Thursday, December 20, 2007


Kelly Dobson, an artist, invented a blender that responds to sounds. She took an old blender from the 1950s and retrofitted it so that you could turn the machine on and make it go various speeds depending on the tone and volume of your voice. This interactive blender is called Blendie.

According to the website (where you can see Blendie in action), "The participant empathizes with Blendie and in this new approach to a domestic appliance, a conscious and personally meaningful relationship is facilitated."

You'll understand this better if you actually check Blendie out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What were they thinking?

I stumbled across this home remedy in a 19th-century cookbook called Aunt Babette's:

"How to Make a Bacon Bandage for Sore Throat.
Cut the bacon in strips one quarter of an inch in thickness and two or three inches in width and long enough to pass entirely around the throat. Remove the bacon rind and any lean meat there may be in it to prevent blistering the throat or neck. Sew the bacon to a strip of flannel so as to hold it in position and prevent its slipping and then apply the bacon to the throat and neck. Pin it around the neck, so that it will not be uncomfortably tight. The throat and neck should be completely swathed with the bacon. If after an application of eight hours the patient is not better apply a new bandage in the same manner."

I'm baffled by the use of bacon as a sore throat remedy, but I'm not baffled by the use of bacon in a chocolate bar (go figure). On the Vosges chocolates website, there is a category called Exotic Candy Bars. There you'll find Mo's Bacon Bar (as well as other exotic bars made with things like hemp seed and tea). This use of bacon makes sense to me, because the combination of sweet and salty works beautifully. (Have you noticed the recent trend of salt in sweet things like ice cream and caramel?)

The creator of the Bacon Bar explains that as a child she first encountered the delicious combination of sweet + salty/crunchy when at breakfast her pancake syrup got onto her piece of bacon. As she puts it "...on that plate something magical happened, the beginnings of a combination so ethereal and delicious that it would haunt my thoughts until I found the medium to express it--chocolate."

Eventually the idea took the form of this chocolate bar, which is made with milk chocolate, crunchy bits of applewood smoked bacon and just a sprinkling of smoked salt. It costs $7, but it's worth it just to say you've had a bacon chocolate bar.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Cooking the Gullah Way

Years ago, when my son had just reached the age where he could appreciate a road trip, I decided to take him to a part of the country that had always fascinated me: the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

My fascination had started many years before, when I was not yet in the food business. I was writing a book chapter on cruising the Intracoastal Waterway from New Jersey to Florida, and in the course of my research read a lot about the Sea Islands. I also read about the food of the region, because though I was writing about boats, I was dreaming of being a foodie.

You can't read about the food of this area without encountering the Gullah culture of Daufuskie Island off South Carolina. The Gullah came originally from West Africa, and because they lived on an island that for decades was only accessible by boat, their culture and language survived without much dilution.

Daufuskie Island (and its inhabitants) is the subject of a book called The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy (the author of, among other books, The Prince of Tides). In the book, Conroy describes his year as an English teacher in the one-room schoolhouse on the island. One of his students was a girl named Sallie Ann Robinson.

Sallie Ann Robinson grew up to be a cookbook writer, with the express purpose of preserving on paper her Gullah food roots. She has just written her second cookbook, Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Night. There are recipes for local dishes like Preserved String Beans and Tadas (potatoes), Momma's Crackling Muffins, Local Sea Island Country Boil and Persimmon Wine. The last 20 pages or so are a compendium of Daufuskie home remedies for such things as bed-wetting, tick removal or getting rid of the smell of burned food from your house.

If you're interested in Gullah cooking, you could also check out Robinson's first cookbook: Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way (especially if you're in need of a recipe for Sticky Bush Blackberry Dumpling).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dining in the dark

I was reading the other day about a restaurant in Montreal called O.Noir where the wait staff are all legally blind. When you enter the restaurant there are no lights, and you order and eat in the dark (the name of the restaurant is a verbal play on the French words au noir, which mean in the dark).

The mission of the restaurant is to promote an understanding of what it is to live life as a blind person as well as provide employment for the blind. The side effect is that without the sense of sight, your senses of smell and taste are heightened.*

The idea of dining in the dark got me to thinking and I eventually found myself looking for cutlery that lights up. I found a number of sites--Who knew there was such a need?--including We Glow Ware at the Virginia Toy Company. The We Glow Ware is actually fork, knife and spoon tops that fit onto glow sticks, so the glow is temporary, but you can change it up for each party you throw. Like red and green for Christmas, or blue and white for Chanukah.

I also found flashing beer mugs, but I'll bet that's more interesting to a college kid who has had just enough beer that the flashing is amusing instead of intensely irritating.

*If you're a C.S.I. (Las Vegas) fan, you will have seen a recent episode all about the dining in the dark trend. (For any fanatics out there, it was Episode 2, Season 8 and was called "A La Cart.")

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A world of flavor: 4 international cookbooks

I've been accused of having an "obvious" palate, meaning that I like really strong flavors, not vague nuanc-y flavors. I like really tart things and really spicy things and stinky cheese. So I decided to put together a little compendium of cookbooks that have crossed my desk recently that I feel will satisfy this obvious palate of mine.

The first is from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the New York chef (transplanted from France) who in his twenties spent some time in Thailand, as chef de cuisine in a French restaurant. This is where he found the magical melding of French cuisine and Asian flavors that has influenced his food sensibility ever since. His new cookbook, Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges, is an ode to this sensibility. Just pick a recipe in the book and you will find this fusion of East and West. Roast Chicken with Haricots Verts and Onion Compote, for example, uses Gewurztraminer wine and maple syrup in companionship with star anise, soy sauce and rice vinegar. You can't go wrong with any recipe from Jean-Georges. His food is spectacular.

