DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!

Food and Drink

Mar 3 2017

Keeping It Simple

by Dea Anne M

I love to cook. This statement will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. In fact, I imagine that some regular readers of this blog might think of me as “…that one writer who goes on and on about cooking and food. I mean it’s non-stop. Talk about obsessed!” Well, maybe I am – a little obsessed that is – and I freely admit that I love having a day during which I have nothing to do but cook an elaborate meal – no groceries left to shop for, all cooking implements accounted for and ready, (presumably) grateful  guests already invited – I love it all! That being said, my life is a lot like yours in that although I want to eat well, and at home, most evenings – I don’t have unlimited cash or hours to spend in getting meals to the table. Basic templates work well for me – frittata or quiche and salad, protein and pan sauce with roasted vegetables, good old rice and beans – I do them all, and often.

Now I realize that being able to do this rests on the reality that I’ve been cooking a long time and I understand at this point how to do certain things. When I was first starting out in the kitchen, I relied on cookbooks with some pretty mixed results. Don’t get me wrong. Using cookbooks can be a great way to learn on your own but as is the case with so much in life definitions of such concepts as “simple” can be very subjective. For some recipe writers, “simple”means that the cook just needs to open a couple of boxes and cans – never mind that the resulting quick dish tastes exactly like a box or a can. Other recipe creators seem convinced that a “simple” dish means you needn’t grind or pluck something first in order to begin preparing dinner. What I mainly look for in a recipe these days, or really in any book about food and cooking, is inspiration for what I might create with my existing skills out of ingredients that won’t be too inaccessible or pricey. If an idea for a meal can use what I already have on hand – well, that’s a delicious bonus. Here are some resources available from DCPL that have been inspiring me lately. Some of these I’ve mentioned in other posts, but hey, a good book is a good book.

Poor Man’s Feast: a love story of comfort, desire, and the art of simple cooking by Elissa Altman is written not by a chef but by a feastwoman who simply loves food. For many years, the tendency in her own cooking was toward the elaborate – game birds, exotic vegetables arranged in towers, lobster bisque.  No ingredient was too expensive or outre. Then, Altman met the love of her life, a New Englander devoted to frugality and simple living, and everything for this born and bred New Yorker changed. This is a wonderful meditation on the power of love and what it is exactly that transforms mere ingredients into something delicious. The recipes that end each chapter are straight-forward, delicious and, as the title promises, simple.

While there are many recipes in Tamar Adler’s lovely book An mealEverlasting Meal: cooking with economy and grace, I wouldn’t call it primarily a cookbook. Instead, it is a meditation on how to live a practical yet elegant life. Surprisingly, it all starts by boiling a pot of water and twines beautifully and hypnotically from there. I have read this book quite a few times and I never fail to be inspired by it in my own kitchen. I guarantee that Adler’s book will help you approach leftover rice and roasted vegetables in a brand new way. Highly recommended.

I sometimes find Jamie Oliver’s rugby scrum mateyness and amplified energy a little hard to take, but you cannot deny his revolutionenthusiasm for what he does. The British chef is well known by now for his commitment to improving school lunches, both in his native country as well as here in the United States. Also, well known is Oliver’s “you can do it” attitude about cooking. It’s a refreshing approach when one grows weary of gorgeously photographed cooking tomes authored by imperious chefs who think nothing of ordering us to prepare five different sauces for the “peasant style” duckling that we’ll be eating for dinner (about five days from now) or to process coffee beans and hazelnuts into a fine powder (sift three times to remove impurities!) to sprinkle atop the cherimoya-kumquat ice cream that we have churned by hand. These are the cookbooks that make you fling down your spatula and decide to just call out for a pizza. The food photos in Jamie’s Food Revolution: rediscover how to cook simple, delicious, affordable meals certainly don’t resemble those in the “cheffy” books. In fact, these dishes look exactly like what you would produce at home in your own kitchen and that’s kind of the point. Straightforward roasts, pasta dishes, easy curries and stir fries – this really is simple food – bound to inspire novices and experienced home cooks alike in a way that the gorgeous yet complicated  cookbooks never could. I also love Oliver’s “pass it on” philosophy by which he advocates learning a couple of recipes and then teaching them to a few other people and ask that they pass them on to still others. Sure, it won’t bring any of us clearer skin, better gas mileage or world peace anytime soon but it might help make the world a better place. Also, think how much money you’ll save by not buying fancy cookbooks or pizza!

I’ve been concentrating here on titles that seek to inspire by simplepromoting a specific philosophy about cooking and food. I want to end by recommending two books that are focused purely on recipes but carry out the simple food theme beautifully. They are The Best Simple Recipes by the editors of America’s Test Kitchens and Simple Fare: rediscovering the pleasures of real food by Ronald Johnson. The Test Kitchens book, as with all that this team has produced, gives us recipes that have been exhaustively tested until they really are the best. Johnson’s book has a much older copyright (1989!) but the recipes are both budget conscious and really delicious. A home cook could use either of these books as a sole kitchen reference and be completely satisfied with the results for a very long time.

How about you? What’s your definition of simple cooking? And what, by the way, is your favorite cookbook or cooking guide?

 

 

 

 

 

{ 0 comments }

Dec 22 2016

A Taste of Tradition

by Dea Anne M

There were a few years, quite some time ago, when I rented a three bedroom house and shared it with a couple of housemates. One of these was a guy I had known in college who, unbeknownst to me, carried some culinary baggage that was interesting to say the least. A beloved tradition for him was to create, during the winter holiday, a concoction that he was pleased to call krupnik.

