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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

Scroll down to the bottom to view my Blogroll

Posted in Essays, on February 11th, 2013.

I’ve just gotten around to reading the January 2013 issue of Bon Appetit. It’s a very interesting issue with some edgy ideas I certainly found thought-provoking, so I’m sharing them with you. They call it the “The Cooking School” issue. That doesn’t mean a list of cooking schools to go to, or places that hold cooking classes. No, the subtitle is about learning to master some of the basic cooking school techniques. Particularly it’s about pan roasts, salads, braises, sauces and salted sweets. Normally I wouldn’t even give that a passing glance, other than breezing by some of the recipe titles, since I (think I) already know how to pan roast, braise, sauce and make sweets. But even I – an experienced home cook – found the articles interesting, informative, very explanatory – and the recipes are different.

After reading the issue, almost cover to cover, I tried a salted chocolate chunk cookie (I will share it in a day or two, even though it didn’t hit my CC cookie buttons particularly – but it might hit yours). Anyway, I will share another recipe from this cooking school section, but what I wanted to talk about was the section on salads. The title page of the sub-chapter on salads says:

Skip the lettuce and tomato. Instead, follow the lead of today’s hottest restaurants by making crisp, vibrant shaved-vegetable salads without a mesclun green in sight.

Next to that was a carrot salad that looked like the carrot pieces were shaved and crisp-roasted (actually they weren’t baked at all, but they were crisp-curled in ice water). Here’s the more thorough preface:

For years, you couldn’t go to a four-star restaurant without getting a forkful of mâche. Then there was a love affair with arugula. And we still have feelings for kale. But these days, the salads we really can’t resist don’t even have the very thing that used to define salads: the greens. Like many of the country’s most inventive chefs, we’re replacing them with other, less obvious vegetables (and nuts and herbs and seeds). Mandoline in hand, we’re shaving sturdy produce into ribbons and coins, adding outside-the-salad-bar complements, and dressing them lightly in simple vinaigrettes. The results are delicate, yet packed with bite – and without question, far more dynamic than any bowl of romaine and Ranch could ever be.

No, that’s not my baby picture . . . I just had to make a point here – I’m not crying buckets – yet – because I’ll still be making salads with greens no matter what the food experts or trends have to say. Not that I won’t dip my big toe into the arena of these newer salads, but I still love arugula, and kale and romaine. Ranch? Not so much.

On one of the pages of this multi-page chapter there is a chart of what to put in these new veggie-centric salads. It’s divided into 3 sections:

  • Foundation (thinly slice one or two of these): fennel, cucumber, celery, beets, radishes and celery root
  • Dimension (add smaller quantity of one or two of these to lend character): coarse breadcrumbs, apple, cumin seeds, red onion, Parmesan, pepitas
  • Finish (a bright element – like lots of fresh herbs): parsley, celery leaves, watercress

Lastly, I’ll share one more sidebar on one of the pages. Here’s what it said:

Balsamic is not king – and other truths about vinaigrette (3 rules for dressing a 2013 salad): (1) Rethink your vinegar [no more balsamic, instead use sherry vinegar and champagne vinegar]; (2) Easy on the oil [no more 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar; instead lean toward 2:1 which will work with the more subtle sherry and champagne vinegars since they’re much milder, less acidic; if you find them too astringent, just add a bit more oil, but not back up to the 3:1 we have been used to.]; (3) Hands, not tongs: use your hands, not tongs . . . as it’s the best way to tell if the salad is over- or under-dressed.

I’m not so sure this will work for me, although I have pretty much stopped using balsamic vinegar in salad dressings – they’re too much, too heavy and often too acidic, even though I use better balsamics (i.e., more expensive). I use it in other things, but rarely in salads anymore. I’m also not so sure I can handle the acidity of a 2:1 oil to acid ratio in a salad dressing. That’s going to be very astringent. It might depend on the brand of sherry vinegar or champagne vinegar. I’ll have to test a few salads and see what I think.

As I write this, I’m going to make a different salad from the issue – a celery salad with celery root and horseradish. Most likely I’ll post it. I happen to love celery leaves and they’re dominant in this particular salad.

Posted in Essays, on October 5th, 2012.

risotto_sous_vide

We were on our recent trip, and in a hotel where we had a TV. I’d flipped on Good Morning America, I think it was. And they explained in a very short blurb that rice contains arsenic. More than we’d ever thought. And more than we should be eating. That was about it. A week later, I mentioned it to my cousin Gary, who consumes a lot of rice and rice products (because he’s gluten intolerant). His jaw dropped. Really? he said. Yup, really, but I didn’t have much detail.

Once home I found what was probably the genesis of the news item – an article in Consumer Reports. It’s in the November 2012 issue which you can read here. I’ll give you a synopsis. And if you read nothing more than this: the scientists say we should not consume more than 2 portions of rice per week. A portion is 1/2 cup for an adult. Or 1 full cup a week. And that’s a combination of all rice products. The level of arsenic varies greatly by type and by brand. Inorganic arsenic is known as a carcinogen. Bad news. And particularly worrisome are rice-based baby cereals. They’re not the worst, but then infants don’t eat much quantity of any cereal. Down at the bottom of this post I’ll give you some bullet points with recommendations.

