I decided, in the last few days of this year, to look back over what I had written and pick out a post or two per month which had a lot of meaning for me.
Well, I tried to keep it to one or two posts per month, but, well–it just didn’t work out that way. I guess I just had too much to say.
In the case of these posts from the past year at Tigers & Strawberries, these are the essays and articles which have meant the most to me, and which I hope have meant something to other folks as well. These are the posts that have stayed with me and made me think, both as I was writing them and as I read and answered the responses to them over the year. I hope that they are as informative and interesting now as they were when I wrote them initially.
January: I kicked off 2007 with a recipe for Pomegranate Cheesecake, but quickly delved into the intricacies of Chinese cookery and culinary culture. Let’s Talk Woks was one of my more informative, useful posts on the subject of woks and Western stoves I have written. It was sparked by the questions a reader sent regarding flat bottomed woks, and I decided to make a post from it because the questions were such sensible, reasonable ones that I was certain that some other readers probably were wondering the same things, but just hadn’t gotten around to asking yet. I was also thrilled to write a review of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook on Hunan cuisine: Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook and present a pair of recipes from the book: Peng’s Home-Style Bean Curd and Beef With Cumin.
February: This generally dreary month roars in with Staple Ingredients of the Chinese Pantry, a [pst which was, once again, inspired by a question from a reader. Again, it is the sort of question that any beginner dipping his or her toe into the culinary arts of China might ask, so I set forth to answer it publicly and thoroughly. I ended up listing fourteen basic ingredients which anyone who is interested in serious study of Chinese cuisine should have in their pantry, along with notes about each ingredient as well as my favorite brands of many of them. I also wrote a post, Let’s Talk About MSG, which caused a bit of a stir, with people discussing this often derided ingredient which is often found in the pantries of Asian cooks. Wok Wonderings continues my quest to answer questions about woks sent in by curious readers.
March: If I were to give 2007 a title, it would be “The Year of Panch Phoron,” because after discovering it in March, I have been using it and loving it ever since. The eponymous post, Panch Phoron, written in an imaginative, emotional style, describes my feelings regarding this essential spice mixture from Bengal. I have since discovered that any vegetable is improved greatly with the addition of panch phoron, even if the vegetable is cooked and presented quite simply. Another good post from March is My Favorite Chinese Cookbooks For Beginners, which is an annotated list of the handful of great cookbooks for beginners to Chinese cuisine. And speaking of Chinese cuisine, I also developed a delectable recipe for Vegan Dry Fried String Beans With Fresh Shiitake Mushrooms that I liked just as well as the pork and dried shrimp-seasoned traditional version.
April: April could have been called “The Month of Stir Fry” because there are a good solid handful of posts on the subject of how to stir fry successfully. Stir Frying Tofu Part I: Choose Your Tofu Wisely gives advice on how to find the best types and styles of tofu to stand up to the rigors of a hot wok and a fast wok shovel, while Ten Steps to Better Tofu From a Wok gets down to the exact techniques needed for making good tofu even greater in the wok. Another useful and important post on stir frying introduces my system which teaches how to invent your own stir fried dishes which taste as delicious as anything you will learn from a cookbook recipe: Creating Your Own Foolproof Chinese Stir Fry: Introducing Barbara’s Rules of Three. And, Morganna, Kat and I showed folks how to make their own kimchi from scratch at home in Up Close and Personal With Kimchi.
May: Anyone who has read my blog for more than oh, say, a week, should know that I am neither a vegetarian or a vegan. But, as an ethical omnivore, I stand beside ethical and responsible vegetarians and vegans when it comes to defending their dietary choices as both nutritious and ethically sound. In May, after I read Nina Planck’s OpEd piece in the New York Times where she states in no uncertain terms that vegan diets are not only nutritionally inadequate for infants, but also implies that parents who feed children vegan diets are neglectful and abusive, I had to return fire. Nina Planck Stirs The Pot; Vegans Get Steamed: Film At Eleven is my heated response to the author’s unqualified nutritional rant. This post got a lot of attention all over the web, and sparked a huge discussion and debate on the issue of vegan parenting which went on for months. I still get cranky when I read Planck’s ill-informed words to the point that I don’t think I can ever look one of her books straight again. I also wrote an essay debunking many of the fear-mongering statements which had been made in the press concerning the die-off of honeybees: Concerning Bees: The Fear Factor, but it was easily overshadowed by the discussion of the ethics of vegans and vegan parenting.
June: June was a month where I was lazy on posting, but I still got to cover a few interesting and fun issues. Harking back to the issue of what to feed infants, I wrote about Cooking for Kat: Breaking the Baby Food Rules. There was much discussion and sharing of baby feeding tips as a lot of readers agreed with me that the American ideal of feeding infants out of boxes and jars was not really ideal at all. I also wrote about my newfound fascination with collecting vintage aprons in Aprons Come Out of the Closet, and I told the story of how I learned my most cherished traditional Chinese recipe in The Secret’s In the Sauce: Sichuan Shredded Chicken with Garlic Sauce.
