Thursday, November 24, 2005
- One year ago, November 24, 2004 was Thanksgiving Eve -- and the day that I began writing the Ingredient Sleuth blog.
How can that full year -- and ALL THOSE WORDS -- have passed by already? It is the FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF THE INGREDIENT SLEUTH BLOG!
A large "thank you" to all who have participated:
- Readers who took time (that precious commodity!) to read the posts
- Readers who took extra time to post comments
- Authors who graciously allowed reprints of their recipes
- Stores that allowed photographs of their premises
- Family & friends who provided encouragement, recipes and ideas
I have enjoyed this year of Ingredient Sleuth blogging so very much!
Many thanks and Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Friday, November 18, 2005
Thanksgiving has arrived and the guests will gather soon. Pumpkin pies -- from scratch -- were baked this morning. But, there was NO flour on the counter and, better yet, none on the freshly-cleaned (for company, you know!) floor!
The company that makes Bisquick baking mix made this dream possible many years ago with its "impossible pie" recipes. The variations are many, from savory to sweet.
The impossible pumpkin pie was always a winner in my family (we just never liked those Thanksgiving morning floor clean-ups that a rolled-out pie crust invariably necessitates!). It still amazes me that the crust of the impossible pie finds its way to the bottom of the pan -- but it does!
And here, for your pleasure, is a little pecan variation that goes the usual pie "one better" for we gilders of lilies!
Impossible Pumpkin Pecan Pie
1 cup Bisquick baking mix
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin puree
1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
3/4 cup pecans, chopped
1 1/2 cups whipped topping, thawed, or whipped cream
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon, optional
1. Heat oven to 350° and grease a 10-inch round (1-1/2-inch deep) pie plate.
2. Combine first seven ingredients until smooth using a hand mixer, blender or food processor.
3. Stir in pecans by hand.
4. Pour into a prepared (greased and lightly floured) pie plate.
5. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes or until a knife inserted near center comes out clean.
6. Cool on rack.
7. If desired, blend nutmeg or cinnamon into the whipped topping or whipped cream.
Serve pie with whipped cream. Store pie in refrigerator. 8 servings.
Bon appetit -- and Happy Thanksgiving!
Friday, November 11, 2005
Whole Foods Market Produce Department
One of the local PBS television stations in Southern California (KLCS-TV in Los Angeles) is re-broadcasting some of Julia Child's old cooking shows -- always a delight! In these episodes, Julia was the ever-willing cooking student while guest chefs and experts prepared delectable dishes.
Seeing these shows reminds me of another interview that she gave near the end of her marvelous career. The interviewer asked her how she would persuade people to eat organic products.
In her throaty warble, she said something to the effect of “Well, you know of course, I would simply tell them why I use organic products as often as possible – they just taste better!”
And there you have it! The Ingredient Sleuth has to chuckle at Ms. Child’s astute commentary on human motivations. I find it somewhat difficult to justify prying my wallet open to pay more for a product simply because it MAY be healthier. Somehow, that always seems like a long-term investment – easier to put off for the future.
But, if I know that the product in question is just going to taste SO much better – now -- my short-term gratification impulse goes immediately into overdrive. Zap! The wallet cooperates with only a faint whimper!
Whole Foods Market is capitalizing big-time on this realization. Founded in 1980 as a single, small store in Austin, Texas, this grocer is now the world’s leading retailer of natural and organic foods. There are 178 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.
The stores are large, supermarket-sized, spacious and filled with plenty of products to complete even the most-extensive of shopping lists. Whole Foods believes in local sourcing all over the world from small suppliers who are uniquely dedicated to providing the highest-quality products.
In California, for example, three suppliers were recently publicized in a Whole Foods newspaper advertisement that announced a regional “community support day” in which 5% of that region’s Whole Foods stores’ net sales was donated to California Certified Organic Farmers organization (to assist with organic certification programs, trade support and educational programs).
I really like the idea of buying products that have come from suppliers with profiles like these:
BE WISE RANCH, San Diego: A major supplier of organic heirloom tomatoes to Whole Foods, Bill Brammer has been farming organically for almost 30 years and assisted in the definition of the organic standards that define the industry today.
T & D WILLEY FARMS, San Joaquin Valley: Tom and Denesse Willey grow organic basil for Whole Foods and also specialize in organic winter squashes. They believe it is their life’s mission to educate people about the benefits of sustainable farming, so that our precious farmlands are available to support healthful foods for future generations.
WINDROSE FARMS, San Luis Obispo: Bill and Barbara Spencer began farming organically because of Barbara’s sensitivity to pesticides. For Whole Foods Market, they specialize in herbs and provide mint, basil, rosemary, dill and other seasonal varieties.
In the Whole Foods produce department, all produce offered is labeled with its geography of origin and is clearly identified as either “organically” or “conventionally” grown. Over time, as more and more organically-produced products have become available in larger volumes, the organic share of the produce complement has grown.
The stores feature foods that are free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners and hydrogenated oils. Bakery, meat, fish, cheeses from all over the world, ready-to-eat deli items, vitamins, wines (organic and otherwise) – ingredient sleuth heaven!
Some of my favorites:
- organic Yukon Gold potatoes,
- 365 (Whole Foods' private label brand) Italian sparkling mineral water,
- sage honey,
- free-range organic chicken,
- Les Coccinelles (the ladybugs!) red wine,
- nutty Emmenthaler cheese from Switzerland,
- those organic winter squash from T&D Willey Farms,
- tiny-and-pink lentils in bulk bins ...
is it possible to have dozens and dozens of "favorites"? For me -- yes!
Whole Foods has been included in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” every year since 1998 and holds the #30 position in 2005. And then, to top it all off, CEO John Mackey recently began a blog (www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blogs/jm) which includes commentary on the business and social issues related to the company's role in the retail grocery industry.
At the Whole Foods Market website (www.wholefoodsmarket.com), internauts can search for whatever food topic interests them. There is a huge assortment of sensible recipes there as well. There is NOT, however, an online shopping service. But, there IS a list of the current 178 locations with street addresses and phone numbers for shopping expedition preparation!
Let’s see – where’s that shopping list of mine. My closest store location is 20 miles away, in Tustin, but there are favorites to be bought – because they will just, simply, TASTE so good! So, as Julia would warble, “Bon appetit!”
Friday, November 04, 2005
Mini Yogurts, in Glass, from Trader Joe's Market
Fast-forward to the future:
There we are, in the Ingredient Sleuth's garage one morning, California sunshine streaming in through the door's easterly windows. Hundreds of shiny reflections bounce into near-space, from the shelving that lines the walls. In some of the reflections, little rainbow-segments of multi colors flutter brightly.
Has the Sleuth finally embarked upon a career in glass blowing, using the garage as storage area for recently-created wonders? Or maybe she has gone wild at the local flea market and bought up every glass Christmas ornament that she could find?
Probably not. Most likely, she has simply continued to set aside -- just for a LITTLE while, of course! -- each and every one of those darling little yogurt pots as they were emptied and rinsed. Just too charming to toss out, those mini, glass jars. Just perfect for a handful of fresh, purple pansies or white lilies-of-the valley -- or both! You could easily picture them in the middle of a small, round cafe table, adding a flowery touch to patio dining.
How quickly time passes -- the glass jars must number one hundred by now!
Fortunately, this little vision is still futuristic. I haven't stockpiled EVERY little yogurt jar. And, even if I had, my yogurt-jar productivity would be severely restricted by my normal penchant to buy yogurt in those economical 32-ounce plastic tubs!
These little yogurts, imported from Europe, are great little treats, though. I like to savor them as a dessert, alternating time-to-time among the flavors that are available. There seems to be something about their taste that is just SO natural, somehow. They make dessert feel so, well, healthful!
Naturally, my mind has turned to producing some yogurt treats that are similar, using the contents of the 32-ounce plastic tubs. Memories of "yogurt tales" come to the surface and inspire new attempts at "yogurt management"!
I remember a television segment in which travel commentator Rick Steves tasted Greek yogurt, topped with a lovely, drippy topping of honey. Not normally one to over-enthuse about foods in his programs, typically uttering a prosaic "that's good" during tastings, Rick displayed a rather dreamy look of pleasure as he experienced the lovely contrast of flavors.
Then too, there was the episode of Huell Howser's charming TV journals (about life throughout California) in which he featured the +100-year-old California man who still made his own yogurt at home and consumed good servings of it every day. Huell looked a little surprised at the "bold" flavor of the homemade, plain yogurt when he tasted it. But, he had to marvel at the way the centenarian gentleman fielded both kitchen utensils and interviewer questions with simultaneous aplomb during their meeting! The interviewee credited, what else, the yogurt!
