Category Archives: A Couple of Bucks

Smoke and Spoons

Among the many fine qualities my kids possess is the ability to remember my random “Gee, that would be cool”s  and translate them into a Christmas present. I was chewing the fat with John much earlier this year and said “Gee, I think woodburning might be cool.” The UPS man delivered a big box a few days before Christmas, and there it was, “With love from Honor and John.” Included was “Pyrography Workbook,” which tells me everything I need to know to get started.  The hundreds of glossy examples of the pyrographer’s art are pretty darn intimidating, showing as they do photographically realistic wolves, owls, elephants and lions. I never knew that nature study was why I wanted a woodburning kit. It isn’t, and that’s not just sour grapes because I know I’ll never achieve those artists’ virtuosity.I’m humbled: woodburning is hard.

It’ll be awhile until my technique is good enough to earn a Cub Scout merit badge, let alone burn a rearing stallion onto a block of walnut, but hey, I like the learning part. The toughest part is finding untreated, unvarnished wood. But as my intention all along had been to play around decorating humble household items, I found a good bulk price in wooden spoons. Not any wooden spoons: wooden spoons with flat handles. Here’s my first attempt, and it’s OK to laugh:

spoon1

 

 

 

 

I had fun! I didn’t burn myself or anything other than the spoon. The kitchen smelled like summer camp. I know I should learn something practical, like plumbing or car maintenance — you know, something home – related but actually useful. But what I’m really contemplating is a run to  Ikea to see if they carry untreated wooden hangers.

I promise not to take up lanyard braiding. Well, maybe.

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Home, Woodburning

It’s a Corker!

I’ll just say it flat out: I Iove screw top wine bottles. No corkscrew? No problem. No wine stopper? No problem. Expense to have your cellar full of decades old Romanee-Conti  recorked every fifteen years or so? By some French artisan you’ve flow in first class on Air France? Zero.

Not that we have such a swanky cellar — in fact you’ll be lucky to find three bottles lurking around in various levels of fullness. But geez, trying to recork a bottle is such a pain in it! It doesn’t matter how hard I force. Chipping away at a cork with a pairing knife simply ensures that I’ll need to use a tea strainer to remove chips when when I pour the next glass.I’ve never dared lay a recorked bottle on its side in the fridge, for fear of dribbling onto the english muffins.

A screw top bottle fixes all that. Problem is: where I live the selection of drinkable wine that come with a screw top bottle fits on a space at the liquor store the size of a postcard. This wasn’t true in Canada — all through January the Liquor Control Board of Ontario supplied me with very drinkable plonk in recloseable bottles.

Thank heavens I returned home to this gadget, yet another cool thingie my daughter introduced me to last time I was in LA. I picked up three @ $1.95 apiece at Surfas in Culver City. I stole the pic from the Crate and Barrel site because it seems my camera has gone walkies. (Yes, C&B sells it for a buck ninety five too.)

Nuts, I can’ t upload the photo so check out the link:

http://www.crateandbarrel.com/dining-and-entertaining/bar-accessories/wine-bottle-stopper/s268704#reviews

And read the glowing reviews! I believe they’re all five stars. I give it six stars — talk about cheap and cheerful!

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Drink, Home, How Cool is That?

A Whiter Shade of Sauce — Especially for Your Thanksgiving Green Bean Casserole

More recycling form Daily Gullet!

 

A Whiter Shade of Sauce 

It’s never inspired a wild fandango, let alone cartwheels cross the floor. Calling it Béchamel doesn’t make it chic and rolling the ls in balsamella won’t make it sexy. It’s White Sauce, pale, pure and reliable, the Vestal Virgin of Escoffier’s Mother Sauces.

 

It’s a Mama sauce, a Maman sauce, a Mom and Mummy sauce. . There’s no macaroni and cheese, no creamed spinach, no creamed potatoes or onions without White Sauce. No lasagna, no rissoles, barely a scalloped potato. No soufflés. No crap on clapboard. No sauce for chicken fried steak or salmon patties. No choufleur gratinee or cute little coffins of chicken a la King. No éclairs, cream puffs, or Boston Cream Pie, because isn’t pastry cream white sauce with sugar, egg and vanilla?