So, here’s what happened . . . back in January Consumer Reports published an article about the level of arsenic in apple and grape juices. That was the original arsenic eye-opener. The folks at CR thought maybe they should do some more scientific study about arsenic in other foods. They chose rice, and they tested over 200 brands of rice products (everything from common white rice to rice syrups, rice cereals, baby food, rice pasta and rice crackers – my cousin is gluten intolerant, so he eats a lot of rice crackers and other rice-based products – hence my concern for him).

The scientific part of it – there are two types of arsenic that we consume in food – inorganic and organic. It’s the inorganic we need to be more concerned about, although the FDA and EPA both say there are no safe arsenic levels. Period. Scientists think the arsenic has increased because of insecticides that have been used in the past hundred years. Here’s what the article says:

. . . The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic and since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-1960’s. Residues from the decades of use of lead arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980’s. Other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted. Moreover, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic.

I’m sorry folks. I’m just stunned. Ashamed. Angry. Angry that the gosh-darned profit engines of food commerce will, at every juncture, choose to promote growth and therefore profit (in vegetables and grains and in meat production) to the possible detriment of our health. Doesn’t it seem logical that arsenic in anything, at any level, is not good for us? For gosh sakes, it’s a POISON! So even though arsenic-enhanced insecticide was banned in the 1980’s, the ground still contains it and it passes through into crops grown in that same soil. AND, animal feed still does contain arsenic and it’s allowed. How come? And of course, chicken farmers have all that chicken poop they consider a product as well, and it’s made into fertilizer, yet IT contains higher levels of arsenic. It goes back into the ground for our food.

I also don’t like GM (genetically modified) food. I wrote up an essay about genetically modified seed a couple of years ago about Monsanto, and the genetically modified corn and canola seed that is almost everything we eat now. Monsanto is a weasel of a company. And they wield great power. Scary power. Here in California, we are voting on a proposition next month about whether food labeling must state if something is a GM product. Obviously I’m voting for that. Most people, when questioned, probably would choose not to eat GM corn; yet it’s very pervasive and I’m guilty of not asking the corner farmstand employee whether the corn I buy there is GM or not. The produce man in my market has no idea. He doesn’t care. He just preps the produce. However, more people are paying attention (I think and hope) to where food products come from. Last night my DH and I were at Costco and he was looking at a frozen case of shellfish. I walked right on by because in past trips I know the shrimp came from Vietnam. I’m not buying shrimp from Vietnam. Articles I’ve read tell me for health’s sake, I should buy only shrimp manufactured in U.S. waters. I’m all for that. But they’re very hard to find! The lobster in the case was from Brazil. I don’t know anything about lobster farming or trapping in Brazil. They were beautiful things – and expensive I might add. We bought none of them. We did buy fresh halibut from Alaska, though. New recipe coming up soon.

I’m sorry, I got sidetracked there. We’re talking about arsenic in rice. I’ll get back to that now. The bottom line is that in an extensive study CR did, people who ate more rice – logically – tested high for arsenic in their systems. Arsenic is known to cause a variety of cancers (lung and bladder first and foremost). Organic arsenic, so far as scientists know, is not harmful. We eat it in several types of seafood, actually, so in the tests, they eliminated any results from people who had eaten seafood within 24 hours of the urine test used. Over a lifetime of eating rice (and in many countries eating rice is a 3-times a day national pastime) this could cause significant cancers.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

  1. If you’re pregnant, cut way, way down on rice in any way, shape or form. Adults, it is suggested, should eat no more than 2 servings (so about 1 cup total) per WEEK. That includes rice cakes, rice cereals, rice drinks, rice pasta, rice cakes.
  2. Consumer Reports recommends you find out about your drinking water – if you’re on public water, you’re okay generally. Only if you use a well water or other sources, should you have the water tested for arsenic.
  3. Change the way you cook rice – rinse it thoroughly in any case and discard that drained water. Use more water than called for when you cook it (that removes more of the arsenic to that cooking water that you’d also discard). They recommend using 6 cups of water for every cup of rice. That will remove about 30% of the arsenic in the rice. Yes, you wash away some of the nutrients, but it’s safer for eating.
  4. Don’t eat brown rice – it has higher doses of arsenic than white rice – because much of the arsenic is held in the outer layers of the grain. Remember, rice is grown in a specialized pond and the rice leeches stuff from the underlying soil.

Consumer Reports has made a bunch of recommendations to the USDA, FDA and EPA, including: (1) the industry needs to set a standard for arsenic in rice [there is none at this time]; (2) producers should develop rice types that don’t “take up” so much arsenic from the water/soil, and then use the one(s) that perform the best; (3) the EPA should phase out all pesticides [period] that contain arsenic; (4) the USDA and EPA should end the use of arsenic-laden fertilizers and manure; (5) the FDA should ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals. To learn more about this part, go to the main article (at the bottom). Of course, the U.S. Rice Federation is vehemently arguing that arsenic in our rice is way overblown as a health risk. I’m sorry, ANY arsenic in my rice is too much.

If you go to the article, you can review the entire chart about the rice products they tested. I’m going to give you a short list, though, of the products that were high (bad) that you should, for now, avoid (in my opinion anyway). And I’ll give you the names of the rice products that were better than others. No rice products were free of arsenic. If you eat any rice products at all, you’re ingesting arsenic. No way around it. Rice raised in the American South has higher levels than others – probably because of the years and years of insecticides used on that same land. It appears that rice from Indian and Thailand have lower levels, but CR didn’t test some of the more obscure brands I see in my local Indian store.