A closer-to-home yogurt tale grew out of one of my own personal experiences with the creamy, white milk product. The first time that I tried one of those handy little individual containers of cherry yogurt, I was SO disappointed! What an affront to my taste buds! In spite of the pretty, dark red cherry on the container, there was not a single cherry to be found! Until .... Yes, that's right. There it was, all the good cherry sweetness, at the bottom of the container. Maybe I should have read the directions before eating!
To imitate those "fruit at the bottom" yogurts that are so familiar, I like to put a spoonful of my favorite fruit preserves on the top of "plain" (read as "cheaper") yogurt. It really doesn't take much re-training, even for the Ingredient Sleuth, to stir the fruit down rather than up! That way, I can control the amount of sweetness that is added.
My favorite yogurt memory, though, is a particularly-appropriate one to share today. Around a beautiful, round, wooden dining table in La Jolla, California, a gracious and welcoming hostess fluttered with capable (and typical) ease. Florence, my downstairs neighbor at the condo complex that was my first California residence some time ago, was entertaining my mother, sister and me.
I was almost as new to California as my vacationing family. We all became "fast friends" with Florence. How could we not? Always more interested in listening than talking, Florence was (and is) an expert at drawing you out, making you feel comfortable, making you feel interesting! Undoubtedly, her career in publishing intensified those conversational skills that were, and are, so natively and uniquely hers.
The conversation flew, rapid-fire, from topic to topic. Travel, world events, art ... so much to discuss and always so little time! At dessert time, with barely an interruption to the conversation, Florence handily placed serving bowls of huge-and-juicy strawberries (still wearing their pointy green-stemmed "hats"), golden-brown-and-crystallized sugar and creamy-and-rich yogurt on the table.
As each of us dipped strawberry after strawberry into its coating of yogurt, then brown sugar, we filled the room with talk and laughter. In between, we popped strawberries into our mouths and enjoyed the wonderfully-tasty treat that I will always think of as "Florence's Yogurt Pops"!
I am happy to report that Florence and I continue to keep in touch even though we no longer live in the same city. I am even happier to report that our phone conversations are as rapid-fire and wide-ranging as ever! In addition, the emergence of the Ingredient Sleuth blog has created a new aspect of our friendship.
From time to time, Florence puts on her former publishing hat (figuratively speaking -- at least I don't THINK she has an official publishing hat!), and tells me about something "potentially interesting" that she has encountered. My blog posting regarding chocolate, for example, grew out of her call to alert me to the Field Museum's travelling chocolate exhibit in San Diego (see my post of May 27, 2005).
And so, on this November 4th, I am cheshire-cat pleased and proud to send my happiest birthday wishes to Florence. I don't know if it was the stay-young yogurt on those strawberries or not, but she is as dynamic and sparkly as ever.
"Happy 100th Birthday, Dear Florence!"
Friday, October 28, 2005
“Nobody makes strawberry shortcake like you do, Mom! How do you keep the shortcakes so nice and moist?” The same words were spoken, time after time, as the family returned home from distant places for summertime reunions. “You can help me next time and make some notes,” Mom said. And the plan was set – maybe even implemented – to record Mom’s shortcake expertise for posterity. Or was it forgotten, set aside, deferred for “another time” that never came?
A recent browse through one of my favorite bookstores confirmed that some people DO, in fact, follow through on plans to commit favorite family recipes to print. The bookstore that produced this little gem of a cookbook is the used-book store at my neighborhood library.
The Friends of the Library organization, composed of volunteers with more than the usual amount of love for books, accepts donations of used (and new) books, sorts them, classifies them, shelves them in whatever space the library can make available, mans the sales desk and contributes all of the proceeds to the library.
As you can imagine, the stock is constantly changing and timing of one’s expeditions to the store is critical. Everything depends on who has donated what – and when! The Ingredient Sleuth’s bookshelves slump at the thought of missed opportunities – and under the weight of the opportunities seized!
But now, let’s get back to the little gem of a book that I found and brought home with me. CHINESE HOME COOKING, by Mina C. Yu, shows no date of publication. As the photo above shows, it is a small book, hardcovered, in format. It has only 104 pages and was printed by the First National Printing Company, Ltd. in Hong Kong.
No publication date is given. A quick check of Amazon indicated one used copy available, as a "rare find" and the publication date was listed as 1955. Of course, even before checking the Web, I knew that the publication had to be prior to December, 1959 – a handwritten greeting, in blue ink, on the first page reads as follows:
Dear Mrs. Lee,
With my warmest regards and best wishes.
This personal greeting, from one friend to another, exemplifies the charm – and hint of mystery -- that accompanies the purchase of a used book. Were Mrs. Lee and Fely Go relatives or friends? Probably they were not relatives, because of the formal means of address. Perhaps Mrs. Lee was a teacher and Fely was her student? Or Mrs. Lee was a beloved neighbor? Sleuths wonder about such things!
Half-a-dozen color photographs of completed dishes are spaced throughout the book. Each looks as if it is a “snapshot” taken at a dinner table, filling only a portion of the page (with blank space consuming the balance of each page) and having the aspect ratio of a home photo. I am immediately reminded of my own photographic efforts to get a photo “just so” to post on the Ingredient Sleuth blog!
The introduction to the book is written by Felicia Roxas Tanco, who describes herself as a friend of the author. She testifies to the delicious-ness of Ms. Yu’s cooking and the popularity of her dinner parties in Manila, the Philippines.
The recipes in the book are Ms. Yu’s interpretations of a variety of Chinese classic dishes and represent various regions of China. They are basic, home-style versions of dishes that Ms. Yu took the time to write down. They use basic ingredients – and a limited number of them – just as all, good, home-style dishes do.
Ms. Yu says, in the preface, that her friends encouraged her to commit her cooking expertise to writing. She did just that – and dedicated the book to those friends. Probably, this charming little book is self-published. The last page of the book has a printed, pasted-in card with spelling corrections referenced by page and line number – a delightful touch.
I feel fortunate to have discovered this copy. I wonder, at the same time, how many were printed. Perhaps it was a very short printing run, with the distribution meant solely as a remembrance for good friends. I feel as if I am part of the group gathered ‘round Mina Yu’s dining table. I can almost hear someone say, “Mina, you should write down how you make all these wonderful dishes!”
The Ingredient Sleuth, for one, is grateful that she did!
Friday, October 21, 2005
Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to pick up a pencil and draw a pretty picture of whatever inspires you at the moment? Or to come rushing home from the arts-and-crafts store with a bright new selection of “colors” and set to work in a bright, north window?
Or maybe even better – to be able to get out a pen and draw feverishly in squared-off boxes to commit to a cartoon strip those pithy comments that come to mind (usually ten to fifteen minutes AFTER the perfect opportunity to say them has passed)? If I could draw (which, sadly, I can’t!), I would accompany this writing with step-by-step drawings.
Beautiful as artichokes are, they require a fair bit of instruction, not only as relates to their cooking, but also to their pre-cooking preparation and their eating as well. Like many complicated things though, they are well worth the effort!
Just like the people who eat them, artichokes come in various sizes. The small, “baby” size weighs only about 2 ounces each and are typically only an inch or so in length, tip to bottom. They grow at the base of the artichoke plant (which is a thistle like plant, though actually a member of the daisy family, whose “flower” buds are the artichokes). They are so tender and tiny that there is no fibrous (some, including the Ingredient Sleuth would say “stringy”) choke in the middle.
Moving upward, on the plant and in size, medium artichokes weigh in at 5 to 8 ounces each and come from the side branches. These are the artichokes that we will discuss, and refer to, as the “dippables”!
Large artichokes may weigh a pound or more, grow on the center stalk of the plant and are usually eaten stuffed – a bit tricky and tedious, prep-wise -- with a savory filling.
- Compact and heavy for its size
- Leaves that are fleshy, thick, firm, tightly closed
- Stem end firm, no tiny holes which would indicate worm damage
- Spring artichokes soft green in color
- Fall and winter artichokes olive green, possibly bronze-tipped leaves
- Avoid blackened, wilted, bruised leaves
- Squeeze it! Plump and crisp leaves make a squeaky sound! (Beware the vegetable police during this step!)
- Refrigerate, in a plastic bag, 4 to 5 days maximum.
- Do not wash before storing; sprinkle a few drops of water into the bag, then close.
Preparation for the “dippables”:
- Wash under cold running water
- Cut off the top inch of the artichoke with a large, sharp knife
- Optionally: clip the sharp tips of the leaves with a kitchen shears
- Optionally: prevent darkening by rubbing the cut parts with lemon juice
- Cut off the stem flush with the base to create a flat surface
- Pull of any remaining short, coarse leaves from the bottom
Cooking of the “dippables”:
- Place artichokes on their flat bases, side by side, in a large, non-reactive pot in which water is already boiling (careful for splashes!), water depth about half that of the artichokes.
- Add a couple tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar to retain color and brighten flavor.
- Cover the pot and return the water to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low.
- Lift the lid a few times during cooking to help with color retention (this is an EASY instruction to follow for Type A personalities, take it from me!).