Now let's fly to Mexico with Mod Mex: Cooking Vibrant Fiesta Flavors at Home. This book is from Scott Linquist, executive chef of the Dos Caminos restaurants (three in New York and an upcoming Las Vegas branch). Here are the recipes that tempt me: Chocolate Layer Cake (but wait) with a Morita Chile Mousse and Pistachio Palanquetta (palanquetta means brittle), Chipotle and Tamarind-Glazed Pork Chops with Apple Pico de Gallo, Roasted Duck Breast and Duck Carnitas Enchiladas with Mole Manchamanteles and Roasted Peach Salsita. Phew. These recipe titles are long, but they sure do tell you how many crazy flavors are at play in these dishes.

Now, to India with Meena Pathak, the Director of Development for Patak's, a well-known brand of Indian foods. In Meena Pathak Celebrates Indian Cooking, her third cookbook, Pathak presents recipes many of which actually call for Patak's brand of sauces and curry pastes. Indian home cooks make regular use of store-bought sauces and curry pastes. It's like calling for mayonnaise or ketchup in this country. You could make these recipes with any brand of curry paste you wanted to, but the fact of the matter is the Patak products are very good and pretty available in supermarkets in this country.

Last, but not least, is Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet by Padma Lakshmi (of Top Chef fame). I have to say that the title of this book had me at hello. The recipes draw heavily on Lakshmi's Indian heritage, but are really a reflection of her more eclectic, international taste in food, with recipes like Red Stripe Chicken (Jamaica), Braised Spinach Catalana (Spain), Persian Chicken Soup with Omani Lemon and Dill (Middle East), Fiery Linguine with Tomato and Shrimp (Italy) and BBQ Korean Short Ribs.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Elizabeth Falkner's Demolition Desserts

If you don't know who Elizabeth Falkner is, you need to get her new book, Demolition Desserts: Recipes from Citizen Cake, and get a glimpse of her wonderful cooking sensibility as well as her very rock & roll outlook in general. Falkner is a pastry chef in San Francisco, and the owner of three restaurants: Citizen Cake (her first), Citizen Cupcake and Orson. This book is a collection of recipes from her restaurants as well as other flights of dessert fancy.

The book is decorated with beautiful photographs of her desserts as well as manga*-style illustrations (by Falkner's brother Ryan) of Falkner's cartoon alter ego Caremi—named, I'm guessing, for the legendary French pastry chef Antoine Carême.

And then there's the food. The book includes both the most elementary desserts—like chocolate chip cookies, brownies and cupcakes—as well as restaurant-style productions numbers, like Gingerbread Bauhaus (chipotle gingerbread, pear sorbet, pomegranate gel, royal icing shards) or Apple of My Eye (tarte tatin apples, cheddar crumbles, cinnamon ice cream, balsamic-apple reduction).

Each recipe comes with instructions on what components can be made ahead, as well as a category called "Minimalist Version." The Minimalist Version tells you how to make a less restaurant-y dessert with all the same flavors. When there is no way to minimize the dessert, it will say "Nope. Don't do it" or "It would be a mistake to minimize this one."

Even if you don't ever cook from this book, it's worth reading just for the good information you get on basic dessert ingredients (like sugar), and for a peek inside the mind of an extremely inventive chef.

*manga is the Japanese style of cartooning that, in its animated form, is called animé.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Crust puzzlement

Why did our parents and/or grandmothers tell us to eat the crusts of our bread? Was it to not be wasteful? I have this vague recollection that my great-aunties told me it was because the crusts were good for me. And I bought into it.

Just the other day, as my 2-year-old great-niece was asking for the crusts to be cut off her sandwich, I found myself on the verge of saying "Eat the crust. It's good for you." But I stopped myself, because of course that's absurd. The crust is no better for you than any other part of the bread.

Just out of curiosity, I did a search on the term "crustless bread" and discovered that Sara Lee actually makes a crustless bread called IronKids bread. It's a regular loaf of bread that has had the crusts sliced off for you. And there's no waste involved, since these crust fragments get recycled into other products.

My great-aunties might not have approved.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The prettiest risottos ever

The packaging for a collection of risotto mixes from an Italian company called Antico Pastificio stops you in your tracks. It's simple and elegant and it just makes you want to cook the risotto. The bonus--and by no means a small bonus--is that the risotto cooks up in under 20 minutes. And you don't have to stand at the stove constantly stirring in broth.

There are five flavors: Milanese (the classic risotto), porcini, radicchio (cool!), nero (made with squid ink) and truffle. They are all made with ribe rice, which is a type of high-starch rice used in risottos.

You can buy the risotto mixes online at Caviar Table. The site is a bit ticklish to navigate: To find the risottos, click on the tab across the top that says "Risotto Grains Baking." Each packet serves 4 and costs $6.99.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


I happen to be a fan of mystery novels, especially on the beach or in an airplane. And if you add recipes or cooking to the plot, I'm yours. This is why I like the series of mystery books by Jerrilyn Farmer whose ongoing character, Madeline Bean, is a Los Angeles-based caterer.

Of course she solves mysteries, but along the way you get to hear about the cool recipes she's making. In the book I read most recently, called Flaming Luau of Death, Maddy (as she's called) makes an hors d'oeuvre of fried Asian-flavored chicken "lollipops" on sugar cane sticks. Farmer actually posted the recipe on her website.

But the real reason I'm mentioning this is that the plot of the book involves the growing of fresh wasabi. The wasabi root, which is actually a rhizome (a part of the stem that grows underground), is notoriously tricky to grow. It needs to grow in cool mountain streams and requires a lot of love and attention. This makes it a rarity, and an expensive one.

The wasabi that shows up in most sushi bars, in Japanese restaurants or in packaged products, is most likely not true wasabi. It's usually a mixture of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring (the true wasabi flesh is a beautiful pale green).