July: I started posting more regularly again in July, and a lot of informative and opinionated posts came out of the summer flurry of writing and activity. The Intermediate Chinese Pantry lists eleven ingredients I find to be indispensable when added to the basics of the Chinese pantry for cooks who have gone beyond the beginner’s stage of Chinese cookery. Morganna: The Adventures of an Ethical Omnivore in Training told the story of how Morganna and two of her classmates, on their own, slaughtered a young steer on her friend’s farm, and started a discussion which tureswent on for months, and was both enlightening and acrimonious. Most readers understood my point in encouraging Morganna to find out first hand what price is paid for eating meat, but one vegan couldn’t wrap his head around it and became slightly–insulting about it. (Don’t worry–just because one vegan was self-righteous doesn’t mean I think all of them are. I am still proud of my defense of vegan parents.) Another discussion started over my essay, Is Cooking For Your Family Retrograde June Cleaver Nonsense? both here and on various feminist communities over the ‘net.
August: August was the Month of Chinese Noodles here at Tigers and Strawberries; most of my posts were consistent with my desire to cover as many aspects of Chinese noodles as possible. These posts include Chinese Wheat Noodles 101 and Dried Rice Noodles 101 as well as my recipe for a favorite noodle dish: Singapore Rice Noodles. But it wasn’t all noodles all the time in August; I also wrote about a British study which found that children of women who ate a lot of junk food when they were pregnant and breastfeeding tended to prefer junk foods when they were weaned. Weaning Kids From Junk Food: Start Before They’re Born covers my thoughts on the issue which include the fact that modeled parental behavior is at least as important as the mother’s diet in shaping children’s eating habits.
September: Even though for many bloggers September was Eat Local Month, we always eat locally here at Tigers and Strawberries. So while I did write about eating locally in such essays as Eating Locally As A Spiritual Practice,, most of my posts were a continuation of the Chinese noodles theme. In Making Basic Chinese Chicken and Pork Stock and A Noodle Shop Classic: Roast Pork Noodle Soup I taught readers how to make one of the most homey and comforting Chinese dishes one can imagine. Finally, in The Not-So-Secret Ingredient to Roast Pork Noodle Soup, I ‘fessed up to having to use a pinch of MSG to make the broth of the soup taste just like it came from a noodle shop. And then I asked What Is Up With The Cupcake Thing?
October: This was the month when I did a lot of canning and preserving the bounty of Athens county for the cold months of the winter. But that wasn’t all I wrote about, even if I did write about it a lot. I also talked about sucking shrimp heads in A Meditation on Heads-On Shrimp: To Suck or Not To Suck? And, I taught folks how to make a roux in A Basic Saucemaker’s Skill: Making a Roux, as well as how to make a couple of delicious casseroles in Cowboy’s Pie: A Tex-Mex Take On A British Classic and Pork and Apple Enchiladas Verde Casserole. But that’s not all. I also explore the issue of genetic factors in picky food behavior in kids in Where Do Picky Kids Come From? It May Be In The Genes, Or Not and looked at the issue of two cookbook authors hiding good food in bad food for kids and whether or not one of them stole the idea from another in The Cookbook Caper. Both of the latter posts started controversy, but it paled in comparison to the firestorm started when I wrote Is Alice Waters An Elitist Food Snob?
November: I didn’t write much about Thanksgiving in November, probably because I as too busy researching recipes to use at my new job as the chef at Restaurant Salaam here in Athens. But, I did write about my new cranberry sauce recipe: Cranberry Sauce With Pomegranates and Mulled Wine, and I implored readers not to overcook their turkeys in Talking Turkey: Don’t Kill The Bird Twice. I also presented a few recipes I developed as specials for Restaurant Salaam, including the Greek classic Delicious Greek Fish: Psari Plaki. My favorite post, however, has to be What The Heck Is That? where I wrote about the giant puffball mushrooms Peggy found in the woods around Athens, which got turned into a Wild Mushroom Curry with Spinach.
December: In the last month of the year, I found myself asking What’s So Special About Dinner Specials? where I mused on the complexities of predicting the tastes of restaurant patrons and what to do when a dinner special is not as popular as predicted. I also wrote about when dinner specials go right in Moroccan Style Chicken with Oranges, Black Olives and Fennel. A local dairy opened here in the Athens area, and I reported on how the milk was not only local and comparably priced to conventional grocery store brands, but it was The Best Milk I Have Ever Tasted. An OpEd piece in the New York Times gave me the idea to write about Hunters, Locavores and Critics, Oh, My! where I note that I grew up with hunters who went out in the woods not to drink beer and shoot at anything that moves, but rather to provide meat for their families and neighbors. I was surprised to find out how many readers had the same experience with hunters as I did. Then, I gave step by step instructions on how to make ghee from butter in Golly Gee, I mean, Ghee. And, finally, I gave a Christmas present to all caffeine heads among my readership–a new recipe for coffee bars that are like brownies with the chocolate taken out and replaced with espresso and Kahlua: BuzzBarz.
That just about sums up what I feel are the best posts I have written this past year. I hope that Tigers and Strawberries has been a source of inspiration to my readers to get into the kitchen and cook for the past three years and I aspire to continue to bring all of you the best essays, articles, book reviews, and recipes I can in 2008.
I’ve been watching this cookbook catfight develop over the past week, and I must say that I am heartily confused by it all.
Cookbook catfight? What cookbook catfight, you may wonder, especially if you don’t read the New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, or watch Fox News. (Don’t worry–I don’t watch Fox News, either. I just happened to find this story on Google.)