- Cooking time is 20 to 40 minutes, depending upon size. They are done when an inner leaf can be pulled out easily (with tongs, not tender fingertips!).
- Invert the artichokes in a colander so that the water drains from between the leaves.
Eating (AT LAST!) of the “dippables”:
- RELAX! Really! This is an important first step. Artichokes were not meant for gobbling! They are very rich, meant to be savored and deserve to be treated as, well – a TREAT! It doesn’t matter if they “cool off” and, in fact, slightly warm to room temperature is just right to detect the full flavors.
- There it is! A lovely, whole, glistening artichoke, on its plate, in front of you – and it’s ALL for you – the whole thing!
- Pull off a leaf and dip its fleshy base into your sauce of choice.
- Place the bottom half of the leaf, curved side down, in your mouth and draw it between your teeth so that you scrape off the tender flesh from the inside of the leaf.
- Optionally: say “Mmmm” quietly -- or shout it!
- Repeat this process for all those lovely, fleshy leaves. Maybe you’ll enjoy making an artistic little arrangement of the “used” leaves on your plate!
- When you get to the inner petals – these are thin (like flower petals), rose colored, and bunched to a point at the top – you can bite off the bases rather than scrape them through your teeth.
- Underneath the petals is the choke – that tuft of slender hay-colored fibers resembling cornsilk (but very, very, choke-y if they get into your mouth!!! Time to be careful, once again).
- Pull (or scrape) off all of the choke fibers to expose the artichoke bottom – it resembles the center of a daisy.
- The artichoke bottom is dense, creamy, velvety and – hooray – COMPLETELY edible. It can be cut into quarters and then dipped – aw, go ahead, let’s “bathe” not just “dip” these pieces! They are the true finale – the “big finish” -- of the artichoke experience!
Dipping Sauces to Try (just a few suggestions):
- Butter: the classic dip for artichokes
- Hollandaise sauce: you know the one, that rich egg-yolk-and-butter cooked sauce
- Plain oil-and-vinegar salad dressing
- Japanese-style sauce of soy sauce, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, dark sesame oil
- Plain yogurt flavored with garlic, lemon juice and prepared mustard
- Roasted red peppers pureed with a little extra-virgin olive oil
- Tomato sauce, fresh or cooked
- Roasted garlic cloves pureed with a little extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice
Because the medium-sized, dippable, artichokes are such an event unto themselves, they are often served as a separate, first course. That way, they get the attention they deserve and their unique, subtle flavor is not camouflaged with other foods. And, undoubtedly, they alone are enough to keep even we two-fisted eaters completely engaged!
While it is slightly unfortunate that I could not draw instructional pictures – of course, artichokes aren’t really all that difficult after all, now are they – I still wish that I could grab hold of some trusty paints and sketch out a lovely artichoke still-life. With their dramatically sculpted shapes, they are individual masterpieces of design and structure -- truly artful subjects for a painting indeed.
Maybe if I painted quickly enough and the artichokes were still fresh when the painting was complete, I could then cook them up and eat them. Enjoy their wonderful flavors -- yet still see them in their integral beauty in the painting. Rather like “having your artichoke and eating it too,” I suppose!
Friday, October 14, 2005
You just never know what you are going to see when you visit Paris! Sometimes I think that I should attempt to stay awake 24 hours a day, just so that I don’t miss anything, when I am there!
Maybe that’s not such a strange idea, in fact. Once a year, the City of Light celebrates “La Nuit Blanche” or “The White Night” in which major monuments, museums and shops remain open throughout the night and performances are presented on outdoor stages across the city. This year’s event, on October 1st, attracted about 1.3 million visitors – and the Ingredient Sleuth was one of them!
But, even without all-night events, there is SO much to be discovered in Paris! For example, when was the last time that you saw someone directing a symphony orchestra – or traffic -- with a baguette? Or scooping up a steamy, Chinese dinner with two baguettes? Or poking a slow-to-start fire with a baguette?
The French word baguette, as you may suspect, refers to much more than bread. It is also used to portray a musical conductor’s (or police officer’s) baton, chopsticks, or just a plain-old, generic stick. A baguette magique is a magic wand, a baguette de tambour is a drumstick.
In the hands of French bakers (boulangers), a baguette is a defining element. Texture, aroma, flavor and characteristic sticklike shape combine to present the quintessential French bread. What fun to emerge from the bakery, baguette in hand and saunter down the street, mouth watering in anticipation. Sometimes, the aroma is overpowering and a few delicate nibbles are required, en route!
The quality of a baker’s baguettes, in fact, has traditionally been a source of great pride in France. Never mind the dozens of other varieties of bread that glisten, steam and gleam tantalizingly, lined up in shop windows. Healthy whole grains, seeded rolls, coarsely-sea-salted rounds … the list is never-ending and ever-changing. Nonetheless, the baguette remains the boulanger’s defining product.
After the French Revolution (1789), the baguette came to serve as a symbol of the right of every French citizen to nourishment at a fair price. The legitimacy of a government, then as now, sprang from having sufficient quantities of nourishment available to citizens at affordable prices. For a time, the price that a French baker could charge for a baguette was government-controlled. Bread, after all, was the staff of life during this period in Europe.
The method used to bake baguettes during the 18th century featured an overnight development of the yeast, resulting in a baguette with a cream-colored interior (rather than white) and a much more pronounced flavor and aroma than other breads. Over the decades and centuries, speeded along by “modern” mechanized methods, shortcuts inevitably ensued and the character of the average baguette changed. A general decline of baguette quality, beginning with the 1950s, is documented by Steven Kaplan, in his book THE BEST BREAD IN THE WORLD: THE BAKERS OF PARIS IN THE 18TH CENTURY (LE MEILLEUR PAIN DU MONDE: LES BOULANGERS DE PARIS AU XVIIIe SIECLE), Fayard Publishing, 1996).
In a second book on the subject, THE RETURN OF GOOD BREAD, published in 2002, Mr. Kaplan (an American, a French cultural historian and a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches European history at Cornell University) describes the movement by a new generation of French bakers, in the 1990s, to return to slow-fermentation processes. He visited some 600 bakeries in Paris (this sounds like a lot of fun to me!) as part of his research, tasted their baguettes and sometimes got wrist-deep into the dough in his search for understanding! This book, like the first, was well-received by the French bakery establishment.
In an additional book, Mr. Kaplan rated baguettes of the individual bakeries of Paris. While academically interesting and astonishingly impressive in its detail, this “guide book to the baguettes of Paris” comes best into focus and is most valuable, I think, when used to heighten the awareness – and expectations -- of the consumer.
Recently in fact, the French government codified into law a specific type of baguette (the baguette de tradition) that can only be made using the original, pre-modern methods. This classification definition resulted to a great extent from the detailed work done by Mr. Kaplan.
And what about the rest of us – those of us who buy baguettes in other parts of the world? Well, good bread baking, like news these days, travels very fast! Bakers near and far apply traditional techniques and offer their breads for sale. Specialty areas of supermarkets feature niche-bakery products. Artisan bakers show up at farmers’ markets and offer baguettes baked that morning. Vietnamese bakers (especially predominant here in southern California), turn out baguettes using techniques taught to their ancestors by the French during the colonial period.
One of my friends, who like Mr. Kaplan is a university professor (although of communications rather than European history), knows how to turn a baguette into a very tasty treat. Genelle is an adventurous eater and an excellent cook who, with her husband Doug (contributor of the Cilantro-Lime Chicken recipe from the Ingredient Sleuth’s “Coconut Connection” posting of 04/22/05), particularly enjoys whipping up delicious dishes from on-hand items.
The following recipe for quick and easy crostini ("crostini" means "little toasts" in Italian) sprang from the availability of an “embarrassment of basil and mint” (as Genelle so descriptively phrased it – of course, she IS a professor of communications) in their backyard herb bed:
CROSTINI A LA GENELLE
(Serves 2 to 3 for lunch, more as an appetizer.)
Tomatoes, seeded and chopped into dice to make 1 cup’s worth
Half a sweet onion (like Vidalia or Walla Walla), chopped fine
1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh herbs (cilantro, mint, basil, any combination), chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped very fine
1/4 to 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for brushing on bread
Sea salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
1. Cut the baguette into thin slices. Brush each slice with olive oil and broil 3 to 4 minutes or until toasted. Set aside.
2. Put tomatoes, onion, herbs, garlic, balsamic, olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl. Mix until combined. With a cheese grater, shred Parmigiano Reggiano over the mixture and blend in to taste. Garnish with more Parmigiano Reggiano and sprigs of the fresh herbs.
3. Serve topping with the broiled bread, providing a spoon for each guest. Guests spoon the tomato mixture onto the bread.
Copyright Note: Recipe reprinted by the Ingredient Sleuth with the permission of the author.
