Wednesday, November 4, 2009

If I Had a Salad, I'd Dress It All Over This Land

When I was growing up, my mom, my dad, my sister, and I had dinner as a family almost every night. Usually my mom cooked and included a protein, a starch, and a vegetable in each dinnertime meal. The vegetable was almost never salad; she's simply not a big fan of it. I, on the other hand, love salad, especially the dressing. When my mom does make salad, she prefers it undressed or maybe with just lemon juice. Fortunately, she made dressing for the rest of us on the rare occasions that she did make salad. When I started cooking dinner once a week for the family, when I was about seven-years-old, I wanted to make salad. My mom gave me this simple recipe for vinaigrette:

3 Tb olive oil
1 Tb red wine vinegar

juice squeezed from a wedge of lemon
(peeled) garlic clove (which should be removed before the dressing is poured)

1/4 tsp mustard

1/4 tsp thyme

freshly ground pepper

According to
Michael Ruhlman, author of The Elements of Cooking and the recent Ratio, which was a recent housewarming gift to me from my mother, the ratio for basic vinaigrette should be three parts oil and one part vinegar. Mom taught me well. I use the recipe she gave to me as a base for other recipes. I almost always use olive oil or extra virgin olive oil. I have discovered that if I leave the garlic clove whole that the dressing is not garlicky enough, but if mince the garlic, the flavor is too garlicky. So I cut the clove into four pieces and let it sit in the vinaigrette and then press it with the back of a fork to release some of the "garlic juice." And I almost always add a pinch or two of salt and sugar. Ultimately, how I make the vinaigrette usually depends on what kind of salad I'm making.

For a standard french vinaigrette, which I usually use with a simple green salad, I use extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, a garlic clove cut in four (as described above), salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar.

For potato salad, I use the french vinaigrette plus a dollop or two of mayonnaise (low-fat is fine) and a couple of dashes of paprika. Sometimes I do mince and keep in the garlic because the potatoes can absorb it. The longer the garlic can sit in the vinaigrette, though, the more it cooks and the milder the flavor.

If I am making a spinach salad, I'll often use (regular) olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, a drop of honey, salt, and pepper. Because the balsamic vinegar adds a heavier and sweeter flavor, I'll often omit the honey, but it depends on how sweet the particular vinegar is. I'll dress this salad a bit in advance to let the vinegar cook the spinach a bit.

With tender, tasty greens, such as arugula, I'll make a very simple dressing either with just extra virgin olive oil and lemon, or extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar, and sometimes a dash of mustard if I'm going with the sherry vinegar. My favorite arugula salad involves arugula, caramelized onions and finely chopped hard-boiled eggs that have been slightly undercooked. Greens like arugula are also often tasty with a nut-based oil rather then olive, like walnut oil.

For a Greek Salad, I'll use olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon, dill, and a dash of mustard and a pinch of sugar.

For an Asian slaw, cucumber salad (I scoop out the seeds first), or even a green or spinach salad with julienned carrots, red peppers and cucumbers, I'll use sesame or peanut oil, rice vinegar, a couple dashes of soy sauce, fresh ginger, and some brown or white sugar, The fresh ginger should be minced. If you don't want a strong ginger flavor, let it sit in the vinaigrette a while and then remove it before pouring over the sald.

I adore Caesar Salad. (This is an aside, but the best and most affordable Caesar Salad I've ever had and I've had lots, is the one at Bodo's Bagels in Charlottesville, although be forewarned that sometimes they overdress or underdress, but they'll give you extra dressing when they underdress.) I use The Joy of Cooking's recipe as a base for my own Caesar dressing. The only difference is I use only extra-virgin olive oil and no butter and I don't add eggs and I change the ratios a bit to make it less oily and I add a dash or two of red wine vinegar. I do include anchovies, but use paste from a tube.

I don't usually go for creamy dressings, the exceptions being creamy cilantro-lime dressing and blue cheese dressing. I don't make blue dressing myself because my husband is lactose intolerant, but I may try
this recipe soon. The cilantro-lime dressing I managed to eke out using my food processor was inspired by the creamy cilantro-lime dressing they serve up at Sticks Kebob Shop in Charlottesville (but also in Richmond now, I just found out!!!) Unfortunately, I don't recall the specific recipe I used (probably because there wasn't one), but it included the following ingredients: freshly squeezed lime juice, red wine or apple cider vinegar, fresh cilantro, reduced-fat or no-fat sour cream, olive oil, a bit of mayonnaise, one or two cloves of garlic, paprika, fresh jalapeno, and some honey. I know the amounts of ingredients that I would put in as I was preparing the dressing, but I wouldn't measure them or anything. I would use relatively small amounts to start and limit the stronger-flavored ingredients, like the vinegar and honey to just a dash. Once I mixed them all up, I would taste it and see what it needed. This dressing can be used on salad, to accompany grilled meats or vegetables, or as a dip.

As for bottled dressings, most I don't care for, but there are a few I swear by:

Newman's Own Olive Oil and Vinegar Dressing, but I make sure to shake it thoroughly before pouring.

Newman's Own Lighten Up Sesame Ginger Dressing, but I add a dash of rice vinegar with it because I like vinegar like that.