 

 

In this order, place butter, flour and milk in a saucepan, some salt, maybe a twist of beige from the nutmeg grinder –all it calls for is some attention with the wooden spoon and an eye to the size and activity of the bubbles. The proportions were way simpler than the multiplication flashcards by father drilled me with in third grade. My mother called them out over her shoulder as she cleaned the big can of salmon and chopped parsley.

 

Forty years later she would have said “Listen up!” or if she’d been Italian, maybe the stern “Ascolta!” I remember: “One tablespoon each of butter and flour for thin, two for medium, three for thick. Keep stirring. Watch the heat – you don’t want to burn it.” Some Maternal Units would never besmirch the snowy stuff with black pepper – though not my mother, Julia Child was passionate about thee white pepper only rule. I like the black specks, (always) a grating of nutmeg, and (often) a pinch of cayenne. When I have extra time I add a fillup of my own: I throw a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, and a few fresh tarragon leaves into the milk, warm it up to the small bubble stage, then let it cool down and let everything infuse. I strain out the herbs before I add the milk to the roux and ponder what a great idea the bouquet garni is, and what a clever cook I am.

 

Research is fun, and I stacked up my reference books on the kitchen table — otherwise known as my study. First: let’s get the history out of the way. It will surprise no one who buys that story that all French cooking started as Italian cooking that Catherine di Medici‘s Italian cooks introduced it to the French when she married Henri II in 1533. Well, could be – but why do Italians call it balsamella, not caterina? Larousse Gastronomique tells us about Louis de Béchameil, Marquis de Nointel, who got a plum job as Louis 1V’s Steward of the Royal Household. “The invention of béchamel sauce is attributed to him, but it had, no doubt, been known for a long time under another name. It was more likely to be the invention of a court chef who must have dedicated it to Bechemeil as a compliment.”

 

And who was Louis’s chef de cuisine? Francois Pierre de la Varenne, that’s who!. Varenne(1615-1678) included a recipe for Sauce Béchamel in his Le Cuisiner Francais. I wonder if it was a printing error in the first edition that dropped the i in the Marquis’s name? I hope the Marquis was flattered enough to give Francois a shift off.

 

But as I pulled books at random from the stack and read recipes, the room was humming harder as the ceiling of my self-respect as a food historian flew away. The formula for a white roux and milk sauce reads like a formula for papier mache binder. Careme starts with a veloute made from white veal stock then pumps it up with a liaison of eggs yolks and cream, with a walnut-sized piece of butter and “a few tablespoons of very thick double cream to make it whiter. Then add a pinch of grated nutmeg, pass it though a white tammy [sic] and keep hot in a bain marie. ‘

 

Let’s fast-forward eighty-odd years to Escoffier’s Le Guide Cuilinaire (1907   ) translated by H.L Cracknel and R.J. Kaufmann. (John Wiley and Sons, 1979.) Um: meat? Yes, the ‘Scoff adds chopped lean veal, two sliced onions and thyme to the roux and milk mixture, allows” them to simmer gently for two hours, and pass through a fine strainer.” Maybe Cesar Ritz liked the veal gelatin.

 

While Escoffier was wowing London, Charles Ranhofer was chef de everything at Delmonico’s in New York; the late nineteenth century’s Achatz, Keller and Waters combined. He was a white-whiskered tyrant with more energy than a grill cook at the Billy Goat Tavern under Wacker Drive. He’s his take on béchamel, on page 293 of his 1183 page master opus The Epicurean:”

 

“This is made by preparing a roux of butter and flour, and letting it cook for a few minutes while stirring, not allowing it to color in the slightest; remove it to a slower fire and leave it to complete cooking for a quarter of an hour, then dilute it gradually with half boiled milk and half veal blond. Stir the liquid on the fire until it boils, then mingle in with it a mirepoix of roots and onions, fried separately in butter, some mushroom peelings and a bunch of parsley; let it cook on a slower fire and let cook for twenty-five minutes without ceasing to stir so as to avoid its adhering to the bottom; it must be rather more consistent than light. Strain it through a fine sieve then through a tammy [sic] into a vessel.”

