Archive for the ‘Cooking’ Category

Team Turkey Day v. My Kitchen

November 28th, 2014

mymableWe had family and friends, close and far and very far this week for turkey goose day. In addition so many of us (almost all with Southern roots) have been assembling for over 20 years for the instant-to-concrete tribe, I love how it’s become a blood group effort.

Growing up, I knew different, as did my wife. Both her mother and my maternal grandmother, Mable or as named by my older sister Baba, identified strongly as THE family cook. Her hand to your mouth. You could set up, clean up and otherwise perform only narrowly defined tasks for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter feasts. Her kitchen…

Mable was a fine cook, really a chef and baker. I should never complain. Yet both my mother and later my wife did. Their mothers did not let them prepare meals, much less pass along the great folk art and magic of sustenance, of sacred sacrifice on the familial altar.

A few years after my parents married in Fort Sill, they headed to Japan with their two tots as part of the Occupation Army. A few years after that, they returned to Fort Sill and accepting they married blind, they divorced.

While we were in Japan, numerous servants tended to us. They adored the two blond kids, me particularly as the boy. They also cooked for us.

After the divorce when my mother began raising us solo, the full impact of knowing squat about food was all too obvious to her. Her mother fed her, then her college cafeteria, then the Army, then servants. Then what?

So this is a plea. If you are the family cook, teach your kids and if necessary your spouse. You might go away, they might go away, you might get run over by a careering armored truck.

This Thanksgiving, I did prepare most of the overly abundant carte. That would be the likes of goose with cracked peppercorns, cruditiés with four dips, roasted yams with orange, port wine cranberry chutney, wild and jasmine rice, key lime pie and on and on. I get in a groove.

However, the full-time family residents did their do. My uxorial unit is a great pastry baker. She made a highly decorative and delicious tart-cherry pie and a huge plate of deviled eggs. Son 2 made saffron ice cream and brie en croute. Son 3 did an extremely popular stuffed shells with from-scratch tomato sauce.

And so it went…

I likely could have made every dish. In fact, I held off on several I had in mind to make. We were already in overkill. Plus, various guests showed with nosh offerings, wines, ciders, and of course, their own pies — pecan, buttermilk and sweet potato. Our Thanksgiving clan has a real pie jones.

It’s nice….it’s better…t’s great…when everyone feels and exhibits ownership of the life and pleasure giving role. It’s a boat that everyone helps steer, When you arrive, you are happy for the journey.

Give thanks.


All Hail Mable

August 26th, 2014

mableSRBShe spelled her name Mable or Mabel on her caprice. No matter, my maternal grandmother was a hell of a baker.

Come to write that, I don’t believe I ever heard her use hell or damn, much  less the vulgarian terms we hear on TV or even from tots today. Still, she was well known in the little mountain town in the Potomac Highlands of eastern West Virginia for her pies, cobblers and particularly her breads.

Come a summer hot spell, as we have now in Boston, the visceral mnemonic, as relentless and insistent as Proust’s madeleine, differs among us. Some see themselves as lizards, warming their blood in the sun. Others hie and hide in bars with loud companions and cold drinks. It’s the beach or porch person to person.

To me, it’s Mable’s salt-rising bread.The misnamed loaf really requires sun and heat, 90° or so to make the starter, then raise the dough and loaves in two sessions of a two to three-day process. In my many summers in Romney, I knew what was up when I saw the jar with the starter, then the huge bowl covered with a towel on the back lawn.

For the misnomer, the bread has very little sat and the salt has nothing of moment to do with its rising. You might call it potato-rising bread or perhaps just another form of pain au levain. Its yeast comes from what’s in the air, a pinch of baking soda, the potato starch and just a little sugar as a catalyst.

It is a wonder and a delight — once you transcend the aroma of the starter and the baking bread. Mable’s recipe is from one of her handwritten cards in her yellow index-card recipe box. It starts “At noon, slice 2 potatoes into a jar…” and continues with understood steps (for example, she writes “make loaves” but doesn’t bother with the obvious grease loaf pans and coat with corn meal, which you should know), and inexact quantities (such as “fat the size of an egg). After all, her notes were for herself.