3. Goddess Dressing. I had this stuff for the first time at a twin-twin play date in Oakland and I was hooked!
Annie's Naturals makes this in a natural or organic version (not quite sure what the difference is), but Trader Joe's version is just as tasty and about half the price. I'll soon try the Full Circle brand version of it that I found at Ukrop's here in Ashland.

4. When I do have a hankering for blue cheese dressing, I shell out the extra few bucks for


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Scotch Buy cookies, anyone? published! (albeit, in July)

Okay, so this was published on Defenestration back in July and I'm just getting around to posting on the blog now, but here goes.

It's called "Scotch Buy cookies, anyone?" and it was the first piece I posted on my blog.

If you haven't has the chance to read it, give it a try now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Composting for Dummies (and PhDs)

My first exposure to compost was the small compost bin kept behind the cabinet door beneath the sink at my maternal grandparents' house. My grandfather, a.k.a. Farmer John, was a chemist by trade but a gardener by passion. And so he composted. I remember my grandmother dutifully scraping plates off into the compost bin as well as discarding egg shells and coffee grounds there. But I didn't really understand what composting was all about. Although they are concerned about conserving energy and my mother is an active gardener too, my parents don't compost. In fact, when they renovated their kitchen in 1979, they added a garbage disposal.

A guy I was dating who worked at one of the DC-based environmental organizations informed me that using garbage disposals was actually worse for the environment than just putting food-based waste in the garbage. He may have suggested composting as a better way to manage and dispose of such waste, but if he did, it went in one ear and out the other. I think I was too busy listening to him go on and on about his ex-long time-girlfriend.

When I met my (then future) husband Cedar, I learned that his parents composted, even when they didn't have much of a garden. When Cedar and I moved in together and later bought a house, though, we didn't compost. I'm not sure why we didn't think to follow in our elders' composting footsteps. I think I still thought that composting was just for people who gardened, rather than a sound environmental practice.

Then we moved to Oakland, California, where the city composts everything: milk cartons, pizza boxes, food scraps, used tissues. We collected our compost in our beverage cartons and had our kids take it to the green (of course) compost cans outs
ide, which were emptied once a week. Once we moved to Ashland , Virginia, one of the first things we did was take advantage of Hanover County's offer of free composting bins and made a compost heap in the back of our house. (And actually, Hanover County has a well-done bit about composting on its website.) Because the soil here seems to be pretty bare bones and we are renting (and Cedar, the gardener of our household, is working toward tenure), we don't garden, but we still compost. In fact, after life in Oakland, as we constantly work towards running a more eco-sustainable household, we can't imagine not composting. Here is a link to an article on what can be composted. Cedar says things like food-soiled paper products can not really be composted on a small scale (like the compost in our backyard), but I'm sure some would disagree with him.

Besides encouraging them to buy sustainably produced meat and seafood and to ca
rt home their groceries in re-usable shopping bags, I have been encouraging my parents to compost. My mom keeps telling me she will as soon as she teaches herself how. This is a woman who has taught herself about a dozen languages, has a PhD in linguistics, and a law degree. So here, Mom:

Adapted from an e-mail from my father-in-law:

1) Get a half-gallon plastic container (we use yogurt containers).

2) Fill it with all of the stuff you'd normally out in the garbage disposal (plus any food scraps you normally put in the trash like banana peels and corn husks).

3) When full, transfer to a five-gallon container outside and then when that's full transfer to a small hole in the ground. Or empty each small container directly to a sm
all hole in the ground.

4) Shovel some leaves and dirt over the top and "presto, chango, it goes back to Jesus in no time" (in about six months).

5) Every once in a while turn the mixture over with a shovel to mix up the n
ew and old compost.

a more comprehensive look at composting, here is a link to the site. For example, some people don't use a hole in the ground but buy or build one of the high-tech jobbies you see below.

py composting!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I'm just in it for the honey cake

I don't remember ever having honey cake for Rosh Hashanah when I was growing up or even round challah with raisins. In fact, I don't remember any culinary traditions associated with the high holidays except for, of course, apples and honey and pigging out during the break-fast after Yom Kippur. Once I had my own children and became part of the Jewish community where we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, I became aware of the honey cake tradition as well as many other traditions I had either forgotten about or never really known about or understood. Being a lover of food and cooking, especially seasonal dishes, I was happy to latch onto the honey cake ritual. At the high holiday kid-friendly gatherings we attended in Charlottesville, I was introduced to the honey cake from Albemarle Baking Company, the royalty of bakeries in Charlottesville. My friends raved about it and there was nothing wrong with it, but I normally gush over Albemarle Baking Company, so I was disappointed, although to their credit I rarely stray from chocolate-less desserts.

This year, I decided to make my own honey cake. I wanted something traditional but with a twist. I didn't want anything meant to be low fat a la Cooking Light or anything too hippie-ish (like encrusted in sunflower seeds and sweetened with bark from maple trees). I posted a call for recipes on facebook and got the following three interesting suggestions:

1) an old-fashioned oatmeal honey cake from Cooking Light. I usually avoid desserts in Cooking Light because they seem to replace fat with excess sugar, which just turns into fat later and gives their desserts a overly-sugary taste. They also hack away at their fat levels with processed products like Cool Whip (I'd rather have the pure cream). This recipe does look decent, though, and I'm sure it's worth a try.