Lundberg, the small company here in California, that raises a lot of rice, has, generally, lower levels of arsenic in their products. There was one exception. But their company (and the CEO, Grant Lundberg) is investing lots of resources to test all of their products more extensively. Good for them. They may be one of the first on the bandwagon to improve the problem.

Here’s a list from Consumer Reports with THE BAD ONES – higher incidences of arsenic in their products (listed in rice type order, then alpha order, not the level of arsenic). Some had lower ratings, but CR used 3 tests of each product from different packages and some showed varying results. The ones in red had the highest levels: RICE: 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods); Cajun Country Enriched Long Grain; Cajun Country Popcorn Long Grain; Canilla Extra Long Grain Enriched; Carolina Whole Grain Brown; Della Basmati Brown; Doguet’s Brown; Goya Enriched Medium Grain; Great Value Brown (Walmart); Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown (this one had the highest number of all); Lundberg Short Grain Brown; Martin Long Grain Brown; Texas Best Organics Long Grain Brown; Uncle Ben’s Original Enriched Parboiled Long Grain; and Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Brown. INFANT CEREAL: None exceeded 5 micrograms per liter, but of the 4 types listed, two were higher – Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Rice and Gerber Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Brown Rice Farina Creamy White. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Barbara’s Brown Rice Crisps. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Suzie’s Whole Grain Thin Cakes. RICE PASTA: DeBoles Rice Spirals, Tinkyada Brown Rice Pasta Shells and Trader Joe’s Organic Brown Rice Fusilli. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic Brown. RICE DRINKS: neither tested brands exceeded the arsenic levels for concern. RICE SYRUP: Lundberg Sweet Dreams Eco-Farmed Brown and their Organic Brown (both). RICE VINEGAR: only one brand tested and it is very low.

Now, here’s the list of THE BETTER ONES – lower incidence of arsenic, not necessarily healthy levels, but still beneath the 5 micrograms considered a level of concern: RICE: there are about 20+ brands listed – I’m only listing the ones that had the lowest incidence – seek them out if you can – Archer Farms Organic Basmati (Target – it’s from India), 365 Everyday Value Organic Indian Basmati White (Whole Foods, from India), Archer Farms Organic Jasmine (Target, and it’s from Thailand), Lundberg California White Basmati (California), Martin Long Grain Enriched (Missouri), and Trader Joe’s White Basmati (India). INFANT CEREAL: Beech-Nut Homestyle Rice and Gerber SmartNourish Organic Brown Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Organicv Brown Rice Farina Creamy Rice and Cream of Rice. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Arrowhead Mills Organic Sweetened Rice Flakes, General Mills Rice Chex Gluten Free, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Gluten Free and Trader Joe’s Crisp Rice Cereal. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Asian Gourmet Plain Rice Crackers, Edward & Sons Organic Brown Rice Snaps Unsalted Plain Rice Cracker, Lundberg Brown Rice Organic Rice Cake, Quaker Lightly Salted Rice Cake. RICE PASTA: Annie Chun’s Maifun Rice Noodles. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic White and Goya Enriched. RICE DRINKS: Pacific Rice Low Fat Plain Beverage and Rice Dream Classic Original Rice Drink. RICE VINEGAR: Asian Gourmet Plain.

So what’s all that say . . . well, that we shouldn’t eat as much rice as we thought we could. Eat white rice. Be extra careful about feeding rice products to infants. Pregnant moms should be extra careful too.

Posted in Books, Essays, on March 18th, 2012.

extravirginitybook

First I must tell you I actually haven’t read this book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil . I have 3 books going right now and there’s definitely not time in the near future for me to add another. But I would like to read it (I’ve ordered it actually), especially after reading the review of it in the Los Angeles Times  last weekend. It’s the review that prompted me to go searching further on the subject. And to write up this post about it.

If you do a search for the title of the book you’ll find any number of links, to amazon of course, but also to NPR who did a review of it. Also a couple of naysayers who have olive oil blogs or websites. And I’m no expert – I’m only telling you about what I read in the article in the Times.

Russ Parsons (the Time’ reviewer), a long time writer for the newspaper, and major food/recipe contributor, is someone I trust. I like the way he writes. I like what he writes. In this article he talked about how, in 1985, he heard from a friend who had just returned from Tuscany, that there had been a major freeze there, which cracked most of the producing olive trees in half, killing them. So Parsons jumped to the conclusion that there would [surely] be a deep shortage of Tuscan olive oil the following year. Indeed, the Tuscan trees were devastated. But that next year, using a little-known fact about the agricultural system in Italy, the olive oil producers in Tuscany merely imported oil from Spain and Algeria. It didn’t matter how much “real” Tuscan oil was in the can or bottle – they could use mostly Spanish and Algerian for that matter and still call it extra virgin Italian (Tuscan) olive oil. It’s also supposed that there was a lot – a LOT of cottonseed oil added to the olive oil too (also okay by Italian regulations).

What we may know as “light” olive oil is actually (most likely anyway) low grade olive oil mixed with cottonseed oil to thin it out, making it less olive-y, less pungent. So why not just use vegetable oil? Indeed!

