference of opinion as to where, exactly, to place those taps and how to boil down the sap.

There’s probably a science to tapping sugar maples, but  when you’re doing this as an amateur you enter a world of lore and legend,  and when you meet another  amateur, you immediately begin to discuss what kind of sugaring season this has been, how sweet or not the sap was, what color was showing when you decided to stop boiling down, and so forth.  What we’ve described is  simply the way we do it. Some hobbyists insist on boiling down the sap in big flat pans on a wood-fed fire  out of doors. We just empty our sap buckets into  our biggest pot and boil down on the kitchen stove.

We like this spring ritual and have a lot of fun doing it. We’re not in the recommendation business, so just go to your favorite search program and plug in the words,  maple sap + maple syrup, or maple supplies.  Good luck.Maple syrup 4 jars

It’s the Season for Eggnog

EggnogEvery year about this time our thoughts turn to eggnog. (We think of a lot of other things, of course, but eggnog also comes to mind.)  Eggnog is a winter drink and a lot of people drink it cold. We suggest you try it hot. It’s made with eggs, plus milk or cream (or both), sweetened with sugar and flavored with cinnamon or nutmeg. And, of course, you can add alcohol. In fact, although most places that sell milk also sell non-alcoholic eggnog, the alcoholic versions are the originals.

Eggnog seems to have been concocted first by the British, though that’s not an established fact. In any case, it was an upper-class drink because poor folk — the great majority of the population then, as now —  couldn’t afford milk or eggs, much less sugar. Settlers from England carried it to the American colonies in the 18th century and here it became a drink democratically enjoyed by the great majority. Wealth was more evenly spread in this country and colonial farmers had a far better life than their English counterparts. British troops sent here to quell the revolutionaries were astonished by the large productive farms owned by ordinary citizens and couldn’t understand why these well-off colonials were in such an uproar against the king.

In the colonies rum was mixed in with the eggs and cream and the whole was heated before being downed. (One derivation for the word eggnog has it beginning as egg-and-grog. Maybe, maybe not.) Later, during the war for independence, rum was hard to come by and colonial bourbon was used as a substitute. And, as it happens, many American recipes specify bourbon.

You might want to look at a few eggnog recipes before trying to invent one. There’s a web site called eggnogrecipe.net and we think that’s a good place to start. We haven’t been able to track down the source of the eggnog photo up there.  But we did find a bottle of Evan Williams Egg Nog — the label says since 1783. The label also says Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Blended Whiskey. Rum and Brandy. We’ll be drinking that and doing research on it, so we can report back to you in a good frame of mind sometime after New Year’s Day.

Pumpkin Pie is in Season

You can make pumpkin pie from that pumpkin you cleaned out and carved into a jack-o-lantern.Pumpkin_Pie slice Sure, we know that chefs recommend using what’s called a pie pumpkin or a sweet pumpkin, not the kind used for a jack-o-lantern. But, in fact, people have used the pulp, or meat, from inside a jack-o-lantern and they report it works fine.

Frankly, we haven’t tried it. But if you intrepid adventurers want to attempt it, the first thing to do is to cut off and throw away the parts burnt by the candle or covered with wax. Then put the whole jack-o-lantern (with the lid but minus the stem) on a baking sheet and let it bake at 300 degrees for an hour or more or until the pumpkin begins to collapse. Then let it cool down, scrape the pulp away from the skin and mash it up. Now put the mashed pumpkin pulp in a cheese cloth bag and twist it until you’ve squeezed the water out. Too much work? We agree. Buy a can of mashed up, cooked pumpkin. Ready?

Set your oven to 400 degrees.

1 1/2 cups of mashed cooked pumpkin
1/2 teaspoon of salt
3/4 cup of sugar
1 or maybe 1 1/4 teaspoons of cinnamon
1/2 of ginger
1/4 teaspoon of cloves
You can double the amount of ginger and cloves, if you want.
3 slightly beaten eggs
1 1/4 cups of milk
1 6-ounce can of evaporated milk
and your 9-inch unbaked pastry shell.

Thoroughly mix the pumpkin, salt and sugar and those spices, then blend in the eggs and milk, including the evaporated milk. Now pour it all into the pastry shell and bake it at 400 degrees F for 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the pie comes out clean.
Jack-o-lantern-by-Amoroso
The fancy carved pumpkin pictured above was made by Jack Amoroso, an artist living in Florida. The only tools he uses are a sharp knife and a vivid immagination.

Hot Coffee

Back in 1992 a woman spilled a fresh, hot cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap. McDonald's logoYes, you remember it. She sued McDonald’s and in 1994 a jury awarded her nearly $3 million, $2.7 million of which was punitive damages. Those are the bare, misleading facts — facts that became the basis of a hundred jokes and the prime example in arguments for tort reform against “frivolous law suits.” Over the years, the incident took on a life of its own and became an urban legend. Early in 2011 a documentary about the incident, Hot Coffee, premiered at the Sundance film festival and this summer it appeared on HBO.  (The movie was brought to our attention by a post at the always interesting suzannesmomsblog.com)

The documentary’s website says, “Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts? Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end.”

The website also points out that “Susan Saladoff (Producer, Director) spent twenty-five years practicing law in the civil justice system, representing injured victims of individual and corporate negligence. She stopped practicing law in 2009 to make the documentary, Hot Coffee, her first feature-length film.” This is a modest way to confess that the documentary is NOT going to be even-handed in its presentation. Indeed, Abnormaluse.com, a website on the other side of the legal issues involved, says that the attorneys interviewed during the documentary were chosen by Susan Saladoff to represent exclusively her own point of view.

Pasta and a Summer Tomato Sauce

A bowl of pasta and tomato sauce can be delicious, but in hot weather you may be reluctant to heat your kitchen with long-simmering sauce. So here’s a Roman summer-day recipe that combines pasta and tomatoes with minimal heat.

Blissfully ripe tomato eager to be picked

Blissfully Ripe Tomato

Gather four blissfully ripe tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a
refrigerator.  Find some cheese, such as fresh mozzarella, brie or gorgonzola, that you can cut into small pieces, plus a couple of cloves of garlic that you can dice or put through a press. Also a few garden-fresh basil leaves or, lacking basil, other fresh herbs. (If you grow tomatoes, we suggest you should grow basil, too.) And we assume you have olive oil, salt and pepper at hand.

 

Basilico

Grow Your Own Basil

Cut the tomatoes in half and drain, then chop them a bit, and put them in a bowl and add about a quarter of a cup of olive oil. Next, mix in a half a cup of torn basil leaves (or those other fresh herbs), the diced garlic and sliced cheese. Now cover the bowl and let the flavors mingle for at least two hours at room temperature.

 

When you’re ready, cook up your pasta. We have in mind some of the shorter pastas – such as small shells or bow ties or spirals – rather than the longer spaghetti or fusilli. Mix the pasta with the room-temperature tomato sauce – just stir and toss, somewhat like a salad. Add some slices of cheese, if you want, such as Romano or Parmigiano. Enjoy the summer day.

This recipe comes from the painter Willie Marlowe.  We finicky critics have tasted it.  It’s excellent.

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.