2) a recipe for Polish honey cake from Michael Symon of the Food Network (see, Michael Pollan, I told you some people get actual cooking recipes from the food network). This one looks fabulous and with the twist I was looking for, but it wasn't quite traditional enough and I didn't feel like dealing with making bread crumbs.

3) a recipe for classic honey cake. This one seemed too traditional and like it might be a bit dry.

Next, I found a recipe in the Food Bible, a.k.a., The Joy of Cooking, which looked pretty good and which I probably would have made had I not found exactly what I was looking for: a traditional honey cake with whiskey-soaked apples. This recipe came from another blog which took it from another blog which took it from a cookbook. I'm not sure what this proves except for maybe that in this era of food blogs for every three recipes posted there is one original recipe. Or something like that.

One thing the blogger forgets to tell the reader in this receipe is what to do with the apples once they've been soaked. My mother and I were frantic (well, Mary Levy-style frantic) as we searched through my cookbooks to see what other cooks do with their apple cakes. So, I made each cake a different way. In one, I nudged in the apple slices, arranging them over the top after the batter had been poured into the loaf pan. With the other, I stirred the apples into the batter before I poured it into the loaf pan. Each one turned out well, but the downside of placing the apples on top is that the cake doesn't cook as evenly. The downside of mixing them in is that the apples are not necessarily evenly distributed. I changed one other thing: I replaced the cup of strongly brewed coffee or black tea with a cherry-cinnamon herbal tea. Given all of the spices, I thought this might make the cake a bit lighter tasting and I thought the cherry flavor would complement the apples nicely. I also made some mini-cakes (in mini-bundt pans) for the kids with the leftover batter and plain apple slices.

Happy New Year, Happy Fall, or just, Happy Honey Cake Day. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pardon me, would you have any Vrai Dim Sum?

Going out for dim sum on the occasional weekend morning was a tradition in my family growing up. Eventually, major events became excuses to go eat dim sum. That was a hard-won soccer tournament! Guess we better recoup with some dim sum. Someone got into college! Off to dim sum! Nowhere to go after Rosh Hashanah services? We'll have dim sum. Engaged? Let's give him the dim sum test. But when we started out, we always went with our family friends, the Eisensteins. In fact, Dave Eisenstein, an H.E.W. (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) lawyer colleague of my father's, may have introduced my parents to the concept. In the D.C. area, where I grew up, the best international food is often found in the suburbs, which is not the case in many other cities where the international culinary paths go in the opposite direction, i.e., from the burbs to downtown. He led us to Tung Bor, which was located in Wheaton Plaza, in the Maryland suburbs.

On weekends my parents didn't rise before 11:00 a.m. and my friends were forbidden to phone our house before that time. The few that did call at the ungodly hour of 10:30 a.m. never dared to again after being sleepily admonished by my father. My mother, who's been known to say things like, "what's there to do in the morning?" didn't even hear the phone ring. Although it was a struggle, especially since my parents required that we dress in brunch-casual attire, we made an exception to our weekend habit for Tung Bor. My father would rouse my mother, sister, and I out of bed super early, which on a weekend meant by 10:00 a.m., so that we could get there just before it opened at 11:00 a.m., secure a spot in the front of the line, and avoid waiting for a table--they didn't take reservations.

Once inside the restaurant, the eight of us would be seated at a round table set aside for larger parties, usually one with a fence-like divider around it. The Eisensteins had two younger girls and with them, my older sister and I used to hang off of the railings and go, "Bang! bang!" at the waiters who would laugh and say "Bang! Bang!" back. But once the carts started rolling by and stopping at our table, we conserved our energy for eating all of the delicious rolls, dumplings, buns, and pastries that Tung Bor had to offer. The outrageous finale to our dim sum feasts did not involve fortune cookies, but a trip to the Dunkin' Donuts across the street from the Wheaton Plaza Mall. Initially my Dad would scoff at the idea of consuming more after our huge meal, protesting he couldn't eat another bite, but then would risk life and limb crossing one of those suburban parkways with Dave, returning with a half-eaten doughnut in hand.

When I lived in Brooklyn, New York, after graduating from college I didn't really have a consistent group of friends to go with (ah, the lonely years), and didn't go but once, so I can't speak to New York's dim sum scene, but I'm sure there are several places in Chinatown worth trying. By the time I moved back to D.C., Tung Bor had changed--changed locations and was buffet style. It had gone downhill, and was kind of depressing, reminding me of a cafeteria. The food wasn't fresh; there were no carts. I don't think it even exists any longer.

Following the recommendation of Yolanda Lee, a high school friend and fellow food lover whose family hails from Southern China and Hong Kong (where dim sum is a specialty), my parents and I tried a new place in the suburbs in Falls Church, Virginia, called Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant, which was fantastic, and had even more dishes, including vegetarian ones, and more seating than Tung Bor. Still, the experience didn't feel the same, and my parents seemed to lose enthusiasm for the tradition.

I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, soon thereafter with my Ph-D-seeking fiancee. Charlottesville is a great restaurant town, but there isn't any dim sum there--at least there wasn't when we were there. I thought I had an opening when I found out that one of my Chinese students worked in his family's Chinese restaurant in town (I was an E.S.O.L. teacher--English for Speakers of Other Languages--at the time). One day, I pulled him aside:

"Kevin, we need to talk. Your family is sitting on a gold mine, not to mention sitting on the future of my culinary happiness here."

