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Censored!

19 May

A few years ago, I picked up this copy of Bill Buford’s Heat in a used bookstore. I’d heard good things about it and wanted to use it for research to get an idea of what it’s like to work in a restaurant kitchen.

Here’s the thing with used books: You never know what you’re going to get. I was reading away, enjoying the book, when I flipped the page to this:

Wait a sec–the black bar? What’s so bad that I shouldn’t read it?

I flipped the page and held the book up to the light. Oh, I thought. It’s “got cocky. Someone thought I shouldn’t read that.”

That made me chuckle, but as you might imagine from what I’ve heard about the back of house in restaurants, this was just the beginning of the censorship. A few fucks were crossed out, maybe some other words–the censor got really good with their blackout technique.

Then there was this choice:

 

 

 

So…..let’s cross out every time “fucking” was used, but “bastards” can stay in?

 

 

 

 

 

But the last straw was this:

 

This little passage must have gotten the censor really angry, because any word that’s part a sexual suggestion has been blacked out. Like “kissing.” Bad!

I don’t understand–if the book’s so horrid that someone was compelled to censor it, why even bother to make sure it exists anyway? Why not just recycle it back to the pulp from whence it came? I can’t imagine the couple of bucks they got for it really was worth the effort of all of this fine handiwork.

And if it was, this book certainly landed in the wrong hands, because I don’t give a fuck about they think.

 

Getting Culture Where You Can

5 May

When you travel a lot, it sounds impressive. But ask anyone who does some heavy-duty travel, and they’ll tell you it’s not vacation. For whatever trip you’re on, you’re in _______ most of the time–and “_____” is not the pool, or a theme park, or a museum, or the beach. It’s usually an office or a conference room–or in my case, some sort of sporting venue.

I’m fortunate enough to have gone to Argentina, but the majority of my time there was spent here:

In terms of roller derby venues, this one was cool. This room was the handball/futsal part, which connected to a cafeteria and a weight room, other class- and exercise rooms. In the courtyard, girls took roller skating lessons. There was a restaurant and an outdoor seating area that abutted a tennis court. But back to my room for the weekend. For watching derby, it was great because you were above the action.

Still, 75-80% of my week in Argentina was spent here, which means that my exposure to “what is Argentinian” is mostly limited to my hotel room, my walk to and from the venue, and the venue itself–and don’t get me wrong, the venue gave me an interesting insight into some aspect of Latin American culture, as I had a heavy duty conversation about bidets while I was there and that’s something I really don’t think about in America. My narrow window notwithstanding, if I’m to get a feel for the area, it’s likely going to be through food.  Food’s a lifeline to understanding culture, and as I love understanding how other people live (and if they do life better than I), I needed to eat like they did.

Now, Argentina is known for its delicious empanadas. I myself happen to make a decent empanada. I have my own recipe–it’s really the only one I’ve developed so far–and the Boy loves it. It’s not a traditional Argentinian recipe, but I have to say, it’s pretty darned good. Problem is, I like them with cheese, and the Boy doesn’t do dairy, which means there’s a lot of separating going on in our kitchen.

Enter my Argentinian empanada take out experience. On the last night of the tournament, several of us got an empanada delivery of a mix of varieties. With it came the above cheat sheet to tell you which one was which, and then a light bulb went off in my head. Why not fold my cheesy empanadas differently?

This past weekend, I made a big batch–some to share with friends, and some to eat at home. Some with cheese, some without. Since I’d been exposed to different folding techniques, I knew that I could develop my own folding code for home use, and man, did it ever make a difference in calming down some allergy nerves.

All I can say is, thank you, Argentina.

There’s a Barbie–Where’s the Shrimp?

18 May

On our second night in Bateman’s Bay, we decided to make use of the big grill and picnic tables by our cabin and got all the fixings for a big communal dinner. For me, these kinds of dinners make the best memories. From the grocery shopping to doing the dishes, the entire process is completely enjoyable because you’re a group of five separate people and here you are building something together. Sure, it’s just a meal that you’ll end up consuming, which means after a day (including leftovers for the breakfast burritos), the tangible elements have disappeared. However, the sense of community you’ve built in those few hours remains–along with the knowledge that Susy knows her way around the BBQ and Panti makes a mean breakfast burrito.

Communal dinner starts with a trip to the grocery store, which is a highlight for me on any trip. When I travel, I like to see how other people live, which means knowing what they eat. In a different country, it’s fun to see how American brands are marketed (smaller bags of Doritos, for instance), and it’s interesting to see regional food differences. In Australia, the grocery stores are a gateway to Tim Tams, unusual flavors of potato chips (camembert and quince, anyone?), ginger beer, and Australian yogurt.

This dinner meant the opportunity to sample some kangaroo meat, which is probably easier to find in the grocery store than it is to find on a restaurant menu. The meat tastes a little gamey and can dry out quickly if you cook it too long, so marinade and quick cooking helped. We also had sausages, potatoes, corn on the cob and salad. Panti, who mainly eats vegetarian but does have fish now and then, decided he wanted to make shrimp shish kabobs, which Susy obligingly tossed onto the grill, much to our stupid American delight. We ate like royalty but still had leftovers for the next day’s kangaroo breakfast burritos.