 

Not content with the veal presence and the mushroom peelings, Ranhofer adds a mirepoix of root vegetables? Will the madness never end?

 

Let’s fast forward thirty years and hop the train from Manhattanto Bostonto check out Mrs. Fanny Merrit Farmer’s cooking school and her The Boston Cooking School Cookbook – my edition’s from 1913. Fanny infuses a cup and a half of veal stock with carrots, onion, bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns for twenty minutes. (So much for any pretensions I may have had about steeping a few herbs in the milk.) “Melt the butter, add flour, and gradually hot stock and milk. Season with salt and pepper.”

 

The Rombauer Ladies don’t include a recipe for béchamel in the 1975 Joy of Cooking. If you look it up in the index you’ll find “Bechamel sauce, see White Sauce.”  You know, the recipe with the roux and milk and salt and pepper?  What I’ve called Béchaml since I was a hoity-toity teenager in the kitchen? Maybe Joy set the modern formula for Béchamel in this country; it’s awesome they called it White Sauce.

 

James Peterson’s recipe in Glorious French Food (2002) requires: shallots, celery, a carrot, a garlic clove, thyme, bay leaf and “4 oz. (115 g.) of prosciutto end, pancetta or veal and pork trimmings.” C’mon Jim, am I making aa sauce or a stuffing for ravioli?

 

If there’d been a waiter with a tray, I would have called out for another drink. I felt like someone who’d spent her life telling people how to make pate by grinding up Spam, or insisting that Mario Batali told me that he heats up Chef Boy-R-Dee at home when he wants pasta that’s really authentic. Or a schoolmarm who’d been teaching creationism forever, saw the light, and realized she’d been talking up her ass for years with her skirt tucked into the waistband of her pantyhose .Had I never made a Béchamel sauce?

 

In my not Smithsonian-sized cooking library I found the writer who, for the first time, called White Sauce Béchamel.  I’ll give you a hint: the year is 1961. Want another? Her kitchen is on view in the Smithsonian. You got it: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I. Julia, Louisette and Simka are my first in-house references for “plain” Béchamel Sauce.  But: in a preface about Sauces Blanches, the Gourmettes say: “Sauce Béchamel in the times of Louis XIV (yeah Varenne,) was a more elaborate sauce then it is today. Then it was a simmering of milk, veal and seasonings with an enrichment of cream, In modern French cooking a béchamel is a quickly made milk-based foundation requiring only the addition of butter, cream, herbs or other flavoring s to turn it into a proper sauce.” The recipe doesn’t mention butter, cream, herbs or other flavorings. .

 

And now that there is no reason and the truth is plain to see, the word “Béchamel” will never again pass my lips. I’ve never known squat about real Béchamel:  I’ve known about White Sauce. And along with my grandmothers that’s what I’ll forever  call it: White Sauce.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Food, History, On the Street Where I Live

Required Watching: How To Peel a Whole Head of Garlic in 10 Seconds

I watched Rick Bayless make mojo de ajo on his PBS show last Saturday, and I decided that I needed some, bad. Mojo de ajo (slow cooked garlic in a bath of oil) requires tonnes of peeled garlic cloves; Chef Bayless used four whole heads. He said something like: “Yeah, peeling four heads of garlic is a drag, but it’s worth it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo from garlichealth.wordpress.com.)

Well, flap my flippers, what popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday but this 10 second demo courtesy of Saveur mag. “How to peel a whole head of garlic in ten seconds.” I was grabbing garlic heads from the garlic/onion bin within, well, three quarters of an hour. (I read Roger Ebert’s blog posts via Facebook before I even brush my teeth.)

I promise, very soon I’ll send WordPress that 55 bucks so I can plant video directly on my web page. But until that happy day comes, just follow this link:

http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/video-How-to-Peel-a-Head-of-Garlic-in-Less-Than-10-Seconds

 

Lor’ lummee, It works! It involves “shaking like the dickens,” and my dickens might have involved fifteen seconds — I’m a girl and all. The second head I shook took much longer , which puzzled me until I realized that I hadn’t smashed the head hard enough to separate every clove. The smashing is an important step. I’m going to use that toolbox-to- kitchen-utensil drawer essential, the rubber mallet, next time.