"Ah, gold mine?"

"Dim sum, Kevin. You should have dim sum. Saturday and Sunday mornings, although it could just be Sundays to start with."

"You know what is dim sum, miss?"

"Yes, Kevin, I do. And Charlottesville doesn't have any."

"Ha ha, Miss Levy. Nobody in Charlottesville eat dim sum."

"I eat dim sum, Kevin, I do. Look, do you want to be the first person in your family to graduate from American high school or not? You tell your parents that if they want you to graduate, that they will produce dim sum. I'm not playing around anymore, Kevin." Kevin passed my class, but there was no dim sum.

Once Cedar finished his graduate studies in the spring 2007, when my own sons were soon to be four years old and my daughter was five months old, we moved to Oakland, California. Although Oakland was far from our friends and family on the East Coast, I saw the bounty of produce, food, and restaurants in the Bay Area as a major plus. I was especially excited to finally pass along my family's dim sum tradition to my own children.

We moved in July and by the end of August, I had researched all of the dim sum options in Oakland. We went to one that came highly recommended and that seemed authentic: Old Place Seafood Teahouse. I'd never been to an old place seafood teahouse before and I was so excited. We arrived and waited a while, which was not easy with our preschool-aged boys and infant daughter. Once we were seated, there were no high chairs and it was hard to get the boys to stop pulling on the plastic sheet covering the tablecloth. Then we couldn't get anyone to bring food to us. Either the carts went by without stopping, or they didn't have anything we wanted (we eat fish, but usually no pork, beef, or poultry). The servers didn't understand our questions, nor did they describe the dishes to us. What we did have was tasty, but we couldn't get much service and the kids were getting restless, so we left still hungry and disappointed. I had gone on and on to them about the carts and the magical food. I was crushed and gave up on dim sum for a while.

Then in October 2007, when my sister was visiting from New York, we decided to spend a day in San Francisco. I looked up stuff to do in one of our travel guides, Fun Places to Go with Children: Northern California by Elizabeth Pomada. One place the book recommended was Yank Sing. The blurb in the book led with, "The world's best dim sum is not in China town" and then expounded how fresh the food was, how possible it was to have a vegetarian or seafood-only meal, and how kid-friendly the place was. It sounded perfect and it was.

The drive over the Bay Bridge from Oakland was a blast for the kids, plus there is free parking on the weekends for Yank Sing customers in the Rincon Center garage. If public transportation is preferable, there is also a BART station (Embarcadero) right near Rincon Center, as well as a ferry to and from Alameda. We always made a reservation for before the rush started at about noon and left extra time for parking and checking-in. Otherwise, we'd have had to wait a long time for our table. Once we were seated, the carts were always full and always circulating--the food arrived as soon as we were ready for it. And it was SUPERB. The menu features traditional dishes such as pot stickers, several types of dumplings, spring rolls, shrimp toast, Peking duck, won tons, sesame balls, and egg custard tarts, but also more unusual items such as red cabbage salad with walnuts, delicately flavored sea bass, and coconut cream rolls. The vegetables were fresh and cooked just right--not overdone and not raw. The service was excellent. Water and tea were served and refilled promptly. When we couldn't find something we wanted on one of the carts, we just asked for it and out it came. The servers, even if they spoke limited English, were able to answer our questions about the food easily, and when they couldn't, they would smile and get someone who could.

The restaurant is bustling, so we didn't worry too much if the kids were a bit noisy. At the same time, it wasn't so loud that it drowned out conversation. Our kids loved the food so much that they spent most of their time eating. When they needed a break, they watched the carts go by and all of the surrounding action. If they needed to stretch their legs, we took them to Rincon Center's atrium to visit the famous rain fountain. Relative to what Oakland and San Francisco's Chinatowns offer, Yank Sing is pricey and it's not as authentic--it's almost corporate and we usually spend twenty to thirty dollars per person. But it's so kid-friendly and delicious that it's worth every penny.

Another former H.E.W. Civil Rights Division chum of my father's, Paul Grossman (I'm starting to wonder how much got done in that office with the employees so busy talking about Chinese food), a long-time Oakland resident and East Asian food afficioando, says that it's pretty hard to go wrong in Chinatown Oakland for dim sum, but that his favorite is Hong Kong East Ocean in Emeryville.

Once we moved to Ashland, Virignia, this past summer I started researching dim sum options in Richmond, which is about twelve miles from us down I-95. The consensus on Yelp! and other on-line food forums seemed to be that Full Khee was the best (and really, only) option for dim sum. So, I told the kids: I found dim sum! We were all very excited.

When when we pulled up, I was apprehensive. I saw that the sign was missing and the building looked abandoned and run down. But then I shooed away my concerns and reassured myself, it's just got that hole-in-the-wall-run-down charm. It's adventurous! Authentic! Out of the way! When we went in, by the kitchen I saw a duck strung up and also lobsters and shellfish in an aquarium. And most of the patrons looked Chinese. All good signs. But there were no carts. One review had said to get there early (before 11:00 a.m.) because otherwise we'd have to wait; it was practically empty. The again, it was a weekday. But then we had to order on a photocopy. Our waiter was impatient with us. Then I reassured myself, again, that rude waiter = tasty dive. We ordered two types of shrimp dumplings, spring rolls, sesame balls, turnip cakes, and a noodle and vegetables dish, and eagerly awaited the arrival of our feast.