At the time, I believed that he called it that because he just liked saying the word because he did so, constantly, during the several days that he spent making this particular witch’s brew. I have since learned that krupnik is a beverage of Lithuanian origin which usually includes honey and a variety of whole spices and pretty much always includes a very hefty portion of the purest grain alcohol.

If one consults Wikipedia, one will learn that the drink is “sometimes heated before being served,” and I think that this has to be true because the application of heat would probably work as well as anything else to kill the taste of the stuff. I mean it’s no surprise to also read in the same source that Polish soldiers used krupnick during World War II as a disinfectant. A versatile potable was my housemate’s krupnick – disinfectant, insect repellent, paint stripper – it would have worked for any number of household uses except, of course, the one for which it was intended.

The stuff lived in a huge vat during the period that it took to drink it up thus taking up a large amount of real estate in our shared refrigerator. When I complained about this one evening while trying to put together my dinner, I was told that chilling was vital so that the krupnik wouldn’t “spoil.” I ventured the opinion that there was no possible way to know if the stuff was spoiled or not since it was guaranteed to kill all functioning taste receptors. I was then told that it was “pretty sad” that I didn’t have any holiday traditions of my own. I’m sure that my reply was something steeped in mature wisdom like “I do so!” but later I thought, “Well do I?”

When it came to culinary traditions relating to Christmas (which was the holiday my family celebrated) what could I claim? I’m afraid what did, and still does, come to mind is the special gravy that my grandmother would make year after year. It was a chicken gravy -amply supplied with giblets – which would have been okay (sort of) except for the fact that my grandmother also included sliced hard-boiled eggs. I liked eggs just fine but somehow the sight of those particular eggs – staring up at me from the gravy bowl like horrible yellow eyes – was simply too much –  and so year after year, I ate my dry turkey and looked forward to dessert.

Whatever holidays you celebrate around this time of year, your table might very well hold some sort of culinary tradition. It might be a tradition peculiar to your own family or it might be a tradition rooted in your heritage.  Please note that I’m looking specifically at Christmas here only because that’s the tradition that I was raised with, and I in no way want to deny or make light of the food traditions of other cultures. I will say that there are some culinary customs peculiar to this time of year that have always baffled me. These include Christmas tree centerpieces made of shrimp, cheese balls, turducken,  and – I’m sorry ya’ll – fruitcake.

So what are some of the food traditions of other countries? In France, a Yule Log cake is always baked and served during the winter holiday. It is a sponge cake filledparis with cream or jam, rolled into a log shape and iced and otherwise decorated to resemble a log. The old Yule Log was a European custom of burning a log toward the end of the year that was meant to light the first fire started in the new one. If you want to try constructing your own version of this tasty confection, you’ll find a good one in My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz. Lebovitz’s cake is beautiful and includes a chocolate icing marked to resemble wood bark as well as the requisite meringue mushrooms.

Gluhwein, is a mulled wine flavored with various spices, that is beloved in part of Germany and Austria. The fact of those whole spices steeped in alcohol and served warm bring it a little too close to my erstwhile joyhousemate’s krupnick for my comfort. I’m sure though, that most who partake are raising one to two cups at most and are, no doubt, enjoying the beverage with food at the same time. Alas, you’ll find no recipe for Gluhwein in Frank Rosin’s Modern German Cookbook. I was able to locate a recipe for something called Glogg in  Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. Rombauer was herself of German heritage and the many editions of her seminal cookbook certainly show that influence. Her glogg recipe calls for two bottles of port, one bottle of brandy and 2 cups of vodka. I dare not think of how many people this is meant to serve. In the finest tradition of holiday cheer, this drink features whole spices and is served warm with “small spoons” for adding raisins should you fancy such an embellishment.

Generally a group effort, and a true labor of love, are tamales – a holiday food particular to Mexico. Having mexicoparticipated in a tamale-making party myself, I can tell you that putting them together and cooking them is really fun, if the work is shared with friends and family, and the results are absolutely delicious. Tamales, if you aren’t familiar with them, are steamed bundles of masa filled with savory or sweet mixtures. You’ll find recipes for all sorts of tamales – bean, chicken, pork, cheese and yes, sweet – in The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. If you have a notion to round up some friends for a participatory party I guarantee that you’ll all have a great time.

Lutefisk is a unique dish that has come in for a fair share of abuse from such cultural institutions as The Prairie norwgianHome Companion. Of Norwegian origin, this traditional favorite involves soaking dried fish in cold water for six days (changed daily), then soaking two days in a mixture of cold water and lye until the fish reaches a jelly-like consistency (notice my emphasis). My Wikipedia source goes on to say that in order “to make the fish edible a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water is needed.” Now I don’t know about you, but I am made wary by any instruction that includes the phrase “to make the fish edible…” Should you be of a mind to try making this delicacy yourself, you’ll find a recipe for it in Sylvia Munsen’s Cooking the Norwegian Way along with recipes for dishes less likely to have you saying “it must be an acquired taste” such as gingerbread cookies, potato soup and whipped cream cake.

Finally, I can’t leave this musing on holiday food traditions without commenting on an interesting Christmas phenomenon in Japan. Due to Kentucky Fried Chicken’s successful ad campaign launched in 1974, thousands of chickenJapanese people wait up to two hours on December 25th to purchase their bucket of holiday cheer. Some choose to order their dinners months in advance. The Colonel even offers customers chocolate cake and sparkling wine! It is truly “Kentucky for Christmas” and really, why not? Want to read read more about this iconic food? Check out Fried Chicken: an American story by John T. Edge. Edge is an engaging writer and this fun little book is part of a series he has done on quintessential American dishes that includes Apple Pie: an American story and Hamburgers and Fries: an American story.