Regardless, I had my own issues with martinet Mable who was co-host to my sister and me for summers into our high-school years, along with Granddad, her husband. I never quibbled with her baking and loved seeing the big bowl on the lawn.

The yeast concoction produces a froth with what her recipe writes is “a peculiar odor.” It continues that after you’ve prepared the potato starter and waited for a day, “If it doesn’t have the foam and odor do not use it.”

The peculiar odor indicated what makes the yeast from next to nothing and what produces the splendid taste, particularly when sliced very thinly and toasted. The taste is intense and unique. Mable revisits whenever the hot days inspire me to open the yellow box.


Mummifying Christmas packages

December 23rd, 2013

Among changes and missing items now our parents are dead are:

  • The sacred cookie rites moved from my mother to my sister
  • We no longer get packages encapsulated, neigh smothered, in tape


My mother made superb Scottish shortbread and remarkable bourbon balls. Until her end, she would send us tins of each. The cookie baton immediately passed to my sister. She’s even been tweaking the bourbon ball’s recipe (like Wild Turkey 101 this year) and seems to have improved on it.

For the other, what the devil cultural phenomenon made the WWII generation tape wacky? Many boomers say their parents did the same. Packages large or small, no matter how sturdy the box, no matter who handled the shipment were smothered in tape, sometimes several varieties of clear and opaque, formal packing tape, duct tape, Scotch tape, masking tape…

Oddly their parents did not do this. We don’t do it. Our kids don’t. This fetish is like a secret handshake of what’s let’s call in this instance the Goofiest Generation.

When parcels arrived from any of our parents, we knew to get out the knives. I tended to use my big French chef’s knife. I knew that the carbon steel blade I kept sharp could puncture and cut open the worst they had done. It was precise enough not to slice into presents captured inside.

When I would ask my mother about the tape extravaganza, she’d say she just wanted to make sure everything got there, as though the box might disintegrate in the  delivery truck.That our more relaxed packages arrived whole made no impression on this otherwise extremely rational person.

It was a small, amusing foible, made more remarkable by its widespread, generation-specific nature. I don’t miss it.


Drown the damned salad!

May 5th, 2013

cainssignAs a boomer, I grew up with the excesses of the amusingly epithet-ascribed greatest generation. Those carried along by the tides and storms of WWII indulged themselves from the moment they declared victory. We kiddies got to share in their leavings.

As a group, my parents’ generation rewarded themselves non-stop. Sure, that meant too much booze and a level of adultery not known since the most profligate of ancient periods. To this day, they feel and think they deserve every indulgence.

With that comes the irony of calling my generation and the next several The Me Generation, The Entitlement Generation and other denigrations. We who studied history, sociology and similar soft sciences know those slurs were first applied to the WWII and Korean “police action” sorts.

Regardless, the mythology was and remains powerful. All hail, summa cum laude, the Greatest Generation!

One small piece trace of that legacy is salads.

Yes, boomers grew up with the formerly deprived slathering dressings on. Sure, it was the Greatests’ parents and grandparents who had to make the family work and survive during the Great Depression and WWII. Sure, it was the WWII folk who walked into battle (or were the men and women behind the desks and safe in the defense plants) who risked bullets or paper cuts after their elders had shepherded them through the national economic horrors.

Having landed firmly after V-E and V-J Days, the WWII crew knew it was party time. Among the obvious delights were the self-indulgence of food.

We boomers recalled the weekly visitations of the women’s service mags — McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook and others. In most middle-class, white families that really meant one big thing. As surely as the WWI generation grabbed their Reader’s Digest monthly to find out what disease they had to fear this time, the competitive housewives made sure they were up on the latest recipes.

That was a simpler version of today’s foodie snobbery. Now it’s obscure ingredients and must-have food prep gear. Back in the 50s and 60s, it was being sure you were the first, or at least not the last, to serve the pop dishes.