Well, I'm sorry little, probably struggling, family-owned restaurant; I'm sorry to do this to you (don't worry, no one reads this blog and anyway no one eats dim sum around here anyway). I know you don't concern yourself with decor and I really respect that. I really wanted things between us to work out better. But with the exception of the sesame balls, your food was disgusting. It was crunchy and gritty in all the wrong places. There was this weird musty taste to the dumplings. It was awful--we couldn't even finish our meal. In fact, the only thing I could eat for the rest of the day was a cleansing plate of raw vegetables. I had to exorcise the taste and memory by going for a long run. The meal threw my sodium levels off so much that I thought I was going to require dialysis.

That was a major blow, but I have not yet lost hope and as I explained to my sons, we can't stay in the Bay Area just for Yank Sing (or for the strawberries or the avocados or the burritos or the bakeries), no matter how good it all is. We're back in Central Virginia to stay; I'm not leaving just because the dim sum is lousy. In the meantime, I can always head to D.C. to get my fix. My friend Yolanda is back on the case and recommends the following places:

1) Oriental East in Silver Spring, close to the D.C./Maryland border. It's very popular, so it's best to get there at 10:30 to line up for a table. They have dim sum on Saturdays and Sundays only.

2) Wong Gee in Wheaton. I actually went there with Yolanda that last time it was there and I thought it was excellent (and inexpensive, especially because Yolanda treated). It's very informal.

3) Mark's Duck House on Route 50 in Falls Church. This is one of Yolanda's parents' favorite places. It's authentic, but small and crowded, so get there early.

4) This is not from Yolanda, but my friend Julie treated me to Tong Cheng's in D.C.'s Chinatown to celebrate the impending birth of my third child. I thought it was pretty good, but then again, I was pregnant at the time and living in dim sum-less Charlottesville.

Enjoy! And if you've never had dim sum, remember, you're never too old or too young to try.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Michael Pollan is Starting to Stink of Composted Berkeley Paternalism

I agree with many of the points in Michael Pollan's article in the July 29, 2009, New York Times Magazine. Julia Child was awesome. Americans are too fat. Americans eat too much processed food. Americans should cook more. Junky, high-fat foods that are hard to make are now easy to buy and hence, to their detriment, Americans eat them more often than they would otherwise. Americans are spending less time cooking and more time eating junky food. The Food Network is the root of all food evil. And so are canned tomatoes. What? Whoa Mikey! After a page or two, I started to envision myself cast on a Maury Povitch show as the fallen "Woman who Cooks with Frozen Vegetables."

The ideas in Pollan's books, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and The Omnivore's Dilemma really resonated with me (okay, the ones in the book reviews did). The Omnivore's Dilemma especially presented a fresh look at sustainable eating, farming, and food production; it gave structure and form to a lot of my thinking about food. For example, although I don't care to eat much beef, pork, poultry, or fish myself, I don't think that it's immoral for humans to do so, but I do think meat and fish eaters should do so responsibly and sustainably. Since I can't afford to fork over eight dollars for a can of eco-friendly tuna, I mostly eat vegetarian and so do my husband and our children. We also compost, cook, limit processed and prepared foods, shop at our local farmer's market, join CSA's, have vegetable and herb gardens of our own when possible, and in general try to spend our food dollars wisely and responsibly and to eat as healthfully as possible.

I agree with Pollan's recent tribute to Julia Child. She was an admirable woman who did great things for American cuisine, and apparently for Michael Pollan's diet, but didn't she also cook with a great deal of animal fats and beef? And I don't think she was purchasing them at the cruelty-free organic butchers, either. What was really off in the article, however, is how much Michael Pollan has it in for the Food Network for not filling the gap Julia Child left. But the problem isn't the Food Network. The problem is the quality of television in general and that Americans watch way too much of it (and it sounds like Pollan's son watches quite a bit himself--what is that family doing with cable anyway?) Most of the shows on television are crappy, sappy, predict-o-dramas or reality shows replete with gimmicks, stunts, and over-sized personalities. Does Pollan really expect the Food Network to be like P.B.S? And, not showing Martha Stewart sweat has more to do with American culture's perfection-fetish and discomfort with the human body than it does with a conspiracy by the Food Network to make us eat processed foods and keep us out of our kitchens. That's like blaming soap operas for a rise in divorce. If I want quality television, I don't seek it out on the Food Network.

Even so, there are some decent programs there. That's where seven years ago, Jamie Oliver inspired my husband and me to grow herbs at home and to shop at local farmer's markets. Okay, so he is really cute and has that charming British accent, but he isn't just some celebrity chef boy toy. And, I do watch, ahem, Iron Chef. And I do learn something from it. I use ingredients or kitchen tools I wouldn't have known to otherwise. Anyway, not all of us are looking for recipes a la Julia Child--some of us just want ideas and inspiration. I know plenty of people who organize cooking parties and gatherings around the main ingredient of that week's show. And yes, I am (Heavens to Betsey!) actually entertained by watching people armed with cool cooking toys scurry around, mince, baste, encrust, garnish, and create. Sue me!