For those who don’t want to wade through the links, I will explain here–or rather, as there is no time, I will sum up.
Former Eating Well Magazine publisher and culinary arts instructor, Missy Chase Lapine began pitching a proposal for The Sneaky Chef in February, 2006 on the topic of sneaking pureed vegetables into child-favored dishes so that parents could get picky kids to eat something healthy even if they were not aware of it. At that time, she sent her 139 page proposal, (with 42 recipes included) to Harper Collins, without the benefit of having the services of a literary agent.
Harper Collins rejected her twice; (the reason being that they already had a title which they believed was “too similar” in their catalog, chef and food activist Ann Cooper’s Lunch Lessons, which, as near as I can tell from looking at it, is really nothing like Lapine’s book at all) the second time just two weeks before giving a contract to Jessica Seinfeld, wife of Jerry Seinfeld, for a book on the exact same subject. The reasons given for signing Seinfeld, a neophyte writer with no publication experience or professional culinary experience, over Lapin, whose resume cites experience in both fields is because of “(Seinfeld’s) name and because she was represented by one of the highest-powered literary agents: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of William Morris Agency.” (Interestingly, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh also represented plagiarist Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.)
While Seinfeld worked on her book with a chef and nutritionist, Lapine found a publisher for hers, and it came out this April.
Seinfeld’s book, Deceptively Delicious, came out this month, and sales have soared, especially after Oprah had the author on her show where she touted the cookbook as “genius.”
Now, both books are on the New York Times bestseller list, and both titles are sold out at various bookstores across the country, including Amazon.com. (I know this is a fact because I have tried to find copies to peruse in various large bookstores around here, so I could give folks the skinny on how similar the recipes were. My search was in vain, however. Borders and Barnes and Noble are both sold out, and are urging customers to reserve copies for when the orders come in.)
Not long after Deliciously Deceptive came out, reviewers on Amazon began noting eerie similarities between the recipes of the books. Apparently, in addition to similar overall concepts, many of the recipes have similar ingredients.
Lapine also noticed the similarities, and is quoted in The Independent as saying:
“There are uncanny similarities between my book and Ms Seinfeld’s,” she said. “I was brave enough to put out a proposal that took five years to write, but I was naive not to use an agent when I sent it off to Harper Collins. I cannot possibly speculate about the similarities with Ms Seinfeld’s book and I’m not going to accuse anyone of anything, but I suppose it’s possible it’s a coincidence that there are so many similarities.”
The New York Times reported that executives from Perseus, Lapine’s publisher, even contacted Harper Collins after an early publicity brochure showed that Seinfeld’s book was to have a very similar cover to Lapine’s. The brocure “…showed an illustration of a woman holding carrots behind her back, similar to a drawing on the cover of “The Sneaky Chef.” Collins changed its plans for the cover….”
On the New York Times’ City Room blog, Jennifer B. Lee posted a side-by-side comparison of the two books, including some of the suspiciously similar recipe descriptions.
These recipes include Seinfeld’s “Green Eggs,” and Lapine’s “Popeye’s Eggs,” both verdant with pureed spinach; Seinfeld’s mashed potatoes with cauliflower, and Lapine’s mashed potatoes with cauliflower and zucchini; Seinfeld’s grilled cheese with pureed sweet potatoes or butternut squash tucked between cheese slices, and Lapine’s grilled cheese with sweet potatoes or carrots hidden between slices of cheese; or either of the author’s “Peanut Butter and Jelly Muffins.” (There are lots more comparisons, but you can go the City Room to see them–I don’t feel like posting them all.)
Okay, so that is the gist of it.
Both women are making a good amount of money from their cookbooks which feature the idea of slipping veggies to the kids when they are not looking. Seinfeld has been on the Today Show and Oprah, and her first print runs have sold out, and Lapine is branding her “Sneaky Chef” image into a series of “workshops, cooking classes, coaching programs, and demonstrations that teach families how to eat healthier.” According to a post on Entrepreneur.com, Lapine has signed with a licensing firm, and a series of Sneaky Chef frozen entrees are due out soon; she has also filmed a television pilot and has received a six-figure advance on a book due out next year on the subject of sneaking vegetables into men’s food. (I am sorry, but that sounds lame as hell to me. I have been good and kept my editorializing to a minimum here, but damned if that isn’t a sexist book idea that panders to every sort of bad stereotype of both men and women, and it caters the the idea of trying to deal with an adult picky eater, which just annoys me.)
Lapine’s publisher has made noncommittal comments about legal action, and Seinfeld and her husband have both denied charges that plagiarism of any sort occurred.
Plagiarism, as he so eloquently points out, is when an author lifts entire passages from another’s work and uses it in his own work, attributing it to him or herself. Seinfeld has not, to anyone’s knowledge done this by creating a very similar cookbook to Lapine’s.
What is actually at stake is a case of copyright infringement.
However, one has to remember that ideas cannot be copyrighted. (If that were the case, no one would be able to think anything without infringing on someone else’s copyright of that thought.)
While I think it is possible that someone in the editorial department of Harper Collins may have leaked the idea of the book, and perhaps some recipes, if not to Seinfeld, but to her nutritionist/chef/ghostwriter team, I don’t necessarily think it is likely. (But it is weird that little details like hiding vegetable purees in between slices of cheese in a grilled cheese sandwich are present in both books. And I do find it passing strange that two different women could come up with the utterly foul idea of putting pureed spinach into brownies.)