Our little feast helped take the rest of the edge off of what had been a lousy morning, and I hope the memories will eventually completely overshadow that time so that I only remember the goodness of this trip.

The 200-lb. (or Maybe 20 lb.) Ham

7 Apr

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When planning a big meal, I’m not the best judge of how much food to actually buy. Case in point, this year’s Easter ham. We had ten people over–which is a lot for us–and when you figure in that our friends really like the Boy’s ham recipe (this is an understatement), leftovers for everyone, and the weight of a bone, we definitely needed a ham that was over ten pounds. This, of course, set off the stressful situation of exactly what size ham to buy when I went to the store. Do I go with the 13-lb. ham that doesn’t mention any of the features the Boy asked for (fully cooked, bone in, etc.)? Or do I go to the 20-lb. ham that’s exactly what we want? And why don’t I feel like asking the guy at the meat counter if they’ve got another size? I just asked him about casing, for crying out loud!

Well, the Boy is a man, and he gets a kick out of cooking a massive pile of meat. We also have this enormous stock pot (known to us as the “Ham Pot”) that’s so big, it only fits in one tall cupboard in our kitchen, and it’s a point of pride to be able to cook a ham so big that it needs a restaurant-sized stock pot for the boiling phase. A twenty pound challenge? Bring it!

The Boy was happy, the Ham Pot got used, the ham was delicious. However, what complicated things is that we also made five pounds of kielbasa, which essentially competed with the ham for share of stomach. This contributed to a ton of leftovers, and suddenly it seemed like our 20-lb. ham had yielded way more than 20 pounds. Our leftover happy friends should’ve managed to clean up nicely, but for some reason, everyone was a bit skittish and now we have a couple of bags of ham in our fridge and freezer.

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Get Your Flip On!

17 Feb

Happy Pancake Day! Yes, today is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday too, but in England it’s Shrove Tuesday, and you eat pancakes. My Brit friend Angwa is pretty keen on the day, so there’s always a celebration with British crepe-like pancakes and tons of fillings (I think the idea is to clean out your pantry in preparation for Lent). This year we’ll also do American flapjacks, for those who aren’t fans of crepes, and our Japanese friend will make up some okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake/pizza type dish.

And for me it’s also Paczki Day.

This year, instead of going on a big paczki hunt, I’m going to attempt to make my own for the first time, thanks to a Jenny Jones recipe. I know! Jenny Jones! She’s still around and putting things out into the world (read her bio–she’s done some pretty cool stuff in her lifetime). And she has a paczki recipe. How can I not try it?!

Tonight we eat–whether you’re eating pancakes or paczkis or celebrating with a drink or two, eat well. Tomorrow we share pictures.

Ingredients Beget Ingredients

10 Feb

I’ve been steadily refilling my friends’ food subscription jars this winter, a project which I’m having a lot of fun with–and noticing a big issue.

One reason I started the project was to go through what I have and see if I need to hang onto it. I have a bunch of cookbooks I don’t use often. I have a big binder full of recipes I keep meaning to try. I have cupboards full of ingredients I should probably use.

I could do all of these on my own, without needing to fill a bunch of jars at random intervals, but I’m finding the subscription helps. The Boy and I don’t need to have a dozen cupcakes on hand. Nor do we necessarily need a quart of BBQ sauce that will spoil more quickly than the stuff you buy in the store. But if I share those with others–which I can’t really do effectively in a home office situation–I still get to see if the recipe’s a keeper, and I (hopefully) don’t consume as much. Having friends constantly request refills means that I’m forced to make sure I keep at my project to make sure I go through my cookbooks and binders, some of which have been full of Post-It flags for a good five years.

One thing I’d hoped to be able to do with the project is use up ingredients that are lingering on my shelves. However, sometimes it turns out that I have to get more random ingredients in order to use the first ones. Case in point: peach schnapps. We acquired a bottle in order to provide fuzzy navels for a 1980’s party, and now we have a lot of peach schnapps sitting around the house. Where to use it? How about a lovely recipe for fuzzy navel cupcakes, courtesy of one of my favorite cookbooks, Booze Cakes? Perfect, right?

Well, to a point. The recipe calls for orange marmalade and peach preserves, neither of which I had on hand–nor can I remember the last time I’ve ever purchased them–if I’ve ever purchased them in my lifetime. The Boy won’t eat them. I’m not big on eating a ton of jellied products, so now what? Yep, gotta find recipes that use orange marmalade and/or peach preserves. Bonus if they also use peach schnapps, because, yep, we’ve still got a fair amount of that. I’d start drinking a ton of fuzzy navels, but I’m busy consuming cosmopolitans because we have a 64 oz. bottle of cranberry juice that we also bought for said 80’s party. And we have a ton of vodka on hand. Did you know that a good cosmo only uses 1 oz. of cranberry juice at a time? I’ll be drinking cosmos until that stuff goes bad, and I bet I’ll still have to dump half the bottle. I am, however, whipping right through the vodka and orange liqueur, for what that’s worth.