I’ll talk about mojo de ajo another time and another place. But, amigos, I made it, and with my new garlic peeling skills, I’ll never be without it again. So help me God.

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Food, How Cool is That?, Site of the Day

Dick Lit

I actually believed I’d made up the literary descriptor “Dick Lit” but a quick Google proved me behind the curve. But, whatever, I love it, because I’ve become so pissed with the “Chick Lit” thing. I mean, what happened to “Romance Novel?” Allison Pearson’s tremendous “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” was a star in the Chick Lit category, and now, big sigh, is a Major Motion Picture starring Ms. Parker. (Why couldn’t it have been set in its original London setting with a British cast?) Point is: “I Don’t Know How She Does It” had, um, literary merit.

“I Don’t Know How She Does It” is no Sophie Kinsella meringue about shopping. It’s no bodice ripper –it’s a witty straight-up novel about being a modern professional and mother.  Sorta like the hero of Joseph O’Neill’s hero in my fave literary novel of the last ten years: “Netherland.”

OK. I was going to say “Don’t get me started,” but my foot is hard on the gas pedal. My husband has admitted that he’s never read Jane Austen, George Eliot or Virginia Wolff. WTF? Why did I have to sit through endless paralyzing hours of Melville, Faulkner And Henry James in college? I mean not a single novel by a woman author?

Now, there are Good Dicks — Balzac and Trollope, for two — who cared about what women thought and felt. But why the heck is “Moby Dick” still required reading and “Sense and Sensibility” isn’t? I’m sorry if I’m sounding like a hairy-legged feminist in a Womyn’s Commune in the ’70s (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) and I’ll return to the fascinating topic of Dick Lit.

(BTW, Lou adores Donna Leon, Louise Penney, Tess Gerritsen and Agatha Christie. He probably checks out more books from the Libe by women than by men.)

Dick Lit can be fabulous, as long as it’s  being written by say, Carl Hiassen, Elmore Leonard, and BOOK RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK: George Pelecanos’s The Cut. 

Pick it up and wave bye-bye to your day –and night. I’ve read all three of George’s previous novels with admiration and the feeling that there was a DC film over my body and mind that would never shower off. I’m haunted and coated by “The Cut” but the  new protagonist Spero gives me that rarest quality of a Pelcanos novel: hope. I’ll be waiting to take you out for a beer, Speros.

Any Dick Lit faves? Lemme know.

Read it.

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Books, Into the Mystic, Library Card

Groovin’ With Grains

I’m not the crunchy granola type, but I’ve found decent whole wheat pasta, whole wheat couscous, and (maybe because my ancestors were Scots) I love barley. Bring on the bulgar! Smooches for spelt! Tonight, thanks to Lidia Bastianich, I’m fooling around with farro. It’s a kind of whole wheat barley, so packed with nutrients that it alone, with a few lentils, will keep you alive forever. And hot and lean forever.

Two nights ago we made Lidia’s “Farro With Pork Stew Potenza Style.” Well, the pork stew was ridiculously good and easy, but Dio Mio, we had to slum it with (white) rice. I was intrigued by farro, so yesterday we headed out to the local Whole Foods, and yes they had it — five bucks for a pound bag. Whoa, I was unworthy.

I hate to type, but I figure you’d like to read the whole label.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Montebello is an Italian classic. A monestary built in 1388 where authentic artisan famers use long forgotten Old World techniques to create premium 100% Italian foods full of distinctive flavors and aromas…And not far from the summit, overlooking the Adriatic, grow acres and acres of organic Farro and , that sustained the Roman legions centuries ago.”

The package said I should soak it for eight hours, then simmer for thirty minutes. I soaked it for an hour and cooked it for forty-five minutes, with a bay leaf and some fresh thyme , rosemary and oregano from my garden, A small blast of lemon juice and some parm — tastes fab, It has that creamy graininess with a teeny bit of bite that a well-made rissoto flaunts. But, amici: buy a cardboard cylinder of Uncle Ben’s Barley, cook it the same way and you’ll have the same end product. Not organic, sure, and not blessed by 14th century monks, but cheaper and with comparable food value.