So, what may have happened is a case of copyright infringement.
Except here is the problem.
Recipes are not completely covered in US copyright law. According to the law, one cannot copyright a list of ingredients; the only place where copyright comes into play in a recipe is in the way in which the author writes the methodology–the “how to” part of the recipe.
From what I have gleaned from the articles here, there and everywhere, (and I had hoped to determine by actually looking at the books today, but was foiled in my attempt, thank you, Oprah!), is that the recipes, other than concept, are not really that similar. The ingredient lists are different, sometimes only by one or two ingredients, and then, the step by step portion is written to reflect the these differences, which, in essence, leads to two legally different, if nutritionally similar, recipes.
Which means, that even if copyright infringement has occurred, it was done by someone clever enough who knew how to cover the legal bases. (Which may point to someone within the publishing industry.) Because of this, I do not think that Lapine or her publisher have a chance in hell of proving any wrongdoing on Seinfeld or Harper Collins’ parts.
Which is fine with me, because in the end, I agree with former Times restaurant reviewer Mimi Sheraton, who wrote an excellent essay in Slate where she cheerily declared, “a plague on both their houses.”
She, like me, thinks that the idea of hiding pureed vegetables in brownies to feed to picky kids is not really going to accomplish anything. For one thing, she points out that the amounts used in the recipe will end up giving the kid about 1/12th of a serving of vegetables per brownie, and when she asked nutritionist Marion Nestle (author of What to Eat) how many vitamins and minerals would be left after cooking the vegetables, pureeing them and then baking them in a brownie so that they were cooked twice, was told essentially, that the idea was “laughable.”
So there we are. The Great Cookbook Caper of 2007.
I am sure there will be more to this story, if we all just sit tight and keep paying attention to it.
Now I am going to curl up and read a new cookbook from a real chef: Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food, which just came in yesterday.
I really should have posted this last night, but I thought I would show my sweet side on Valentine’s Day.
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, I can give you a taste of the real me: the cynic.
I don’t really like Valentine’s Day, and I never did.
Not only is it one of those holidays that smacks of having been invented by Hallmark Cards as an excuse to sell overpriced bits of pink pasteboard decorated with fluff and glitter, but even when you know the story of St. Valentine, it comes across as bogus.
It is a day fraught with anxiety, sloppy sentiment, and meaningless ritual.
And it has the capacity to transform normally sensible, mature, interesting people into giddy romantics, or worse, disappointed harpies, or anxiety-laden freaks who are sure their romantic overtures are going to be judged as lacking by the object of their affections.
It is hellish if you are alone on Valentine’s Day, when all of the world seems to be awash in red and pink hearts and doe-eyed lovers crowding restaurants eating rich food and swilling Champagne. The sickly-sweet fragrance of countless bouquets delivered wafts around every corner, reminding the less than happy single person that they are still alone.
Bad as that is, sometimes, I think it can be worse if one is part of an established couple during this commercialized feast celebrating “romantic love.”
Because then, if you are together, you are expected to do something to mark the occasion.
I mean, when it is a new relationship, and courting behaviors such as surprising each other with flowers or chocolate or bubble baths or little love notes tucked into jacket pockets are all still ongoing, Valentine’s Day is not so bad. It is just an extension of what young, hormone-filled folks are supposed to be up to anyway.
But what happens when you are old and jaded, like me?
(Though, really, I suspect I was born old and jaded, because this attituted about Valentine’s Day goes all the way back to grade school and the passing of valentines to schoolmates was the norm. I always felt bad for the kids who got no valentines because they were unnatractive, poor, bucktoothed, or socially inept for whatever reasons. Watching those kids suffer fuelled my early irritability when it comes to the Pink Holiday.)
I mean, what am I going to do for Valentine’s Day? Go out to a packed, overpriced restaurant where the servers are harried and the wine cannot possibly flow fast enough to numb me enough to keep from getting nauseous from all of the saccharine sentiment floating about? Buy flowers so my cats can turn them into salad and then vomit them up on the couch? (Besides, I prefer my flowers to be living and in gardens–the illustration above is from our old garden back in Pataskala.) Be gifted with a pound of chocolate that I will eat, and then lament eating because I will gain weight?
Where is the romance in any of that?
Half the time, Zak and I forget that Valentine’s Day is coming up, mostly because neither of us cares. We just cruise along in our own little world, unaware that the season approaches. He bought me flowers a few times for Valentine’s Day, and surprised me, because I had forgotten that the Day of Hearts had arrived. Surprises are sweet, but it is hard to surprise either of us with trifles, as neither of us much cares for trifles. (In truth, we both like surprises, but it is hard to surprise anyone on a holiday. Zak is a master of bringing flowers home at odd times, just to pick up my spirits. I am good for finding a cool book or t-shirt and bringing it home to Zak, not for any holiday, but just because he needs a lift. Both of us value these moments more than any pre-planned holiday thing.)
So, I will tell you what I do for Valentine’s Day: I use it as an excuse to cook something I don’t normally cook, and I actually exert myself to cook up to the standards of a fine dining restaurant. While I have culinary training, and I am an excellent cook, I will admit to being a tad too lazy to really haul off, throw down and cook magnificent food that would make a picky gourmand weep all the time.