What are some of the holiday food traditions that you have loved? What are some that you haven’t loved quite so much?

 

 

 

 

{ 1 comment }

Dec 12 2016

Cooking Up Some Comfort

by Dea Anne M

Regardless of your views and feelings about current events, tumultuous weather and the presidential election, I think that it’s safe to say that most of us could use a little comfort and joy at this point in the year. Now I don’t know about you, but the point of the season, for me at least, isn’t the gifts. Of course, I’m always grateful to receive – and it really is the thought that counts – but I really don’t need another object for which I have to find a place. No, at the risk of sounding a little trite, the winter holiday season for me is all about giving rather than getting. And there isn’t any sort of giving that gratifies me as much as providing the people I love (and sometimes even people I don’t know that well!) with luscious things to eat and drink. You might agree – no matter what holiday(s) you celebrate – and DCPL has resources to help you get in that spirit.

First, let’s give a thought to comfort food. Now that can be a loaded term. I happen to think that almost nothing beatsone-dish a traditional tuna noodle casserole for sheer comfort eating, but my partner considers it a dish that is completely beyond the pale. Call it a throwback to my childhood, but casseroles in general tend to soothe any tantrum prone urges that I might be feeling, and I know that I can’t be the only one. There’s just something about having a whole meal tucked into my bowl that makes me feel as though I’ve just had a warm bath and jumped into a pair of flannel pajamas. Feeling in need? Check out 101 One Dish Dinners – hearty recipes for the dutch oven, skillet and casserole pan by Andrea Chesman for easy (and delicious!) meals in a dish. From Jambalaya to Irish Stew to Risotto Primavera, you’ll find here a truly international array of dishes guaranteed to keep you from stamping your foot and refusing to play nicely with the other children.

chickenOf course, many people would agree that, for sheer comfort, nothing beats the aroma of a roasting chicken as well as the eating of it when it’s done. Explore the mystique of this, and other, tantalizing dishes in  Simon Hopkinson’s charming books Roast Chicken and Other Stories and Second Helpings of Roast Chicken. And if you’re aiming for the broadest range of choices when it comes to chicken dishes, don’t miss Linda Amster’s New York Times Chicken Cookbook. Chicken-wise, whatever you’re looking for is bound to be here. Along with such toothsome-sounding exotica as Armenian Style Chicken and Bulgar and Chicken Tagine with Olives and Lemons, I counted twenty-eight recipes for roast chicken alone.

For many, comfort eating can be summed up in one word…chocolate. If you count yourself among that number, epiphanyconsider first the many virtues of Chocolate Epiphany: exceptional cookies, cakes and confections for everyone by Francois Payard. The author is a renowned pastry chef and owner of (among other concerns) Francois Payard Bakery – one of New York City’s best known and beloved store fronts. From custards to tarts, you’ll find wonderful treats here and none seem outrageously “cheffy,” although I figure that the Milk Chocolate and Candied Kumquat Napoleons will probably take you the better part of an afternoon to construct. For something a little more “down home,” you’ll never go wrong with the classics and that’s exactly what you’ll find in Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts by Maida Heatter. You might feel dubious about such recipe titles as Positively-the Absolute-Best-Chocolate Chip Cookies but keep in mind that the proof is in the baking, so to speak, and there seem to be a lot of happy bakers out there who say that these cookies moniker is no exaggeration.

cocktailFor some folks, the holidays just wouldn’t be the holidays without the opportunity to lift a glass of cheer with friends. If this is you, and you need some fresh ideas for what exactly to put in those glasses, check out The New Cocktail Hour: the essential guide to hand-crafted drinks by Andre Darlington and Tenaya Darlington. Here you’ll find recipes for classics like the Sidecar and the Martini, and yes, good old Eggnog, but there are plenty of bewitching sounding gems here like the Silver Fizz and the Boulevardier. The author-siblings devote space to wine as well as appropriate food pairings, and if you aren’t much of a drinker (or not one at all) never fear! You’ll also discover in these pages plenty of low and no-proof cocktails like the Lime Cordial Soda and the Black Julep.

On a final note, you might be a part of that rare and select group that swears by two words in regard to comfort buttercooking. Those two words are “butter” and “bacon.” If you think that this could describe you, although, really,you know if it does, then don’t miss The Great Big Butter Cookbook edited by Diana von Glahn which has over 450 pages of recipes and Theresa Gilliam’s Bacon 24/seven: recipes for curing, smoking and eating.

What food or drink spells “comfort” for you during the holidays?

 

 

 

 

{ 0 comments }

Jun 10 2016

Your Favorite Flavor

by Dea Anne M

icecream2There was almost always ice cream in the refrigerator while I was growing up and it was always a welcome treat. All of us liked it…on that we could agree. What my brother and I could not agree on was what flavor of ice cream was the best. My brother championed chocolate. For me, it was strawberry all the way. I realize that this difference of opinion is about as important as who gets which side of the back seat of the car (and that ongoing discussion was a whole story in itself) but be assured that the two of argued about it often enough that my poor mother sought a respite by buying something called Neapolitan ice cream. If you’re unfamiliar with this “flavor” of ice cream, it’s chocolate, vanilla and strawberry layered side by side. My father would sometimes volunteer the opinion that Neapolitan was ice cream “that can’t make up its mind.” He also ventured to suggest that the whole point of such a thing was that one could have a sampling of all three flavors in one bowl or even in one spoon. Of course my brother and I knew the truth. The genius of the side-by-side format of Neapolitan lay in its ability to provide each person with her or his favorite. The physical evidence of our mutual conviction was starkly revealed when, on more than one occasion, an adult attached to the household would open the carton only to find a ridge of vanilla rising up from the bottom like a desolate mountain peak abandoned by time and humanity.