If you're at all curious to get your hands on real wasabi, you should check out a company called Real Wasabi. This South Carolina-based company imports true wasabi and turns it into various products, including wasabi powder. They also sell fresh wasabi rhizomes in 1/2-pound to 3-pound boxes.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Evil Mad Scientist

I think that there is a very fine line to be drawn between people who love to cook and mad scientists. But here is someone who has found the fine line and happily crossed it. The Evil Mad Scientist, who in real life is Windell H. Oskay, describes himself as a "published playwright, award winning cartoonist, and obscenely creative amateur chef."

He has a lot of funny/interesting food projects on his site, but here's one that is actually a recipe. It's a tiramisú made with matzah instead of ladyfingers. He calls it a Tiramatzah.

P.S. Evil Mad Scientist also makes interactive furniture, including a dining table with LED lights (photo above) that interact with movements on the surface of the table. Check it out.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I love lefse

I love lefse, a Norwegian flat bread that looks sort of like a cross between a crêpe, a tortilla and Indian naan. It starts as a dough made with mashed potatoes, flour and cream or butter, and is then rolled as thin as possible (“thin enough to read the newspaper through,” according to one Norwegian cook) and quickly cooked on a hot griddle.

It’s odd that I have actually had lefse because I am not of Norwegian heritage, nor did I grow up in a part of the country with big Norwegian settlements (North Dakota and Minnesota, for example). I believe that I first had lefse when I was working on a book called The International Cook’s Catalogue. I was in charge of a section on Scandinavian baking tools and I ran across a rolling pin that was specifically for making lefse.

This led me to a small shop in Manhattan that sold all things Scandinavian, which is where I got my first taste of lefse. What I had was packaged lefse (Norwegians would probably shudder at the thought) that in order to be edible had to be resoftened: It had to sit layered with damp towels for what always seemed like way too long, because I was anxious to scarf it down.

I have since been tempted to learn how to make fresh lefse, though it seems to be quite an art. In my search to find a good lefse recipe, I found Terry's Lefse Links page, with lots of links to all things lefse (though some of the links are unfortunately out of date). And one of the links is to a site called Lefse Time, where you can order anything you need to make lefse, including the wonderful looking lefse rolling pin.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I just stumbled across ImCooked the other day, but my friends tell me that I'm the last one on the block to discover this YouTube-style site where you can shoot your own cooking video and submit it for others to watch. I found the site because someone told me that Christopher Walken had taken a home video of his roast chicken and pears recipe and I couldn't resist. He calls it "Man Makes Chicken with Pears." You absolutely have to watch it (scroll down).

If you spend some time poking around Im Cooked, you'll see an incredible variety of slicing and dicing styles. For example, in a video called "Cheap and Evil Guacamole," you'll see an unusual way of getting the avocado out of its skin. The directions for the Cheap and Evil guacamole are novel, and very clear, making it possible to actually cook this recipe (not true of all the videos).

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Get your fruit on

In a study conducted by the Fruit Laboratory at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, it was discovered that ethanol (also known as drinking alcohol) helps protect fruit from decay by enhancing antioxidant capacity. Somehow the ethanol increases the fruit's natural ability to neutralize the rogue oxygen molecules (free radicals) that contribute to spoiling.

The study was intended to find a useful tool for the fruit industry, of course, but there would seem to be a potential benefit to anyone consuming the fruit, too. Strawberries and blackberries (the fruits used in the study) naturally contain high levels of antioxidant compounds that are good for your health. So if you were to mix the berries with a little alcohol, you would have a super fruit. So bring on the strawberry daiquiris!

P.S. If you're looking for a cool blender to make your super-healthy daiquiri, check out the Liquid Blu™ blender from Hamilton Beach. It has a blue light that glows through its clear base (psychedelic!) and has a unique Wave~Action design that prevents the dreaded blender airlock. The blender retails for around $65.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Happy accident cheese

The Fiscalini family of Modesto, California, has been in the dairy business--and now in the artisanal cheese business--for four generations. They make cheese (primarily cheddars) by hand from the milk of their Holstein cows who are, according to the Fiscalinis, the happiest cows in California. In fact, Fiscalini Farms was the first dairy farm in the country to be certified by Validus, an independent agency that monitors animal welfare compliance.

So it's happy cows who make happy milk, which by happy accident ended up in a cheese called San Joaquin Gold. Fiscalini's cheesemaker, Mariano Gonzalez, was trying to create a cheddar cheese when by accident he ended up with a rich, buttery, nutty cheese that (to my palate anyway) tastes like a young Parmesan crossed with an Emmenthaler. Because this was an original style of cheese, the Fiscalinis named it after the valley where their cows live.

You can buy San Joaquin Gold directly from the Fiscalini Farms website, or you can check retail availability here.

Here's a recipe from Fiscalini Farms that uses San Joaquin Gold cheese:

San Joaquin "Golden" Baked Onion Dip

1 cup finely chopped Vidalia onion
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1-1/4 cups crumbled San Joaquin Gold cheese
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Paprika, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350. Mix all together. Spread in small baking dish or pie plate. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake for 30 minutes.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kooky corn holders

Ah, August. Corn-on-the-cob season. I can't wait.

When I was a kid we had these little yellow plastic corn holders. I'm guessing you all had them, too. In fact, that style of corn holder--and minor variations on the theme--are the only corn holder I'd ever seen until I stumbled on these cool little guys.