Besides, if I was motivated to cook like that all the time, it wouldn’t be special anymore. People would expect it, and on top of everything else, we’d all be big as houses.
But the way I see it, once or twice a year, a real culinary throw down isn’t going to kill us all. So, for Valentine’s Day, I put the toque back on, roll up my sleeves and make something fancy.
And this year, I decided to do a pepper-crusted filet mignon, with potatoes a la boulangere and asparagus dressed with browned butter and Meyer lemon juice and zest.
Of course, you all know what we had for dessert.
When Zak asked what he could do for me for Valentine’s Day, my answer was clear:
(And he did it, too. And cleaned the closet. A fine Valentine’s Day present to be sure!)
Anyway, here are the recipes for our supper; the inspiration for the filet came from a method outlined in the March/April Cook’s Illustrated that was meant to create a crispy peppercorn crust that neither fell off nor got overly soggy. I followed their recipe more than I should have–there was too much oil in the crust, and too much salt. I am giving the amounts that I will use the next time I make the dish. Also, they only used plain black peppercorns, while I added coriander seeds and white peppercorns to the mixture.
My potatoes a la boulangere are not traditional in any sense of the word. Based on a French recipe where women would bring simple casseroles of potato, onion, white wine and chicken broth to be baked in the ashes of the baker’s (boulangere’s) hearth oven overnight, I added herbs, spices and Shao Hsing wine to the mixture.
As for the asparagus–it is straightforward. Simmer asparagus in a small amount of water in a saute pan until the desired tenderness is reached. Drain. Melt butter in the pan, with the asparagus, turn the heat to high and allow butter to brown, tossing asparagus in the pan. Squeeze the juice of two Meyer lemons into the pan and add the zest from one, and toss in the browned butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve, sprinkled with some fresh lemon zest.
Barbara’s Version of Pepper-Crusted Filet Mignon
3 tablespoons black peppercorns, cracked
1 tablespoon white peppercorns, cracked
1 tablespoon coriander seed, cracked
4 tablespoons plus two teaspoons olive oil
1/2 tablespoon salt (to your taste)
4 center-cut filets mignons, 2″ thick, around 8 ounces each, trimmed of silverskin (I left the tiny bits of fat on my steaks because they came from Belgian Blue cattle, which are very, very lean animals. The tiny amount of fat present helped keep the meat moist as it cooked.)
Heat the 4-5 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the spices, and stirring occaisionally, simmer until the spices and oil are quite fragrant–between five and eight minutes. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool. When it is at room temperature, add salt and stir well to combine.
Rub steaks with the spice and oil mixture, coating all sides, but paying particular attention to the top and bottom surfaces. Press the peppercorns in with your hands, then set steaks on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and press firmly again in order to set the spices into the meat. Allow to sit at room temperature for about an hour.
Heat 2 teaspoons of oil in a 12 inch cast iron skillet until it is barely smoking. Sear the steaks on one side without touching or moving them for 3-4 minutes in order to let a heavy crust form. Turn the steaks with tongs, and do the sear the other side in the same way. (Here is a tip–if you go to turn your steaks and they stick–they are not done searing. Leave them in place, wait 30-60 seconds and try to turn them again–repeat until they turn easily.)
When the crust is formed on the bottom–check to see if the steaks are sticking–if they are not, the crust is formed–cover loosely with a lid–I used the domed lid to a pan that was larger than the skillet so I could set it askew to let the steam out. Cook for another 3 minutes for rare, 5-6 minutes for medium rare. (If you want them more done than medium rare–cook something other than a filet, please–something with lots of fat, like a ribeye, that will stay moist under extended cooking conditions.)
Remove from pan, set on warmed plates and allow to rest for five minutes before serving with a pat of compound butter, if you wish.
Potatoes a la Boulangere in Individual Gratins
3/4 pound fingerling potatoes, well scrubbed
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 small or 2 large shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon spicy curry powder
4 pinches smoked paprika
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon butter
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Using some olive oil or butter, grease four small shallow gratin dishes well.
Boil potatoes in their skins until mostly done, but still pretty firm in the center. Drain and cool.
Heat olive oil up in a small saute pan, and cook shallots until they are medium golden in color. Add rosemary and cook for a minute or two more until the herbal fragrance is released.
Slice potatoes into 1/4″-1/8″ slices. Layer a set of slices on the bottom of the gratins, then sprinkle with salt and pepper, some of the curry and paprika, and scatter a bit of the shallots over the potatoes. Salt and pepper the potatoes to taste. Do a second layer, the same as the first, finishing with shallots, then pour 1/8 cup of broth and 1/16th cup of wine into each gratin. Dot them with butter.
Put the gratin on baking sheets, and pop into the oven. Allow to bake, uncovered, until most of the broth is absorbed, and the bottom layer of potatoes is tender and velvety, while the top layer is browned and crisp. Add some extra broth if needed. Garnish with a sprig of fresh rosemary.
But, I am going to do it again anyway, because I told Kirk I would. Besides, this time, instead of my favorite foods, I am going to tell you about my ten favorite dishes, which is infinitely more difficult.