Okay. I’ll admit that I’ve already written about ice cream – as have other DCPL bloggers such as in this worthy entry and this one. I can’t help it though. When the weather gets hot, my culinary yearning turns (as in really sharp uey) toward the smooth, the sweet, the cold and I know that I’m not alone. One of my favorite websites, The Kitchn (and yes, I’m spelling that correctly) has been running a feature called “My Favorite Pint”  wherein they ask a variety of people about his or her favored ice cream. The results are, as you might imagine, all over the place. Blogger Joy Wilson, otherwise known as Joy the Baker, likes Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. Author Rainbow Rowell is partial to Talenti’s Mediterranean Mint Gelato. (Talenti gelato pints come, by the way, in brown-lidded, clear plastic canisters that make, once empty and clean, surprisingly elegant containers for spools of thread and other small crafting supplies).  J. J. Johnson, chef at acclaimed Harlem restaurant The Cecil, likes plain vanilla Hagen-Dazs but he likes to add potato chips for, as he puts it, “some extra salty crunch.” And lest we veer too  close toward the readily available, pastry chef Dominique Ansel, inventor of that delicious hybrid the Cronut, loves the olive oil gelato from Otto in New York City. The pint costs $13 and you can only buy it from the restaurant but hey, when it comes to ice cream, one’s true love can never be denied.

I’m fortunate enough to own a small electric ice-cream maker and to sometimes have the time to make my own custom treats. However, I buy plenty of ice cream too and I most often find myself purchasing…vanilla! Like your never-fail wardrobe basic, vanilla just seems goes with everything from fresh strawberries to chocolate cake. When I make my own, I’ll either use seasonal fruit or search the internet or books for new ideas. Speaking of ice cream resources, here’s a few from DCPL.

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream is a lovely volume from Laura O’Neill, Ben Van Leeuwen and Pete Van Leeuwen. The trio are the founders of the popular Brooklyn ice creamery whose empire includes a fleet of yellow ice cream trucks  in New York and Los Angeles. There are recipes here for vegan ice cream and granitas as well as dairy treats such Ceylon Cinnamon and Blueberry. Or try Lindsay Clendaniel’s Scoop Adventures: the best ice cream of the 50 states for intriguing sounding recipes such as Balsamic Fig and Popcorn as well as a peek inside ice cream parlors across the nation. Finally, check out Recipe of the Week: Ice Cream by Sally Sampson for delicious recipes which really will keep you supplied with a different frozen treat for each week of the year.

If you could invent your own ice cream flavor, what would it be? What’s your current favorite? Just for fun, here’s a quiz, again from The Kitchn, that reveals what your favorite flavor says about you. It is, as the writers admit, “strictly scientific.”

 

 

 

{ 0 comments }

These days, I seem to prefer pursuits that continue to teach me something over the course of time and gardening has certainly been one of those. I’ve been a serious vegetable gardener for close to ten years now, and I think that I’ve learned something significant and new during each growing season. Of course, gardeners used to learn primarily by living in families and  communities where other people had gardened as well and were able to share the deep knowledge that comes from long experience with a particular land and climate. I haven’t had that in my life, so I’ve had to seek out my own gardening community through books and the internet.

A problem I have found in reading about gardening is regional bias. For whatever reason, many American gardening experts have historically focused on the Northeastern part of the country and, to a latter degree, the Pacific Northwest. On the surface, it’s easy to see why this should be so. There is, I think, a popular perception that the mild winters and ample year-round sunlight we enjoy in the Southeast render gardening completely problem-free. You’ve only to try your hand at growing English peas or cauliflower to understand that this is hardly the case. Advice, useful to many but not to me, abounds. “Wait to plant until the soil can be worked easily.” Well, around here the soil can be worked all year round, so when do I plant?

Some statements just flat-out don’t apply to this part of the country at all. “In August, an absolute bumper crop of tomatoes will start rolling in. You’ll barely be able to keep up with the abundant harvest. Talk about seeing red!” While I’m sure that’s true in many places, in my zip code the heat in August can be almost unbearable and mytimber tomatoes tend to shut down and wait it out. In August, my primary tomato concern is keeping the plants from dropping too many blossoms so that they’ll start producing again when the weather finally cools down.

Growing lettuce in July? Forget it! I am an inveterate lover of salads as well as all things tomato, so you can imagine my elation when I discovered The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast by Ira Wallace. If you too are a Southern vegetable gardener, I cannot recommend this book enough. The book addresses general gardening concerns such as soil quality and watering methods (and quite completely too, I might add) then moves on to provide an extraordinarily useful guide to what you should be doing, planting and harvesting every month of the year. It turns out that even lettuce can be grown through the summer with some thoughtful techniques (refrigerating seeds, cooling the soil with cardboard and planting in the shade of larger plants are some of these). The final section of the book addresses individual vegetables and makes recommendations about which tastevarieties do particularly well here. Plus, rather than lumping “the South” into one homogeneous mass, Wallace makes distinctions between the Upper South and the Lower South. This is a good thing because the growing conditions in a place like Cucumber, West Virginia are bound to be very different from those experienced in Bayou Cane, Louisiana. Ira Wallace is a Master Gardener in Virginia and helps to run the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. She is well known in the seed saving community and her book includes useful guidance on how to save your own vegetable seeds.