They come from a company called All You Can Handle, which carries all sorts of peppy ladles and bowls and serving pieces. They don't sell any products on their website, but you can check retail availability there.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The original ice cream mix-in

There are several national chains of ice cream stores that specialize in ice cream with mix-ins. The way the stores work is the customer first chooses an ice cream flavor and then some number of mix-ins (crushed candy, crumbled cookies, nuts, etc.). The guy behind the counter puts everything on a marble counter, takes two flat scoops and mixes the whole thing together.

It's great news for ice cream lovers that the mix-in idea is so widespread, but I feel bound to mention that I went to college with a guy who I'm pretty sure invented this whole idea of marble slabs and mix-ins. His name is Steve Herrell and he's still in the ice cream business. He has a couple of stores in Massachusetts, including two in the Boston area. So if you're ever in the neighborhood, you should visit the inventor of the mix-in (or Smoosh-in®, as he calls it). Here's the link to his stores and their locations.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Is your wineglass half empty or half full?

I'm not a big fan of the stemless wineglass. So many of them look like water glasses that your mother bought on sale at Big Bob's Bargain Bin. However, I would make an exception for the Pallino glass, which is an Italian bistro-style glass, not a wineglass that's lost its stem. It's 4-1/2 inches high and holds 6 ounces. And the neat part is that that there is a line drawn at the halfway mark with the word "ottimista" above the line and "pessimista" below. You can get a set of 6 for $27 at Sur la Table.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tomato hornworms

I am not much of a gardener. I really don't have the patience for all that pruning and watering and weeding. However, when it comes to growing things that I can eat, I make an exception. In my very small garden at my weekend house, I grow tomatoes, basil, chili peppers, oregano, thyme, parsley, sage, mint (well, actually the mint grows itself), blackberries, raspberries, hardy kiwi and table grapes.

My plants all happily toodle along, growing without much of a challenge other than the occasional snail or slug.......except for the tomatoes. The tomatoes are the yearly victims of the dreaded tomato hornworm.

If you've never encountered a tomato hornworm, then you're lucky. If you have, then you know that this obnoxious pest can completely camouflage itself as a tomato leaf and then eat an entire tomato plant to the bone in a matter of hours.

So starting in mid-July I turn into a horticultural vigilante. I am normally very respectful of animal life. I avoid killing spiders and feel bad if I brush an ant away with too much vigor. But I have absolutely no sympathy for the tomato hornworm.

Anyway, a friend of a friend has a wonderful little video blog called where he holds forth on all sorts of things, including how to deal with tomato hornworms.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hands-Off Cooking

This spring a cute cookbook came out called Hands-Off Cooking: Low-Supervision High-Flavor Meals for Busy People. The author, Ann Martin Rolke, is a California-based culinary consultant who created over 100 recipes that give the cook a little more freedom at dinner time. As she explains in her introduction "Hands-off recipes have a relatively short prep time followed by unattended cooking. That means no turning, adding ingredients, or stirring the food. You can walk away while it cooks--just don't forget and leave the house." Each recipe tells you how long the "Hands-Off" time is.

The recipes get their hands-off status not only from what comes naturally (slow simmering or marinating, for example), but also because Rolke has devised ways to increase the unattended cooking times: "In order to ensure real hands-off cooking, I developed ways of making recipes so that you don't have to saute, stir constantly, or otherwise watch over the food as it cooks." Throughout the book are tips called Hands-Off Techniques that explain her methodology.

The recipes are family-friendly and appealing: Carolina Pulled Pork, Thai Beef Curry, Pan-Seared Salmon with Lemonade Sauce (uses lemonade concentrate!), Roasted Root Vegetables, Egyptian Macaroni en Crema, Enchiladas Suizas. To read more about Rolke and to check out her recipes, go to

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Teddy bear lunchbox

I love the Japanese sense of style and whimsy. What other country could have turned Hello Kitty into such an art form? Speaking of which, I'm always on the look-out for interesting Hello Kitty items (I own the toaster, but stopped short of buying the Hello Kitty waffle iron).

Anyway, in a recent Hello Kitty search I ran across a site that sells Japanese restaurant supplies and I found this kid's lunch box. It's not the kind of lunch box we favor in this country--that is to say a hinged box with a single compartment. It's the type of lunch box you find in many other parts of the world: a multi-tiered affair, each tier for a separate part of the lunch. This little teddy bear, when it's all unstacked, has a deep rice bowl (naturally, it's from Japan), a large dish, a small dish and a top. Even if your kid wouldn't carry this to school, it looks like a fun set of dishes to own. It costs $25 from

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Potato surprise

In World War II--or at least in the old war movies I watched--grenades were called pineapples (for their resemblance to that fruit) and the word grenade itself means pomegranate in old French. And to continue the food similes, a particular style of grenade that had a stick at one end so it could be thrown farther was called a potato masher.

So how ironic is it that a woman in Naples, Italy, bought a bag of potatoes that turned out to have a grenade in it? It was a WWII-era American grenade with its pin pulled (so therefore active) that had been buried for years in a potato field.

The story ends happily with no mashed potatoes or exploded Italian cook. The potato purchaser was washing what she thought was a dirt-covered potato when she discovered the grenade and called the police, who recovered it and detonated it. Phew.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Honey for your health

I read a little science news item the other day about the antioxidant content of honey. Apparently, some honeys have greater antioxidant properties than others. (Just to remind you, antioxidants are compounds that work to counteract the effects of free-radicals, oxygen molecules that are responsible for all sorts of damage to our bodies.)

According to a group of Spanish scientists, who studied 36 local honeys, the antioxidant content depends on what the bees have eaten. Certain bees collect nectar from flowers and others collect something called honeydew. The honeydew honeys are the ones with more antioxidants. I got all excited at the thought of honeydew honeys (sounds delicious, doesn't it?). Except here's what honeydew actually means: a fluid exuded by plants in response to a visit by a plant-sucking insect. Euuuuwww. Well, let's not think about it.