The bright and fresh blend of flavors in the topping of this luscious crostini combines beautifully with the rich-and-crunchy earthiness of the baguette. I think the French bakers would be proud, even though it is an Italian dish! But then, would one expect anything less from a professor with a French-sounding first name who is part Italian (ancestrally-speaking, at least!)?
So, let’s gather 'round the table, pick up our spoons and start scooping. Better yet, why not pop some French tunes by the Baguette Quartette into the CD player? This musical foursome focuses on music that was popular in Paris between 1920 and 1940, including valses musettes, tangos, pasos dobles and fox trots. And just to keep the global aspect of the baguette’s progress in mind, let’s be aware that the Baguette Quartette is from the San Francisco Bay Area!
It really seems that, these days, it’s baguettes, baguettes, everywhere! Bon appetit!
Friday, September 16, 2005
First of all, there’s the French. Now we all KNOW how into food THEY are! And how do they refer to their three national food products of pride (bread, cheese, wine)? The holy trinity of French gastronomy.
And then, there’s the soup scene. When cooks get out the stockpot and chef’s knife, what do they reach for to get things started and to set those juices flowing? Onions, celery and carrots. And what do they call them? The holy trinity of soup stock.
So, as the weather took a turn for the cool this week – bringing to mind thoughts of Fall and fireplaces and sweaters – what did the Ingredient Sleuth think of? Casseroles (that would be “baked dish” in Minnesotan -- at least that's what the humorous book How to Talk Minnesotan says!), hot and steamy from the oven.
And, being every bit as religious as the French and the soup chefs, what do "cookers of casseroles" select from the larder? Protein, grains and vegetables -- the holy trinity of casserole construction! With those dependable (P-G-V) items on hand, a good casserole is always just around the corner!
After last week’s musings on flatbreads, the Ingredient Sleuth's casserole of choice turned out to be a little number that the I dreamt up a few years ago. In this case, the beans and cheese are the protein, the corn (cream style and tortillas) is the grain and the tomatoes, zucchini, onions and peppers are the vegetable. Always easy and always tasty, this layered "baked dish" sends warm aromas of comfort wafting through the house in no time.
INGREDIENT SLEUTH’S TORTILLA CASSEROLE
½ large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup red or green bell pepper, slivered into1-inch lengths
15-ounce can red beans, drained
15-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices
15-ounce can cream-style corn
½ teaspoon dried, red chile pepper flakes
½ to 1 teaspoon paprika or chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste
4 corn tortillas (8-inch size)
1 cup shredded cheddar or pepper jack cheese
1. Saute the onions in the oil over medium heat, until golden, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the remainder of the “sauce” ingredients in the order listed above.
3. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, to blend flavors and achieve thickness of lasagna sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings.
4. Layer the sauce in an oiled, 8-inch-round casserole dish with the tortillas and cheese, starting and ending with sauce. Cover with ovenproof lid or aluminum foil.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes.
6. Garnish with your favorite toppings: parsley, onions, chopped tomatoes, sour cream, avocado, if desired.
Have you noticed how TV chefs are using the "build the dish" terminology more and more? Maybe it's about time to do some serious casserole construction at YOUR house as well! We all need some comfort food every now and then. Time to get some culinary religion and reach for that trinity -- and casserole dish -- once again!
Friday, September 09, 2005
Flatbread selection at Jordan Market in Laguna Hills
Flatbreads of every description always seem to me to be space-saving bread. Or should that be "bread in space"? It makes me wonder if the astronauts ever take this kind of bread along when every tiny bit of space savings is crucial in the tiny cabin of their space vehicle. Maybe an extra square or two, for snacking, folded up in a tiny pocket of that space suit?
Certainly flatbreads are a good idea for backpackers or campers. After all, you wouldn't have to worry about any little slips or stumbles on the trail -- at least crush-wise -- if your bread is flat to begin with! Though, I suppose it wouldn't cushion one's fall quite as well as a puffy variety ....
And another question always come to mind about flatbreads. If they take up less space outside my stomach, do they take up less space INSIDE my stomach as well? I suppose chewing sort of equals things out, space-wise?
If bread is the "staff of life," flatbreads must be the handle! They have been around, nourishing people around the world -- especially nomadic people -- forever!
Some estimates suggest that as long as 15,000 years ago -- that would be 13,000 B.C.! -- wheat grain meal and water were mixed together and baked on heated rocks, thus creating the first flatbreads. Then, more "recently," say 2600 to 4000 B.C. (estimates vary over that 1400-year range, but of course, recordkeeping probably was not all THAT precise during that period!), the Egyptians added yeast-like substances to make bread rise, either a lot or a little, and created the first ovens for baking bread. Most of these breads would still be considered flatbreads, even though they contained small amounts of leavening agent.
The Greeks learned from the Egyptians and then passed on the knowledge to the Romans. And of course, those on-the-move Romans not only took it from there and grew better grains, improved the milling processes with finer sieves and built better ovens, but then transported the know-how all over Europe (undoubtedly carrying space-saving flatbreads with them!) as they conquered not only bread-making but everything else they could get their hands on! By 100 A.D., most of Europe had adopted Roman bread-baking techniques.
The beauty of the whole history of bread, to the Ingredient Sleuth, is the overwhelming variety of bread styles that we have come to enjoy: various grains, various baking styles, various densities, various form factors. A trip around the world, or around a well-stocked supermarket, provides bread choices of many descriptions.
For this week, let's consider only flatbreads -- at least, a FEW of them! As in all bread categories, the variety is inspiring.
TORTILLAS, round and unleavened, are Latin American flatbreads. They may be made from ground corn, masa (corn kernels cooked with unslaked lime and water) or wheat flours. Corn tortillas typically contain only masa and water. Flour tortillas usually include baking powder, salt, shortening and milk. In both cases, tortillas are cooked on an ungreased griddle. The Ingredient Sleuth will never forget the delectable flour tortillas, hot and fresh from the griddle, of Guadalajara , Mexico -- there's just SOMETHING about the flavor of real lard (rather than the vegetable shortenings predominant north of the border) in those little beauties! Supermarket tortillas, have also begun to feature added ingredients, such as avocado and sundried tomato flavors.
PITA BREAD, one of the oldest recipes known to mankind, is round, Arabic flatbread whose basic ingredients are flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast or starter. Sometimes, butter, shortening or dry milk are added. Because pita bread is baked at a very high temperature (500 degrees Fahrenheit), it forms a pocket shape. The dry exterior skin of the dough sets and carbon dioxide from the yeast and steam from the moist ingredients expand until the upper and lower layers separate. Pita bread spread to Italy from its Arabic locations of origin. And voila! Northern Italians topped it (rather than filled it) creating what they pronounced as "pizza!" (Isn't it a small world, after all?)
NAAN BREAD, the famous flatbread from India, is slightly leavened and formed into a roughly-oval shape. Made from white flour, it is sprinkled with pungent nigella seeds and baked at high heat in either a tandoor or regular oven. The picturesque -- dare I say romantic --part of the tandoor (clay) oven, I think, is the idea of slapping those flattened, oval dough disks onto the hot, interior walls. Of course, singed finger tips probably aren't so picturesque or romantic, for the bakers! Today, naan bread is a common restaurant item (sometimes in its garlic-flavored form) and is rarely baked at home, even in India.
LAVASH is Armenian flatbread. It is formed in various shapes and sizes and in textures from soft to crisp. It is unleavend and extremely flat -- sometimes paper-thin. This bread, a staple food not only in Armenia but in parts of neighboring Iran, Lebanon and Georgia, has been prepared the same way for thousands of years: long sheets of dough are stretched thin and baked in a clay oven similar to an Indian tandoor oven. Sheets of lavash, even as packaged in plastic in supermarkets, are large -- about 12 inches by 18 inches. The Ingredient Sleuth always winces when the checkout clerk nonchalantly folds the package in half in order to fit it into the shopping bag -- but the lavash has never broken and always arrives home safely.
These flatbreads (and others!) appear in ethnic markets, international markets, specialty food shops and, increasingly, in supermarkets as well. They are usually reasonably-priced, provide an interesting alternative to other workaday breads and won't take up much room in the shopping cart or in the pantry!
Whatever their shape, flatbreads of all descriptions are just the ticket for wrapping up tasty fillings, scooping up sauces and stews, dunking into dips, or (a personal favorite) slathering with honeys and jams and that wonderful chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella. When it comes to flatbreads, everything old (and space-saving) is new again. You don't even have to be nomadic to enjoy them!
Friday, September 02, 2005
It is a beautiful day in southern California. The sky is blue, the birds are singing -- and the palm trees are standing upright and strong!
In much of the southern U.S. right now, this picture could not be farther from the truth. Tens of thousands of people feel the world in upheavel. Many are very, very hungry.