Dreadful they were, but adequate in nutrition, if short on sapidity and devoid of presentation value. It meant, by God!, another tuna noodle casserole variation. It was those dreadful, salt-filled, mouth drying burgers baked in foil with cream of mushroom (always Campbell’s) and dried onion soup mix (always Lipton’s). Accompanying the leaden entrée was some cloyingly sweet mess with colors that do not naturally occur, think an orange Jell-O mold with pineapple junks and mini-marshmallows.

Then both at home and particularly in restaurants, the iceberg lettuce salads were totally dominated by four or five times too much sugary, fatty dressing. A typical dinner table at home or out included two, three or more bottles of gum-thickened, sugar filled mayonnaise disguised as condiment. The very antithesis of light, savory vinaigrette, those clots of extremism marked the WWII generation as surely as did the second and third pre-dinner cocktail.

I thought of those days a decade or more later when working one of my summer college jobs at Cain’s Foods (now Cains and in Ayer not Cambridge). We made and packaged salad dressings, mayo, pickles and horseradish. The famous chips magically happened elsewhere.

Among our short runs on the assembly line were gallons of salad dressings, ketchup and mayonnaise for restaurants. Sure, they carried the Cain’s label like the grocery quarts, but they were different. The old hands (all deaf from the clinking of bottles on the line) said the stuff the chefs got was simply better. The production shifted to condiments that used better materials, richer oils and more fully flavored ingredients. Your perception that the tabletop stuff when you ate out was better was accurate.

One effect of the women’s service mag tyranny was that most of us boomers had little idea what vegetables on their own tasted like. To this day, many of us suffocate salads.If a teaspoon of dressing is good, a quarter cup must be much better. You know…getting your money’s worth…

To no effort of my own, I had the benefit of summering with my maternal grandfather, who grew phenomenal amounts and varieties of vegetables. He  neither accepted nor permitted overpowering his veggies with fats and sugars. If we had asparagus, he’d go down his 150-foot rows with his stainless-steel knife and cut just enough for dinner. We’d eat them minutes later, maybe with a bit of lemon, a dusting of butter and a little salt.

Yet, at friends’ and relatives’, we’d be in the over-consumption mode.  The four bottles of clot-thick bottled dressings fairly screamed to swamp the salad makings. Kids as well as adults lathered it over and on.

In contrast, tossing a salad with say a little white-wine vinegar and a small squeeze of Dijon mustard or perhaps a splash of balsamic with a small portion of olive oil or maybe a scant teaspoon of mayo with some black pepper is all you need…and much, much better tasting. In fact, lightly dressed salads actually let you taste the ingredients, including remarkably enough the veggies.

We don’t have to praise the WWII generation. Lord knows, they’ve done plenty of self-mythology themselves. What the boomers and their kids are learning though is that we don’t have to replicate their food silliness. Too much is not better. It’s just too much.


Yes to a Winter Haymarket

February 2nd, 2013

Always a good time for the Haymarket, the winter can be special in small ways. When it’s 17F as it was before 7 AM today, YOU are the crowd. Sure, you need to peek to make sure the greens had frozen, but there is the ease of few customers offset by lifting the tarps to enter the stalls. There’s no quick walk through before returning to your day’s favorites.

The vendors are hardy sorts, who show and set up between 4:30 and 7, even in snow, ice, and whoa-cold! air.

haymarketcamp With the external look of an antarctic encampment, stalls get drapes of tarps to protect vendors and customers as well as produce.
At dawn, front and back sides of Blackstone street are bustling. blackstonedawn
blackstonebrr Restaurants also can’t get too hobbled by bad weather. They send folk to buy the cases of veggies and fruits regardless.
Many vendors create large room with hot-air heaters inside the tarps. It’s easier on customers too to lift one tarp and shop two, three or four stalls at once. antarctichavover
blackstonecavern A downside to the super cold is not being able to scan stalls quickly. An upside is knowing the fish vendors have well-chilled product.
“A balmy 36 degrees,” is the report here. Coming from the 17-degree street, it felt like spring inside. balmy

Pix Notes: You’re welcome to anything useful. They are Creative Commons, so just cite Mike Ball once. Click images to enlarge.

