Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tuna Polynesian

My apologies for having been out of action for so long. I knew that with things heating up at my job, November would be a difficult month, but I didn’t realize it would be that difficult. It was easier than last year in one respect: In 2006 my Thanksgiving week featured a case of food poisoning on Monday, recovery on Tuesday, and the replacement of our gas stove on the Wednesday—except for the connection of the new stove to our gas supply, which despite being scheduled for Wednesday evening didn’t actually happen until Friday. As you can imagine, that made it (ahem) challenging to host our annual vegetarian Thanksgiving party. This year we were more fortunate. No food poisoning, a fully functioning stove, and a truly delicious vegetarian celebration.

But we are not here to talk about good food. We are here to talk about things like tuna and pineapple in mayonnaise. As I write up this recipe I feel like I’m making a sudden change of plan. In the Dole pineapple cookbook in which this recipe appears, The Thatched Kitchen, Tuna Polynesian follows two molded salads and appears opposite a large photo of a rather pretty mold, “Ruby Borscht Salad.” (I have never had borscht, but for a negative view see this Bateman365 animation; note there is adult language.) Anyway, because of this context I have been laboring under the impression that Tuna Polynesian is a molded salad, and so I was relieved to see that it is not. To my mind, tuna and pineapple in mayonnaise is just a tad less spectacularly bad than tuna and pineapple in gelatin. My distaste comes from the fact that I really, really hate canned tuna. I like tuna in sushi; I’m not sure why I’m so picky about canned tuna. Maybe because when you grow up in Indiana you so often encounter it in gloppy mayonnaise mixtures or in starchy baked casseroles, which don’t do the stuff justice. Assuming there is justice to be done.

Also, the idea of using the pineapple syrup to rehydrate the dried onion makes me cringe.

Tuna Polynesian
1 can (1 lb. 4 oz) Dole Pineapple Chunks
2 cans (7 oz. ea.) solid packed tuna
1 cup diagonally sliced celery
1 tablespoon instant minced onion
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup dairy sour cream
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
crisp salad greens

Drain pineapple, reserving 2 tablespoons syrup. Drain tuna well. Chunk tuna; combine with pineapple in a deep bowl. Add celery. Allow onions to stand in reserved pineapple syrup until rehydrated. Blend mayonnaise, sour cream, curry powder and seasoned salt. Stir in onion. Pour over tuna tossing to combine. Spoon onto crisp salad greens to serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

From The Thatched Kitchen: Harvest & Holiday Cookbook. Honolulu: Castle & Cooke, 1972.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

When You Can’t Have Food

My father died of colon cancer in 1999. Because of this, I am considered to have a slightly increased risk of developing colon cancer myself, and since I turned 40 this year I became eligible for my first screening colonoscopy. (Those of you who do not have first-degree relatives who developed colon cancer can generally wait until you’re 50.) I scheduled the test for today, knowing that I would be on vacation all week and would be better able to deal with the inconveniences of the exam. Well, the exam itself is not difficult at all, since you're unconscious for it; it’s the preparations that are unpleasant and inconvenient. Your colon needs to be empty, which for most American is not the usual state of affairs. So after a light breakfast yesterday morning I was restricted to clear liquids, with no dairy products, nothing red, and of course no alcohol.

I knew that this might be a challenge for me. As many of you do, I like to eat solid food. I can get very cranky if I go too long without eating something. A stomach full of liquid is not the same as a stomach full of lunch. And while I am disciplined enough to stick to such a regimen when it’s prescribed, I am not quite disciplined enough to keep a good attitude about it without some prompting. I knew I was going to need a strong dose of perspective, and luckily the opportunity presented itself: My New York officemates had voted to donate our 2007 charitable contribution to the Yorkville Common Pantry, and to volunteer for a few hours when we brought the check over, and our volunteer shift was scheduled for yesterday afternoon.

YCP offers a number of services to its community. It gives weekly grocery donations to members who live within a particular radius of the pantry, serves five breakfasts and three dinners per week to anyone who shows up, offers emergency food aid to those who need it, and even has showers available. And the need is great—and growing. According to a recent New York Times article, demand for aid at local food pantries and soup kitchens has jumped 20 percent while federal resources are dwindling. The federal government has cut back on its subsidy purchases, reducing the amount available for donation to the needy. And while various versions of the farm bill propose increases in aid, the bill itself is stalled in Congress.

People who need food aid don’t have time for political negotiations. They need to feed their kids now. Our company’s check was a drop in the bucket, which we knew beforehand, and that was one reason we also wanted to volunteer. We arrived in the early afternoon, just in time to help with the last of the dinner preparations: dishing up applesauce to be handed out as dessert. That done, we were brought to the pantry room, a small warehouse of shelves laden with donated and purchased non-perishable foods, where we assembled grocery bags for the week’s pantry distributions. Talk about a drop in the bucket: A YCP constituent with a family of 5-7 people receives one 46-ounce can of juice, 4 cans of vegetables, 2 cans of chicken, 3 cans of soup, 1 box of cereal, 2 pounds of rice, 1 pound of pasta, 1 pound of dry beans, 2 bags of bagels, plus fresh produce (which is packed separately right before distribution since it’s perishable). That’s not exactly three squares. It’s very sobering to look at the bags. As I walked among the shelves pulling cans, I could see that my relative hunger was a tiny, tiny inconvenience. I could go home and have broth and tea. Within 24 hours I’d be able to eat real food, food that I could choose for myself, with real spices, real variety. I felt grateful for my good fortune, and embarrassed that there are so many who are not so lucky.

A lot of my co-workers felt the same way. I didn’t mention to them that I was going home to drink chicken broth and take laxatives. I didn’t really want to discuss it, not because I have any delicacy about sharing with them but because I didn’t think it was a fit subject for a food pantry. So when we parted ways on the subway later I just smiled and headed home to resume my colonoscopy prep. Lucky me: At 6 I took two ordinary laxative tablets. Then at 8 I took a first dose of Fleet Phospho-Soda, a saline laxative that tastes incredibly nasty—like soured burnt salt, or perhaps like a hyper-concentrated and non-carbonated version of Coca-Cola’s Beverly, an Italian bitter aperitif (aptly described in this McSweeney’s food review—scroll way down to find it). As instructed, I followed this with three glasses of water, which were not quite sufficient to take away the taste, let alone the knowledge that I’d get to do it again at midnight. But the stuff is effective, and by morning I was definitely clean as a whistle and ready for the doctor.

My appointment was for 9:30, and not much more than an hour later I was awake again, dressed, and comforted by the knowledge that everything looked good—no polyps, no other abnormalities. Barring the development of any symptoms, I don’t have to do this again for five years, which is another reason to be incredibly grateful. And so I headed out for breakfast, and thought, I’m lucky to be able to do this. A lot of people can’t.

To find out more about food banks in your area and how you can help, visit America’s Second Harvest.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Almost Ready for the Big Day

By which personally I mean I have a great deal more shopping, cleaning and cooking to do before tomorrow's third annual vegetarian Thanksgiving feast at the RotD Compound, but at least I am now on vacation through next week and so have a shot at accomplishing what I need to, instead of greeting our guests with a grimy living room and the menu for the nearest Indian takeout place.

In honor of tomorrow's holiday, here's a reminder not to deep-fry your turkey indoors. It's a major fire hazard. Deep-frying is for outdoors, preferably with a considerable buffer zone and possibly a fireproof bunker a la Mythbusters. If you need convincing, click through on the Gothamist story to the Underwriters Laboratories site and watch the video, which demonstrates that deep-frying a turkey indoors will ensure a memorable holiday, as in "In memory of Dad" and "Remember the year the house burned down and we had to go to a shelter for Thanksgiving dinner?"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hello. stranger

Yes, I know, I'm a terrible blogger, and I think I'm going to be crazy busy through Thanksgiving Day, so I can't promise real updates before then.