As Labor Day weekend is upon us, filling up a shopping cart with food items is usually part of the Ingredient's Sleuth's ritual. Here is some "new math" to be considered when filling up my Labor Day shopping cart:
One bottle of wine = 150 meals for the hungry
One case of beer = 360 meals for the hungry
One bag of chips = 75 meals for the hungry
One dozen donuts = 105 meals for the hungry
The list, of course, could go on and on. "Where would one find these meals for the hungry at this price," you ask? "It sounds like a tremendous program!"
And it is! America's Second Harvest (www.SecondHarvest.org) feeds hungry, disadvantaged Americans the year round. It already has food banks and distribution channels established throughout the United States. Today, September 2nd, it already has over 1 million pounds of food enroute to the hurricane survivors. Amazingly, one U.S. dollar contributed to Second Harvest equals 15 meals to the table (about four bags of food) for the hungry.
This weekend, September 1st through September 5th, has been designated as "Blog for Relief" weekend. Today, September 2nd, as of late morning Pacific Daylight Time, 1411 blogs in 20 countries have listed links to 156 charities targeting Hurricane Katrina relief. Over $359,310 has been raised.
The Ingredient Sleuth's blog will continue to list Second Harvest's link in the sidebar (it actually has been there for several months already -- how can a blog focused on food NOT consider feeding the hungry?).
America's Second Harvest:
by phone: 1-800-344-8070.
by mail: 35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2000, Chicago IL 60601
May this Labor Day weekend be blessed with safety -- and food -- for ALL of us!
Friday, August 26, 2005
One particularly precocious young lad of about ten years of age attentively followed his grandmother’s conversation with her adjacent garden-plot renter. “Oh, we can’t wait each day to see if any of our tomatoes are ready to be picked,” said Grandma. Stooping over to pluck a striped, green tomato from the fuzzy vine that left its pungent aroma on her well-worn gardening gloves, she added, “It’s always such a pleasure to find well-ripened ones.”
The adjacent gardener furrowed his brows. Perhaps Grandma had developed a recent case of color-blindness. Or maybe she had just been out in the sun a little too long. Or possibly she was making a batch of fried-green tomatoes? How could he stop her from picking those still-green tomatoes from their vine-y support system?
The attentive ten-year-old boy noticed the other gardener’s concern. “Oh, it’s alright Mr. Jones,” he whispered brightly, “these are grandma’s green zebras and they’re a heritage!” At that comment, of course, the concerned gardener’s eyebrows shot up to the very top of his constantly-receding hairline! Green zebras? Heritage?
But Grandma and grandson were in completely-correct gardening form. They had researched their topic and were ready, able and competent. In fact, they had spent many happy afternoons together, during the preceding winter as powder-dry snow swirled around the windows, poring over seed catalogues and Internet sites, in search of a half-dozen heirloom tomato varieties for their garden plot.
This year, they were going to get back to basics, focus on the tried-and-true, celebrate some heritage of days gone by. The search was difficult, though. Lack of sources, lack of variety was not the problem – there were so MANY interesting options that it was just so very difficult to choose! They wanted to order all of them!
But, choose they (finally) did and as summer approached, seeds were planted in indoor trays, then seedlings were set out into the garden when the weather was favorable. And, ever since that late-May day, Grandma and grandson had shared a special outdoor project that produced lifetime memories, in addition to glorious tomatoes, that were especially their own -- their memories of heritage!
“The Heirloom Tomato Project,” as their effort was named by the 10-year old, grew out of a visit that they had made to the local farmers’ market the previous summer. As they strolled the wide aisles, they had been captivated by one stall in particular. For, arrayed on the stall’s table, were tomatoes of every description except the usual! In fact, there were none of the usual, fire-red, uniform globes of supermarket fame.
Rather, this display of tomatoes had been slightly reminiscent of a “seconds sale” at the local pottery factory. Rather than smooth, thick skins – the kind that allows supermarket tomatoes to be picked before ripe, then travel thousands of miles from growers, and then sit patiently on the shelf for days, all the while LOOKING lovely but having never developed a full, ripe flavor – these oddball varieties had unusual shapes and fragile skins. They came in all sizes. And there were colors from pink to purple to yellow to green and gold – oh yes, and some reds as well!
The farmer at the market stall had been friendly and smiled knowingly at the grandmother and grandson. He could see the spark of interest in their eyes (those large, smiling brown eyes that so resembled each other’s) and knew that they wanted to know more. Their rapt attention, as he explained the basics of heirloom tomatoes, was very gratifying to him.
The oldest tomato variety in America has been grown consecutively for 600 years. It happens to be a small, pear-shaped tomato that is red in color. To qualify as an officially-designated “heirloom” variety, though, a tomato need be grown unchanged (maintaining the identical size, flavor, texture and color characteristics) for “only” fifty years – in many cases, by the same family. And that of course, is where the “heritage” comes in! Passed from generation to generation, the heirloom tomatoes have been kept in their original form and format -- rather than hybridized or cross-bred again and again to produce those supermarket globes.
As a result, the true flavors, which different significantly from each other, are maintained in each heirloom variety. Some are quite pungent and tart, high in acid content. Others are milder, some almost fruitlike (yes, yes, the Ingredient Sleuth is aware that all tomatoes ARE fruits, not vegetables) in their sweet flavors. Some are particularly juicy, others firm.
“Imperfections” such as splits (called “cat faces”), bruises or belly-button-like protrusions are common and often cause people to shy away from the heirlooms. Ironically, those very same shape irregularities are an indicator of a likely heirloom variety – an important piece of ingredient-sleuthing information. The farmer suggested that, when looking for a flavorful tomato experience, one think “lobes” rather than “globes.” The extra pockets and indentations in heirloom tomatoes simply mean that THESE varieties are in their original format – not in the hybridized format. (Can’t you just hear the “heirlooms”, upon observing the made-over “supermarkets” saying playfully, “Hmmm, it looks as if THEY had some work done!”).
With names like Purple Cherokee, Pink Caspian, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Mister Stripey, Pineapple, Green Zebra, Abe Lincoln, Super Sioux, Goose Creek, Persimmon – even one variety named Julia Child – heirloom tomatoes seem to have personalities of their own, even before tasted. One variety, called Northampton Italian, is elongated in shape and is often mistaken for a pepper. (To read more about varieties and sources for heirloom seeds and free seed catalogues, see http://www.rareseeds.com/. You can even subscribe to “The Heirloom Gardener” magazine or to a free heirloom e-mail newsletter.)
Because of their thinner skins and resultant shorter shelf life, heirloom tomatoes are meant to be enjoyed soon after picking. And therein lies the explanation for the scarcity of them in supermarkets. Heirlooms are not happy when transported thousand of miles to a supermarket. Rather, local sourcing, close to the location of the tomatoes’ growth, is ideal and brings farmers’ markets, farm stands and backyard gardens to the forefront of the heirloom tomato scene.
So, to find good heirloom tomatoes, it seems that one has to look for them in the fresh air! Many farmers’ markets and farm stands allow free tastes, to help facilitate awareness and spread the heirloom gospel. There the little beauties will be, in all their colorful glory -- and never, never will they have been subjected to (gasp!) that flavor-killing refrigerator!
Heirloom tomato festivals are held from coast to coast in the United States – and are especially popular in areas in which truck gardening and small farms are common. California, Missouri and New Jersey are particular heirloom tomato hot spots! The Hollywood (CA) Farmers’ Market, in fact, will hold its annual “Peak of Summer Tomato Festival” this Sunday (morning), August 28th. And then, on September 11th, the annual Tomato Festival will be held in Carmel, California and will feature 300 tomato varieties for tasting. A quick Internet search for “heirloom tomatoes” and “festival” will undoubtedly produce festival opportunities in other locales.
Grandma and grandson couldn’t have been happier with their newfound knowledge or with their peak-of-season harvest. Their heirloom planting project was a success and their shared interest was a delight to both. Because heirloom seeds retain their complete character profile, the gardening duo happily harvested seeds to dry for next year’s planting -- feeling even more thrifty than usual! Of course, they already have plans to place another order for some additional varieties as well!
Whether planning your own next-year’s garden, taste sampling at an outdoor stall or just jumping in to buy a few, ripe heirloom tomatoes of your own to enjoy with dinner, maybe there is an “Heirloom Tomato Project” in your future too!
Friday, August 19, 2005
Birds flutter overhead, attracted to the beauty, twittering to each other in a flurry of activity. Water, including river and streams and fountains, babbles everywhere. Tourists from around the world smile and murmur in delight.
The Moorish emirs of Granada wanted to recreate the Garden of Eden at this location. They diverted a river to provide water and set in place a garden of visual, olfactory and culinary delights. Generations of visitors have been appreciative of their efforts.
In this corner of Spain, today’s Andalusians continue to recreate the Garden of Eden – in a soup bowl! Gazpacho is Andalusia’s best-known dish and probably originated in a different format (no tomatoes or peppers, which came to Spain after Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” to the “New World”) during the time when Spain was part of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages.