It is more difficult, because I love all food, and nearly any dish in the world can be my favorite, depending on what season it is, what the weather is like, how I am physically feeling at that time, what I have eaten recently and what kind of mood I am in. Frankly, I am certain that as soon as I commit these ten dishes to paper, or as it were, to electrons, the list will change. However, I refuse to edit it after it is done, so what you readers will get is a snapshot of which ten dishes I most love at a singular point in time on this day in January 2006.
It is the best I can do.
Oh, and one more thing–these are not ranked in any particular order. I can’t do that. I draw the line there. These dishes are in the order that they came to my head, and that is where they are going to stay.
Hot and Sour Soup is an enduring favorite, even if I have only been eating it for about twenty-three years. My father mistrusted Chinese food when I was growing up, so I didn’t have any until I was in high school and was introduced to it by a pair of friends. But, it wasn’t until I went to college and discovered The China Garden restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia, that I tasted hot and sour soup.
It was love at first sip.
It didn’t matter to me that I had no bloody idea what most of the ingredients floating about in the soup were. What mattered was that it was peppery, chile laden and sour, and unbelievably good. Huy made fantastic soup. By the time I was working there, after I left my first husband, I mostly lived off of that soup. Mei would sell me a quart at the end of the night for a quarter, and I would buy two quarts of it, carry it home, and then sit on the roof of my porch to look at the stars and drink soup, and ponder the meaning of freedom.
Of course, then, we moved away, and I couldn’t get Huy’s soup very often anymore, so I was forced to learn to make it.
And I did. After I learned to make soup like Huy’s, I played with the recipe, adding galangal and lemongrass, which changed it considerably, though I think, for the better. Now, people tell me I make the best hot and sour soup they have ever tasted.
Mine is good, and it might raise the dead, but Huy’s–his is the soup that tastes like freedom.
And freedom is better than resurrection any day.
I have already written about lasagne at length, but I can still add a few words here, anyway.
One thing that you will learn by reading this post is that I am not wedded to one single version of a dish being “right.” I mean, sometimes, only one certain flavor will do–like when it comes to King Crab Rolls, only the ones from Sushi King in Columbia, Maryland, count. Only those, and no other, can satisfy my craving for king crab, tobiko, rice and crispy bits of tempura batter. Nothing else will do. Sorry.
But with most of the dishes listed here–there is no one variant that pleases me. They are all good. (Unless they are just badly cooked or from a cardboard box or something.)
Lasagne is like that. I never really make it the same way twice. Never, ever. There are just too many ways to enjoy it. Too many pastas to use, too many cheeses, too many fillings–why should I limit my palate to one version of lasagne? It makes no sense.
I like the way my Mom makes it, with pepperoni, mushrooms, sausage and ground beef in the sauce, and a fairly plain ricotta filling. I like the way that most Italian-American restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island make it–very basic, very plain, very, very good. I like the way a Greek friend in high school’s Mom used to make it–as a bastard love-child between moussaka and lasagne–noodles layered with cinnamon-scented ground lamb and tomato sauce with slices of roasted eggplant and peppers, melty feta cheese, and a custardy bechamel on top.
In fact, I like that one so well, that now I have recalled it, I might have to haul off and try to recreate it, because it is sounding pretty damned good to me right now.
Okay, now that I have said that I am pretty easy-going about my favorite dishes, and that I don’t believe that there is any one “right” way to make them, I am going to turn back around and make a liar of myself.
There is one exception to that rule, and that is Mom’s potato salad.
Yeah, I mean, I will eat other potato salads, even my own, and they will be okay, I guess. But most potato salads are too sweet (Who puts all the sugar in the dressing, and why? What the hell is up with that?) or too mustardy (Whe dressing should be pale yellow, not blazing dandelion-colored!) or filled with sweet pickle relish (Which is nasty snot-colored stuff straight from Satan and belongs in no self-respecting potato salad.)
See, just when you thought I was easy-going and loved everything, you find out that I have one dish that I am a complete and utter food nazi over–and that is potato salad. (Yes, I am a southerner, you can now tell.)
My mother, like all southern mothers, if you hear their kids talk, makes the best potato salad. The difference between my mother and all the other mothers in the south is that mine really does make the best. All those other kids are either deluded, lying, or are too scared of the Wrath of Mama to tell the truth, because the truth is, my Mom’s is the best. No other potato salad will do.
And the hell of it is–she doesn’t make it very often. She never did make it too often, but she really doesn’t make it too much now.
Because it is a pain in the butt. Because she boils her potatoes whole, in their skins, to keep them from getting soggy. (That is rule number one for a good potato salad, which most people bugger up–avoid soggy potatoes.) Then, she has to let them cool enough so she can peel and dice them, into chunks not too big and not too small. She boils eggs, too (eggs must go into the salad eggs and potatoes are friends you know–without eggs, it is a salad made of lonely potatoes, and who wants that?), and chops them up. along with raw onion and celery, and sometimes green onion tops. (And when it is ramp season, yes, oh, yes, she will put ramps in it. I am drooling now, just thinking about it.)
Then, she makes the dressing–and this is what makes it great. She uses Helman’s mayonnaise (no other will do, and no Miracle Whip, you infidel freak!), French’s mustard (but only enough to give it a zing and to color the dressing a pale, buttery yellow), salt, pepper–and get this–pickle juice. Yep, pickle juice from hamburger dill slices. That is what makes the dressing tangy, pourable, tasty and good. No sugar. No pickles chopped up and none of that damned pickle relish. Just five things in the dressing–Helman’s, French’s, salt, pepper and Kroger’s brand hamburger dill slices pickle juice.