Seed saving in itself is a fascinating subject which carries a great deal of history. Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: heirloom seed savers in Appalachia by Bill Best is  an absorbing history of Southern Appalachian heirloom varieties of beans, corn and tomatoes and of the people who have cherished and preserved them through time. I find the the names alone – Greasy Pod Pole Bean, Bloody Butcher Dent Corn, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato – enchanting.

Of course, if your vegetable gardening goes well (or your vegetable shopping for that matter), you’ll have a lot of produce to cook up. Here are a few resources available from DCPL that can help you do just that.fork

Local (ish) chef, Hugh Acheson is known for his award-winning restaurants in Athens, Atlanta and Savannah as well as his cookbooks.  His latest offering,  The Broad Fork: recipes for the wide world of vegetables and fruits is full of seasonally appropriate ideas for using garden bounty any time of year. Not only will you find recipes incorporating the South’s beloved tomatoes and peaches, you’ll also find some great ideas for using veggies that may be less familiar such as kohlrabi and ramps.

Steven Satterfield is chef at Atlanta’s celebrated Miller Union and has been called a “vegetable shaman” by no less an authority than The New York TimesRoot to Leaf: a southern chef cooks through the seasons is Satterfield’s homage to the vegetables that he clearly loves. The excellent text works beautifully with the stunning photographs and the recipes appear to be delicious without being overly fussy. Check out this Miller Union vegetable plate as featured in a Southern Living magazine a few summers back.

masteringMastering the Art of Southern Vegetables by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart deals with vegetables and only vegetables and the southern spin here is undeniable. Dupree and Graubart, James Beard Award winners and long time collaborators,  have organized their book by vegetable rather than season – a plus on those days in the kitchen when you’re faced with an acorn squash or a dozen zucchini. In any case, you have to figure that any cookbook featuring lady peas (my personal favorite) along with nine recipes for okra and four for sweet potatoes must mean serious Southern cooking business.

How about you? Do you have a favorite southern vegetable? Are you thinking about a garden of your own?

{ 0 comments }

May 2 2016

The Hard Way…But Worth It

by Dea Anne M

Gardening. Learning to sew. Making jam and pickles. I do enjoy a project, and I recently decided that I would learn how to make sourdough bread. I’ve been baking bread for a long time now but sourdough has always seemed an entirely different realm – the “wild frontier” of bread baking in more ways than one.

If you don’t know already (and I had to do quite a bit of reading to find out myself) sourdough is generally not leavened with commercial yeast. Instead, most sourdough involves a loose mixture of flour and water or a “starter” which begins its potentially long existence by being allowed to sit and ferment in order to capture and develop the wild yeasts that exist in the flour and in the air around it.

“Developing” is the tricky part though. Consensus doesn’t seem to exist on how long the process actually takes. One simply feeds and stirs and brews and smells the starter until it’s “ready” …but what does this mean? A primed starter is supposed to have “a few bubbles” or “some bubbles.” Come on, already, how many bubbles are we talking about?

A spoonful of a starter that is ready is supposed to “bob gently in a cup of room temperature water.” Well, what if your spoonful looks and smells ready (at least to one’s own untutored eye) but plummets to the bottom of the cup like a bag of sand? Was the water too warm? Too cold? Was the spoon of starter too full? Not full enough?  Is the moon in the wrong phase right now thus making any alternative baking project a vain and laughable endeavor? Maybe sourdough never blooms correctly in an election year…a fact that everyone else knows, and I would have too, if I’d only been paying close enough attention. Woe is me.

I suppose that’s what I get for choosing to grow my own starter instead of purchasing one or obtaining some from an acquaintance. The latter would have been the sensible course of action, but I suppose there’s a big part of me that often wants to do things the hard way. In any case, after about a week and a half, I got tired of fiddling with and poking at my starter and decided to just dive in. Ready or not…I would bake some bread! And…it worked! Much to my astonishment, my maiden loaf of sourdough rose high and proud, the crumb was well-textured and the crust crispy. It tasted great…if I do say so myself. Call it beginner’s luck (I know I do), but I have more hope now for the possible success of future sourdough adventures. What I also have is a starter that should remain happy and active as long as I take care of it. This means keeping it from getting too cold or too hot and keeping it fed on a regular basis. It’s sort of like living with a pet…albeit one that you grew yourself…but I don’t mind as long as I can keep making tasty bread.

According to this story that NPR ran in 2006, sourdough is quite possibly the oldest form of leavened bread, well- known to the ancient Egyptian, and as is probably true of other foods that we find yummy, such as yogurt, cheese and Toll House chocolate chip cookies, was discovered by accident. Of course, the images that come to my mind when I think of sourdough are wagon trains full of settlers heading for the American West or would-be millionaires flooding the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush – folks who traveled far away from places where commercial baking powder and yeast were available. There are stories, in fact, of miners sleeping with their sourdough starters during the Alaskan winters in order to keep the precious mixtures from freezing.

Do you think you’d like to give this interesting form of baking a try? If so, I recommend the following resources from DCPL.

San Francisco has long been considered the American epicenter of sourdough and one of the acknowledged masterstartine is Chad Robertson who co-owns Tartine Bakery in the heart of the Mission District. Robertson’s  Tartine Bread will provide you with a little bit of San Francisco in your own kitchen. You won’t find an encyclopedic collection of recipes here – Robertson’s primary concern is conveying technique – but you will discover how to make really terrific bread and pick up a few ideas on what to with it on the way.