But, hey, Thanksgiving. Anyone have any horror stories?

My senior year of college four of us stuck around in our rented house and made a pretty good feast. Everything was really good except the sweet potatoes; the two of us who were on sweet potato detail had never prepared them before, and didn't really know what we were doing. I'm pretty sure we didn't cook them long enough before attempting to mash them for serving en casserole; then we realized we had nothing to mash with except a blender. Gamely we gave it a try. Undercooked sweet potato granita, anyone? The consistency was simply awful, and the taste not good enough to make up for it (failure to get appropriate spices at the store, anyone?). The crowning insult: Upon dissassembling the blender for cleaning we found the embossed legend "Not to be used for mashing potatoes." Oh, NOW you tell us. Fortunately we had plenty of other good food, and were able to laugh at the sweet potatoes and only feel a little bad about their going to waste.

Anyone else? C'mon, share.

And if I don't get back to you with a new post before then, happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jane Brody Is a Genius

Today's New York Times features a column by Jane Brody, "My Diet Strategy? Controlled Indulgence" (registration required, I think). She explains that she manages her weight without fad diets, deprivation or guilt, and enjoys favored treats such as ice cream almost daily. Real ice cream: "Most are the slow-churned reduced-fat flavors, and some are frozen yogurt. But none are fat free or sugar free, which to me tastes ersatz." The control comes in with portion sizes: No more than a few tablespoons or the recommended half-cup serving. "And I made a rule for myself. If I start eating more than that half cup, all the ice cream has to go. Because I would rather have it around when I want it, I stick to the half cup."

Brody then goes on to explain her strategy for other dining occasions: review all the offerings at buffets and choose only the items you think you'll really want, limit dressings, don't bother with foods that don't taste all that good, favor salads and vegetables first before the more caloric dishes. But if something is truly delicious, she says, enjoy it--in moderation. She explains too how she and her husband managed to raise children with moderate appetites for sweets and snacks: Don't keep less-nutritious foods handy as a rule, but don't forbid them when they're available otherwise (such as at friends' houses), and allow regular treats. Making such foods rare but not forbidden made them less interesting, and made the whole family less prone to overindulgence.

"Deprivation feeds desire and can lead to overindulgence at the first opportunity," she notes. I think: Is it any wonder that Americans privilege overindulgence when the language of marketing is all about deprivation? Advertising succeeds when it convinces people that they need something they didn't know they needed. Need stems from lack or deprivation; it's much easier to sell a product by putting it forward as the solution to a problem than to say "This looks like fun, would you like some?" The answer to that may so easily be "No, thank you, not right now." But if you're suddenly threatened with a crisis, a need, a problem to be solved, you will more eagerly accept the solution. And our consumer society has learned well that solutions are found through consumption: A pill, a sports car, the single woman's diamond ring, all are offered as products that assuage a physical or emotional need.

Jane Brody knows she doesn't need the ice cream. But she likes it. So she enjoys it fully, while keeping in mind that if the numbers on the scale creep up she needs to cut back for a while. She doesn't need to replace it with an imitation to keep up a sense of deserved indulgence; substitutions are not satisfying, so she does without for a while, knowing that she is not saying "no" to an emotional desire but saying "yes" to health and enjoyment.

The food marketing culture tries to get us to buy by threatening us with "no," with deprivation. Scarcity mentality makes us grasping, anxious; we want to stock up, to hoard. We can counter this by saying "yes" to good taste, to real food. Blogger Shauna James Ahern, in her blog and her new book "Gluten-Free Girl," is one of the most inspiring people I've seen leading the charge to say yes to life. (Disclaimer: I went to college with Shauna but we haven't been in touch in years.) Shauna has celiac disease, but she doesn't like to focus on the idea of disease. She knows that wheat gluten makes her ill--nobody knows better than she does how ill--but rather than framing her condition as deprivation, she says yes to the immense number of other foods she can enjoy. And enjoy them she does, with her fullest vigor and being. No imitations, no "recipe clones," just savoring of real foods and their real flavors.

That's where salvation lies.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I have not abandoned the blog

But life and work have been very busy, too much so for me to have had time to compose posts. I will be doing some updates within the next week, though, I promise.

Topics may include these:
  • My recent trip to Atlanta, which featured hotel food and the World of Coca-Cola
  • My recent trip up the Hudson Valley to Saugerties and Rhinebeck, NY, and my dilemma: If I tell you about our super-favorite B&B will people overrun it and exhaust the proprietors? Because if we can't get a reservation for next year's festival I will NOT be amused
  • Some thoughts about what a pain in the ass it is to try to eat reasonably when you have NO TIME AT ALL to cook
  • And assorted whining

So hang in there. I have by no means exhausted the depths of the damnation.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Bits and Pieces

A few miscellaneous items:

Oh, good, as long as that's clear
Faithful reader Luann sent me this picture of a gummy-bear package. Where does your snack food originate?

Got that? OK.

Happiness is a Kraft Singles grilled cheese sandwich
Today's New York Times spotlights a new ad campaign for Kraft Singles. The "have a happy sandwich" campaign will feature former foes bonding over the gooey toasted cheese concoction. The creative centerpiece of the campaign is a MySpace contest for video clips that celebrate the grilled cheese sandwich. The goal, of course, is to increase sales of Kraft Singles.

The campaign may succeed as long as a) Nobody figures out that you can make a grilled cheese sandwich more cheaply by using less-expensive block Cheddar and a sharp knife, b) Nobody associates the tagline "happy sandwich" with the slang term "happy finish" (describing the, uh, payoff in certain paid massage services) and c) Nobody uses the MySpace contest to create snarky satires (after the fashion of the 2006 GM "viral ad" program in which participants hijacked the video clips and forum to create anti-SUV videos).

But what about the toy surprise?
The NYT online blog section included this story noting that organic cereals may be lower in certain vitamins than mainstream children's cereal brands. The blog entry opened "Kids who go organic for breakfast may be missing out on their vitamins," and then went on to explain that while cereals such as Frosted Flakes are fortified with a wide variety of key vitamins, some organic or naturally produced cereals are not (but some are). The entry notes, "If your organic cereal is low on vitamins, it doesn’t mean you have to give it up. But it’s probably a good idea to give your child a multivitamin in the morning as well, notes Dr. Susan Roberts, a nutritionist at Tufts University and co-author of Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health."

Commenters spat out their porridge and attacked the blog for implying that high-sugar cereals are more inherently nutritious than organic varieties. "How ’bout if we just have our kids eat fresh fruits and vegetables?" asked one. "Looks like the major vitamins added to our kids’ breakfast are B and S," said another. Additional comments speculated about safety issues (contaminants in fortifying vitamin sprays, pesticides in conventionally produced grains), and others took delight in noting that the organics market is just as much a market as any other.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Surf and Turf

There is a White Castle up the block from us. It's a never-ending source of amusement, because of the disgusting nature of the menu offerings and the occasional spelling or grammar challenges of the staff. Last spring the promo item was "Chicken Rings" (prompting anxious curiosity about which part of the chicken was the ring and whether one would really care to eat it), only the reader board initially promoted it as "Chicken Rins." Chicken Rinds? Chicken Rinse? It was corrected the next day.

So the other day we walked past and my husband stopped, made me go back, and forced me to look at the banner promoting the newest sandwich. I stared at it for several minutes, while the protective mechanism in my brain refused to let me see what was so horrifying. And then my brain gave up and I could see it:

Yes, that's a breaded fish patty stacked with two hamburger patties.


I'm no longer much of a fan of fast-food restaurants. I've never set foot in this White Castle; the smell outside convinces me that it can't be good, and this is New York, where one has to develop a very high tolerance indeed for smells. But even when I was young and would eagerly spend time, money and appetite at McDonald's and Wendy's and their ilk, I knew enough to never order the fish sandwich. Now imagine that fish sandwich with steamed hamburger and extra bread.