Boys, Girls, Cook, Chef…What’s In a Word?

December 3rd, 2012

An elegant microcosm of our fustiness appears in a Think Progress piece on a 13-year-old big sister. She’s riled because her little brother wants to use Habro’s EASY-BAKE oven, which the company markets as a girl thing. It is on the company site and catalog in “gifts for girls”, and this girl asks them to get their act together and start including boys in their ads and promotion.

I’m there with her. I’ve been a or the family cook since I was six or seven. My father was a deadbeat Army office who disappeared to Germany with his second family, ignoring all this responsibilities to his first. However, my role model and mentor was my maternal grandfather, Bill Michael, who among many talents and duties cooked and was a tailor.

Oh, he had a stereotypical “man’s” job on the B&O Railroad, but he was like a t’ai chi master, hard and soft at the same time. He saw no shame in honest labor or in food prep or in sewing. He did it all.

His wife, my grandmother Mable, was queen of her kitchen though. She did not allow her two daughters to do more than act as scullery maids. She was the cook and never let anyone forget it. My mother had to learn to cook in Japan from a book for similarly ignorant American Occupation Army wives.

On those rare occasions when Mable was visiting relatives or in the hospital with an asthma attack, Granddad cooked. He had the touch.

First of all, he grew the family veggies, in what he called “patches.” These were one or sometimes two one-acre gardens of remarkable diversity. You don’t know asparagus until you eat it five minutes after being cut, and only those with home gardens know a real tomato plucked as the ripest and most fragrant on the vine.

We loved it when Granddad cooked. We also were savvy enough never to say to her that we preferred his hand in the kitchen.

Yes, let the little boy cook.

Hands-on Loaves

August 24th, 2012

As a counterpoint to my accepting an automated ice-cream maker, I can’t or rather won’t stop kneading bread.

I’m in the middle of the several day process of making salt-rising bread per my maternal grandmother’s recipe. It’s a pain au levain and kind of kitchen magic. While it uses a pinch of baking soda, it has no yeast and the leavening is partly of what bacteria in the air do interacting with the starch of the potato sliced into a quart jar at noon, per Mable’s index card.

The mix sits in a loosely covered jar for half a day to two days and generally, but not always, produces a froth that will rise the bread when added to flour. As Mable’s card says, it has to have a peculiar odor along with the froth. Otherwise don’t use it.

Then you let the dough rise until double, which can take an indeterminate number of hours the next day. Next comes kneading until smooth, from 20 minutes to 35, depending on how much dough you made.

Now there’s the likely spot for automation. I won’t have it.

I own a heavy-duty KitchenAid® stand mixer, replete with dough hook. I’ve tried kneading with the hook, but find no pleasure in that.

Cook folklore has it that the heat from your hands aids in transforming the gluten and the dough into the ideal substance for rising and baking. I’m not sure that’s true, but I do enjoy kneading.

Pressing down with the whole upper body, mushing the dough between my fingers and under my knuckles gives a sense of ownership and oneness with the food. It’s a physical and emotional investment, albeit time and energy inefficient.

I have no doubt using the mixer with its hook would produce smooth dough in much less time. I generally am very efficient, but this is one area where I’d rather not be.

OK Dessert Automation

August 16th, 2012

Many years ago…back in the one-child days…we received a Cuisinart food processor as a gift. Julia Child loved hers and used it regularly; she was a real pulse kind of prep cook.

It didn’t last long in my kitchen and I gave it away. I did and still do like chopping vegetables and kneading bread. I grok the ingredients and feel better about handing out and eating the results. Plus, with your hands and knives, you have a lot more control over the appearance of the veggies. I’m big on presentation.

However, I must admit my current backslide into automation. I recently bought an ice-cream maker. After decades of making my own ice cream, I won’t be giving this one to anyone. For a few years, we would use the old-style, messy, loud wooden bucket with rock salt and ice. That was awful. Then I took to making a quart at a time by hand. I’d get all the ingredients working and return to the freezer every hour or so to hand beat and thus aerate the confection.