So based on that, I’m paying heed to Mueller’s points. So who is Tom Mueller? He’s a writer for the New Yorker,  but he lives in Liguria amidst his large olive tree farm. Over the years, he obviously has done a lot of research about olive oil – probably a real eye-opener when he discovered that the Italian rules are rather lax about the derivation of their olive oil. And incidentally, that phrase about “first press” or “cold press” oils – that’s all bunk, because really nobody actually uses an olive press anymore – they use more modern equipment.

I did a bit of sleuthing and found this quote from his very interesting website.

[During the writing of the book, I] immersed myself in olive oil. I’ve traveled on 4 continents, meeting olive millers and oil-bottlers, lipid chemists and fraud investigators, oil-making monks and oil crooks, chefs and government regulators and oil sommeliers, as well as countless eager consumers, some of them life-long experts, others enjoying their first taste of great oil. In the process I’ve learned a lot about one of humankind’s most magnificent foods, this essence of health and flavor. I’ve met olive growers and oil-makers whose divine nectars deserve to be celebrated around the world, treated with reverence and gratefulness. And I’ve seen that they’re losing their shirts.

The book, I’m supposing from the article, tells you which olive oil producers are the fraudsters (his word) and which are reputable. We all know we can buy very expensive olive oil, and we can buy the cheap stuff at the grocery store. Those cheap brands likely contain a significant amount of cottonseed oil and little actual olive oil. Price doesn’t always indicate quality, either, although it should go some distance that way. If I paraphrase the article, it does indicate you should choose an extra virgin olive oil that indicates an expiration date – the better producers do that – they’ll provide a lot number and a use-by date.

Until the book arrives and I have time to read it, I’ll just have to use my trusted brands. I think I read recently that Costco’s Kirkland brand is a fairly good olive oil – I use it for some things. I have several others than are better oils. I also visit a little olive oil store about 20 miles from our house (they carry just oils and vinegars, under their own labels, mostly infused with herbs, spices, and fruits). You probably know already that you don’t need to use EVOO for frying – you never garner the flavor from it for frying – use a vegetable oil (in fact my most recent Cook’s Illustrated, they tested brands of oil and Crisco’s Natural Blend was the clear #1. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in any market. Anyway, their test was preparing home made mayonnaise and using the oil for frying. All the oils preformed differently depending on the use, but this one, the Crisco Natural Blend, brought the best flavor to the mayo, as well as frying. Anyway, don’t waste good EVOO for anything unless the flavor is going to come through. You’re paying for that flavor, be it bland or peppery, herby or floral, and you might as well taste it. So that would mean relatively plain salad dressings or drizzles on things. Don’t use it for frying, for baking, or in your favorite carrot cake. Use a very bland oil instead, like the one above. So there’s your olive oil lesson for the day!

Posted in Essays, on May 23rd, 2010.

A friend of mine in my book club told us this story the other day. It was so funny – yet not so funny – I decided I had to share it with you.

My friend’s daughter works at a local bank. Her best friend at the bank has a mid-20’s aged son who is autistic. I guess the son has never really been able to do much – he’s unable to work – but he manages. Mostly he stays at home while his mom works. [And I would guess the son watches a fair amount of cartoons and/or he reads.] Anyway, one day last week she got a frantic phone call from her son.

“Mom, Mom,” he said, “. . . come quick, I caught a troll!!!!” She, naturally, said “WHAT?” What do you mean, you caught a troll? He said again, “Mom, I caught a troll.”

She was able to leave work and drove like crazy to her home. As she turned the corner onto her street she went into complete panic mode when she saw her house surrounded by police cars. She screeched to a halt, and ran out of the car. The police, at first, wouldn’t let her pass until she identified herself. She ran into the house to find out that this is what happened. . . .

Earlier, when the doorbell rang, her son had answered the door. The dwarf/little person at the door was a 2010 census taker. The autistic son grabbed the little person and dropped him in a closet in the house. Then he quickly shut the door and put a chair under the knob so the “troll” couldn’t get out. Then he called his mother!

Fortunately, the unharmed census taker had the presence of mind to have his cell phone on him and he called 9-1-1. The police arrived. The census taker was very gracious and decided, once he understood what had happened, not to press charges. True story.

Posted in Essays, on May 22nd, 2010.

My friend Cherrie was telling me a week or so ago about how much she enjoys reading Saveur magazine. Now I’d not ever read it, so I bought an issue. And have now subscribed. Cherrie was telling me that her hubby Bud reads it from cover to cover whenever it arrives. Usually before Cherrie gets to read it. And that he’d really enjoyed the May issue’s story about refrigerators, written by Sara Dickerman. All the info comes from her article. (He was also intrigued by the article about mac and cheese and they’ve already made one of those recipes to great praise, apparently.)

Sure enough. He’s right. I found the article just fascinating. I wanted to snap photos of the page with pictures of all the old refrigerators on it, but I don’t want to get in trouble with the photo police. So I went online and found a couple of images that were on lots of sites, so figured they were safe to use.

Not only did I enjoy reading about the timeline of the refrigerator, but they included a blurb at the end about the misinformation regarding food storage in today’s refrigerators. I learned a thing or two.