Anyway, I'm not sure how this translates into useful information for the consumer, but the study appeared in a trade journal for the food science industry. So you can be sure that as soon as they can figure out how to slap a "high-antioxidant" label on honey, they will.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The incredible, edible train

So if you have been reading my blog, you know I hate cupcakes. But that said, I actually love little cakes if they're baked in a funny shape. I have a sizable collection of pans that bake little cakes in the shapes of acorns and dinosaurs and rosebuds and castles and fish. I am always on the hunt for a new shape that I don't have. So I was delighted to find this wonderful pan that bakes cakes in the shape of train cars.

When I was a kid, my mother used to make birthday cakes for me and my sisters in the shape of a train. The cake was laboriously constructed out of pound cakes all linked together, with a jellyroll sitting on top of a slab of pound cake to form an old-fashioned steam-powered engine. She used chocolate cigarettes to make the cow catcher, M&Ms in the coal car and peppermint candies for train wheels. She might have viewed this pre-formed train pan as the sissy's way out, but I think it's cool. You can buy the pan for $34 from Williams-Sonoma.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Idli steamer

An idli (or iddly) is a steamed rice & lentil cake from India. I first tasted one at a New York City restaurant called Madras Woodlands (it's now in the suburbs, on Long Island) that specialized in vegetarian food from south India. Idlis are wonderful, light discs that are somewhat like airy pancakes. They are always served with a fresh chutney, like coconut or cilantro.

To make idli, you need a special steaming rack that resembles a multistory egg poacher. A batter made of ground uncooked rice and lentils, often seasoned with Indian spices, is poured into the indentations in the idli steamer and it's placed in a covered pot of boiling water to cook.

Now, I'm telling you all of this not because I think that you're going to run out and learn how to make idli (though it might be fun), but because this neat piece of equipment ($30 from can also be used to make single-serving frittatas, tortillas (Spanish frittatas) or eggah (Middle Eastern frittatas), which I think would make the neatest appetizers or brunch dish. And speaking of brunch, I've no doubt the idli steamer can be also used as an egg poacher.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Greek elephant beans

I have a friend named John Vasiliadis whose family is from Kastoria in northern Greece. Most of his family now live in this country, near Manhattan, in a heavily Greek neighborhood where the grocery stores are stocked with wonderful Greek ingredients like my new favorite beans: Elephant beans.

These delicious beans--which look like white kidney beans on serious steroids--actually come from Kastoria, where they've been cultivated since the 17th century. It's hard to describe their meaty, buttery taste (wait, I just did), but you will have to taste them to see what I mean.

The brand that my friend John brought for me to try is called Arosis. On their packaging it very sweetly states "In the villages of Kastoria, life goes on peacefully with faith in human values. Taste a product made with respect to nature and to the consumer."

I encourage you to look for Greek elephant beans (also called gigantes) wherever you might find Greek or Mediterranean groceries.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

UglyRipe tomatoes

Santa Sweets, a tomato grower in Plant City, Florida, won a court battle this past January to be able to market an heirloom hybrid tomato called UglyRipe outside of Florida. The UglyRipe had not been allowed to show its face outside Florida because the state's Tomato Committee (there's a committee for everything, isn't there?) declared that the tomato just didn't measure up to their beauty standards and was thus ruining Florida's reputation for pretty tomatoes (?!?).

This has now been resolved and the UglyRipe can be sold in grocery stores--including Whole Foods--outside Florida. However at the moment UglyRipes may be hard to find because, with all the hoopla about them, the growers are having trouble keeping up with the demand.

From all accounts--and I have not been able to find one myself--the UglyRipe may be ugly, but it is extremely tasty. The same grower also sells Santa Sweet grape tomatoes, and if they are any indication, I can't wait to actually get my hands on an UglyRipe. In any case, Florida stops shipping tomatoes out of state by June 15, so we still have a couple of weeks to see if we can locate the elusive UglyRipe.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Planting pumpkins for their seeds

If you're a gardener who lives in the temperate zones, you're probably making plans for what to put in your garden this year. So here's an idea: How about planting kakai pumpkins? They weigh between 5 and 8 pounds each and have dark green stripes. But here's the cool part: Inside are large, hull-less, dark-green (almost black) seeds, which are delicious roasted.

*Health bonus: The kakai is related to the pumpkin used to make Austrian pumpkin seed oil, which has been found in a number of European studies to be extremely good for prostate health.

Each plant will produce 2 to 3 pumpkins in 100 days. The plants are described as "semi-bush, short-vine," which I take to mean that they take up less room than a standard pumpkin plant. You can get a packet of 30 seeds for $3.35 from Johnny's Selected Seeds. Or, if you have an empty field available, you can buy 25 pounds (55,000 seeds) for $1,300.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

American Food Writing by Molly O'Neill

Molly O'Neill--food writer, cookbook author, memoirist and (I'm sure this description would annoy her, but here goes anyway) the sister of Paul O'Neill, former outfielder for the New York Yankees--has put together an anthology of American food writing called (no surprise) American Food Writing.

The food essays are organized chronologically, beginning with early 19th-century foodie Thomas Jefferson and moving up through the decades past Herman Melville (who writes about chowder in Moby-Dick), Emily Dickinson (who sends her friend a recipe for a brandied fruit cake), Gertrude Stein (who delivers a long, unpunctuated ramble on the nature of American food), Langston Hughes (on soul food) and Rex Stout (with a porterhouse steak recipe from his gourmand character Nero Wolfe).

