Tag Archives: cooking

The Joy(s) of Cooking

Next to my computer keyboard, I have three pamphlet-style cookbooks.  One is the 21st Edition of the Calumet Baking Powder Company’s “Reliable Recipes”.  Today I learned that cookbook was published in 1922, and is a minor collectible.  The second is a publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1950, called “Family Fare: Food Management and Recipes”. Both these I got from my mother; it’s likely that she got the Calumet cookbook from her mother.

The third is a Greek cookbook I bought sometime in the mid- to late 70’s, at a Greek Festival at the Greek Orthodox Church in Memphis.  That one is where I got my recipe for moussaka, and there has never been a better recipe.  I remember the first time I made it–I was a little shocked that there was cinnamon in the meat sauce, and even more shocked to find that it makes the dish.  And I’m not even a fan of cinnamon.  At Greek Fest here in Tallahassee, they don’t use cinnamon in their moussaka, because “most people don’t like it”.  Wimps.  It takes forever and a day to make it, but it’s worth it.

One of my favorite cookbooks ever was one called “Good, Cheap Food”, which I can’t seem to locate.  It has my recipe for black beans and rice.  Like the moussaka, it takes forever to make.  First you soak the dried beans.  Then you boil them for a couple of hours with spices.  Then you combine them with a meat sauce and bake them for another couple of hours.  As an aside, I always serve them with yellow rice.  White rice reminds me of maggots.

I’ve saved the best for last.  The Calumet cookbook has the recipe for bread pudding that I still use, with tweaks.  I’m a fanatic about bread pudding.  I loved it as a child, and was delighted to learn it’s one of  the signature desserts in New Orleans. I tried it everywhere.  The worst bread puddings are those that add things like raisins, and God forbid, fruit cocktail.  Bread pudding should be plain, enhanced with a sauce.  The best bread pudding I ever had was at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.  They bake it in individual serving dishes, topped with meringue, and just before you eat it, the server pours warm whisky sauce on top.

Here is the bread pudding recipe, complete with tweaks.

1 small loaf stale bread, 1 quart milk, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 level teaspoons baking powder, 2 eggs well-beaten, 1/2 level teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 cup melted butter.

Remove soft part from loaf and grate on coarse grater.  (No, no, no.  Don’t do this, use French bread and keep it in small chunks, crust and all.)  Scald milk, pour over bread.  Let stand until cool.  Beat eggs, add sugar, salt, and baking powder, mix well.  Add to bread/milk mixture.  Add vanilla and butter.  Bake in a buttered baking dish 1 hour, in a slow oven (whatever that means.  My guess is 250-300).

You’re on your own for the whisky sauce.  You can use rum, but I prefer whisky.

That’s The Wrong Fork!

It came as a big surprise to me yesterday to learn that Emily Post wrote a cookbook.  And you too can have a copy of it (original 1951 version, in hardback) for $2.30 from Amazon.  (The shipping is probably twice that.)  The 1951 version may be the only version as far as I know; unlike The Joy of Cooking, which has several versions and has been updated through the years.

In my opinion, if you never have but one cookbook, it should be The Joy of Cooking.  It has every basic recipe you could (and should) know how to cook, and not only that, some fascinating reading about the properties of food (why and how do eggs work in recipes? How exactly do they make flour?) and directions for cleaning a duck from the feathers down, along with many other kinds of game.  It really could be the survivalists’ handbook.

I don’t know why I was so surprised that Emily Post wrote a cookbook, because suddenly I remembered my first Home Economics class.  At my high school, you could get three different types of diplomas:  basic, vocational, or college preparatory.  I was in college prep, and we had certain courses that were required–that was probably true of the other categories as well, but we didn’t fraternize much so I don’t know–but we had room for some electives.  My freshman year, I chose Home Ec.  And then I took it for two more years.

I was interested in cooking.  My father had taught me to cook a little bit (my mother was a disaster in that area) and I’ll never forget making my first apple pie under his supervision, which included a crust made from scratch.  Mostly I’ll never forget the feeling of amazement and accomplishment when I took it out of the oven.  People can actually eat this, and I made it!

Nothing compares to that first apple pie, unless it’s the first time I grew a tomato plant. I planted this! In the dirt!  And I can eat it! I was young once, and many things could surprise and delight me. It takes a little more these days.

But I remembered that my Home Ec I teacher, Mrs. Noland, was not just about learning to cook and sew. It was about etiquette at the table, and proper attire. She was the advisor to an all-girls “social club” I belonged to, and every year, we had an afternoon tea, I think to welcome new members. Hats and gloves required. Proper way to balance a saucer on your lap and hold a teacup. She was the height of sophistication in our little mountain town. That said, I don’t know why I was so surprised that Emily Post wrote a cookbook, since so much of etiquette revolves around eating.

Fast forward to when I was 21 as opposed to 14, and I was going to dinner with my then boyfriend at the home of a woman who was known to be an incredible cook. I mean, she had copies of Gourmet magazine lying around the house. Her husband was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and they were obviously experienced at entertaining. I was dying to go, but terrified. Literally trembling, afraid I would do something wrong at the table and expose myself for the rube I really was. My boyfriend said, don’t be afraid, just watch me. Use the fork I use. And that’s what I did, but I needn’t have worried. The hostess was so gracious, so good at making her guests feel comfortable, that I probably could have made a mistake and I never would have known it.

Mrs. Noland taught me some of the rules, but this hostess taught me the true meaning of etiquette. In the end, the rules are designed to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed, and if you can’t do that, you’ve failed.