Another well-regarded master of bread is Lionel Vatinet. Vatinet is a founding instructor of the San Francisco Baking passionInstitute and now co-owns La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina. Vatinet’s bakery (which is also a restaurant) produces bread baked according to traditional methods that incorporate slow, careful development. The sourdough “boule” possess an aura almost mystical in the enthusiasm it inspires and, at five pounds, the loaf boasts heroic proportions. A Passion for Bread shares Vatinet’s exceptional body of knowledge with the home baker. Learning to bake good bread can be frustrating and exhilarating in equal degree. This excellent book is like having a bread professor at your elbow guiding you every step of the way. I highly recommend it.

I’ll repeat at this point that sourdough is a fermented substance but don’t let that fact give you pause. Let me assure fermentedyou that Charlotte Pike’s beautiful book Fermented will ease any qualms that you might harbor. Pike is a cooking instructor and food writer in the United Kingdom and she knows her ferments. Sourdough baking is one chapter in a book that encompasses fermented fruit and vegetables like sauerkraut and dairy products like yogurt and labneh, but Pike’s instructions are excellent and those sourdough recipes include much more than bread. I, for one, can’t wait to bake the Sourdough Chocolate Cake.

Sourdough baking is, for me, turning out to be a pursuit much like gardening has been – a fascinating and sometimes frustrating process in which the journey has been worth the trip. If you decide to take your own little jaunt…well, happy baking..and let me know how it goes!

 

{ 0 comments }

Feb 26 2016

Frozen assets

by Dea Anne M

I was at the grocery store last week and found my eyes drawn to a display of small chest freezers for sale. When I say small, I mean small, these petite beauties were 5.0 cubic feet – cute as buttons (does anyone else I know talk about, or even think of, kitchen appliances in such terms?) and just the right size to nestle in a corner somewhere. Even in an apartment.

“I can put it in the basement,” I said to myself as though the item was already on its way home with me. “All this storage!” I exclaimed as I opened it and leaned inside. Like all chest freezers this one had plenty of vertical capacity. I found myself dreaming of all the food that I would “put up,” all the “emergency supplies” I could have at hand and all the future grocery store trips I wouldn’t have to make because I would be so amazingly well stocked. I might not have to leave the house for weeks at a time! Snow days…bring them on!

Then I started to remember the other chest freezers that I have known – namely those possessed by my paternal grandmother. You will notice the plural construction inside that last sentence. My grandmother owned not just one but two freezers apart from the rather ample freezer section that was part of her regular refrigerator. On her side porch, she maintained a stand up unit devoted to frozen goods as well as a chest freezer which I seem to remember as being roughly the size of a Cadillac. You might ask why so much space was devoted to frozen goods and all I can say is…I’m not really sure. For many years, my grandparents grew an enormous vegetable garden every year and there always seemed to be tons of corn and field peas and okra and green beans to prepare for the freezer as well as strawberries, blackberries and peaches. Well, maybe not tons but it seemed like it to those of us who helped to shell, shuck, cut, rinse, slice, blanch and bag it all. Of course much of that produce did get used during the course of the year but not all of it. Over time, as my grandparents aged, freezer space seemed to become less and less devoted to produce.  Bags of vegetables still resided there but these came from the store and seemed to function as cushioning for the more desirable items which skewed in the direction of “minute steaks,” ice cream, Sara Lee cakes and a seemingly endless supply of Cool Whip.

“You can freeze it!” my grandmother would marvel as she extracted yet another huge vat. “And it tastes just like whipped cream!”

Well, I will always disagree that Cool Whip tastes like whipped cream. I certainly have never preferred it, but I kept my opinion to myself because, after all, my grandmother was nice enough to give me dessert to begin with. Plus, in matters of taste, who is ever really correct?

The first refrigerators marketed for use in the home appeared during the early 1900’s which when you think about it walshwasn’t all that long ago. The freezer sections of some of the earlier units can look unbelievably small to us today – roughly the size of a couple of ice cube trays. In some ways, a smaller freezer space can make practical sense because, as we all know, “stuff” tends to accumulate to fill as much space as is available. Knowing this, I think that I’ll hold off buying a chest freezer for now since I can see myself filling it with all sort of “necessities” and then forgetting that they are there. That sort of situation drives me nuts and with my new found passion for “Kondoing” (ala The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo) I find myself more and more wanting to know exactly what I have and where it is. In Section 306 of Peter Walsh’s How to Organize Just About Everything, Walsh recommends that we sweep through our refrigerators once a week tossing out overextended items and cleaning up spills. That’s a laudable goal, whether homewe meet it or not, and there’s no reason that a similar sort of schedule can’t be followed with your freezer as well. Walsh, by the way, recommends not having a second refrigerator or freezer and unless you’re a hunter (or know any) or a quantity gardener you might want to reconsider that purchase too. Also, think about upkeep if you do decide to purchase. Cheryl Mendelson’s excellent book Home Comforts: the art and science of keeping house (which I have referenced in this blog previously and highly recommend) advises us that we “need not wash the freezer every week” but we are encouraged to wipe up spills and crumbs and regularly patrol the contents.  Mendelson, by the way, also posits the theory that “all good housekeepers are list makers” which feeds right in to the nagging desire that I have to create a refrigertor/freezer inventory (complete with relevant dates) which can live on the door and be updated as needed. To say that this idea would probably be greeted around my house with some odd looks would be putting it mildly. “What’s next – a map of the linen closet?” is one comment that I can imagine. Maybe I’ll do it anyway.