So here’s your history lesson about fridges:

7th Century AD – icehouses were known to exist in Persia – cold stream water was routed into dome-shaped, tile lined huts

1803 – the engineer Thomas Moore coined the word “refrigerator”

1810s – Zinc or tin lined wood cabinets (ice boxes) become the forerunners of today’s fridge – home ice delivery made it possible – with a compartment for the ice and a tray below to catch the melt-off

1926 – Clarence Birdseye invented the blast freezer and his frozen vegetables and fruits zoomed in popularity – they produced over 500 tons a year

1927 – GE sells the first home fridge equipped with a round compressor that sat atop each unit – it cooled with sulfur dioxide

1933 – a fellow named Guy Tinkham (an engineer) invented the flexible ice cube tray at a cost of 50 cents

1933 – Crosley Radio Corp introduced the “Shelvador,” with shelves in the door, increasing space inside the fridge by 50%, they claimed

1947 – fridges with separate freezer units came on the market

1949 – the first self-defrosting units were introduced

1955 – Kelvinator introduced the Foodarama, the first side-by-side unit (8 feet wide!), which also had a non-refrigerated drawer for bananas – and supposedly it also had a built-in plastic-wrap dispenser [you ever see one of those? I haven’t]

1970’s – Fridges started adding crisper drawers, lazy Susan’s, butter compartments, and the interiors became plastic – oh yes, colors like avocado green and harvest gold were popular (yup, I had one of those)

2000s – we’re demanding more compartmentalized fridges, and the way of the future, apparently, is separate units (not necessarily put together in one place) which all cool at different temps (like meat, cheese, produce etc) – in my kitchen I have a separate refrigerator and freezer (both big) and a 2-drawer under-the-counter refrigerator unit where we store beverages and overflow from the refrigerator – AND we have a 2nd more traditional refrigerator in the garage with a bottom drawer freezer, which is where I store all of my frozen meat

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

And here’s the definitive guide to how to store food in today’s fridge:

Butter shouldn’t be kept in the butter compartment – it’s too warm – it should be in the coldest place which is the front of the top shelf [I don’t think that’s where I want to store butter . . . it would be in the way of everything for me]

Leftovers should also be kept in the coldest spots – either top shelf front, or middle shelf rear [actually I do store leftovers in that area]

Meat – only goes in the meat drawer if you have one – should be kept the coldest [we have a middle, wide drawer, but it has grids that are open to the whole refrigerator . . . it’s where I store cheese, and as I learned that’s not where I should be storing cheese . . . sigh]

Crisper drawer – good for greens, produce of most types AND cheese – it’s moist (good) [well, good thing the crisper drawer is for keeping things crisp since that IS where I keep all my produce, but not cheese]

Herbs – believe it or not, THEY should go in the butter compartment (warmer spot) [wow, this was a big surprise – I keep herbs in the crisper – and actually my DH stores his injectable insulin in the egg compartment because I already knew we aren’t supposed to put eggs in those egg depressions in the fridge – they’re supposed to be left in the boxes and stored on a fridge main shelf area]

Drinks and condiments – in the door (that’s a warm spot) [yes, I do store bunches of bottles of condiments in the door, plus milk, cream, juices . . . spot on that one]

Cold-sensitive veggies (like mushrooms, corn) – should be kept in the warmest spot in the fridge – that’s the front of the bottom shelf [this was a revelation – maybe this is why mushrooms don’t keep very long in my fridge because they get too cold in the crisper – maybe they’d be best in the butter compartment . . . ]

That’s it, folks. Hope you enjoyed this little lesson in refrigeration . . .

A year ago: Seven sins of chocolate (a book)
Two years ago: Cream of Cucumber Soup (my friend Jackie’s recipe, SO good)
Three years ago: Apricot Ice Cream

Posted in Essays, on March 17th, 2010.

Recent discoveries show us that practically everything we think we know about the science of taste is wrong, wrong, wrong.

. . . by Bruce Feiler, from Gourmet, July 2008


Having just told you how I learned about the different taste receptors in the mouth (and tongue) at my first wine tasting class back in the late 1970’s, and how they affect my perception of wine taste, I ran across this article in a 2008 Gourmet article, which completely counters most of what I learned. (I’m still trying to go through a stack of magazines collecting dust in my family room.) All of this post comes from Bruce Feiler’s article.

So why this change? The human genome. But, of course. Scientists are only now discovering new information about us humans. Off the head of a pin. Hard to comprehend. And what they’ve found is that flavor chemistry is all over. It’s about how those chemicals interact with our bodies – like the fact that one person likes the taste of cilantro, for instance, and other people think it tastes like soap.

Up until recently all the food scientists worked on two basic truths: (1) there are four basic tastes – bitter, sweet, sour and salt (and they added umami later); and (2) different tastes are detected on different parts of the tongue – the “taste map,” they called it. I wrote up a previous post about those tastes. What they’ve determined is that we taste everything, everywhere in our mouths. And scientists are debunking #1 above too.

Mr. Feiler talked with biochemists, geneticists, sensory specialists and food psychologists. Consumers (like us) use the words flavor and taste interchangeably. Scientists do not. What’s important is that the tongue and mouth, assisted by the nose, are considered the body’s primary defense against poison. Ah. The human body tastes faster than it can touching, seeing or hearing – yes, we detect taste in as little as 1.5 thousands of a second, compared with 2.4 thousandths for touch, and 1.3 hundredths of a second for hearing and vision.