Calling it "surf and turf" seems a bit like pouring cheap riesling into ginger ale and calling that champagne. (Oh, wait, that's Cook's. Let me try again.) Calling it "surf and turf" seems a bit like mashing up a Tootsie Roll, rolling it in Swiss Miss, and calling that a truffle.

Just saying.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shrimp with Black Pepper-Seasoned Corn Pops

The Kellogg’s Cookbook suffers from the same problem as the Kraft Food & Family publications: It has to try to blend recipes that a reasonable person might want to cook with a heavy dependence on the company’s products. This leads to recipes like this one, where an otherwise plausible dish is spoiled by the addition of a sickly-sweet or over-processed commercial item.

A lot of the recipes in the book look appealing. Who has not used corn flakes to coat chicken for frying, or added a bran cereal to muffins? But apparently there aren’t 200 recipes that use Kellogg’s products rationally. So you find a summer squash casserole with Rice Krispies, meatballs with Rice Krispies, and minestrone with All-Bran. I wish I were even joking about that one. I don’t make these things up.

David Burke is a real chef. What prompted him to come up with this recipe, I can’t begin to guess. I do note that the Corn Pops could be very easily omitted; the rest of the recipe sounds pretty good.

Shrimp with Black Pepper-Seasoned Corn Pops
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ cups Kellogg’s Corn Pops
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1/3 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
36 large shrimp, cleaned and deveined
6 plum tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and finely diced
2 cups nonfat chicken broth
Juice of 2 lemons
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ cup butter, softened
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
18 spears asparagus, trimmed, blanched, and cut into thirds

David Burke is one of America’s most inventive chefs. He is known for introducing everyday ingredients into haute cuisine with playfulness and fun, but always with great flavor and taste. Kellogg’s Corn Pops in this dish add an unexpected note, with just the right amount of crunch and a hint of sweetness. The seasoned cereal can also be used as a great topping for salads, soups or chili. Serves 10.

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium sauté pan or skillet. Add Corn Pops and season with cracked black pepper. Saute for about 3 minutes, or just until the cereal is well coated with the pepper. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cereal to a double layer of paper towel to drain. Set aside.

2. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and sauté for about 3 minutes, or until very soft and translucent. Add the shrimp and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, broth and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, and cook for another 3 minutes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until shrimp is fully cooked. (The sauce should begin to thicken.)

3. Beat in the butter. When emulsified, stir in the chives and asparagus.

4. Spoon equal parts of the shrimp mixture into shallow soup bowls. Garnish each serving with black pepper-seasoned Corn Pops and serve immediately.

Note: This shrimp dish is also wonderful served over rice.

From The Kellogg’s Cookbook: 200 Classic Recipes for Today’s Kitchen. Kellogg Kitchens, ed. Judith Choate. New York: Time Warner/Bulfinch Press, 2006.

Know Your Chicken

This weekend I did a lot of shopping to stock up, and I kept feeling a hankering to get a chicken to roast. I had misgivings; my experience has been that roasting a chicken is a fair bit of work and mess, plus I’m not that good at carving. (But I vandalize the bird slightly less than my husband would, so it’s still my job.) Still, kosher additive-free chickens were on special at Whole Foods, so I threw one in the basket and decided I’d re-check my recipes when I got home.

It’s been a few years since I’ve made time to roast a chicken; the last recipe I used was from the charter issue of Cook’s Illustrated. I love that magazine; I love the way they experiment with every little detail to perfect a recipe and then explain the principles and the variables for readers. I love the reviews of food and equipment, which are always illuminating and often hilarious and snarky. (I bought a Braun hand mixer on the magazine’s recommendation and I love it beyond reason.) And I was quite fond of the roast chicken that results from this recipe, but it seemed like kind of a lot of work. The process is basically this: situate the rack to ensure the chicken is kept above the rim of the roasting pan, easy to accomplish with a V-rack or strategically balled aluminum foil; start the bird at high heat (500 F) to crisp the skin, and breast-down to keep the white meat from drying prematurely; turn breast-up after about 20 minutes; lower the heat when breast is sufficiently browned (325) so meat continues to cook evenly; baste about every 8 minutes; check temperature and let rest before carving.

I think it was the basting that made it seem like so much work. Tonight I consulted Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, which offered similar instructions. Keep chicken above rim of pan, check; start at high heat and breast down, check; turn after about 20 minutes, check; turn down the heat, check; apply thermometer to test doneness and let rest before carving. But there are only two points at which you baste, when you turn and when you lower the heat. This bird was just as juicy and delicious as the ones I’ve made before, and I had time in the interim to clean up and prepare the rest of the food. I browned minced garlic in sesame oil, then added chopped collard greens with a bit of water and covered to let steam for 15 minutes, and I reheated breadsticks I’d made the night before (using a basic pizza dough recipe to which I’d added basil, oregano, and grated Parmesan when first mixing).

I did use a different pan for roasting, which helped; the rack sat more firmly at the right height without the need for aluminum foil. Cook’s Illustrated also advises elevating the breast by tucking foil underneath the bird’s back, which can be tricky for balance. I didn’t bother doing that with tonight’s chicken, and it was just fine. As I always do, I tucked a quartered lemon and some cloves of garlic into the cavity before roasting, which imparts a nice flavor to the meat.

I love Cook’s Illustrated, but I think I’m beginning to love How to Cook Everything even more.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Yet another silly recipe contest

The Krispy Kreme people are having a contest for best dessert made using "any variety of Krispy Kreme." I guess the Donut Luncheon Main Dish isn't eligible since it's not a dessert. Also it's hard to imagine any context in which it would be "best."

I don't know about you, but I don't think Krispy Kremes are all that. True, I haven't had them straight from the shop; the ones I've tasted have always been at least a couple of hours old by the time they got to where I was offered one. But isn't a fresh donut always going to be better than one that's been sitting around for a while? The best donuts I've ever had were from Presti's in Cleveland, and I know that a big reason for that is that I lived up the hill and it was very easy to get them freshly made.

Of course I don't eat donuts much these days, but if I feel a hankering I'm more likely to go to Alpha Donuts, a little neighborhood place on Queens Boulevard, than to the closer Dunkin' Donuts. I also don't like Dunkin' Donuts coffee. (Pause for half the readers to say "Blasphemy!" and half to say, "Well, duh, it sucks.")

Friday, September 7, 2007

“Chinese Takeout” Lemon Chicken

The fall issue of Kraft Food & Family is here, and on the first page of text after the contents — the FIRST page of text, mind you — we find this upsetting offering, “Chinese Takeout” Lemon Chicken.

I think the quote marks are supposed to signal that this is about as high-quality Chinese food as the $5 buffet with the scary eggrolls. What makes this chicken stir-fry lemony, you ask?

Wait, WHAT?

They’re not kidding. Run away! Run away!

Seriously, have they never heard of lemon zest? Or maybe they’re trying to faithfully mimic the gloopy consistency of the lower order of Chinese takeout places. There must be an upside…Probably it doesn’t have MSG?

I’m also rather fond of the more-money-than-sense-or-time “shortcut” offered.

The rest of the magazine can’t quite live up to this shocking start. (Jeez, folks, don’t throw the Jell-O dishes at us right at the start! Ease us into the horror!) But it tries. The new-product page spotlights “Oreo Cakesters,” Oreo filling in snack cakes instead of cookies. (Aren’t those basically just round Suzy Qs?) There’s a “So-Easy Stuffing-Egg Bake” using Stove Top Stuffing, eggs, and cheese; I think it’s supposed to be a dinner strata, neatly getting around the economical practice of using stale leftover bread by forcing you to spend money on boxed stuffing. And there’s “Salsa-Chicken Mac & Cheese,” which is pretty self-explanatory. But it’s all anticlimactic after the Jell-O.

