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!