Today, the most-familiar versions of gazpacho are probably those from Seville and Cordoba. However, most cities and towns throughout southern Spain’s Andalusian region have their own, slightly-different versions. The common, distinctive ingredient among all the versions was, and is, bread. Originally, like so many wonderful dishes, gazpacho was peasant food. It was eaten by workers in the fields: vineyards, olive plantations, citrus groves, wheat fields and cork (tree) farms. It was field-travel friendly – and still is today!
Gazpacho was popularized outside of the Andalusian region in the 19th century and finally worked its way to popularity in northern Spain around 1930. It became quite fashionable there and continued its wanderings worldwide as the 20th century progressed. How many of us, after visiting Andalusia, return home with visions of hillsides in our hearts and yearnings for gazpacho in our taste buds? The Ingredient Sleuth, for one.
The following “gazpacho interlude” comes from the wonderful, new book BIRO: EUROPEAN-INSPIRED CUISINE by Marcel Biro and Shannon Kring Biro (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2005):
"Marcel Biró’s Gazpacho
Originally a laborers’ dish, Gazpacho was the standard fare of Andalusian muleteers who carried it in earthen pots on their travels. Today the soup contains vegetables and differs from city to city within Andalusia—each version claiming to be the original. Arguably, the first recipe came from Córdoba and consisted of bread, garlic, olive oil, and water. Today Córdoban Gazpacho is thickened with cream and cornmeal. In Jerez it is garnished with raw onion rings, and in Malaga it is made with veal bouillon and sometimes garnished with grapes and almonds. In Cadiz Gazpacho is served hot in the winter, and in Segovia it is flavored with cumin, basil, and aïoli.
This recipe is inspired by that of Seville, a city that, of course, also lays claim as home of Gazpacho.
1 pound vine ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
½ cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 cup breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cups tomato juice
½ teaspoon dried leaf marjoram
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Purée all ingredients in a food processor or blender. You may need to process it in two batches. Blend until the soup is the consistency you favor. Some people prefer chunks, others a completely smooth soup. I prefer my Gazpacho somewhere in between: with some bite and the consistency of heavy cream.
2. Pour the soup into a large stainless bowl, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. When the soup is well chilled, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Gazpacho is traditionally served with a selection of garnishes including chopped hard-boiled eggs, chopped cucumber, chopped onion, chopped green and black olives, and diced green bell pepper. This soup is therefore best served family style, and I prefer to use earthenware dishes, as the recipe was originally prepared in clay bowls.
Quick Tip: Other uses for Gazpacho
I’ve used Gazpacho leftovers as a pizza sauce, a warm pasta sauce, a sauce for a goat cheese tarte flambée, a cold and warm garnish, and even as a cocktail sauce by adding a bit of horseradish. Be inventive with this versatile soup and know that the longer you keep it, the more complex and intense the flavor will become."
*Copyright Note*: Marcel and Shannon Biro specifically authorized this excerpt and recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.
A huge part of the pleasure of any travel experience is the representative food of the visited location. This book steps right up and puts the know-how to recreate those dishes into the reader’s hands.
For me, this gazpacho is filled with my memories of Andalusia. As I taste the soup's bright, fresh and snappy flavor, I am transported to Alhambran gardens and striking hillsides and flamenco performances with bright, fresh and snappy music – sometimes I even jump up and do a little fancy footwork of my own in celebration!
The book’s recipes are representative of the favorite regions in which Marcel Biro has worked: southern Germany, Alsace, Tuscany and Andalusia. The recipes are meant to take you to – or back to – those wonderful destinations as you cook up the wonderful dishes at home.
As one of the youngest chefs in European history to achieve the title Master Chef de Cuisine, he is acclaimed for winning several coveted European awards, for his accomplishments in Michelin-starred restaurants, and for his dedication to demystifying classic cuisine.
As a European Certified Chef Instructor, Biro has fed those with a hunger for professional culinary knowledge throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Italy and the United States. He has worked at internationally acclaimed restaurants and was personal chef to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Biro is host of the new national PBS (Public Broadcasting System) reality cooking series “The Kitchens of Biro.” He is also chef/owner of Biro Restaurant and Wine Bar and of O – a Biro Restaurant, both in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In addition, the Biros (Marcel and Shannon) offer a bonanza of culinary events and activities (see http://www.kitchensofbiro.com/) for culinary enthusiasts. Trips to Europe, cooking classes, entrepreneurial consultation and more are available.
Mr. Biro came to appreciate the value – the precious nature – of good ingredients at a young age, in East Germany. He has based his career on bringing wonderful, healthful ingredients to new heights in dishes that will be available to all. What really warms the heart of the Ingredient Sleuth is the following sentence from the book’s introduction (reprinted with permission) as Biro says:
“Whether you prepare the recipes as outlined or put your own unique spin on them – which I encourage – I hope that you take a moment to really touch the ingredients, to inhale their wondrous scent, and to appreciate their beauty. In my life and career, I have come to fully comprehend the value of freedom and the great privilege I have to work with food. For me, it is an honor never to be taken for granted.”
Friday, August 12, 2005
10-Year-Old Balsamic Vinegar from Trader Joe's
“This one is bright and quite sharp, with a definite acidic hit in the back of the mouth,” said Blondielocks. “I will sprinkle it on roasted vegetables and stir-fries and make some tasty marinades, maybe some sweet-and-sour sauces with it.” And Mama Bear agreed.
“Oh, this one is richer, with a sweeter finish,” Blondielocks purred. “It will be perfect for my salad dressings and to deglaze the pan with dark, woodsy juices after searing some lovely, tender meat.” And Papa Bear concurred.
“Oh my, oh my!” Blondielocks crooned. “This one is so thick, dark, full-bodied and sweet that I may have to sip it straight from the bottle! And there is only sweetness, no sharpness at all.” And Baby Bear knew that THIS was the one for him as well. “Hooray, hooray,” he cheered, “let’s put a few, thick drops on ice cream, melon, Parma ham, figs, strawberries and such!”
Blondielocks and the three bears (apologies to Goldilocks, but the usual porridge story just wouldn't do, for THIS table fable!) couldn’t have been more correct and in tune with current tastes. Balsamic vinegars are being tasted and enjoyed far-and-wide today. Just last week, the Ingredient Sleuth was browsing at one of the larger Williams-Sonoma (http://www.williams-sonoma.com/) cookware stores and discovered a tasting bar that offered free samples of a variety of balsamic vinegars (and olive oils too!). There were even bread cubes available to cleanse the palate between tastes! How delightful!
Traditionally, balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) has been made only in and near the small, medieval city of Modena in the northern part of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Trebbiano grapes (and sometimes Lambrusco grapes), which are local to the area, are soft-pressed to produce “must” that is filtered, left to stand and then cooked in large pans over open wood fires.
Kept at a simmer for up to twelve hours, the grape sugars begin to caramelize, creating a rich, brown syrup. The syrup is then placed in wooden barrels to begin its aging process. Different woods are used and impart different colors and flavors to the juice; oak, juniper, ash, mulberry and cherry are commonly used.
Every wooden barrel has a small, gauze-covered trap that permits controlled evaporation of the must’s liquid juices. As the liquid inside the barrel reduces, flavors and colors intensify. After about one year, the must is transferred to a smaller barrel and may be mixed with fermenting musts from other, older “batches” of grapes. Unique flavor profiles are obtained by combining batches from earlier harvests. This combination of multiple years’ juices precludes the “dating” of balsamic vinegars, as of a certain year's grape harvest, in the way that wine vintages are dated.
The process of removal of the fermenting must to smaller and smaller barrels (sometimes of different woods), and the combining with different batches, is repeated year after year. As time passes, the vinegar becomes thicker and heavier.
To obtain the status of “tradizionale” and be certified as meeting the requirements of the Modena consortium governing balsamic vinegar, the aging must complete at least twelve years. Given the inability to date the vinegar as a certain year’s vintage, this consortium-controlled rating allows the purchaser to be ensured that the youngest must contained within the vinegar will be at least twelve years old.
Tradizionale at 12 years of age, and extra vecchio which may be as much as 25 or 50 years old, are the ultimate in balsamic vinegars. Rich and silky (and expensive), the thickest of them coating a spoon like honey, they are not an everyday condiment but are used sparingly, sometimes dispensed drop-by-drop.
For hundreds of years in Italy, and as recently as the mid 1900s, balsamic vinegar was produced in rural homes around Modena, each family storing enough for its own use in the attic (the Modena climate producing just the right temperatures in the attic to enhance the fermentation). Often, the precious vinegar was part of a bride’s marriage-dowry. One begins to wonder if pre-engagement balsamic tastings were part of the courtship process!