“Chinese Takeout” Lemon Chicken
Prep: 10 min. | Total: 19 min.
1 Tbsp. oil
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into strips
1 pkg. (6 oz.) snow peas (about 2 cups), trimmed
1 small red pepper, cut into strips
1 pkg. (4-serving size) Jell-O Brand Lemon Flavor Gelatin
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
½ cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp. Kraft Zesty Italian Dressing
2 cloves garlic, minced

HEAT oil in large skillet on medium-high heat. Add chicken, cook 4 min. or until cooked through, stirring occasionally. Add snow peas and peppers; cook and stir 2 min.

MIX dry gelatin mix and cornstarch in small bowl. Add broth, dressing and garlic; stir until gelatin is dissolved. Add to skillet. Reduce heat to medium; cook 3 min. or until sauce is thickened, stirring frequently.

SERVE over hot cooked rice, if desired.

Makes 4 servings, 1 cup each.

CAL 300, FAT 8 g (sat. 1.5g), CHOL 65mg, SODIUM 350mg, CARB 26g, FIBER 2g, SUGARS 21g, PROTEIN 28g, VIT A 15%DV, CALCIUM 4%DV, IRON 10%DV

SHORTCUT: Substitute 2 pkg. (6 oz. each) Oscar Mayer Grilled Chicken Breast Strips for the cooked fresh chicken strips. Heat oil in skillet as directed. Add chicken breast strips, snow peas and peppers; cook 3 to 5 min. or until chicken is heated through and vegetables are crisp-tender, stirring frequently. Continue as directed.

From Kraft Food & Family, Fall 2007.

Monday, September 3, 2007

From the maker of Deep Fried Coke

The new state fair offering is deep fried cookie dough, the winner of this year's Big Tex Choice Awards. The contest invites fair concessionaires to come up with a new offering; deep frying is a popular technique, since it makes for fast preparation and satisfies fairgoers' desire to indulge.

I'm more curious about the deep-fried lattes, mentioned later in the story, which won Most Creative.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Iron Chef: U.S. or Japanese version?

Here's a reader-response question: Which "Iron Chef" do you prefer--the U.S. or the Japanese version--and why? (Also curious if you've never seen either, or don't like either, as long as you're willing to explain your position.)

We were watching one of the Japanese episodes earlier this week; the ingredient was black pig (or "black pork," as the episode title has it, but it's the animal that looks black because of its hair, not the meat itself). There was a lot to love about this episode. It began with a contrived nostalgic trip by Sakai to his hometown, leading up to a cooking challenge by a former schoolmate turned professional chef, which was clearly not elaborately set up in any way whatsoever, no sir. The cooking was quite fun, but I thought the funniest moment was during the tasting, when the male celebrity guest (whose name escapes me), who had been offering awkward commentary all the way through, at one point said, "I sweat a lot, so I don't usually like to eat pork." Our immediate reaction: WTF? On further thought, I realize that there is a lot of information about how certain kinds of foods affect health and bodily function, especially in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda and the like; this isn't such a nonsequitur as we thought. But that hasn't stopped us from making jokes about it all week. "I got a bad haircut, so I don't want any coffee." I have an ingrown toenail, so I can't have white flour." "I'm nearsighted, so I don't like bell peppers."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Cool ’N Creamy Coleslaw

When you think of coleslaw, do you think of gelatin? No? Too bad, because the two come together in an unholy union for this recipe.

It comes to us from Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars, which is a pretty self-explanatory title. Chapter after chapter offers up recipes that appeared on packages of commercial products. The majority of them are innocuous: a pork-chop barbecue sauce using Kikkoman Soy Sauce, corn fritters fried in Planter’s Peanut Oil, appetizers made with Bisquick, dessert toppings made with Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup.

But there are also losers: meatloaf made with Wheat Chex. (I may be unkind here; I don’t like meatloaf, so I’d be hard-pressed to find a package recipe I did approve of.) Macaroni salad made with tomato sauce. (“I bet you never thought of putting Hunt’s Tomato Sauce in a salad, but what goes better than tomato sauce with macaroni?” Oh, I don’t know—cheese?) “Rodeo Hash” with canned condensed mushroom soup. And this jellied coleslaw.

Coleslaw gets a bum rap. It’s sort of the default picnic or sandwich side. At the diners where we like to eat, little cups of coleslaw are offered alongside sandwiches and wraps, and seem to go back untouched most of the time, passed over for waffle fries and dill pickles. Coleslaw isn’t bad if it’s properly spiced and leans toward the tangy side. I have trouble believing that anybody who was bored with coleslaw would really think, “Maybe if it were in a wobbly gelatin cube instead…”

Cool ’N Creamy Coleslaw
If you are tired of “just coleslaw” whip up this special molded version. It’s been a favorite since the recipe appeared on the Knox Gelatine package decades ago.
2 envelopes Knox Unflavored Gelatine
2 Tbs. sugar
1 ¾ cups boiling water
1 ¾ cups mayonnaise
¼ cup lemon juice
4 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded carrots
¼ cup finely chopped onion

In large bowl, mix Knox Unflavored Gelatine and sugar; add boiling water and stir until gelatin is completely dissolved. With wire whisk or rotary beater, blend in mayonnaise and lemon juice; chill until mixture is consistency of unbeaten egg whites. Stir in cabbage, carrots and onion; pour into 11 x 7-inch pan and chill until firm. To serve, cut into squares. Makes about 8 servings.

From Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars. Ceil Dyer. New York: Galahad Books, 1992.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

SpaghettiO Stir-Fry

The editors of the magazine Men’s Health, who ought to know better, have offered this cookbook that says yes, men, EVEN YOU can cook as long as everything comes out of a can! They start off with the hackneyed “men can’t cook” line, which you may have noticed comes into play any time cooking is a chore but is quickly thrown out the window if you want to argue that all the best chefs are men. The cookbook then notes, “we’ve been charring giant slabs of meat ever since we discovered fire. The difference is that now we have better things to do. Why slave over a hot stove when we could be cooking up plans for a golf outing? Or warming up at the gym? Or making things sizzle in the bedroom?” Right, because obviously no woman is capable of doing ANY of those things.

We all know this line is nonsense, just a way to try to present a playful introduction to a dismal batch of recipes. I have to tell you, guys, if you offer your date some of the dishes in this book, I don’t think things will be sizzling in the bedroom any time soon.

Canned food is not inherently bad. I cook with canned beans and canned tomatoes all the time. But several of the offerings in this book are not that good. “Pigs in a Pinwheel” combines canned ham, reduced-fat cream cheese and refrigerated crescent-roll dough, plus onion and chopped oregano. (The recipes feature vivid color photographs of the commercially packaged products they feature, and “also” additional ingredients like vegetables and spices that didn’t get corporate sponsorship.) “Drunken Corn” has you mix canned corn with peppers, Heineken and butter. Other recipes are simply unimaginative combinations of things like beans, cheese and olives, or beef, tomatoes, cheese and tortillas. The idea that you need a cookbook to tell you how to make these things is what’s killing me.

I’ll admit, this book hits one of my pet peeves. I don’t have a big problem with people who admit they can’t cook. We all have things we haven’t mastered. But I do not find it cute when people say they can’t cook, and it drives me nuts when people try to present their lack of this basic survival skill as a charming facet of their personality. This cookbook, with its big chunky pages (of a thickness usually associated with picture books for toddlers) and its simplistic combinations of brand-name foods, is smug about its intended readers’ lack of skills. You don’t need to know how to cook, guys, just open a few cans and the ladies will be falling at your feet! Yeah, nothing makes a woman want to become your love slave like opening a can of SpaghettiOs for her. I have a better idea. If you want to cook to impress a date, pick up a copy of How to Cook Everything and work your way through it. If you want to impress her with good food that you don’t have to know how to cook, take her to a good restaurant that offers better beer than Heineken.