The last half of the book includes a long string of more contemporary food writers, including Calvin Trillin, Laurie Colwin, John Thorne, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins (who by the way have just published a 25th anniversary edition of their now-classic Silver Palate Cookbook) and tons more. All in all there are 162 entries, including lots of recipes. And O'Neill has written nice little notes to put the food essays into historical context. It will take you a while to read (that's a good thing), and by the end you will have seen the interesting arc that American food has taken in the 250 years that writers have to bothered to record their thoughts on the subject.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Get a grip: baking dishes with silicone handles

The KitchenAid brand is most often associated with appliances--dishwashers, stoves, stand mixers, the company also has an extensive line of bakeware. The particular piece of bakeware that has caught my attention is a deep, square (9-inch) baking dish with silicone grips. Or, more precisely, what caught my attention was the silicone grips themselves.

How many times have you brought a dish to the table that was too hot to pass around? The removable grips that come with the KitchenAid dish solve the problem. Once you take the hot dish out of the oven, you slip the two silicone "potholders" onto the sides and take it to the table, where everyone can pick the dish up without burning fingers.

The dish comes in red and blue, and there are dozens more sizes and shapes in this same line, including oval gratin dishes, lasagna pans, pie dishes and loaf pans. The 9-inch square version sells for $35 at kitchenware stores or from the KitchenAid website.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Funnel of love

I am a complete sucker for kitchen gadgets and serving pieces in the shape of animals. It all started with a cow creamer years ago. I loved the idea of a cow-shaped pitcher delivering milk through its mooing mouth into my coffee. This led to a sizable collection of large pitchers in the shape of pigs. Then came the pie birds. I'm also especially fond of my penguin teapot.

So, why would I not love these funnels in the shape of an elephant's head? These wonderfully whimsical kitchen tools were designed by the late Ionel Panait, a Rumanian-born French poet, mathematician, painter and designer of fun stuff. You can order them for $10 each from Pylones, a Paris-based store with branches in New York City.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Grade B maple syrup

Maple syrup is one of my favorite ways to sweeten things (honey being the other), because it isn't just sweet--it actually has flavor. And because I like the flavor, I want my maple syrup to be really maple-y. This is why I prefer Grade B maple syrup.

Grade A maple syrup, as I'm sure you're now wondering, is the commonest, most widely available type of maple syrup. It can range in maple flavor from quite delicate to somewhat robust. The more robust versions are usually labeled "amber," though this is a label designation that you will only find in high-end markets or if you visit a sugarhouse (the place where they boil down maple sap to make the syrup).

On a side note, visiting a maple sugarhouse during the "sugaring off" season is a lot of fun. The normal maple season lasts 4 to 6 weeks, sometimes starting as early as February and lasting into late April, depending on the specific area. Vermont is perhaps the best known maple-syrup producing region in this country, but the rest of New England, New York State and the Great Lakes states also produce maple syrup.

But back to Grade B maple syrup. This is the strongest and darkest "table grade" of maple syrup. I use it for everything, but it is generally regarded as the best option if you're baking, because the maple flavor will really punch through. There are a lot of places online that sell maple syrup, but not necessarily Grade B. Here's one place I found that does sell it in case you want to give it a try: Carmen Brook Maple & Dairy Farm.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tomato paste rant

How many times have you made a recipe that called for 1 or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste? You scoop out what you need, put some plastic wrap over the can, stick it back in the fridge and then discover it weeks later all covered with a scary black substance. So then you throw the can away.

I once wrote to Hunt's (or maybe it was Contadina) to ask them why they had to sell their product in steel cans. I wanted to know if there wasn't some packaging that would allow the consumer to keep the leftover tomato paste without it turning nasty colors. Well, no surprise, nobody wrote back to me.

There is actually an interesting solution to this: tomato powder. Tomato powder can be reconstituted to tomato paste (or to sauce, if you add more water). You just spoon out what you need, mix it with water and voilà. The downside to tomato powder is that it is more costly than canned tomato paste, but if you factor in all the cans you throw away, it might actually end up a savings.

If you're interested, you can check out a place called Barry Farm Foods. They have a lot of other interesting dried fruits and vegetables, too, like artichoke powder. I wonder what you can do with that?

(P.S. I do know about the trick of freezing tablespoons of leftover tomato paste, but it still annoys me that I have to do it.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Teenage girls and magnesium

In a study at Yale med school, scientists discovered that teenage girls with a higher magnesium intake have better bone mineral density. They determined this by studying 44 teenage girls (ages 14 to 18) who took either a magnesium supplement or a placebo for a year. At the end of the study, the supplement group had greater bone mineral content than the placebo group. The study authors are quick to caution that this does not mean young girls should start taking magnesium supplements. But the study does point out that magnesium is critical to optimum bone health in growing young women.

We think that a good thing to do for your kids, especially if you have any teenage daughters, is get more magnesium into their diets. The RDA for magnesium for girls in the 14-18 year range is 360 mg.

Here are some foods that will provide at least 30% of that in a single serving:
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1 cup cooked spinach
  • 1 cup cooked wild rice
  • 1 cup cooked white or black beans
  • 4 ounces tofu
  • 5 ounces cooked halibut
[P.S. 6 ounces of semisweet chocolate has 50% of the magnesium a teenager needs. Shhhh.]

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cupcake courier

I actually hate cupcakes. (Ask anyone.) But I do understand that I am in the minority. There are clearly people out there who delight in all the baking, frosting, decorating and fussing, because ultimately they are the same people who enjoy eating cupcakes.

One of these cupcake lovers--a Californian mother of two named Jennifer Gunn--was plagued by the problem of transporting all of her lovingly baked and decorated cakelets, and so she invented The Cupcake Courier. The device comprises three stackable plastic trays, each of which holds 12 cupcakes (or muffins), a sturdy base and a top with a handle. You can buy the carrier from Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Sweet onions like Vidalia (from Georgia) and Walla Walla (from Washington) were once a somewhat esoteric ingredient. These crisp, sweet (well, relative to other onions anyway) vegetables were available locally in the regions where they grew, but they didn't travel much. Part of this was because of their perishability (sweet onions do not keep as well as other onions) and part of it was because there was no consumer demand.