Now you may have different plans for that potential extra freezer – plans that involve no food stuffs at all. Extraordinary Uses for Ordinary Things from the folks at Reader’s Digest informs us that we can remove wax from candlesticks with the aid of our freezers. Also, any burned-on messes in pots will be easier to remove if we simply freeze the cooking vessel for a coupe of hours. Handy to know about but I don’t usually have enough wax encrusted candlesticks and burned pots sitting around my house to warrant an extra freezer. Your situation, of course, may be different.

So, for now, though there appears to be no spare freezer in my future, I am interested in using the freezer space that I have more effectively. The irreplacable wisdom born of making mistakes had taught me certain things. For example, my small household will generally not be well-served by freezing huge packs of chicken or ground beef – not, that is, unless I want to wind up with an enormous mass of protein impossible to separate into usable components. I’ve also found that berries, unbaked cookies and the like tend to work best if I take the time to spread them out on a cookie sheet or plate and freeze first before transferring to bags. I’ve also found that bagels are easier to handle if I cut them in half before I freeze them (you can toast the halves still frozen). I think though the most important thing I’ve learned is that food freezes best if I can make the package as airtight as possible. Many people swear by vacuum sealers and these freezedevices certainly look effective but, for me, good old Press and Seal plastic wrap seems to work well toward eliminating ice crystals and the dreaded freezer burn.  You find these tips, and more, in Susie Theodorou’s excellent book Can I Freeze It? How to Use the Most Versatile Appliance in Your Kitchen. Along with freezing wisdom (such as the best methods for freezing cooked rice and pastry shells) Theodorou offers some scrumptious looking recipes for foods that freeze particularly well. Seafood Pie and Chocolate Chunk Cookies look especially appealing to me. There are also useful chapters on effectively freezing leftovers and cooking and freezing ahead for parties.

What about you? Do you love your freezer or does it frustrate you? What are your best freezing tips?

 

 

 

{ 0 comments }

Jan 20 2016

New Year’s Resolution? Fat Chance!

by Hope L

Well, it’s that time again. Many of us will swear off sweets, junk food, cigarettes, spending frivolously, swearing, sloth, and rudeness to our fellows, among tons of other things we do or don’t do. It is time to follow through on that New Year’s Resolution.

Yeah, well, there won’t be any resolutions here, not this year. I’m already exercising more, trying to get plenty of sleep, and drinking lots of water. I had a good friend tell me a couple of years ago that I “shouldn’t drink so much Diet Coke because it turns to formaldehyde in one’s stomach.” Formaldehyde! Well, I’m sorry to say that almost one month after that ominous warning, my bottled-water-swigging friend passed away. And she wasn’t even sick. I’ve since upped my intake of Diet Coke.

One day the news is telling us caffeine is bad for us, the next day they are saying that drinking a couple of cups of java a day is good for you. Fat is bad–wait, no–fat is good for us. Salt–long the enemy of us all–my doctor told me to eat more salty foods to keep my blood pressure up. Alcohol is a no-no. Wrong again. A couple of glasses of wine a day provide antioxidants and often pair well with Hamburger Helper.

I mean, consider the following titles of books I just perused on the shelf at DCPL:

changebrainChange Your Brain, Change Your Body: Use Your Brain to Get and Keep the Body You Have Always Wanted by Daniel G. Amen

YOU:  The Owner’s Manual – An Insider’s Guide to the Body That Will Make You Healthier and Younger by Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz

The Detox Strategy: Vibrant Health in 5 Easy Steps by Brenda Watson

Seems like there is plenty of interest out there in changing one’s self. Even Oprah Winfrey herself, the queen of success, change, and financial prosperity, would still like to succeed at something that has long eluded her with a permanent solution: weight loss. She can be seen on commercials for a leading diet program, encouraging us to “try again” along with her.

Well, yeah, but why would this time be any different than all of the other times? I know how hard it is to be overweight because I was a chubbyish child and weighed 250 lbs. in my early twenties. It’s not easy carrying an extra 100 lbs. or more around with you every day.

But the worst part, in my mind, is the prejudice/bias/loathing regarding heavy people. Especially toward women. (I was once asked when the baby was due, and I was not pregnant. Not surprising, though, since I could gain 50 lbs. in the blink of an eye.) Tabloids love to put cellulite on their covers, with gal stars who are caught unawares frolicking at the seashore or pool in bathing suits showing their not-so-best sides. I’d like to see men treated in this way. Sure, on occasion, you will see a man’s beer belly or two photographed and put out there for all to see. But it is and always has been more about women.

I’m glad to report that the times are a-changin’, though, however slowly. Some very famous people nowadays are generous in size and, in part, may just owe their very success to the fact that they are “relatable” to the rest of us real people.

fatgirlewalkingMo’Nique, one of my favorite stars, has a couple of hilarious books (available at DCPL): Skinny Women Are Evil: Notes of a Big Girl in a Small-Minded World and Skinny Cooks Can’t Be Trusted.

And, also at DCPL: The fabulous Brittany Gibbons, aka Brittany Herself, and her book Fat Girl Walking:  Sex, Food, Love, and Being Comfortable in Your Skin … Every Inch of It.

It’s about time for my mid-morning snack … But first, I do believe I will make just one New Year’s resolution:  I shall look both ways before crossing.

{ 0 comments }

Jan 8 2016

Chocolate and Watermelon

by Dea Anne M

The weather has been weird this winter. There, now that I’ve dispensed with that bit of gauche understatement, let me go on to say that I knew things had approached the ridiculous when I found myself thinking on December 27th, “Mmmm…some watermelon would taste great right now!” Obviously my physical being, overloaded at that point with rich holiday food, craved a change. At the same time, bedrock reality insisted that the temperature outside had hit the seventies. “Where am I, Australia?” I asked myself while craving the taste of light food, fruity food, and–basically–summery food. Unlike The Honourable Phryne Fisher, the title character (and very stylish dresser) of Kerry Greenwood’s detective series (available at DCPL), I am, of course, a lifelong resident of the Northern Hemisphere. So what flavors am I supposed to crave at this time of year?