That latter operation turned out superb ice cream (not hard to predict from great ingredients). Yet I didn’t have the emotional attachment to the result. A frozen mass looks pretty much the same whether beaten by machine or hand with a spatula or spurtle.

With friends coming up to marry at our home, I figured the reception would have to include one of my favorites, saffron ice cream. So there, I can say it. I made my ice cream by machine last week. I’m surprised at my development, but I’m not ashamed and I’ll do it again.

For detail, I chose the Cuisinart (that name again) ICE-21 machine. It’s widely available around $60, discounted from its suggested $110. Mine came from Amazon, which gave the full color choices. I went with purple (a.k.a. Plum in Cuisinart speak). Honestly white, black and red get old.

It’s almost too simple. There’s an on/off switch on front. Make ice cream by freezing the mystery-liquid filled tub overnight, mix your ingredients (milk, cream, sugar, flavorings), put the tub on the machine and place the plastic paddle inside, turn it on and pour in the ingredient mixture. In 15 to 20 minutes, you have soft serve. I like it firmer and froze it for a few hours. I don’t miss the repeated hand beating.

As a cook, I use my 30-some-year-old traditional steel French chef’s knife and similar tools. I like sturdy in the kitchen. So when I first touched the paddle that goes in the drum, I projected trouble. It felt like Cracker Jack-prize quality. The machine and drum are heavy. The paddle is well deigned for the machine though. It locks into place inside as the drum turns, moving the potential ice cream over its blades. It’s like your fingers dipped in the lake over the side of a moving canoe.

The other eyebrow raiser is the lidless outer case. The clear shell that fits over the drum has no top, just the circle where you pour your goodies. We regular blender and mixer users could see messy trouble. Nah. Just follow the proportions to make a quart and a half or less of ice cream and the mixture stays put. The drum is not sudden or fast enough to spit anything toward you or the ceiling. Over filling the drum would be the only dumb move.

I confessed my automation to the wedding guests. No one minded. In fact, I don’t think they listened. Saffron ice cream is saffron ice cream, not matter how it gets mixed.

The Power of an Earring

June 10th, 2012

I put a post earring in my left lobe this morning. It’s a silver, smiling sun, symbolic of our youngest graduating high school today.

Big, fat, hairy detail as Garfield thinks. Well, to the incapacitated, it’s noteworthy.

Healing from broken ribs and clavicle, these small and normal tasks are remarkable. Moving the left hand to the lobe and manipulating the earring back onto the post was moderately painful. Of course, in context, completing the wee task was still a minor accomplishment.

And there it is…for those inconvenienced or worse by accident or disease, the wee range from impossible to requiring effort to delighting with the relative ease of completion.

I recall nearly 30 years ago, I broke my right wrist in a fall on roller skates. I like to think of that as a noble sacrifice instead of clumsiness. Our young firstborn had fallen right in front of me. Having no out, I could have plowed into him or taken a tumble. An amusing aspect is that two resident docs from Mass General were running along the Esplanade beside us and heard the crack. They said they were so happy after treating so many broken bones to see and hear it actually happen. Whee.

The doc who set the cast on the wrist asked the obvious question — are you right handed? Well, I was, or so I thought.

As it turns out, I apparently had been ambidextrous all along. I just had accepted the training I’d had at school and home. I’ve heard from other boomers that they too were told righthandedness is the norm, ergo you are righthanded. Yet, with a bad wrist break and a hand immobilized for a month or so, I had a single choice, be helpless or see what I could do.

My writing with the left hand was not quite as good, but plenty legible. After never having had the muscle memory, I found it refined quickly. I learned that I had no problem with other tasks — shaving, cooking, dressing myself and on and on. I found as the cast came off too, that I could use both hands as needed separately, such as stirring a pot and a frying pan with different motions simultaneously. I just had never tried.

It makes me wonder how many of us are really ambi unaware.

The harder part was doing two-handed tasked with just one. The extreme example was tying shoelaces. The docs told me it was impossible ad that I had to go with slip-on or Velcro closure shoes. That was a direct challenge, which I accepted. It is tough, but not at all undoable. It too falls in that class of the normal made impossible then mastered.