SpaghettiO Stir-Fry
2 15-oz cans SpaghettiOs
¾ lb extra-lean ground beef
10-oz package frozen broccoli
Also: ¼ cup diced green onion; small red bell pepper, chopped
How to make it: Brown the ground beef in a nonstick skillet. Dump in the SpaghettiOs, broccoli, onion and pepper, and cook for about 10 minutes.
Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 335 calories, 11 g fat (30% of calories), 4 g saturated fat, 22 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 4 g fiber, 898 mg sodium
From A Man, A Can, A Plan: 50 Great Guy Meals Even You Can Make! David Joachim and the editors of Men’s Health. Rodale Press, 2002.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Meat Cake

A colleague sent me a link to Meat Cake, which he tried at a recent meat-themed party. There's really nothing I can say about it that the cook doesn't already say throughout the post. I love how he went to so much trouble to make it look like a real bakery cake.

My colleague noted that it tasted "decent," especially when accompanied by large volumes of beer.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

’Nana Salad

A dear friend sent me this carrot-themed cookbook among a batch of more obvious sources of damned cookery. It’s a self-published affair, photocopied pages in Courier type, plastic-comb-bound with a tough orange cover, and has coupons in the back for ordering more from “Mrs. Roy E. Fletcher.” (I’m sure Mrs. Fletcher is or was a lovely woman, a fine cook, and an excellent garden club member; it’s just that the “Mrs. [man’s name]” construction sets my teeth on edge, and did in 1982 when I was a mere child of fifteen. Not her fault.)

I set this volume aside for a while after a hasty perusal. Sure, some of the recipes were not fully to my taste, but could I really fault the carrot? It is a versatile vegetable: savory enough for meat and veggie dishes, subtle enough for sweet offerings, an excellent way to sneak fiber and texture into cakes and cookies. Could I really find a Damned-level recipe in the book? Instead of flipping through once more I read the index (feeling a secret affection for the garden club members who went to the trouble to create an index; I rate a good index very highly in any book), and voila: ’Nana Salad. Bananas and carrots, I thought; this has promise. I turned to the page and spotted longhorn cheese, and we were off to the races. Good lord, I thought, what is longhorn cheese doing in a dish with bananas and carrots; isn’t it basically Colby? Why, yes. But they weren’t done. Canned pineapple! Gelatin, an old nemesis! And topping it all with a sort of hollandaise sauce? Oh, the horror.

I bet the finished dish has the same color scheme as a 1971 back-to-school clothing catalog. All oranges and yellows.

’Nana Salad
1 8-ounce package longhorn cheese
6 bananas
2 cans pineapple, grated (save juice)
2 ½ cups grated carrots
1 6-ounce package lemon-flavored gelatin
½ cup sugar
1 cup pineapple juice (drained from fruit)
2 tablespoons flour
2 eggs
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup whipping cream, whipped

Grate cheese and line bottom of 9x11 inch dish. Slice bananas over cheese, then pour drained pineapple over bananas. Spread grated carrots over pineapple. Make gelatin as directed, leaving out ½ cup liquid. Pour gelatin over entire mixture and refrigerate.

For sauce, mix sugar, pineapple juice, flour, eggs, and lemon juice together in sauce pan. Bring to a boil and stir until mixture thickens. When thickened, add butter and stir. Refrigerate. When chilled add ½ cup grated carrots. Add whipped cream and mix well. Pour sauce over salad. Serves 10-12.

From The Classic Carrot Cookbook for 24-Carat Cooks. A collection from the kitchens of garden club members and their friends. Ed. Norma Jean. Arizona Federation of Garden Clubs, Inc., 1982.

Monday, August 13, 2007

At least it's for a good cause

Red Robin (the restaurant chain) is holding a contest for young burger chefs. A second annual one, even. (The first escaped my notice.) Because God knows there aren't enough ways to make a hamburger. How often do you go out and think, "Never mind what fish is fresh in this region, or what vegetables are in season; why can't I find a really new combination of ground beef, bun and onions?"

Yes, I have eaten Red Robin burgers. I'm still hauling around excess flesh and cholesterol from burgers I ate nearly 20 years ago while downing specialty drinks ("because we care, two's the limit"). We can at least be glad the kids aren't being exhorted to come up with the next zippy rum drink or Long Island iced tea.

Selected recipes from the contest will be used to create a cookbook to benefit the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and that's a worthy cause. Bet you could contribute to it without cooking hamburger if you wanted to.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Microwave Ham Loaf

I’ll be fair: This is a really beautifully done cookbook. It’s a very comprehensive guide to microwave cookery, with excellent instructions on appropriate cookware, techniques and food safety. The photographs are stunning: colorful, clear, detailed, and perfectly set up to show exactly what the reader needs to see rather than to simply present an artistic or emotionally appealing view of the food. The book dates from 1990, which means the information is current and useful. The type is clear and easy to read. The variety of recipes presented is dazzling.

And yet.

It’s the recipe I chose, not the book. Ham loaf is already an unappealing foodstuff in my view; I’m not big on meat loaves in general. (My mother’s meatloaf was reputed to be excellent, far above the usual standard of the dish; I could never bring myself to like it.) Nor am I particularly crazy about ham. When I do eat meat (which is less and less these days), I like to see browning. Microwaves are not ideal for browning (though the book does offer a lot of techniques for coming as close as possible), nor does a smoked ham mixture seem likely to brown, even with a little bit of veal in it.

See, pink before cooking.

After cooking: pink.

Serving size: pink.

So what we get is a pink meat slab, speckled with olives and pimientos and green onions. Um, yay? Sorry, doesn’t do much for me. You go to town, though.

Also, in our apartment, we can’t use the microwave and the air conditioner at the same time without knocking out a circuit breaker. So I lack enthusiasm for microwave-only meals. Readers whose homes have better wiring may have a different perspective.

Ham Loaf
229 calories per serving. Good source of thiamine, niacin, vitamin C, iron. Begin 55 minutes ahead.
Ingredients for 8 servings
1 ½ pounds fully cooked smoked ham
½ pound ground veal
2 green onions, sliced
2 eggs
1 ½ cups fresh bread crumbs (3 slices)
1 cup tomato juice
¼ cup diced pimientos
5 pitted ripe olives, sliced
2 tablespoons dry mustard
2 tablespoons steak sauce
1 ½ teaspoons celery salt
Lemon slices and parsley sprigs for garnish

Microwave cookware
8-cup ring mold or Bundt pan

1. With sharp knife, cut ham into chunks. Place chunks in food processor with knife blade attached or in meat grinder; finely chop.
2. In large bowl, combine chopped ham and veal. To meat, add green onions and remaining ingredients except garnish. Stir until well combined.
3. With spoon, firmly press mixture into ring mold or Bundt pan; smooth top with back of spoon.
4. Cook loaf, covered loosely with waxed paper, on High (100% power) 5 minutes. Rotate pan. Reduce power level to Medium-Low (30% power) and cook, covered, 15 to 18 minutes longer, until a meat thermometer inserted in center of loaf mixture reaches 150 degrees F.
5. Uncover; rotate pan. Increase power level to High and cook 5 minutes more. On heat-safe surface, let loaf stand, covered loosely with foil, 10 to 15 minutes.
6. To serve: Invert loaf onto warmed serving platter. Garnish with lemon and parsley sprigs.
From The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Microwave Cookbook. New York: Hearst Books, 1990.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Roundup of interesting tidbits

How I love RSS. I would never have come across these stories without the feeds.