The food industry certainly contributes to our not cooking and increasingly sells us deceptively unhealthy food, but in his article Pollan glorifies the era of Julia Child as some sort of golden age in cooking which a) it wasn't and b) even if it was, he fails to take into account major societal shifts: real wages have declined, benefit packages have shrunk, and it's become more difficult for families to have one parent stay at home. We do an abysmal job of supporting parents who stay home with their children. Most of those mothers and fathers are not abandoning their kitchens to sit on their butts and watch the Food Network-- they're working! Pollan dismisses this by saying that even parents who stay home don't cook as much, but I wonder if most of the parents that Pollan describes are more affluent and would outsource their cooking and household chores anyway.

I am a home cook and when I am not failing to make a living as a writer, I am mostly taking care of my children. I cook a lot. My mom cooked a lot. I grew up in a house where an all-natural fruit leather was a big treat. My parents shopped at the Eastern Market and New Morning Farm's farm truck. But my mom also used canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables and so do I. Besides jump-starting my home herb garden, Jamie Oliver sold me on the idea that it's okay to take some short cuts--use canned tomatoes or frozen pie crusts, for example. In his article, Michael Pollan makes no distinction between cooking with thse items and "cooking" microwave pizza. Does he really mean to equate using canned tomatoes in the winter to make my vegetarian chili to eating at McDonald's? The decline of home cooking is a serious problem, but does he really want me to stew my own tomatoes, bake my own graham crackers, and boil my own bagels? Is he anti-technology? Isn't there something to be said both in terms of the number of people that can be fed and being sustainable for capitalizing on the advantages of efficiencies of scale and technology? I don't want salmonella; I want someone with canning machinery who knows what they're doing to can and stew my tomatoes. Isn't it more energy efficient if some people do that on a mass scale rather than most of us on a small scale? If I buy some prepared foods in my neighborhood, say a quiche from Homemades by Suzannes or bread from MacShack Acres at the Ashland Farmers Market, is that really the same as "letting corporations do my cooking for me"? How about if I'm supporting small or local companies and restaurants that purchase locally and treat their employees responsibly and fairly? That cook healthfully and sustainable? Is that so wrong?

Ultimately, I felt that Michael Pollan was exhibiting ivory-tower paternalism at its worst. Yes, Americans need to exercise more, to eat healthier, more responsibly and sustainably, and that means cooking more. And we need to find more sustainable and efficient ways of producing food. But we're not going to encourage Americans to cook more if we skewer them for cooking with frozen vegetables (and tell them they're not really cooking when they do so) just like teaching teenagers that abstaining from sex until marriage, rather than teaching them to have sex responsibly, is a good way to ensure that they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Michael Pollan has done so much to start a conversation about food, health, and sustainability and to get people to think in different ways about all of the above. I would hate for snarkiness, arrogance, and reductive generalizing to destroy all of that. On that note I suppose I should get my ass out of my home office chair and into the kitchen. Sorry Michael Pollan, I have no more time to get offended--I have to cook.

For further exploration of some of the topics brought up in Pollan's article and books, please read:

1) The Omnivore's Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectual, by Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, counters critics of industrial farming and shows that big-business industrial corporate farms are not necessarily thoughtless, inhumane, corporate, or non-family entities. The piece is well written, skillfully reasoned, and valid. Some of the language and information is a bit over my non-farmer's head and I'm a bit sheepish about advertising anything that comes out of the American Enterprise Institute, but I got the gist of what he was saying and I think this guy and the people he represents deserve to have their say in these matters. If we're going to consider the ideas of people like Michael Pollan, we should also consider what actual farmers have to say. The reality is that no matter how we do it, food and livestock production and consumption are eco-destructive processes.

2) In the March/April 2009 edition of Mother Jones, Paul Roberts describes the complexity and difficulties of doing sustainable farming on a large scale and shows why shopping at farmer's markets and buying locally aren't necessarily as eco-friendly as one might think. The article also explores some of the sustainable farming methods in the pipeline.

3) Michael Spector's article in the February 25, 2008 edition of The New Yorker is a bit longer but is also worth reading if you want to know more about the complexity of calculating your carbon footprint in terms of the food you eat, a.k.a., food miles.

4) Elizabeth Kolbert, my favorite environmental journalist, wrote a review of four books in the July 20, 2009, edition of The New Yorker about obesity in the United. The piece is well-balanced, well-written, reasonable, and mostly objective.

5) San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto Restaurant and his business partner, Mark Pastore, wrote Shock & Foie, a thoughtful, thorough, and rational response to well-intentioned but misguided anti-foie gras protesters.

6) This recent New York Times op-ed piece by restautant chef Dan Barber demonstrates the potential eco-disasters that may await us when we all start our own vegetable gardens.

Oh, bagel, why do you forsake me?

After graduating from college, I moved to New York City and was in bagel heaven. I made the pilgrimage to H and H Bagels on the Upper West Side, but I didn’t need to. There were bagel places on almost every block. By the time I moved back to D.C., Chesapeake Bagel Bakery had less of a presence in the area. I tried Einstein Bagels but was not impressed—too big and too greasy.