Well, that's certainly all in the past, because most supermarkets now routinely carry sweet onions. Starting in the spring, there is a big influx of sweet onions from places in North America, but in the winter, sweet onions come from South America.

If you really know your onions, you are already familiar with the OsoSweet onion, which grows in the Andes in Chile. But if you haven't ever had an OsoSweet, then hurry up, because the season for this winter onion lasts only through the end of March.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Chocolate & Zucchini

In my November 9, 2006, blog entry, I wrote about Dave's Law of Combinant Foods, a theory that proposes that if you like two foods individually, then you should like them in combination. Although the idea brings to mind some seemingly awful combinations, if you think about them a minute you realize that they probably could work. So naturally I was delighted to find out about a cookbook called Chocolate & Zucchini. The author is a well-known, Paris-based food blogger named Clotilde Dusoulier. Her blog--also called Chocolate & Zucchini--started in 2003 as a diary of Dusoulier's food musings and passions. It was soon discovered by the media and became so popular that she has given up her day job to become a full-time food writer.

Dusoulier's attitude toward food is in perfect synch with Dave's Law, starting with the title of her book and blog. It's not that it's her stated purpose to put two unlikely ingredients together. It's just that as a passionate cook she has the creative instinct to know when such things will work. Here are some examples from her cookbook that I think are cool: Broccoli and Apple Quiche, Pasta with Chocolate and Zucchini, French Toast with Two Tomatoes and Parmesan, Strawberry Avocado Ceviche, Tuna and Green Apple Mousse.

The book also has plenty of less out-there recipes: good solid French dishes that range from the homey (Mustard Chicken Stew and Tarte Tatin) to restaurant-worthy (Gratineed Chicken Soup with Pink Peppercorns and Creamy Mango Ricotta with Macadamia Crunch). And the book is very chatty (would you expect anything less from a blogger?). As Dusoulier puts it: "Each recipe comes with a story, because we all know that a dish is much more than a list of ingredients and a set of instructions: it draws its life and color from its backdrop, its emotional setting, and the little anecdotes of its genesis."

To find out more about Clotilde Dusoulier and her book, check her website.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Year of the Pig

February 18, 2007, is the beginning of the Year of the Pig on the Chinese lunar calendar. In honor of the new year, the Chinese post office has issued commemorative stamps depicting a red pig (red is a good luck color in China) and 5 little piglets. The stamps have a face value of 1.2 yuan (15 cents).

But here's the cool thing. If you scratch the front of the stamp, it smells like pork (which must be better than smelling like a pig, I guess) and the glue that you lick tastes like sweet-and-sour pork.

Just for the record, this is not the first scratch-and-sniff stamp in the world. Here are some other smells that have been available in stamp form: rose (Australia), magnolia (New Zealand), eucalyptus (U.K.), chocolate (Switzerland) and green tea (Hong Kong).

And on a final note, in 2008 the Chinese new year will be the Year of the Rat. Let's hope for no stamps.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Deep South Parties

Here is my nomination for the cookbook with the longest and funniest title: Deep South Parties or How to Survive the Southern Cocktail Hour Without a Box of French Onion Soup Mix, a Block of Processed Cheese, or a Cocktail Weenie. The book is by Robert St. John who, in addition to being a comedian, is the chef/owner of several restaurants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi: the Purple Parrot Cafe, Mahogany Bar and Crescent City Grill (which has a branch in Meridian, Mississippi).

St. John's sense of humor permeates the book (how about a chapter called "Methodists and the Art of Cat-Flossing?), but the recipes themselves are serious. They are inspired by the foods and traditions of the Old South, but they are given a very modern spin. For example: Crawfish-Andouille Hush Puppies, Cornmeal Biscuits with Fig Butter, Tasso and Smoked-Cheddar Savory Cheesecake (anyone who has been following my blog knows that I have a bit of a cheesecake addition) and Peach-Pecan Ice Cream Sandwiches.

If you want to find out a little more about Robert St. John you can check his website or to read more about his restaurants check this link out. And if you like Deep South Parties, then there is also his earlier cookbook called Deep South Staples Or How to Survive in a Southern Kitchen Without a Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fruit tattoos

Starting this winter (2007), you should start to see citrus fruits at your grocery without those annoying little adhesive labels. The Sunkist company will be the first distributor in this country to label their fruits using a new technology called Natural Light Labeling. The technology was introduced over a year ago, but it has taken this long to be certified by the FDA.

I was fascinated by this idea, so I called the guy who developed the technology. His name is Greg Drouillard and he kindly spent a good bit of time with me on the phone explaining how it works. The way a fruit or vegetable gets labeled is with a teeny, short-duration laser pulse. It removes about .005% of the skin's pigment. This does not in any way affect the shelf life of the produce, because the amount of skin removed is on the cellular level. You would need an electron microscope to even see any depression in the skin. In the case of light-skinned produce (like lemons), a very small amount of food-grade pigment is added to make the label legible.

In addition to being of interest to consumers who are tired of scraping off those pesky little labels (or, in my case, forgetting about them and ending up with them in the recipe), it is apparently also of interest to Homeland Security. They're interested because food can easily be tracked and identified because there is no way to alter the label since it's integral to the skin.

According to Drouillard, only nonedible-skin produce has been approved so far, but edible-skin produce should be approved in a couple of months. Rats, I forgot to ask him how they were going to label raspberries…

Thursday, January 18, 2007

King Arthur Whole Grain Baking

The Vermont-based King Arthur Flour Company is America's oldest flour company--it was founded in Boston in 1790—and has always been a good source of fine baking ingredients and equipment, largely through The Baker's Catalogue, their online/mail-order business. Among the 1,000 items that King Arthur sells are their own home-grown baking books, including their most recent effort called King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking (The Countryman Press, $35).