Here it is plated up with the pork stew and a tomato/scallion/basil/ricotta salad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice that half slice of buttered bread at the top of the plate? I decided to go all responsible tonight and made  the Light Whole Wheat Bread from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes. I should have fussed more about the crust, but I didn’t. The flavor and grain is good, but I’m eating it warm so I can’t make a judgement on it’s quality until tomorrow, when it’s cool. All I ask for is a few decent slices for toast and a tuna salad sandwich.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve got to say, whole grains make you feel full, which is why they’re so valuable, globally, as a food source. On the other hand, they’re making me wonder why I don’t own Birkenstocks and sport temp henna tatoos. But, it was all good and I won’t need a late night snack tonight.

 

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Wartime Chocolate Cake: Cheap, Cheerful, and God Help Me, Vegan

I’m lucky: publishers send me review copies of food related books, and I bless my not-zactly prodigious position in the food writing world that the mailbox serves up a delicious surprise once a month.

A couple of days ago I groaned when I tore open the envelope: I mean The 30-Day Vegan Challenge?” Oh Please. The author, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is not simply writing a vegan cookbook, she’s challenging us to eliminate all animal based foods from our diets and improve our karma with the animal universe. You can hear my molars grinding from here to Santiago, right?

Let me give you some of her speil:

“By choosing to look at what happens to other animals — human and non-human — on my behalf, for my convenience, I’m saying yes to my values of justice and service to theirs.

By standing up for what I believe in and speaking for those who have no voice [Ed. Note: chickens?] I’m saying yes to my values of justice and service to others.

By choosing to eat life-giving rather than life-taking foods I’m saying yes to my values of peace, kindness, compassion, health and simplicity.”

OK, come  get me and drag me to the Hague for crimes against bacon. I mean if I had to, I might be able to give up red meat, but only if I could pig out on fish, eggs and dairy. Between her rants, Patrick-Goudreau inserts recipes, and perhaps a third look edible — they’re in fact the soups and sides I make anyway! The rest of them , all that tofu and tempeh and condescension, make me want to buy shares in a slaughterhouse.

I tried her Chocolate Cake recipe tonight, not because I wanted to spare the life-taking foods of butter and eggs, but because it reminded me of chocolate cakes of my fifties youth. Mothers were still cooking from the Depression/Wartime culinary codices; a recipe didn’t omit butter and eggs because  they were “life taking.” They were omitted because you had six mouths to fill and a ration card.

I remember this same Chocolate Cake recipe from my childhood, the vinegar and oil, the sponge cake texture, the way the cake improved over a few days held in a cookie tin. I baked it tonight and it gets the Cheap and Cheerful Seal of Approval. Here’s the recipe, a kind of no-fail wonder that can be mixed up in three minutes with no more equipment than a big kitchen spoon. My advive: bump up the cocoa from 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup; like most vegan dessert recipes, it’s much too sweet.

I added dribbles of a simple icing sugar/milk glaze.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking about the recipe, it would be a super Kid’s First Cake. It doesn’t take a lot of technique and it would be a baking primer about measuring.

Chocolate Cake

(From The 30-Day Vegan Challenge, Ballentine.)

1 1/2 c. unbleached all purpose flour

3/4 c. sugar

1/2 t. salt

1 t. baking soda

1/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 t. vanilla extract

1/2 c. canola oil

1 T. distilled white vinegar

1 c. cold water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a bundt pan, 9=inch springform pan or muffin tins.

Combine the flour, sugar,salt, baking soda and cocoa powder in a bowl until thoroughly combined, Create a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and add the vanilla, oil, vinegar and water. Mix until just combined. Pour into the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven for thirty minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If making cupcakes, check for doneness after 15 minutes”

(The thirty minute timing was dead-on for me. )

If you’re a vegan friend (Er, do I have any?) you might want to check out the book. If you eat “life-taking” food, as I do, I’ve given you the best recipe in the book, and you can serve it up after a roast chicken or meat loaf.

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