I’m not sure how to describe the qualities of a good bagel; I just know one when I taste it. As with a bottle of wine, I can tell when one is bad and I know what varieties I don’t like—banana nut and strawberry are not for me just as I rarely drink white zinfandel and chardonnay. Growing up with a Jewish father from Brooklyn and a Protestant mother from the mid-west with gourmet tastes, bagels were a regular part of my D.C. family’s food repertoire way before bagel mania swept the nation in the 1990’s. We didn’t have a lot (okay, any) of the foods teenagers crave, but my friends were always excited for our bagels.

My paternal grandparents, who retired to Hallandale, Florida, always had bagels on hand for our visits, usually from Pumpernicks or from Sage Deli. Otherwise, Lender’s frozen bagels, which helped to spread the bagel concept nationwide, were a fixture in our and my grandparents' freezers. For special occasions, my father would go to Posin’s on Georgia Avenue and get bagels with all of the fixings: lox, herring, and whitefish salad. We always had cream cheese, although in my father's family, lox was accompanied by butter, not cream cheese. Then Chesapeake Bagel Bakery came to the D.C. area and we replaced the Lender's with their day-old bagels. Once Posin’s closed, what was Toojay’s and then Krupin’s and then K’s New York Deli and now Morty’s, was our Jewish deli of destination, but I'm certain that if Posin’s were still around we'd still go there.

My father always purchased a variety of the traditional flavors—plain, sesame, poppy, onion, pumpernickel. The other kinds pretty much offended him, but gradually he accepted the cinnamon raisin ones and more recently, blueberry and will eat them when available, although he claims never to have purchased them. Chocolate chip remains an outrageous perversion of the bagel, although I don’t really understand the difference between chocolate chip and blueberry.

When I first got to college in the fall of 1991, I was shocked that although the school was supposed to be one-third Jewish, the bagels in the dining hall were terrible: bread in the shape of bagels. Enough people must have complained because sometime between the end of my frosh year (they don’t use the term “freshman” at Wesleyan and unless you don’t mind a righteous lecture, you’re better off not saying it either) and the beginning of my sophomore year, they got good bagels at MoCon, the main dining hall (which has since been torn down—R.I.P.) The best were the spinach ones, or maybe they were herb. Either way, MoCon was where I discovered bagels with cream cheese and tomatoes (thanks to one of my gentile hallmates), although my husband Cedar, another D.C. native and gentile, and his family used to get them at

So's Your Mom in Adams Morgan.

My junior year of college, which I spent in France, was bagel free although I was told I could find them in certain parts of Paris, but I was in Southern France, in Aix-en-Provence, for most of the year where my sister had also spent a year two years before me and I remembered her recounting the horror that the French people looked at her with when she explained what I bagel was. “Boiled bread? That's disgusting! And You miss this? How can this be?” So I didn't bother to explain the beauty of the bagel while I was there. The French, while followers of a delicious and healthy cuisine, can be very rigid about their food. I won’t get started on their reaction to the coffee my roommate and I offered at a dessert party we hosted in our little apartment.

After some years in D.C., I joined Cedar in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was doing his graduate studies. There is actually a fabulous bagel place there, with three branches (yes, Charlottesville aficionados, the Corner locale finally opened) called Bodo’s Bagels. Besides bagels, the menu features soups, salads, sandwiches, and frozen yogurt. The place is cheap, informal, and has very good bagels; it's a great place to go with kids. I heard that each of the stores is now independently owned—sold to managers by the owner--and I wonder if the quality and consistency of the food will change because of this. Though I didn’t notice a change when we were there recently for a visit.

When Cedar finished his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and got a job at Mills College in Oakland, I was expecting to be back in bagel heaven, or at least a satellite heaven. After all, the Bay Area and the East Bay in particular has a large Jewish population and is known for its high-quality food. The dining service at Mills, where we lived in faculty housing, while superior in many ways to most college dining food I’ve had, had the same bread-in-the-shape-of-bagels bagels I had in college. I incredulously asked around and was told that of course, there were good bagels in Oakland—hadn’t I been to Berkeley? Berkeley? That’s not Oakland. I live in a west coast city of 400,000 with at least three synagogues and I’m supposed to travel to a nearby city just to get a decent bagel? I tried Noah’s Bagels and I wasn’t impressed at first, but they grew on me.

Posh Bakery bagels on Piedmont Avenue are also alright. A Jewish bakery, the Grand Avenue Bakery, is one of my favorite food places in all of Oakland—even if the dead-head-meets-observant-Jew proprietor vacillated between hitting on me and growling at me (in his defense, I did ask him if he made a pumpkin challah for the fall, although if you ask me, he’s sitting on a gold mine)--but they don't make bagels. The GSB does make the best challah I have ever tasted (although I highly recommend heating at 200 degrees for fifteen minutes or so first before eating it), and sells an assortment of other baked goods, treats, and prepared foods. Another friend recommended the bagels at the Oakland Whole Foods, which she said were imported from you guessed it, Berkeley, but the idea of going specially to Whole Paycheck for my bagels didn’t seem right.

Now, we live in Ashland, Virginia. There are decent bagels in Ashland Coffee & Tea but it’s not like I can go in and get a dozen. At the Science Museum of Richmond’s Café Portico, where I recently spent a morning while my boys were in camp, I inquired hopefully “Hey, where do you get your bagels?” The sulky teenager behind the counter shrugged her shoulders and said “I don’t know. Maybe Cysco.” Ouch. It tasted like it, too.