I can eat inordinate amounts of that stuff. And so can most of my cousins, aunts and uncles. Mom used to make it in the big roasting pan that we used for twenty-two pound turkeys at Thanksgiving, because if she didn’t, there wouldn’t be enough.
At our house, chili is a constant bone of contention between Zak and I.
I love chili.
Not only does he not love it, he generally doesn’t even like it. Most of the time, he tolerates it.
He makes exceptions for some of my derivations of chili–the pictured “Chupacabra” chili, he likes pretty well. It has goat, lamb, two kinds of beans and posole in it, in addition to tomatillos, onions, garlic and chiles. Lots of chiles.
But chili is another of those dishes that I am very democratic about. I like it every way except the way that they make in Cincinnati, which is gross beyond belief. Sweet chili with overcooked spaghetti, onions and cheese is disgusting. Sorry. No can do.
Chili should be thick.
It should be spicy-hot.
It should be redolent with cumin, garlic, onions and maybe Mexican oregano.
It should have cilantro in it. And maybe sour cream, and cheese.
It can have beans or not, and it can have meat or not. So long as it tastes good and isn’t sweet, I am not too picky on that point.
In culinary school, when I did my internship, some of my TA’s called me “The Chili Queen,” which to them, who were also chilihounds, was a title of great respect and honor. They called me this, because they could give me a pile of disparate ingredients, a bucket, steam kettle, or pot to cook in, and as little as forty-five minutes, and I could turn out a very respectable to downright tasty chili. I was the emergency back-up plan for whatever went awry, because they knew, that no matter what, they could come to me and I could make chili. (Or for that matter, gumbo, or any number of filling stews, but they liked chili best.)
By the time I was finished interning, I probably had made about fifteen different types of chili myself, and I liked them all.
Every now and then, I get a hankering for one of them for dinner, and Zak sighs and puts up with it, knowing that the next day, I will go out of my way to make one of his favorites, like Red Curry Chicken with Pineapple.
Fried chicken is another of those perennial favorites that I seldom will turn down if it is offered to me, and luckily, Zak agrees with me on it.
Popeye’s spicy fried chicken (and red beans and rice) is about the only fast food that I still will actually eat, and though it is greasy and godawful for me, it still tastes delightful. Fried chicken is one of those things I seldom cook, but probably should. A friend of mine and I once innovated a recipe that we called “Garlic Booger Chicken,” because we had marinated the chicken pieces overnight in buttermilk and garlic slices. The next day, when we fried it, we were too lazy to pick the garlic slices off the chicken before dredging it in flour, dipping it in egg and then rolling it in cornmeal. When we dropped it in the hot fat, the slices that had clung to the chicken pulled away and deep fried themselves. We fished them out, tasted them, and by damned, if those little garlic boogers were not the most delicioius things! They were like roasted garlic in that they were sweet, nutty and soft, but they had the beautiful crisp, deep fried outer coating that was from the gods. And they went beautifully with the fried chicken, so, that is how we both fried chicken ever after. (The only fried chicken better than it was my Gram’s–her secret was to add a bit of butter to the frying oil, and my Grandma’s–her secret was frying it lard. You cannot beat butter and lard in cooking, not even with garlic boogers.)
I haven’t made Garlic Booger Chicken in years.
I probably should rectify that situation, but I digress.
Fried chicken is one of those dishes that is cross-culturally satisfying. I have had it made by Chinese chefs and loved it, and I have had it made by West Virginia Mountain Mammas, and loved it equally. The Cubans of Miami make a pretty amazing fried chicken and the local grease pit fried chicken joint across town here in Athens, Miller’s Fried Chicken, makes not only fried chicken to die for, but real creamy chicken gravy that doesn’t come out of a jar.
The only fried chicken I categorically will not eat is KFC, because for whatever reason, it doesn’t taste good anymore. It just tastes brown. Like their gluey gravy tastes brown. Not chickeny, not meaty, just brown.
I don’t mind food to be brown, as these illustrations no doubt show, but they should taste like something other than just generically brown.
You knew that there had to be something sweet in here, right?
And if you read my first post regarding this meme, you already know that I am fanatical about sour cherries, to the point that I will eat them raw and unsweetened, right?
Well, no doubt you can guess that my favorite sweet in the world is Sour Cherry Pie. But only if it is a good pie, with a good all-butter or butter-lard or all-lard crust. And it is made with something other than that godawful, hideous red-food-coloring, corn syrup and tapioca-starch laden canned cherry pie filling.
That is one thing I won’t compromise on. No canned pie filling, ever. Ick. It is too sweet, which is the greatest mistake most pie bakers will make with sour cherry pies. They are SOUR cherries, which means they are meant to be sour, not sweet. If I wanted a sweet cherry pie, I would make it from SWEET cherries, not sour. Cherries come conviently pre-sweetened and not, take advantage of it and don’t you dare drown my precious sour cherries in cup after cup of sugar.
If you are going to do that, you might as well use that damned canned crap and be done with. Those poor sour cherries have already been lost–there is no use in visiting such horror on perfectly innocent, unsweetened fresh or frozen sour cherries.