Coffee may prevent skin cancer. By which I mean, a study of ultraviolet radiation, exercise and caffeinated water on mice showed that mice who'd taken in the caffeine and exercised had some increased defenses against pre-cancerous cells as compared to mice who'd not exercised or who'd had less caffeine or who'd had neither. Which is certainly not to say that there is any evidence it works the same way in humans, or that coffee works the same as caffeinated water, or that an increase in the ability to eliminate damaged or cancerous cells is the same as preventing or curing cancer, or that this would be applicable to any sort of cancer other than skin cancer. But I fully expect to see all those ideas floated as "scientifically proven" in the media in the next couple of weeks.

Sample American regional cuisine at its best by going to NASCAR. This fun story from the Toronto Globe and Mail combines things I'm into -- good food and fun people -- with things I am so, so, so not into -- car racing, cars, and visiting places as hot as Florida during the summer.

OK, this one has nothing to do with food. I just adore the headline: Stoner Plots Campaign From Farm. "Dude, did you ever notice, the turkey really is in the straw, man. Whooooah."

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It's the water

Sorry to be absent so long. I'm still catching up from time on the road and my return to work after a rather glorious six weeks of liberty. I expect to post an actual recipe, a truly damned recipe, this weekend.

Until then, I just wanted to comment on this story about Aquafina, a leading bottled water that is considering more clearly disclosing the fact that by and large it's tap water. It's interesting to see that there are rising concerns about the growth of bottled water as a retail beverage category; those plastic bottles have significant environmental impact before and after sale, in their manufacture and disposal. It takes a lot more petroleum to get the bottles to your neighborhood than to get the water through your pipes to your kitchen, where you can obtain it far more cheaply as well. Few of the major commercial brands are any cleaner than municipal tap water; some hold to much lower standards than those enforced by your local water authority. (Which makes Aquafina start to look like a winning candidate with this disclosure, actually.) Of course, if your home's pipes are in bad condition, your tap water may not compare well to what's in the bottles, but you're probably better off calling the plumber than stocking up on the plastic versions. True, plastic is more convenient to carry around than a hose trailing back to your kitchen, but that's what reusable sport bottles are for.

I could start to natter about how in my day we didn't waste all our money on plastic bottles of water when we could get perfectly good water from the tap, but I don't want to sound like a total curmudgeon. Plus, I have a somewhat costly coffeeshop habit, so I'm in no position to judge. But it does seem funny how much these companies earn from what they're admitting is tap water.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Peanut-Butter Cutlets

I'm still on my travels, but am taking a few minutes to make a post for today. My wonderful sister-in-law has lent me some cookbooks with great RotD candidates; there's an appalling microwave ham loaf that will be going up as soon as I have access to a color scanner I can use for non-work purposes.

For now I offer Peanut-Butter Cutlets, from the 1930 cookbook New Delineator Recipes. Author Ann Batchelder presents a range of dishes that exemplify the era when elegance and process were considered more important than flavor and texture. The book includes suggestions for sandwich fillings; two are "Equal parts olives, peanut butter, celery, mixed with a little salad dressing" and "Cottage cheese and pickles, olives, nuts or pimientos." Nothing perks up a brown-bag lunch like a cottage cheese sandwich! There are also scary directions for cooking vegetables, such as an asparagus recipe that says "Cook in boiling water until tender, keeping the tips above the water for the first ten minutes," by which point you have already been boiling asparagus for approximately nine and a half minutes too long.

Peanut-Butter Cutlets are included in a chapter of vegetarian dishes that help ensure vegetarians get their minimum supply of starch, protein and fat. And possibly meat; a recipe that includes kidney beans notes, "A ham-bone or a piece of bacon cooked with them adds to the flavor." Well, yes; specifically, it adds the distinctly non-vegetarian flavor of ham or bacon.

I chose Peanut-Butter Cutlets because I couldn't stop imagining the tremendous mess that must result when you try to fry a peanut-butter mixture. Enjoy!

Peanut-Butter Cutlets
1 1/2 cups peanut butter
1 1/2 cups hot milk
6 half-inch slices of bread
1 teaspoon salt

Mix peanut butter with hot milk and seasoning, mixing together thoroughly. Dip slices of bread into the peanut-butter mixture. Saute in hot fat. Garnish with pickles and olives.

This dish offers both adequate protein and iron.

From New Delineator Recipes, Ann Batchelder, Butterick Publishing Company, 1930.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A few miscellaneous things

New at the movies
Or new to me at least, which may tell you how often I get out. At the cinema concession counter we spotted a CinnaBon Cinn-a-Pretzel. It didn't look as good in real life as it does in the picture on the Web site (and I don't think it looks particularly good there). I can only imagine the next sure-fire cinema snack combo: Nachos topped with Milk Duds? Your soda poured directly over the popcorn? A hot dog lovingly layered with Sour Patch and Gummi Worms?

I see that Ocean Spray is having a contest for the ultimate cranberry recipe. When I saw the announcement I could only think of this Brian Regan routine (at about 3:46 in the clip). Slow down, Cran-Man! OK, I do love cranberries, but after watching Regan's routines I can't help laughing at the prospect of the contest even as I wish the entrants well.

State fair watch
I know the summer is only about half over, but I wanted to put everyone on alert: Before you know it, it's going to be state fair season, with all the almost-like-food offerings a tent and some deep fryers can serve up in 95-degree weather. Last year's perverse concept was Deep-Fried Coke (which a friend thought was just a joke I'd made up until someone else mentioned it too). What do you suppose the next big thing will be? Please send me alerts!

Hitting the road
I'm about to travel for 10 days, combining business, pleasure, and the time wasted in airports that can't really be called either. I intend to keep up with the blog while I'm on the road, but there may be significant lags in posting or in publishing comments. Please bear with me.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Movie review: "Ratatouille"

We went to see “Ratatouille” today. It’s a very fun movie on its own terms, and a really good foodie film. The premise (in the unlikely event you’ve managed not to hear about it) is that Remy is an aspiring chef—and a rat. Through a dramatic and wonderfully animated series of events, he arrives in Paris, where he helps guide gawky garbage-boy Linguini in the ways of cookery at Gusteau’s. There are plenty of cooking lessons offered: trust your nose, learn to work with economy and precision, use the best ingredients you can find for optimal taste, wash your hands. The story is engaging, the voices skillful, and the dialogue mostly sharp and only occasionally cheesy. (Insert pun about rats and cheese here.)

New York Times critic Frank Bruni had a piece in Sunday’s paper arguing that the movie “affirms the triumph of food snobs and fetishists.” I’m not sure what Bruni considers snobbery. There’s a subplot thread about a villainous chef trying to cash in on the Gusteau name with frozen foods such as “Tooth-Pickin’ Chicken” and “Corn Puppies.” And a dramatic foil of the piece is the highly elitist critic Anton Ego, who is astonished to learn that the once-fading restaurant is popular even though Ego hasn’t rated the new chef’s efforts. But the attention-getting cookery is built on whole ingredients such as fresh herbs, cream, vegetables and salt, with only passing attention given to luxury items like truffle oil. And Remy labors to convince his brother, Emil, that fresh food is really better to eat than garbage. This happens to be a key principle of Recipes of the Damned. If that’s snobbery, I’m proud to call myself a snob.

But then, the character of the late chef Gusteau is a sort of secondary hero, muse, and Jedi tutor in the movie. And his motto is “Anyone can cook.” Wow, that’s some rampant fetishism. Bruni argues that the film focuses on Remy’s highly refined palate, and notes “perhaps the last big-budget movie protagonist with an appetite as refined as Remy’s was Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ from 1991.” This argument only works if you ignore “Ratatouille’s” valorization of rustic cooking, and if you set your palate and budget standards high enough to disqualify cookery-focused films like “Big Night” (1996) and “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994). High culinary standards are not that new a theme in the movies, though as a lowly rat Remy may make the longest journey to culinary excellence.