I was really impressed with the attitude of the folks that developed the more than 400 recipes for this book, because I share their sentiments exactly about whole grain baking. Here's what they say in the intro to the book:

"This book is about flavor. It's not a lecture on why you ought to eat more whole grains, because you know that already. We set out to make whole grains taste great...We were determined not to accept any recipe with a comment something like, 'Tastes good for whole grain.'"

The book is filled with traditional baked goods that you would never expect to have whole grains in them: pound cake, eclairs, puff pastry, sticky buns. This is really what it's all about, learning how to improve the health profile of the foods you eat without turning them into drudgy health food.

Of course "good-for-you" foods can be a tough sell to kids, and the authors have addressed that: "If [your kids] try our brownies, cookies, cupcakes, breads and muffins, they'll never know (unless you tell them) about the whole grains in the recipe....We're not advocating hiding whole grains; however, many of us are parents and we know how hard it can be to get picky eaters to eat what's good for them."

Though clearly the recipes in the book have had a nice health makeover, the bonus is that they also sound delicious. Here are some that have tempted me: Chocolate Caramel Bread Pudding, Cheese Coins, Maple-Walnut Oat Bread, Pull-Apart Cranberry-Pecan Buns, Fudge Pudding Cake and Blueberry Cream Pie.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do you know what a bombilla is?

Well, since you asked, a bombilla is a metal straw, sometimes of gold or silver, that is used in South America to drink yerba mate. Mate is a tea brewed from the leaves of an evergreen tree (as opposed to the tea plant) and is traditionally sipped out of a carved gourd. The decorated gourds and bombillas are really quite beautiful. Take a look at the collection at Patagonia Gifts.

One reason that yerba mate has its own drinking paraphernalia and is treated with such affection and reverence is that it is astonishingly high in caffeine. One website noted that pre-Columbian Indians liked the tea because it provided "an increased resistance to fatigue" and it had "thirst and hunger mitigation powers." A fancy way of saying that it is astonishingly high in caffeine.

Anyway, this is just my long-winded way of getting to a book that has been recently published by Elvira de Mejia, assistant professor of food science at the University of Illinois. The book, which is called Chemistry and Flavor of Hispanic Foods (probably not a bestseller title), investigates the nutraceutical value of the Hispanic diet, from Mexican beans to Margaritas. One of the book's main focuses is on mate, which de Mejia says "has the highest antioxidant capacity of the ethnic teas we have studied in my lab. There is evidence that three to four cups of this tea per day could have a protective effect against chronic diseases."

It will be interesting to see if yerba mate gives white, green and black teas a run for their money in the healthy drink market, though frankly 3 to 4 cups of mate would have me bouncing off the walls.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

German carafemanship

There is a German company called Alfi that specializes in carafes. In fact the motto on their website is "Home of Hot & Cold" (must sound more interesting in German).

What's cool about Alfi is that they have taken a fundamentally functional object and elevated it to art object by asking a number of international designers to come up with distinctive carafe designs. The results are beautiful and strikingly different. We had a really hard time trying to pick our favorite, but ultimately we were influenced by price.

We chose the La Ola Carafe (left) and the Avanti Carafe (right) because they were in the $30-$40 range. You can buy the carafes online direct from Alfi or through their toll-free number: 1-800-966-3009.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Turning down the volume on the musical fruit

I happened to stumble across a study done in spring 2006 in which a group of scientists in Venezuela were looking to find the secret to gas-free beans. The problem with beans in the human digestive system is that bacteria in the large intestine actually ferment the beans in order to make them more digestible down the line (so to speak). As anyone who has ever made bread or beer knows, one of the by-products of fermentation is gas (C02). So the scientists were looking to find the specific bacteria that could be used to pre-ferment beans as they cook, thus reducing the gas problem.

Now what interested me about this story was not the actual findings (the research was geared to the food industry) but a remark made in passing--no pun intended--by the Reuters reporter, to wit: "Smart cooks know they can ferment beans, and make them less gas-inducing, by cooking them in the liquor from a previous batch."

So, OK, I guess I'm not a smart cook. I've never heard this theory. Has anyone out there ever done this? And did it work?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Morning Food

I've been in a breakfast/brunch kind of mood recently, so I've been thumbing through a revised version of a wonderful little cookbook called Morning Food (Ten Speed Press). The recipes are from a California chef named Margaret Fox, who for years was chef/owner of a famous restaurant in Mendocino, California, called Cafe Beaujolais.

The title of the book, and its contents, are a reflection of Fox's philosophy that there are lots of foods that people don't ordinarily associate with breakfast, but that she thinks many people do want to eat in the morning. As she puts it, you shouldn't have to "rationalize anything you choose to put in your mouth before noon."

Here are some "morning food" recipes from the book that illustrate her point: Posole (with pork ribs), Crunchy Country Fries, Sausage-Stuffed Baked Apples, Pumpkin Pie, Artichoke & Prosciutto Strata. Of course the book has plenty of regulation breakfast food, too, like Mocha Walnut Wonder Muffins, Tropical Waffles with Macadamia Nuts & Toasted Coconut, Blueberry Cream Cheese Coffee Cake.

In addition to delicious recipes, the book is also eminently readable, thanks, we assume, to both the book's co-author, John Bear, and to Fox's sense of humor. In her acknowledgments, Fox credits Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Dick Van Dyke Show for their "indelible influence on my young and impressionable sense of humor." If you want to read more about Margaret Fox, check her website.