So now I am on a mission for bagels in the Richmond metropolitan area. Some Northerners might wonder how I could find any decent bagels in the South, in the neighborhood of the former capital of the confederacy, but as my sixth grade Hebrew school teacher from Kentucky proved, there is a sizable and long-established Jewish population in the south, and Central Virginia is full of surprises, as Bodo's showed me. And I know bagels are not as popular as they were fifteen years ago due to carbo-phobia, but that's not enough to deter me--I don’t snack on them. As a fellow Jewish friend explained to a non-Jewish friend in high school, “You don’t understand, for a Jewish person, a bagel is like a meal.”

I hope I find my meal soon and having a bit of my father in me, I hope it's not oozing with Asiago cheese.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scotch Buy logo located!

A very kind reader has sent me the link to an image of the Scotch Buy logo. Thanks, FnJ!

This one is on a root beer can, though. Apparently my memory was failing me a bit, although the logo could have been different on the package of cookies, because on this one the guy is sans moustache and doesn't appear to have much of a deerstalker hat, but you get the gist.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Scotch Buy cookies, anyone?

While I was growing up, my parents were very particular about food, but also quite practical. My father did most of the grocery shopping at our neighborhood Safeway in Washington, D.C., and he often purchased the house brand. At the time, the supermarkets didn’t want to put their own name on most of their in-house products, so they created other brand names. At Safeway, these included Scotch Buy, Townhouse, Empress, and
Lucerne. As I recall (despite a massive Google expedition, I haven’t been able to locate an image of the Scotch Buy logo brand on-line—if any one comes across it, please send it to me), part of the logo included a moustachioed-detective-looking guy with a deerstalker hat. This is not exactly a character from whom one expects culinary excellence. Obviously, the marketers were trying to make a point: this brand is for frugal people who don’t care about taste (and don’t get me started on the potentially culturally insensitive reference). Often, there was no difference between the quality of house brands and that of the national brands, but one Scotch Buy product that was a staple of childhood household was not among those products: Scotch Buy sandwich cookies.

My older sister and I were allowed to have two cookies each after dinner and we could pack two cookies for the lunches we made for ourselves—my mother said we could buy hot lunch or make our own. The hot lunches at Hyde Elementary were certainly edible, but by the time I was six, I realized they were pretty gross. Once I started bringing my own lunch, I was painfully aware of my friends’ carefully packed, nicely-balanced, and plentiful lunches. Mine usually consisted of some all-natural, health food store peanut butter (the kind that tears the bread) with jelly spread hastily on a two slices of whole wheat bread (we never had white bread in the house), wrapped in saran wrap (we did not use the sleeker and more expensive zip locks), a piece of fruit, and the afore-mentioned Scotch Buy cookies. They were always chocolate cookies with vanilla cream. I came to loathe these cookies. They were the only kind we had on a regular basis, the only kind that that my Dad ever bought (Pepperidge Farm cookies were purchased for dinner guests or for a special treat). What’s more, they were imitations of national brand cookie, Oreos. So, not only did we have the exact same boring cookie every day, but it wasn’t even the real thing. Even so, my sister, Dina, and I raided these cookies from their out-of-reach place in the cabinet anyway, stealthily climbing up onto the counter and, sneaking more than our allotted two to four per day. I hated these cookies even as I knew they were the best thing we had. I plotted to get them even as I knew deep down that the thrill of sneaking them would not improve their taste.

Dina and I did manage to find one way to jazz up our Scotch Buy sandwich cookie experience. We used to pine away for piñatas, which of course, we never got. The idea of having a colorful animal full of candy, which we could hit as hard as we wanted and for which we would then be rewarded with a brief but intense rainstorm of candy, was thrilling to us. We could scarcely believe that such things actually existed. So, we made do. We made homemade piñatas out of brown paper bags, and yes, Scotch Buy sandwich cookies. We would place the cookies in a brown paper bag, crunch the top of the bag together, and tie some twine around the top tightly. Next, we’d tie the other end of the string to a hook attached to the ceiling of our front porch, and go searching in our front patch of yard for sticks.

Finally, it was fiesta time. Donning a blindfold and having been turned around the requisite three times, we would proceed to beat the bag mercilessly until either it came down or we gave up. When struck, the bag didn’t shake or show any sign of weakness. It just swung apathetically, prompting us to hit it even harder after which it would swing in a full arc and rest on the front porch roof. Then, we would have to get one of my parents or a stranger who happened to be walking by to get it down, or we would climb up on the precarious wooden porch railing, pluck it down ourselves, and continue on with our fantasy. Most of the time, it did not come down at all and after beating it for a while, we would simply give up and take it down, trying to act surprised at the contents. Look! Chocolate Scotch Buy chocolate sandwich cookies with vanilla filling! Only by then they would not be whole (the coveted form of a child’s cookie), but would have been reduced to small chunks and crumbs. I remember feeling disappointed when I looked and it turned out there was no candy, just the same old Scotch Buy cookies in shattered form.

My sister and I somehow imagined that the cookies would be magically transformed and that they would taste better if we dressed them up in our pitiful brown paper bag piñata. We seldom finished the cookies. The string would remain hanging there for months, a reminder of our pathetic endeavor. I often wonder now what people must have thought as they walked down our street and by our house, seeing these little girls beating the crap out of a paper bag hanging from the ceiling of their front porch.