As much as I like sweets, in truth, I like non-sweet food even better. Hence, the dearth of desserts on this list. Every year, when I was a girl, I got a cherry pie from my Grandma instead of a birthday cake, and every year my Gram or my Mom would make Chicken with Homemade Noodles for my birthday dinner. I wrote extensively about this dish back in December, and I don’t know that there is much else to say about it, except that I have yet to have a rendition of it I haven’t liked. I mean, it is a stewed chicken with tender, but still thick, hand-rolled egg noodles. How can that be bad? And when you serve it over a heap of fluffy, steaming hot, buttery mashed potatoes–how can your tongue not go to heaven?
Actually, I can see how it is bad–for the waistline. Double starch, butter, eggs, chicken fat, chicken–it all adds up to a dieter’s nightmare, but it sure does taste good. And if you only eat it once, maybe twice a year, or in my case now, every other year, you won’t die from it, and neither will your waistline.
Pot Roast is another of those childhood favorites that has come along into adulthood still loved, but not often eaten. If I ate pot roasts as often as I would like, I’d be as big as a house. But, I don’t, so I’m not, and all is well. But now and again, I just have to have a magnificent binge of a tough cut of meat cooked low and slow (or, in a pressure cooker, high and fast) until it falls apart. I gussie mine up a fair amount, especially compared to my Mom’s recipe which only included onion, bay leaves, salt, pepper and water–I am known to add wine, beer, garlic (very few dishes are cooked in this house without garlic–desserts are where I draw the line), chiles, herbs of all sorts, carrots, celery seed, mushrooms, parsnips, turnips–you name it, if I think it will taste good, into the pot it goes.
There is nothing better than sitting down to a plate of fork tender meat, meaning meat that you don’t need a knife to eat, that is filled with juice and flavor, with a plate full of vegetables braised in the meat broth, a pile of mashed potatoes, and a good swill of dark brown gravy thickened with a good roux brun. Well, there are things better than that, but as kids might be reading this, I will not go into them here, but there are few things better than good pot roast, vegetables and gravy.
And you know, I will tell the truth right here and now–the pot roast is all about the gravy. And while I adore beef chuck pot roast and lamb shoulder pot roast, and venison haunch pot roast, nothing beats a fatty bone-in pork shoulder for making gravy that will make your toes curl up with joy. Nothing, nope, nada, zip. Pork shoulder roast browned in a bit of bacon drippings, with plenty of caramelized onions, simmered with sherry and garlic makes the best gravy known to humanity. Gravy so good, you want to swim in it. Gravy so good, hell, you want to drown in it. Death by gravy is nothing to sneeze at.
I know I would go with a smile on my face.
My own personal decadence is a leftover meal from my childhood. Bits of leftover pot roast and gravy poured over fluffy white rice.
Oh, my. Just thinking of it is making me long for a plate of it right now.
I couldn’t admit to being a hillbilly without telling y’all how much I long for a bowl of pinto beans that have been cooked with a ham hock, with some cornbread to dip in it. I mean, by this point in this gargantuan essay of a post, y’all probably have figured out that I have not strayed far from my southern hillbilly roots–with the exception of hot and sour soup, most of these dishes are the classics of my childhood. I guess that I am in a nostalgic mood today.
But, even when I am not feeling southern or am wanting to admit to being a hillbilly at heart, I still love me a bowl of beans. Steaming hot and brown, surrounded with thick broth, topped with raw onions or scallion tops, they are pure comfort in a spoon. As is usual for me, I cook them fancier than the rest of my family, but I will not turn down their plainer cousins, either. If I smell them, I have to have them, and eating them will bring to my heart and stomach a peace that is eloquent of home, comfort and love.
And you can’t have beans without cornbread. Not only is it a case of instinctually pairing of complementary proteins, but they just taste right together. Beans are naked without cornbread, though in truth, I can eat cornbread without beans. I can eat cornbread just about any day, in any way. I can eat cornsticks, hot and crispy from the pan, I can eat cornbread cold the next day with butter. I can eat sweet cornbread and spicy cornbread and just plain old corny cornbread. I like it in all colors–yellow, white, red and blue, and I like it in all shapes and sizes.
I am very democratic when it comes to cornbread.
I am not just putting Chicken with Bitter Melon here for the sake of symmetry, though I admit that the poetry of it is aesthetically pleasing to me.
I have only been eating this dish for about a year, but it has rapidly taken its place in my palate as a favorite. It is a comfort food that I was not born to, and it is something that I find myself craving when I am troubled, or when I awaken deep in the dark watches of the night and cannot sleep.
There is something addictive about the flavor of bitter melon, that stays with me. I don’t know what it is–it is at once cooling and refreshing and invigorating at the same time. Combined with chicken and black beans, with browned onions, and it becomes a paragon of a dish, something so good that you cannot help but want to keep eating it long after your appetite is satiated.
Luckily, unlike pot roast swimming in gravy, it isn’t very fattening, so if I do overeat, I will not awaken the next morning and look in the mirror to be shocked by a sudden overnight growth into elephantine proportions.
Bitter melon is lyrical. It is bitter, yes, sometimes bitingly so, but it is also crisp, and tender, and sometimes just a bit sweet. Its texture is a poem, its color is a song, and I cannot imagine not loving it for the rest of my life.
I only wish I had not come to know it so late.
But, I guess that just means that I have to make up for lost time.