It was only in the 1980s that balsamic vinegar became a fashionable ingredient worldwide. The demand for it continues to grow. Recently, another area of the Emilia Romagna region has begun to produce its own balsamic vinegar, thereby creating the inevitable food-angst between Italian towns (an Italian “food fight,” as it were). Reggio, the balsamico newcomer to the west of Modena, offers its vinegar under the term aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. In response, Modena’s producers are now fighting to receive Protected Geographic Indication (IGP, as it is termed in Italy) from the government for the process.
Although few of us will have the opportunity to taste such rarity on a regular basis, the attention garnered by this top-of-the-line version of balsamic vinegar seems to be raising the profile (and quality) of the “lesser” versions as well. Termed aceto balsamico di Modena (without the tradizionale or extra vecchio designations), they are made in much the same manner, but the barrels are larger, wine vinegar is added before the fermentation and the aging process is shorter, with no transfer from one barrel to another. Cheaper balsamics are matured for up to 12 months, mid-priced versions for up to 18 months and higher-end varieties for up to four years.
Increasingly, nicely-aged vinegars are showing up at quite-reasonable prices. The vinegar in the accompanying photo, in fact, is routinely available at Trader Joe’s stores. It is from Modena, Italy and has been aged for 10 years. For the Ingredient Sleuth’s money (and you know how carefully she shops!), this vinegar is delicious in a great breadth of dishes and works very nicely in the higher-end scenarios as well.
The word "balsamic" itself, used to describe this vinegar, is a derivation of a word meaning "balm" and "restorative." Over the centuries, balsamic vinegar has been viewed as an aid to digestion as an enhancer of appetite. (Whose eating experience WOULDN'T be improved when it just tastes so good?)
So, if the ideas in Blondielocks’ techniques with balsamic vinegar appeal to you – or better yet, if they strike you as something strange from another world – the sleuth encourages you to give them a try. There are brave new worlds of tasting to be attempted and savored. Already, Blondielocks and the three bears are on-board!
Friday, August 05, 2005
"I say, old chap, have you had your cucumber sandwiches today?" A quick glance at the clock indicated that, indeed, it was almost past the normal tea time.
"Rather, on such a warm day, it would be exceedingly lovely to pop over to the pub, don't you agree?" was the reply.
Hmmm, tea time or pub time. Cucumber sandwiches with tea OR chips with a pint of ale. How to choose -- on a scorching summer day in England's countryside.
In days of old, this decision dilemma may have prompted a lengthy discussion of the merits of each approach, followed by the ultimate selection of one or the other alternative. It seems reasonable to conclude that cucumber sandwiches' popularity may have suffered in the process! In today's world of fusion cooking (and eating), cucumbers have become mainstream. They MAY even be found, in their cucumber-sandwich format, in the very same establishment that offers pints of ale.
Hothouse cucumbers, in particular, have hit the culinary circuit in a big way. Also called European or English cucumbers, they have crisp, juicy flesh and thin, edible skin. They have only a few (or no) tiny seeds and are typically 12 to 24 inches in length. Some people report that hothouse cucumbers are easier to digest (as a result of the lack of seeds) than regular cucumbers.
Grown in a controlled, greenhouse environment, the fruit of the hothouse cucumber develops without need for pollination of the vine's blossoms. This is the reason that few seeds form within the fruit. Of course, in no time at all, this methodology could be quite limiting to the future existence of the variety! Seeds are still needed to plant new vines!
In order to produce seeds for future hothouse cucumbers, growers partition a selected group of vines that will be raised specifically for seed production. Flowers on these vines ARE pollinated. While the resulting cucumbers will not be of the same high flavor and crispness as the un-pollinated fruits, the bounty of seeds they yield will produce vines capable of producing the very same high-quality, unseeded cucumbers when grown in greenhouse conditions.
At harvest, hothouse cucumbers are packaged immediately in transparent, plastic film in order to retain their moisture, crispness and flavor. This method, rather than the application of wax approach taken with most cucumbers, allows the skin to be used -- no peeling required -- and significantly extends the usable, tasty shelf life of the cucumber.
Preparation options for hothouse cucumbers are also extensive. They are excellent for use raw, in salads, sandwiches, salsas, drinks, sushi and hors d'oeuvres -- and as refreshing dippables -- because of their crispness and eye-appeal (thanks to that usable border of thin, dark-green skin).
Because of their firm texture and subtle flavor, hothouse cucumbers also are well-suited to cooking and are often used in a similar manner to zucchini. Their delicate flavor when cooked pairs especially well with fish and poultry. Braising, sauteing and steaming are common preparation methods. They may also be halved and hollowed out to form"boats" and filled with meat, vegetables or breadcrumb stuffing before baking in a bit of stock or broth. The mild flavor of cooked cucumbers blends well with a post-cooking addition of herbs such as dill, mint, tarragon or basil.
As August begins, the Ingredient Sleuth is happy to provide a recipe for a spectacular chilled cucumber soup. It comes from the equally-spectacular new book, COOKING AT HOME ON RUE TATIN, Harper Collins Publishers, June 2005, by Susan Herrmann Loomis.
This great new cookbook carries on Ms. Loomis' reputation for delicious cooking that manages to be down-to-earth sensible at the same time as elegant. How DOES she DO that? Many people make the trip to her home-based cooking classes in the town of Louviers, France, on Rue Tatin (Tatin Street), to find the answer to that very question. Others are simply thankful that she puts pen to paper, hands to computer keyboard, to share her culinary thinking with all of us who read her books from afar.
In COOKING AT HOME ON RUE TATIN, Ms. Loomis provides much more than ingredients with associated assembly instructions. Recipes are paired with brief stories that relate to people, places and events from her own town and regions throughout France. As we read, we glimpse the interactions with merchants, growers, farmers, fishermen -- and most rewardingly, friends in all these categories -- that have inspired each dish and contributed to its enjoyment. We peek into the interrelationships that produce great food and good friends -- enhancing the entire food experience.
For more info about the book, Ms. Loomis' cooking courses and her other books, see http://www.onruetatin.com/.
THE CUCUMBER SOUP OF SUMMER
· 2 long firm European or Asian cucumbers (about 2-1/4 pounds; 1kg 120g total), chilled, peeled, halved lengthwise, any seeds removed, and coarsely chopped
· 4 small fresh onions, or 6 scallions, white part only
· 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream or half-and-half, preferably not ultrapasteurized
· Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
· ¼ cup firmly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
· 6 fresh mint leaves
1. Place the cucumber in food processor fit with a steel blade, and process.
2. Add the onion and process until the mixture is a frothy puree. Add the cream and process to blend. Transfer to a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Mince the parsley and mint together and stir them into the soup. Cover the soup and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving, and up to overnight (8 hours).
*Copyright Note*: Susan Herrmann Loomis specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.
In a word, this soup is COOL! This is true in both the literal sense of the word and in today's lighthearted vernacular (as in "that's way cool soup, dude!"). Each and every ingredient has a cool and refreshing flavor component; the exquisite combination of the ingredients is brightly-refreshing and smooth, all at the same time.
Ms. Loomis says that the soup was inspired by a friend who readily admits that she doesn't like to cook -- but LOVES to eat! The recipe is simple, delicious and won't work up any extra heat in the preparation. Now THAT'S COOL!
Friday, July 29, 2005
The tiny plane’s even-tinier engines begin to purr. All on board the private jet are buckled into their seats. Even though they are on a plane, the passengers are truly departing on a “busman’s holiday.” Rather than leaving for a leisurely stay at sun-washed beaches or mountain cabins, the vacationing chefs are departing on a whirlwind, worldwide market tour – doing exactly what they do every other day, only in faraway places.
Each chef has a tiny suitcase, tucked under the seat in front of him (or her, of course!). In each suitcase is one costume-change – or should we say, one disguise! On this mission, each chef has a critical assignment and blending in with the locals will be a crucial element of success. The energy of anticipation is in the air.
As the plane touches down on a makeshift runway, the anticipation turns into a babble of excitement. Well-rounded bodies strain to free themselves from the cramped quarters. At this stop, Pois Chiche (an alias for today’s mission) is responsible. He has donned his tailored slacks and jacket, slipped into his polished brown loafers and completed his disguise with a jaunty, yet subtle, beret. Before leaving the plane, he winks at his friends. Pois Chiche knows exactly where he is headed and, in no time, climbs back into the plane, winks again, and hands his bounty to the mission commander. “There they are,” he says, “some of France’s finest walnuts from the Perigord!”
Even before the congratulatory applause has ended, the plane engines purr again, all clamor for their seats and they are off! At cruising altitude, the chefs realize that the Alps look particularly majestic today. Confident Cece (that’s right – also an alias!) has no time for awestruck gazing, however. She has barely enough time to strap on her airy sandals and wiggle into her designer dress and bright, yellow sunhat before the plane lands once again, this time in Tuscany.