I’ll also add that it’s rather perverse to eat middling theater popcorn while beautiful images of tomatoes, garlic cloves, leeks and bread dance across the screen. Sneak in a baguette and some cheese if you go.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The New York Unfancy Food Show

I spent a little while this afternoon at the New York Unfancy Food Show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A direct response to the Fancy Food Show taking place at the Javits Center today through Tuesday, the Unfancy Food Show featured local artisanal cheese, pickles, grass-fed beef, honey (from South Bronx bees), coffee and tea.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the premier event. What I found was a pleasant bar, situated in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, whose backyard held an assortment of tables. For a suggested $5 donation, attendees could sample the goods. There weren't quite enough vendors for a grazer to make a meal of it without being kind of obviously rude, and I was too hungry to trust myself to get a beer and still retain enough self-control to hang onto any of the cash I have allotted for the week, so I stayed for less than an hour. That was time enough to learn that there really is a huge flavor difference between grass-fed and corn-fed beef; that honey harvested at different seasons will be quite different in color and flavor; that bees have a range of three miles and the bees of Bronx Bee Honey include the Botanical Gardens in their territory; that you sure can pickle a lot of different vegetables and have them taste good; and that if I had consulted only my own appetite I would have eaten an outrageous share of the cheese that was available to sample. Conscience prevailed; other attendees were in luck.

I do hope this is the first in a yearly series, or even two or three times a year, and that they can sign on more vendors. I also hope other cities can follow this example; it's really fun to find out what kinds of local, natural foods you can find in the local farmer's markets, shops and restaurants.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Beef, Vegetable and Shells Skillet

This recipe comes from a quarterly magazine sent out by Kraft, ostensibly to help busy family cooks (read “moms”) make quick and tasty meals that the family will enjoy, but self-evidently to sell lots and lots of Kraft products. So recipes tend to call for ingredients like Kraft salad dressings, Kraft cheeses, Philadelphia cream cheese, Taco Bell salsa, Bull’s-Eye barbecue sauce, Oreo cookies, and so forth, even to the furthest ends of the supermarket.

This means you get a lot of recipes that direct you to cut corners in ways that are extremely convenient for the corporate overlords, but that can tend to shortchange flavor or nutrition. For example, a pizza-stick appetizer recipe directs you to take a frozen pizza, add some more cheese, cook it, and cut it into strips. For about 10 minutes’ additional effort (plus some waiting and cleanup time), you could make your own pizza crust instead, for far better flavor and texture and less sodium. Or you’re directed to marinate chicken in bottled salad dressing, when you could probably mix a better-tasting marinade from less expensive ingredients.

To be fair, not every recipe in the magazine is bad. Many sound pretty tasty, such as one for a dessert ice cream cake that involves stacking ice-cream sandwiches, Oreos and Cool Whip. (Though I would substitute actual whipped cream for the Cool Whip and probably a homemade chocolate cookie for the Oreos. Maybe not. I like Oreos. But the Cool Whip’s gotta go.)

Not every processed food is bad. But convenience foods should make it convenient to get good food and good flavor, not just to get something into your mouth for God’s sake no matter how much it tastes like cardboard.

The recipe below commits several offenses, in my view. It directs you to use a Velveeta product. I am anti-Velveeta. I want my cheese to really be cheese, not cheese-product more or less equivalent. Further, it directs you to combine this Velveeta with meat that has been browned in bottled Italian dressing. Because goodness knows the meat needs additional fat along with the spices. (Yes, it’s reduced-fat dressing, but seriously, even extra-lean hamburger renders up sufficient fat for browning.) It directs you to add more cheese at the end (I thought the Velveeta might not deliver all that was hoped for!). And in the unlikely event that you restrict your serving size to the recommended 1-1/3 cups, it’ll give you nearly a quarter of your recommended maximum daily saturated fat, nearly half your day’s sodium, and half your day’s protein, but a measly 3 grams of fiber (far below the 25 to 35 grams you should get in a day).

Now you’re saying, “Amy, be reasonable. Of course I’ll control my portion size, and eat this with a side salad, and eat mostly vegetables and fiber-rich grains the rest of the day.” Sure you will. You’re too smart to take the expedient route and make a “skillet supper” serve as the entire meal. Of course, if you’re that smart you can brown your ground beef without salad dressing, drain off the fat (you’re not wrong: that instruction does not appear in the recipe) before you add half again the vegetables, and serve it over whole-wheat noodles or brown rice with a light grating of real sharp cheddar cheese to add lots of flavor with less volume. Damn, you are smart.

Beef, Vegetable and Shells Skillet
This easy cheesy skillet dish is a smart dish option that’s a breeze to make.
Prep: 15 min | Total: 35 min.

1 pkg. (12 oz.) Velveeta Shells & Cheese Dinner Made With 2% Milk Cheese
1 lb. extra lean ground beef
½ cup Kraft Light Zesty Italian Reduced Fat Dressing
1 bag (16 oz.) frozen vegetable blend (red peppers, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower), thawed
1 tsp dried basil leaves
½ cup Kraft 2% Milk Shredded Sharp Cheddar Cheese

PREPARE Dinner as directed on package.
MEANWHILE, brown meat with dressing in large skillet on medium heat. Add vegetables and basil; cook 5 min. or until heated through, stirring occasionally.
STIR in Dinner; sprinkle with Cheddar cheese. Cover; cook 5 min. or until Cheddar cheese is melted.
Makes 6 servings, 1-1/3 cups each.
CAL 330, FAT 10g (sat 4.5g), CHOL 60 mg, SODIUM 1030mg, CARB 33g, FIBER 3g, SUGARS 6g, PROTEIN 26g, VIT A 35%DV, VIT C 50%DV, CALCIUM 30%DV, IRON 20%DV
SUBSTITUTE: Any frozen vegetable blend will work in this easy skillet meal, so use your family’s favorite.
From Kraft Food & Family, Summer 2007, Kraft Foods.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Where does your food come from? How many thousands of miles has that pink, grainy tomato traveled to reach your grocery store? A ridiculous amount of America’s food supply is trucked, shipped and flown thousands of miles from its point of origin to the point of sale. This means consumers can have iceberg lettuce and red grapes when their own cities are buried in snow, but it also means that more than 300 gallons of oil per citizen per year is consumed to get us these out-of-season edibles. When novelist Barbara Kingsolver and her family decided to move from Tucson back to a family farm in western Virginia, they also decided to cut their culinary petroleum consumption by building their diet around the food available to them locally, favoring the organic, free-range and sustainably produced. This book is an account of the first full year of their effort.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle takes the family from spring to spring as they base their diet on local sources. The farm garden and cherry orchard provide a large share of their vegetable and fruit consumption. In the poultry barns they raise chickens and turkeys for eggs and meat. Farmer’s markets, neighbors and local grocers provide meat and produce from within a 120-mile range. And they allow themselves a few items they simply can’t find within their local limit, such as organically grown whole-wheat flour and fair-trade coffee and spices. They aim not for perfection but for a significant change in their eating habits and their attitudes toward food.

The book is engaging, touching, inspiring, and frequently very funny. Kingsolver recounts long hours spent weeding in the garden, canning tomatoes, and finding ways to deal with the overwhelming zucchini harvest. She is reverent and unapologetic as she describes the September day they kill and dress the turkeys and chickens destined to be food in the coming months. She explores her own attempts to be a more knowledgeable and responsible eater, whether that means shunning meat from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), making her own cheese, or learning firsthand about turkey mating and reproduction habits. Steven Hopp contributes informational sidebars about genetically modified crops, community-supported agriculture, fair trade and food aid, and Camille Kingsolver offers reflections on growing up in a vegetable-focused household, along with recipes for taking full advantage of local, seasonal bounty.