To be tasted a chemical must be dissolved in saliva and come in contact with tiny receptors that are grouped together in buds (taste buds, right?). They’re not just on the tongue but all over the inside of our mouths. They convert the chemical into a nerve impulse, which gets transmitted to the brain. Apparently the number of taste receptors we have has yet to be determined. Terry Acree of Cornell says it will likely be around 40 – a fixed number. Olfaction receptors, on the other hand, is much higher, around 300.

Now here’s some chemistry stuff – or the biological part – molecular biology has allowed scientists to identify which proteins, in which receptors, send which signals to the brain. Only one receptor can identify sweet . . .  but more than 20 receptors detect tastes that are bitter. Because scientists are identifying the chain of messages (receptors to the brain) they can begin to manipulate the “conversation.”

When I first read this I thought, uh-oh. We’re going to start doing unnatural things to food (well, yes, they are). It’s not exactly like genetically modifying corn (see my essay about Monsanto if you’re interested), but it’s not too far off. What Feiler did was participate in a taste test of tomato juice. He drank 4 types: (1) V-8 juice with 480 milligrams of sodium; (2) low-sodium V-8 (doubling the amount of potassium chloride, thereby cutting the amount of sodium by about two-thirds); (3) and (4) were tomato juices containing low-sodium V-8 mixed with different amounts of Betra (something that is designed to block the unpleasant aftertaste of potassium chloride). Betra is a new substance made by Redpoint Bio, a very small company in New Jersey (located in an area called the Flavor Corridor). Betra therefore, blocks that taste of potassium chloride, which is fairy awful IMHO. So I like the thought of blocking that taste, but I wonder about what that will do to our bodies over time.

The bottom line is that we all taste things differently. So suppose I serve a French, succulent long-slow-baked beef pot roast to a group of friends. If you went around the table and asked them to be brutally frank, I’d probably hear mostly good remarks, hopefully because it was prepared well. Maybe I’d hear some raves about it. But there would likely be a couple of people who would say something negative – or maybe just “it was okay,” or didn’t have much flavor. Or even, “I don’t like beef.” We’re not talking texture here, but flavor.  So even though we all have the same number of receptors, how the brain interprets what those receptors transmit can be very different (even among family members).

Did you know there are people referred to as “supertasters?” They experience almost all taste with more intensity – sugar is more sweet, Brussels sprouts more bitter, chiles hotter. Supertasters happen to also dislike plants with higher degrees of toxicity.

Now you throw into the equation culture. And they’ve identified – so far – about a dozen haplotypes (collections of persistent mutations within a particular population). How that plays out is, for instance, with lactose intolerance. Many African and Asian peoples can’t produce the enzyme lactase, which breaks down sugars in milk. Yet lactose intolerance is almost unheard of in European populations – people with traditions of herding and milking.

Where this leads us is that eventually every one of us will have our own food type (like a blood type). Hence the photos throughout the Gourmet article of people’s name tags – they said things like Joe – I am pumpernickel negative (meaning he can’t stand to eat it); or Stephanie – I am broccoli positive (meaning she adores it, I suppose); and lastly Frank – I am truffle negative.

Food companies are scrambling to find additives (see, this is where I don’t like the sound of this) that might improve or block particular flavors. Guess who’s paying for the research? Nestle, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup. They want to know how to enhance the taste of sugar or salt in their packaged foods. For products that would trick the taste receptors into perceiving ingredients that aren’t there. Like sugar (expensive, and not so good for us) and salt (definitely not very good for us in the quantities most food processors use). And because the amount of this additive would be so small it could be listed on the label as “artificial flavors,” and the label wouldn’t tell you that it contains these bio-products. That part worries me a lot.

So how did the author do on the tomato juice taste test? He knew right away which one was the full-sodium V-8. The 2nd one with potassium chloride had a tinny, artificial taste, he thought (I agree, and I don’t buy it; I don’t buy V-8 either because of the high sodium). The other two, containing the bitter-flavor blocker, tasted more satisfying. The scientists can even figure out in the laboratory exactly how we’re going to like products containing these blockers. No taste tests needed – they do it all with test tubes and droplets of things.

The proponents of this (including many famous chefs like Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck near London) use chemistry and biology all the time in their chef-ing. At the London restaurant Blumenthal serves beet jelly and bacon and egg ice cream. He’s really into savory ice creams and sugar is a vital ingredient. So if the scientists have their way, the sugar would BE there, but they’d put in a sugar-blocker so we wouldn’t TASTE the sugar. Hocus-pocus, with chemistry. I’m just not convinced we should be doing this.

At the end of the article they included a short explanation about the human genome project:

Humans are 99.9% identical to one another – and to the archetype mapped and sequenced by the international Human Genome Projects (which had nothing to do with genetic engineering). The nucleus of each cell in our bodies (except mature red blood cells) contains the entire genome, and the genome’s DNA (composed of 3 billion chemical components) is arranged in 23 pairs of chromosomes, which in turn contain 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Genes only comprise about 2% of the genome; the rest serves other functions, including regulating the production of proteins, the molecules that perform most of the work of the cell. By isolating each taste receptor of the human genome, scientists can now begin to see how they react to every flavor known to humankind.