I recall too many years before that in my volunteer work at VA hospitals, being with vets who relearned basic tasks. They tended to have a sly, infectious joy at re-adding each task to their repertoire.

I relate.


Phat and Fat: Watching the Struggle

May 1st, 2012

My maternal grandmother, Mable, was handsome, strong and big boned. We got our huge honking feet from her among other attributes. I’m sure she did not accept that she was good looking and she worried over her weight.

She was the eldest of a large family. The youngest was a sister, from their father’s remarriage after he became a widower. Mable’s angst was the worse for sister Anna’s slender build from a different mother.

Meanwhile, let it be known that I watched her in her 50s and 60s battle vigorously and without real success with body image and what books, doctors, family and women’s magazines told her she should weigh, as well as how much of what she should eat to get there. That had the extra nasty wrinkle of the insistence on height/weight charts, already disproved by insurance stats on longevity and health measures, but beloved by physicians.

I heard the scale whirr every morning. She had maybe two feet of diet and nutrition books on one shelf. Many were by the naturopath and chiropractor Gayelord Hauser. He straddled wise and foolish. He advocated natural foods, eschewing white sugar and white flour. Good enough, but he pitched his brand of blackstrap molasses as a kind of panacea, preached absurdly low caloric intake, and in effect expected everyone to thrive on what he did. In fact, he was a high-metabolic-rate ectomorph who wowed his celebrity friends like Greta Garbo with his wit as well as trim physique.

For Mable, the ideals were unworkable. 900 calories a day left her constantly hungry and often weak. She went for Hollywood Bread and another brand I recall as Lite Diet; both had small, very thin slices with few calories, maybe 45? The unamusing joke here is that she was the best baker I’ve ever known. Her pies, cobblers and cakes were superb and treasured by all who knew her. She baked great whole wheat and rye breads in which we delighted. There she was, starving with napkin-thing slices of tasteless junk in her effort to slim.

Sometimes she obviously failed. She was never a porker and her diet breaks did not mean she needed bigger dresses.

Instead, she simply had to eat more to be healthy. Rather than accept that and realize Hauser and the others she trusted were wrong, she snuck. She was not a pantry stuffer, scoffing out of sight. Rather, when she just couldn’t stand her hunger, she’d join us all at the dinner table, as we did each evening. Of course, as family, we had the serving dishes in the middle of the table. Mable would bring a plate with a napkin covering it.

It was sad and fooled no one. She’d tucked more protein under there. She’d stick a fork under the napkin and eat the few extra bites that let her go onto breakfast and another day of food struggles.

We were then as I remain, a straight-ahead, candid family. We would rather she had felt comfortable eating what she needed in plain sight. Yet, our candor did not include calling her on this emotional issue.

It was years later as I trimmed down successfully with Stillman that I reconsidered her struggles and body-image issues. She was large and muscular. She needed more to survive than scrawny folk. She’d never have the body type or metabolism of Hauser or starlets he accompanied. She couldn’t even become like her sister-by-the-second-mother Anna.

Yeah, it’s bad that most medical types are pretty ignorant about nutrition. It’s worse that so many rely on the easy, lazy formulae that fail most of us.

For me, I’m working on my own nutrition plan, regardless of the bad advice from doctors, nurses and a nutritionist. It’s a fair amount of work and requires iterative testing of calories/carbs/protein/fat with my scale and body-fat measurements. That’s still a lot easier intellectually, emotionally and physically than what my grandmother did for those many years. And as a big bonus, I’m not starving myself.

This series includes:

Call it Lifestyle on the intellectual and emotional commitment to low-carb
Watching the Struggle on my grandmothers diet woes
Wrestling with Fat on overcoming fear of dietary fats
Hunger? do you starve on a low-carb diet?
Low-Carb Eats on what’s on the menu in the regimen
How Much of What Food on calories-in/calories-out cliché
Dr. Cadaver on mindless trust in group averages
Who’s Counting on body fast v. weight
Part 1 on pants don’t lie