The book packs in a lot of information and points the reader to resources for further education. Many informed foodies will already be familiar with some of the info (I already knew feedlots were bad and that egg from free-range chickens are much lower in cholesterol than those laid by battery hens), but there’s still plenty to learn. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is well worth reading, and will likely inspire you to hit the farmer’s market or the local garden center after you’ve turned the last page. I don't think I'm going to be investing in laying hens any time soon, but I am thinking of trying the recipe for homemade mozzarella.

Buy it here

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Evil Mad Science

This wouldn't normally count as a Recipe of the Damned, because it's not really offered in good faith as a way for people to cook food. But it's still very funny and well worth reading. It's the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories technique for cooking hot dogs via electrocution. In the interests of safety I must reiterate the site's warning: DON'T DO THIS. Just read and wonder.

My husband and I both vaguely remember a 1970s appliance that cooked hot dogs more or less via electrocution, only without the possibly-killing-yourself-and-burning-down-your-house downsides of the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories technique. Do any of you remember that? It was sort of akin to the Presto hamburger cooker, only it was for hot dogs.

Happy Independence Day!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

It's watered-down vodka, people!

I just saw an ad for Smirnoff Source, which is a mixture of Smirnoff and "pure spring water."

That's right, folks: They're selling us watered-down vodka.


Monday, July 2, 2007

Next they'll be objecting to tomatoes

I can talk all I want about bad ingredient combinations and bad cooking techniques, but I’m always going to find some recipes “damned” simply because they include an ingredient I don’t like. I try (sometimes) to be rational about this. Just because I don’t like canned tuna doesn’t mean that a dish that calls for it is bad; well, no, I can’t quite go that far. Dishes that call for canned tuna are bad. But you see my point.

It looks like some chefs in Italy are carrying this single-ingredient aversion to a rather un-Italian extreme: There’s a rising movement against garlic. This may sound ridiculous, but the critics are gaining ground, and count former premier Silvio Berlusconi among their number. Arguing against its objectionable smell, the anti-garlic forces complain that it’s a matter of fairness: “They put garlic in almost any dish — with meat, with fish, everywhere. It’s not politically correct to impose garlic on everybody,” says the leader of one of Berlusconi’s media outlets.

I love garlic, but I don’t put it in absolutely everything. I suppose if you don’t like a food that happens to be a star of your national cuisine, you might get a bit touchy about it.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Noel Eggnog

I came to eggnog late in life. My parents weren’t crazy about it, so I was an adult before I learned that eggnog was a really fun way to pack on about 15 extra pounds during the holiday season. Even the non-alcoholic version is rich and decadent. I like how the recipe here specifies “Noel Eggnog,” to make absolutely clear which holiday we’re talking about. Though in this case you would be justified in confusing it with “April Fool’s Day Eggnog,” because this eggnog has pineapple juice in it.

I’ll just stand aside while you spit out your drink.

Seriously. Pineapple juice. It curdles the blood to think of, nearly as much as it might curdle the cream. OK, the eggs might help mitigate that. But still. Pineapple juice! It’s upsetting.

What would make somebody think of putting pineapple juice into eggnog? This recipe comes to us from The Thatched Kitchen, a cookbook focused on Dole pineapple. Single-ingredient cookbooks like this are fun; there’s always a recipe that just pushes the bounds of taste too far. You can decide that a cookbook can be complete if it leaves out the recipes that really don’t suit the featured ingredient, or you can offer things like pineapple-juice eggnog. Too often, the wrong choice is made. This book is from 1972, so it also has a lot of photos in that sick-making process color popular from about the mid-sixties to the late seventies. There isn’t a photo of the eggnog; given some of the things the book does show, that should be seen as a warning.

Noel Eggnog
Rich and smooth, the fruit base keeps it from being too heavy.

6 eggs, separated
½ cup powdered sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark rum
1 cup brandy
1 can (46 oz.) Dole Pineapple Juice
1 can (6 oz.) Dole Frozen Concentrated Pineapple-Orange Juice, thawed
1 quart whipping cream

Beat egg whites with powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Using same beater, beat egg yolks until well whipped. Beat in sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually beat in rum and brandy. Sir in pineapple juice and pineapple-orange juice concentrate. Pour over egg whites, folding to combine well. Stir in one pint cream. Whip remaining cream until stiff. Fold into pineapple mixture. Pour into large punch bowl. Sprinkle with nutmeg to serve. Makes 25 (4 oz.) servings.

From The Thatched Kitchen: Harvest & Holiday Cookbook. Honolulu: Castle & Cooke, 1972.

Recipes of the Damned

It’s back, as damned as ever

In 1999 I started writing essays making fun of recipes. With my husband’s help, I posted them on a sub-page of his Web site under the heading Recipes of the Damned. And much to my surprise, I got readers, who enjoyed my barbs at the expense of such morsels as brawn, Mexican spaghetti and shrimp salad surprise.

At the time I was a freshly lapsed vegetarian, and an about-to-lapse doctoral student in Victorian literature. I had spent a fair bit of time researching Victorian attitudes toward women’s eating and toward cookery in general. I had also just tried and given up on the Protein Power diet, one of numerous low-carb-high-protein fad diets that were particularly hot then. As a result, I was as ready to laugh at game dishes and beef marrow as at the inexcusable union of Jell-O and cauliflower. Several weeks of cleaning up bacon grease, eating eggs for breakfast every damn day, and blowing my meager grocery budget on stew beef and hamburger had done very little to stifle a decade’s instinctive response of “eww, meat, gross.”

So I wrote. I hunted out vintage and ephemeral recipes and wrote about them more weeks than not for a little over a year. Then I got a full-time job that I sensed would take up most of my time and mental energy, and put the column on indefinite hiatus. That was six and a half years ago.

I’m still in the same job, and it does take up an astonishing amount of my time and attention. But I have decided that is no excuse. The recipes are still out there.

Even now, years later, I get mail from visitors to the site — some amused, some confused, and some just wanting to know where they can get HyPower canned chili. (Short answer: They don’t make it any more.) I’m still on the alert for disgusting recipes, but I’m no longer as amused by Victorian meat dishes as I used to be. I’m more interested in ridiculing recipes that would be revolting in any era because of fundamentally misguided approaches to ingredient combinations, cooking techniques or shortcuts. Some of these come from older cookbooks or pamphlets, but some are fresh from the pages of today’s coupon circulars and women’s magazines. There are still things you shouldn’t put in Jell-O. (Including, in my view, a spoon.) There are still cookbooks organized around a single ingredient such as pineapple, which yield a few good recipes and a few that are self-evidently the result of crazed desperation, a misguided attempt to have complete chapters for every course no matter how un-dessert-y or un-salad-y the ingredient in question. There are still people who think that Minute Rice is an edible food.

The new blog is going to be a little bit different from the old one. For one thing, it’s actually set up as a blog, complete with the ability to leave comments. I will be moderating comments as long as I decide that’s necessary. But I don’t intend to suppress differing points of view; I just want to maintain a minimum level of civility, so I’ll only be blocking abusive comments and spam. Feel free to trash the recipes, or to criticize my arguments; don’t go trashing me personally or the other participants. And I don’t care to wire money to any strangers overseas, thanks ever so much for asking.

I’ll also be posting more often; I don’t promise daily updates, but I’ll definitely be aiming for a greater frequency than the weekly posts of the old site. Sometimes I’ll do recipe columns (just like the old days!), and sometimes I’ll be reviewing books or discussing things I see in the news or that have otherwise caught my attention. Feel free to send me suggestions for recipes, point me to news stories, or help me in other ways. This damned is your damned too.

So, whether you’re part of the old guard or whether you’ve stumbled upon my attempts at humor for the first time, welcome to the new Recipes of the Damned!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Watch this space

The Recipes of the Damned site is going to make a comeback. More information soon.