– – – – – – – – – –

And, I do happen to be peppermint negative. Almost makes me sick to my stomach. No red and white striped candy canes for me! Or mint chocolate ice cream either. And I’m mostly liver negative too – except duck liver (foix gras).

Recipes, from my archives, having nothing whatsoever to do with genomes or genes, or flavor-blockers:

A year ago today: Steak (beer marinated) with creamy peppercorn sauce
Two years ago today: Mace Cake

Posted in Essays, on March 12th, 2010.

ebay.jpg

You see, my DH, Dave, has this book that lives in “his” bathroom. We have two bathrooms on our main living level. The half bath is where lots of people visit . . . but the full bath is really for guests who stay in the bedroom close by. Dave considers that bathroom “his.” And in that bathroom lives this book, Uncle John’s Unsinkable Bathroom Reader (Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader).  It resides on the floor just next to the  . . . ahem . . . throne. It contains a jillion snippets of stories, articles, jokes, and general miscellaneous information, suitable for a short read. My cousin Gary gave a similar book to Dave one Christmas, and it finally was so tattered and used it needed to be replaced, so last year I bought him a newer one. Thus.

So my DH brought the book out to me, as I was sitting at my kitchen computer (which I’ll just mention here, is brand new about 3 months ago and it’s already crashed and died this week, so I’m currently typing on my mini-laptop that I usually take on trips). Anyway, I was writing up a post, and he said “do you want to know how eBay got started? It’s not what you think.” I said “sure.” It was interesting. Enough so that I thought I’d share it with you.

The general myth about eBay is that Pierre Omidyar (the genius who did start e-Bay) was talking with his then fiancée (now his wife) Pamela, who was a collector and trader of PEZ candy dispensers and she said something like “wouldn’t it be great if there was a place online where people could trade?”

The real story is somewhat different. Pierre Omidyar is French-Persian, and moved to the U.S. from Paris when he was six years old. His father was attending a medical residency at Johns Hopkins University. Young Omidyar, became positively enchanted with computers and programming. Having graduated from Tufts University in Boston with a degree in computer science, he moved to Santa Clara, California. He did work as a programmer for awhile, then he and some friends started Ink Development Corp, and pen-based computer company. But he veered the company off to an area he thought would be a hot item – internet shopping. And he came up with the name eShop. It was successful (mildly so, enough that Microsoft eventually bought it). Omidyar then decided he wanted to look into starting an internet auction site. He thought that bidding on an object would create more interest, some excitement too. You can look at a more graphic history of Omidyar (and eBay) on eBay’s website.

Over Labor Day weekend in 1995, he stayed home, holed up, and wrote the computer code for an auction-based website. On September 3rd, 1995 he launched it – as ugly, clunky and awkward as it was – merely adding it to an existing website he had already for his internet consulting business. The address of that site was the company’s name, Echo Bay Technology Group. Omidyar tried to register his new “business” as EchoBay, but it was already taken by a Canadian gold mining company, so he shortened it and eBay was born.

At this point eBay was just a hobby for Omidyar. He was still working full time at his day job – until his internet provider forced him to change from a private account to a commercial one because of the volume of traffic. His fees went from $30/month to $250/month. So, he decided to start charging users a small fee – thinking that he’d hear a backlash about it. Not so – checks began arriving. So many checks he had to hire an employee to handle all the payments. By March of 1996 Auction-Web’s monthly revenue was up to $1,000. April it was $2500. May $5000. June it leaped to $10,000. That’s when he quit his day job.

Next he hired a computer geek, Jeff Skoll, who happened to have a master’s degree in Business Administration from Stanford. What he did first was make this auction web thing a stand-alone site. Up until then it still shared a website for his consulting business, and a site about the Ebola virus (yes, really). Early on, Omidyar had done just a little bit of “advertising,” if you could call it that, by mentioning his auction website on some bulletin boards. So he added a bulletin board at eBay too. Some people began asking questions on the bulletin boards – about how to use eBay, mostly answered by other, more experienced users. Thus giving eBay it’s own (free) tech support. One of the early bulletin board gurus was a man who called himself “Uncle Griff.” A curious questioner once asked him what he looked like. He responded, “I’m wearing a lovely flower print dress and I just got done milking the cows,” which put Griff (Jim Griffiths by name) into eBay lore as their “cross-dressing bachelor dairy farmer who likes to answer questions.” Uncle Griff was so respected on the bulletin boards that finally Skoll hired him as their first tech support employee.

The company was so successful it went public in 1998 – eBay was worth $2 billion that day. By 1999 it was worth over $8 billion. And somewhere in there Meg Whitman (currently hoping to run for Governor in our state) held the CEO reins for some years. What made eBay a bit more unique is that they kept updating the model – adding the feedback feature (rating the sellers) in 1998; then adding PayPal in 2002.

Omidyar and his wife Pamela are worth more than $7 billion (maybe not so much now since this book was published – I haven’t gone to look up the stock’s worth) and they devote most of their time to Omidyar Network, a philanthropic organization that helps poor people around the world get into business. They’ve pledged to give away all but 1% of their fortune over the next 18 years. Omidyar says: “My mother taught me to treat other people the way I want to be treated and to have respect for other people. Those are just good basic values to have in a crowded world.”