As Cece steps from the cockpit, the capable smile on her face suggests that all will be well with this mission. Indeed, in a flash, she has struck up a conversation with a prize-winning Italian chef who is also shopping for olive oil. After both of them taste a half-dozen of the best oils, swishing and swirling the samples in their mouths like fine wine, Cece says her goodbyes and returns to her chefly comrades. “Here it is,” she beams, “Italy’s brightest sunshine!” She hands the bottle of shimmering, gold-green olive oil to the commander and breathes a soft sigh of relief. Her portion of the mission has been an overwhelming success. First-cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. The absolute best!
As the tiny plane heads west, the orange-red sky, with its bright orange sun, strikes a prophetic note for gregarious Garbanzo. His mission (given that he has chosen to accept it) is oranges – the sweeter, the better! The sunny fields of Mexico spread out before the tiny plane as it rolls to a stop. Behind the plane, the produce market near the dance ballroom is crowded with strollers. Garbanzo’s black-fringed hat, form-fitting suit and hard-heeled boots are the perfect attire for the assignment – one dazzling senorita even asks him to be her partner for the evening’s opening dance!
Tempting though it is to give up his cooking for the dancing scene, Garbanzo keeps focus and quickly identifies the display of sweet-and-juicy oranges. He selects the prescribed dozen for his assignment – then adds four more. As he steps into the plane, he tosses an orange to each of his compatriots and soon, four fine sprays of “orange mist” are dappling cockpit windows as discarded orange peels drop to the floor.
Coolheaded Chick-Pea (aliases no longer required!) barely has time to pull out a wet-wipe and clean her orange-juiced hands before it is time to jump into her California jog outfit – or should that be called “active wear” now? Flip-flops slapping on the plane's metal stairway, she hits the tarmac at a run, pulls the sunglasses down from the top of her head and is browsing at the California market place faster than you can say Arnold Schwarzenegger!
Soon, Chick-Pea’s mission, like those of her team members, has been a complete success. Round and plump raisins – a wicker basket full of them – complete the requirements for the full mission. As the Mission Commander, Chick-Pea breathes a sigh of relief that encompasses, and surpasses, all the others. She is confident that her client, the Ingredient Sleuth, will be pleased and that people from near and far will acknowledge the highly-versatile chick-pea (alias garbanzo, cece and pois chiche!) as the perfect blend with many great ingredients from the rest of the world.
Not just because the chick-pea is one of nature’s most-truly perfect foods – which it is. Not just because the chick-pea can be used in salads, soups, dips, pastas and stews – which it can. Not just because the little chick-pea chefs in the story are so silly – which they are.
But because the nut-like flavor and the slightly-firm texture of chick-peas are so tastefully-accommodating to other great ingredients that they simply DESERVE to be paired with delicious items from the whole, wide world!
Coincidentally, the little recipe that follows just happens to use the wonderful items that the Chick-Pea Chefs collected on their trip! (Isn’t it amazing how that happened?) Of course, apart from flights of fancy, the Ingredient Sleuth actually collected all of the ingredients at her local grocery -- except for the juicy orange, which came straight from the tree in her back yard!
Ingredient Sleuth’s Juicy Garbanzos
15-oz. can of chick-peas (garbanzos), rinsed and drained
½ cup walnut pieces (toasted is extra good)
½ cup raisins
½ cup orange juice
Zest of one orange, shredded (optional)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Mix together and refrigerate to chill, allowing the raisins to soften and the flavors to blend. Use as a salad, as a snack for the afternoon “munchies” or as a dessert or breakfast treat (yes – really!). If you call it “juicy garbanzos” rather than “chick-pea salad” when you serve it, the kids may just dive in for the duration! And the Garbanzo Chefs will be ever so proud that their mission has been triumphant!
Friday, July 22, 2005
Claro's Italian Market
"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine
Bells will ring ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling
And you'll sing "Vita Bella"
Hearts will play tippy-tippy-tay, tippy-tippy-tay
Like a gay tarantella.
When the stars make you drool just like pasta fagiole
When you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet
You're in love!
When you walk in a dream but you know you're not dreaming signore
Scuzza me, but you see, back in old Napoli
("That's Amore" Songwriter: Harry Warren, Lyricist: Jack Brooks)
Every time that I walk into my favorite Italian market, the lyrics of the popular song standard "That's Amore" whisk quickly from their storage area in my brain as if some invisible gremlin has hit the "play" button! Instantly, the catchy tune embeds itself into my consciousness and sticks as tightly to my awareness as a misguided piece of mailing tape adheres to the kitchen table.
Leave it to a song about Italy to mix in some tasty foods with its lyrics about love! Not surprisingly, the song was written by a couple of Americans! It just stands to reason: Americans have been falling in love with Italy, and with Italian food, for a long, long time!
The venue for my Italian ingredient sleuthing is Claro's Italian Market. There are six stores in southern California, all of which are brimming with a dazzling assortment of edible treats. Founded in 1948, Claro's definitely has it RIGHT! A stroll through the aisles is filled with fun. Why not grab a shopping cart and come with me for a few minutes?
Certainly, olive oils and balsamic vinegars and pastas are stacked there in abundance. Tomatoes in aluminum cans are the real thing -- the San Marzano type from Italy that even prize-winning chefs recommend as an equivalent substitution for the fresh, red-ripe tomatoes of late summer. Borlotti beans, anchovies, tomato paste in tubes and oh, so much more, beckon from the brimming shelves. Oh, it is so lovely to linger among the ingredients!
Rounding the corner from the staple foods section, the Ingredient Sleuth slows her already snail-like pace even further. There it is -- the deli case! Olives of many descriptions, marinated artichokes and peppers and other-things-vegetable in vinegars, sausages and cheeses and prepared dishes. A veritable antipasto wonderland in the making! Deli personnel offer samples to taste, slice selections to just the thickness you desire, package just the right amount. Personal service, to the nth degree.
Next stop on the circuit is the display of wines. Labels on bottles call out (with melodic Italian voices of course) the names of Italian towns and regions that kindle memories of previous Italy trips or trigger ideas for itineraries in-the-making. Reds and whites and blush wines are there -- and expertise to answer questions will appear at your elbow like magic!
As I near the displays of housewares, imported ceramics and Italian cookbooks, I yield once again to the impulse to just "have a look." So many things to consider. How can there be SO many sizes of espresso pots? Would I wear a "Kiss me, I'm Italian" T-shirt if I bought one? Do I have room in my cupboard for just one more serving dish? The persistent song in my head always seems louder, somehow, when it is reflected from the colorful, shiny platters!
Nearing the finish line now, but no let-up in appeal is imminent. What a stroke of brilliance -- the baked goods and pastry counter shares space with the cash registers! Shoppers' eyes (including mine) dart back-and-forth, side-to-side, as their corresponding breathing rates increase ever so slightly. So many treats, so much to be considered! Crusty organic rolls, whole-grain breads with seeded tops, cookies, cheese-filled cannolli and myriads more call out to be chosen. It's somewhat similar to that taunting candy bar display at the conventional supermarket, right there, next to the checkout -- only much, much more compelling. Where else would one find such a selection? Where else would the items be so delicious?
If, like me, you are sent into "ingredient longing" just by this run-through of a microcosm of Claro's Italian specialties, perhaps it is time to stop by and see for yourself. What? Not in southern California? Not even headed here for a visit sometime soon? Don't feel like going out into the hot weather to shop? Well, your fingers can then just walk on over to www.claros.com and investigate the online shopping options that are available. Dozens and dozens of items are there waiting -- over twenty varieties of imported olive oil alone! (Of course, your geography may have well-stocked Italian markets as well, for in-store browsing pleasure, and perhaps with online ordering of their own. Isn't it a great small world these days?)
The following recipe is brought to you with the specific permission of Claro's Italian Markets. Those of you who saw the movie "Under the Tuscan Sun" may remember the lovely, seaside lunch at which a refreshing, lemon-y Italian liqueur was served. Although that liqueur, limoncello, can be purchased already-prepared in liquor stores (Villa Massa is a popular brand name), what fun, how fresh and tasty, and how economical it is to mix up a batch for yourself. Thanks to Claro's, we can do just that!
CLARO'S HOMEMADE LIMONCELLO LIQUORE
Lemon zest (peel without any white) from 2 pounds of lemons
3 cups granulated sugar
4 cups 100-proof vodka
3 cups water
Soak the lemon peels in the vodka for 1 week in a large bowl stored at room temperature. Mix the water and sugar together in a saucepan and heat over medium heat until all of the sugar dissolves. Allow to cool. Add the vodka mixture and stir. Strain into storage bottles and cork bottles. Chill limoncello for one month, then enjoy!
So, as the dog days of summer continue, why not stir up a batch of this lovely and cool refreshment. Then, when it has finished "aging" (maybe a little earlier, if you are like me), find a shady spot (or an air-conditioned one), open up a book with an Italian setting (maybe even Frances Mayes' book, UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, which is even better and quite different than the movie) and sing a few rousing choruses of "That's Amore"!
So THAT'S Italian! Salute! (And cheers!)