According to the The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, the following flavors belong, typically, to winter: beef, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chocolate, citrus, game, lobster, maple syrup, pork, root vegetables, bible“warming” spices (such as ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg) and winter greens like collards and kale. To me, this list makes perfect sense. While summer and early fall bring a bonanza of fruit in season, what we mainly get in winter is citrus. Maple trees, of course, need a specific range of temperature in order to yield their sap. Many animals too, including some shellfish, traditionally came into season in the very late fall and winter and were “harvested” (a word I can’t use, even after years of meat-eating, without pause) at that time. Compare Page and Dornenburg’s winter list to their list of summer flavors: apricots, arugula, beans, blackberries, cherries, corn, eggplant, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes and yes…good old watermelon. These lists reconfirm my belief that the gingerbread I bake tastes best when the weather is cold, and chocolate–though many of us agree it goes down easy any time of year–has a velvety richness that really does make a good winter contrast to the light, vibrant flavors of summer fruit.

And I think this is what “seasonal flavors” are all about. It isn’t so much that you can’t get watermelon in December or venison in July. Imports and freezing technology have completely changed what is or is not available during certain parts of the year. Still, there’s something to be said for keeping certain tastes and textures to their traditional season. If nothing else, it can make for interesting reading. Allow me to recommend two very different, yet equally entertaining, accounts of seasonal eating–both available at DCPL.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is the novelist’s chronicle of the year her miraclefamily spent growing most of their own food. What they didn’t grow themselves was purchased from local farmers–the exceptions being wheat flour, olive oil, coffee, chocolate, dried fruit and some spices. Kingsolver is a moralist in the best sense, lacing her narrative with wry humor instead of finger wagging, and the book winds up being as gripping as any novel. It is, in fact, one of my favorites.

I love memoir, especially culinary memoir, and Ruth Reichl is, in my opinion, one of the best practitioners of this particular craft. Her enticing writing, full of candor and poetry, swirls around themes of love and work and family and, most of all, food. I love, and have re-read often, Tender At the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl’s latest book, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, is yearsomething a little different. The book is partially Reichl’s story of how she suddenly lost her job when, in 2009, Gourmet‘s parent company ended the magazine’s almost sixty-year run. (Reichl became the editor in 1999.) The book is also a cookbook as Reichl chronicles healing herself of pain, and the loss of her professional identity, by cooking. The book is divided into four sections–Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer–and Reichl fills each section with recipes appropriate to that season (at least if you live in upstate New York as Reichl did at the time). Fall, for example, is the time for Buttermilk Potatoes with Brown Butter inspired by a trip to a local farmers market, or just a simple Steak Sandwich, equally inspired, by the unexpected kindness of a stranger at the airport. Examples of what Reichl calls “word pictures” herald pieces of narrative and accompanying recipes. (Reichl claims that Twitter opened up an entire new way of communicating–more formal and incantatory–and though some have found these haiku-like pieces to be excellent fodder for parody, I think they are charming.) The recipes are approachable, the photography is beautiful and, all in all, Reichl’s always compelling voice comes through with clarity and new strength. Highly recommended.

The previously mentioned Flavor Bible is an excellent reference for anyone interested in learning improvisational cooking. Certainly, cooking with the seasons is, in my opinion at least, a viable way of gaining confidence in one’s skills and tastes. If you think you might be interested in this approach, check out the following offerings from DCPL:

rootTender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch by Nigel Slater – all about vegetables from a passionate gardener.

Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard – also by Slater but focused on fruit.

Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons by Steven Satterfield, genius chef at, and co-owner of, Atlanta’s Miller Union.

The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition by Amelia Saltsman – an original approach to a rich and multi-faceted cuisine.

Today, it’s 45 degrees where I live in Decatur, GA, and the forecast promises a low tonight of 34. So what’s for dinner? I don’t know about you, but I’m making a nice, hot batch of Leek and Potato Coup.

Are you a seasonal eater? What food do you like best in cold weather? How about when it’s sweltering outside?

{ 0 comments }

Dec 16 2015

DCPL Squashes the Bah Humbug!

by Hope L

Are you feeling a little like Scrooge this year? Not enough time, energy, or maybe money to be festive? Are the holidays sneaking up on you, with the mild weather giving you the impression that the holiday season is still months away?

Well, the holiday season is indeed upon us, and whether you celebrate anything this time of year or not, you can take advantage of the wonderful goings on at the DeKalb County Public Library!

Here are some happenings this coming Saturday that are enough to put some holiday spirit into anybody, even you Grinches out there:

HeritageFestival2015_slideSat., Dec. 19:  There are too many delicious choices to make on this day!  Redan-Trotti Library, 770.482.3821, will offer Tasty Traditions:  Cookie & Dessert Exchange, from 11:30-12:30 p.m.  Share your family’s traditional cookie or dessert that has been passed down through the years, along with the recipe, and sample everyone else’s.  A prize will be given for the tastiest one and registration is required with a limit of 20 participants.

Sat., Dec. 19:  Decatur Library will host the Embrace Our World:  Greek Food Tasting event, sponsored by the Decatur Craft Beer Festival, from 10:30-11:30 a.m., with selections of a variety of traditional Greek pastries.  Available to the first 30 people.

That’s just a sample–see our calendar of events for more happenings at DCPL.

{ 0 comments }