Amen. This certain was a departure from my usual food stories, but I hope you enjoyed reading about this as much as I did . . . Carolyn T

Posted in Essays, wine, on March 3rd, 2010.

wine cellar racksThere’s another photo of our wine cellar – different angle. With a few empty wooden wine boxes on the lower shelves (they did contain wine, but we just keep them there for the looks). And if you have sharp eyes you’ll see on the left side a couple of little boxes of ScharffenBerger chocolate. I really need to bring those upstairs because they’ve likely oxidized down there in the wine cellar.

Back in my early wine-drinking heyday of the 1980’s I did drink Chardonnay. But I never really liked it – it’s too acidic for me. With the exception of one label – Kistler. That’s it. The only one, and a bottle of Kistler Chard today will set you back about $50. I think we have one bottle in our wine cellar, and it’s about 15 years old. We should be drinking it. Soon.

I also like Sauvignon Blanc, particularly Cloudy Bay (from New Zealand). And Fume Blanc from Ferrari-Carano. My DH keeps reminding me that I have a stash of Cloudy Bay (a very fresh, clean white wine from New Zealand) in the wine cellar that I need to drink.

Once in awhile we will enjoy a Riesling, as long as it’s not too sweet or acidic. Grey Riesling can be very dry, actually, so you can run the gamut of sweet to tart and low to high acid in that wine type. You can also have a sweeter Riesling that has a lot of acid. The kind that almost gives me sores on the inside of my mouth like I’ve overdosed on fresh pineapple (that happened to me once when we were in Hawaii – I had no idea that eating too much pineapple could cause mouth sores, did you? I mean, I didn’t eat THAT much!). Anyway, I seem to have a narrow spectrum of wines that appeal to me. My hubby calls me a cheap date these days. Most often when we go out I don’t even order wine.

But then there’s champagne. But I’m going to write up a separate essay about champagne, or sparkling wine .  . .

So now, down to the subject at hand. What do I use when I’m cooking:

WHITE WINE: If we happen to have some open, I’ll use that. But usually we don’t, because neither of us drink much white wine. So I go to other options. If I don’t have Vermouth available, then I’ll go hunting in the wine cellar for something – generally we have some generic kinds of white – maybe a bottle of Chardonnay (usually because somebody gave it to us since we don’t buy it). That works. Fume Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc are both almost herbal wines – they’re made from grapes – that’s not what I mean – but when you stick your nose into the glass you’ll almost smell an herb garden. I won’t use Riesling in cooking – generally it’s too sweet, and since most Rieslings are on the acidic side (even though sweet) you can’t add lemon juice with that to make it so. Just don’t use Riesling in cooking. But here’s what I DO use:

DRY VERMOUTH: First of all, I keep a bottle of Vermouth quite close to my stove. It’s nothing very expensive – somewhere I was told that Trader Joe’s vermouth is actually quite good. The best thing about Vermouth is that even though you open the bottle, it doesn’t deteriorate – it stays the same forever. With a normal bottle of wine you’d have to drink it or use it within a fairly reasonable time. Most likely Vermouth has been stabilized with some neutral spirits so it doesn’t spoil. That’s why it has a long shelf life, even when it’s been opened.

SUBSTITUTIONS: If I had neither a generic white wine or vermouth, I’d use some chicken broth. Maybe with a little added fresh squeezed lemon juice. Or if the dish could handle it, I’d use half apple juice, half water with a little lemon juice. I store a container of frozen apple juice concentrate in the freezer just for things like that. I also keep small cans of pineapple juice in the pantry to use in marinades and things like that. The other option is VERJUS – (means green juice) an unfermented grape juice from under ripe grapes. A perfect solution, I think, although it’s a bit hard to find and not inexpensive. It contains NO alcohol. And it’s on the tart side (some cooks use it in lieu of vinegar), so be careful. Use less than the quantity called for in your recipe and taste it before adding more.

There are resources abounding around the internet on this subject:

Gourmet Sleuth

About.com: Home Cooking – this site has an amazing list of substitutions for oodles of alcoholic beverages, including liqueurs.

Posted in Essays, wine, on February 26th, 2010.

wine cellar

The above is our wine cellar. It’s about 10 x 8, I’d guess, with room for the small table you see, although we’ve yet to sit down there except to catalog some wine (the room is below ground) and sip something because it’s too gosh-darned cold. We have a special refrigeration unit that keeps the wine cellar at a consistent 58. There’s also a little low cubbyhole off to the left (out of view) that can hold about another 8 cases of boxed wine. The cellar itself (with more shelving over on the left side) holds about 900 bottles. You can see that it’s nearly full. Everything you see above is red wine. White is over on the left side, and it’s only about half full since we drink so little white wine.

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Posted in Essays, on February 6th, 2010.

navel oranges Pictured left, two Navel oranges in the back, a blood orange front left, and a Valencia at far right.

When you live in an agricultural area, you tend to take fruits and vegetables for granted. We certainly do. And oranges might be the pivot for that since where I live, in Orange County, California (oranges, Orange County?) we used to be THE center of orange growing. For a long, long time. But now more of them are grown in Riverside County, the next county over (east) from Orange County. There’s still lots of rural land in Riverside County. Not so much here in Orange County.

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