It’s been a long time since that Home Ec class and that dinner, but I still know how to hold a teacup.

Reading With Fakename: Julie and Julia

For the sake of not giving anything away to those who have neither read the book or seen the movie, and for the sake of not boring those who have, I’ll try to keep the description brief.  Actually, there isn’t much to give away.  This is not exactly a plot-based book, which isn’t intended as an insult at all.  It’s a memoir.  You read it for the joy of the language and the humor.  If you want mega-plot and uber-suspense, go read Tom Clancy.  (Not that I have anything against Tom Clancy.  I think  The Hunt for Red October is a classic.)

The situation is this:  a young woman from New York City, Julie Powell, is in the emotional doldrums at age 29, and decides that what she needs is a Project (note capital letter).  She decides she will cook her way through all 500-plus recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year.  Her husband suggested she do a blog about it at the same time, so she did.  The book is almost equally about the cooking and the blog.

Today, you have to be a complete Neanderthal to even want to cook from what Julie soon abbreviates into MtAoFC.  There are seriously unnecessary steps and modern conveniences undreamed of in France in 1961.  I’m a moderate purist myself, and would, for example, have to be starving to eat canned mushrooms.  On the other hand, I consider the dawn of civilization to have begun when grocery stores started selling already-diced onions. 

When I cook (oh wait, lemme think…when was it that I did that last?) I prefer to use fresh ingredients–as if there is such a thing in our modern pesticided, herbicided, hormone-enhanced, preservative-laden world.  To get a truly “fresh” tomato, for example, you have to grow it yourself.  And even then, you have to sit by the plant in a lawn chair for its entire life cycle to protect it. 

So we follow Julie through her cooking of various dishes that even I wouldn’t eat, and I’m reasonably adventurous.  We follow her as she debates with herself about the most humane way to kill a live lobster (which she carries home on the subway!).  But two of the things I was most amused by had to do with the blog. 

In one case, a day comes when there is a massive blackout and everyone is forced to walk home from their offices in Manhattan.  Once power is restored and she’s able to check her blog, there are many messages from people she’s never met to the effect of “Are you OK?” or “I was worried about you.”  And it’s as if she recognizes at that point the power of her words.  To her readers (whom she calls her “bleaders”), the blackout in NYC became not just an event in a distant place, it was an event that affected someone they “know”.  Given the opportunity, Julie says, people will care about one another. 

The other thing that cracked me up was her reference to the comments from the regular bleaders.  One of them frequently said her blog would be much improved if she would stop using the word f*** so often.  (I’m using her spelling here–I have no problem spelling the word out myself.)  Then one day, an article is published about her “Project” in the New York Times.  Her evil boss is not pleased.  And she says, You know what?  I think my ship just came the f*** in.   

Now she’s written another book, which was supposedly published in December of last year.  It’s called Cleaving:  A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession.  There is an exerpt of it at the end of the library’s copy of Julie and Julia.  With the success of her book and the movie, she was able to quit her mind-numbing secretarial job, and she went on to become a butcher’s apprentice.  I guess finding that you have a talent for mangling lobsters to death while they flap on your kitchen table points you in a certain direction career-wise.  I plan to read the book, although it makes me a bit nervous.  I’m afraid that her ship has, indeed, come the f*** in.

Fried Green Tomatoes

By popular demand (or not), this food item deserves a blog of its own.  My friend Sue from Canada is to blame, since she commented on Facebook that she wishes she had a recipe for them, and I will herewith provide one, with commentary.   

First, as an aside.  Many, many years ago, while visiting Canada, I decided to make gumbo, but my plan was foiled because I could not find any…okra.  I spoke to every grocer I could find, and it was kind of like a game of Twenty Questions.  “Okra”, they would say.  “Is that an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral?”

Please don’t assume I’m making fun of Canada.  Canada would at least have an equal reason to make fun of me.  Not that long ago, I lived in Fort Lauderdale, and I used to buy gas at a station next to a small grocery which proudly advertised in all capital letters “GOAT AVAILABLE HERE!”  Now I vaguely knew that people ate goats, but I thought of it as something you did in secret on a farm somewhere.  It never dawned on me that you could buy it in a store, like it was a package of chicken breasts. 

But I digress as usual.  My list of items I’ve been on the hunt for perfect examples of in my life includes not only fried green tomatoes, but gumbo, bread pudding, and popovers.  All these items have one thing in common.  They are very simple dishes, which seem impossible to screw up, and yet, it isn’t only possible, it’s probable. 

Let’s start with the recipe.  Now I’ll tell you how you can screw it up.  It’s if you don’t pay close attention to this particular recipe, starting with the tomato.  It must be perfectly green.  Green tomatoes without red spots are very hard and tart.  Slice them very thinly.  Notice the picture of the fried ones at the bottom of the picture…they are totally covered in batter.  That is indeed the first “secret”.  The batter must be thick enough to adhere to the tomato.  Next, the oil must be very hot, but not too hot.  That’s the hard part, and requires more or less knowing how to cook.  You have to have judgement.  If the oil is too hot, it will immediately burn the outside, and leave the inside hard.  If the oil isn’t hot enough, the batter will sort of melt off for the most part and your tomato will be mushy.  What you want is the tomato to soften and the batter to brown quickly but not too quickly.  It’s a difference of seconds, not minutes. 

Good luck experimenting!  If you fail, take a time out and watch the movie.