I suppose I should start tracking all of the random ingredients I buy for said recipes. At the end of the year, I can see what I end up throwing away or find lurking in the back of the cupboard and/or refrigerator. Or, maybe I’ll be successful and use up everything–which might be another fun challenge in and of itself.

What’s Your Go-To Cook Book?

22 Jan

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Happy National Blonde Brownie Day!

According to Eat the Year, today is the day we should be celebrating the non-chocolate-based brownie, the brownie that looks in this picture, thanks to the coating of chocolate chips on the top, like a pan cookie. But it’s not. It does, however, have a lot of brown sugar in it, which is mighty tasty.

I’m not sure I’ve ever made blondies, so I grabbed my handy-dandy Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (note: the linked version is much newer–mine is copyright 1996) because I figured it would have a recipe. And it did not fail me. Recipe was easy too!

That got me to thinking, what are people’s go-to cook books for everyday recipes? BHG is one of my two standards. It’s the one I reach for when I need a quick recipe or am looking for something that sounds all-American. It teaches the basics in a very approachable way (and by approachable, I might mean “with color photographs”).

My other go-to is The Joy of Cooking. We own two versions of this: the 1975 version, which is spiral-bound (plus!) and includes recipes for cooking opossum (“If possible, trap ‘possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing.” It’s as if possum’s the veal of the small game world–but you get to fatten it up and kill it yourself), porcupine, raccoon, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, beaver tail, and armadillo. The 1997 version’s chapter on game isn’t nearly that extensive, and the book is hardbound, so it doesn’t lie as flat easily. It is, however, more geared to what people cook today.

The Joy of Cooking is nice because its basic information on different food groups is pretty extensive, and I feel like I’ve gotten some training after I’ve successfully read and completed a recipe (believe me, this feeling of satisfaction doesn’t always happen). It can be a little intimidating to use though, so while I know it’ll have pretty much anything I need, I don’t always turn to it right away.

I’ve got a few other general cookbooks that I’ve been working through–a Rachael Ray, a Mr. Food, a Frugal Gourmet, but I don’t instantly reach for them the way I do these two. Are these two the end-all be-all of basic cookbooks? If not, what do you own?

Looking for a Lovely Bake

20 Jan

On the Internet, cooking and baking blogs seem to lean toward either extreme:

I am a fabulous home cook, and let me show you every perfect step along the way

OR

Look how dumb I am, and my recipe hilariously didn’t turn out anything like it was supposed to

I’m not opposed to either version. Cooking can be difficult, and I too look to plenty of amateur cooks to help me get dinner on the table on a regular basis. I also take comfort in the food fails, because, well, not everything goes well on the first attempt, and it’s good to be able to look away from the perfect amateurs and take solace in those who’ve also made their kitchens explode.

Perhaps that’s why I love “The Great British Bake-Off (or “Baking Show,” as it’s called in the US). I’m watching the desserts episode as I write this (a friend is imploring me to catch up), and because these amateur bakers get challenges thrown at them that come with minimal instruction (Make this Mary Berry recipe to the T. Oh, and the recipe doesn’t give you much to go on. See you in two hours. Tootle-Loo!), you get contestants who say–and I quote–“How the hell are you supposed to cut that horizontally?” You get to hold your breath along with the contestants to see if their puddings self-sauce. You get to see several different interpretations of one recipe and see where it goes right and wrong. And you get to watch contestants make a cake, only to realize they seriously fucked up mixing it, and they throw it into the trash and start all over.

This is kind of how I felt this weekend, when I tried making Norman’s Farthing Biscuits. On the biscuit show, they sounded easy–just flour, butter and lard. Nothing to it!

Right. I’ve never worked with lard before, so I’m not sure what to expect.

The recipe is a little lacking in that it doesn’t tell you how much time the recipe should take, other than baking time. Knowing how long various steps should take would be helpful in preventing the internal freak-out of wondering when the hell the ingredients would crumb together, like so:

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And then you stir in enough water to form a dough and form it into a ball. Or four.


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I somehow cobbled these together in one ball and chilled it according to the recipe. Then you have to roll it out “slightly thinner than the thickness of a pound coin” and stamp out round crackers. Several issues with this. I present Exhibit 1:

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The cobbled together dough crumbled and made tons of scraps. You’re supposed to roll out the dough, cut the biscuits, then combine all the scraps together and repeat. Heh! I rolled, cut, then piled up the scraps until I finally tossed them out. Also notice the star-shaped cookie cutter. Yep, I realized I don’t have a round cutter, so star shapes it was (which, to be honest, turned out to be a cool mistake).

Now for Exhibit 2:

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This picture is post-bake, but one of these has be be slightly thicker than a pound coin. Apparently it’s been a while since I’ve been to the UK because I don’t seem to have a decent memory of the pound’s size. I should go back for….research….yeah….

The final product involves poking a bunch of holes in the dough and baking them.

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On the whole, these turned out OK. If you’re like me, you can serve them with butter or cheeses, and while you’re eating them, you remember that you don’t really like the bland taste of Carr’s Table Water Crackers, which are pretty damn similar. You wonder why you ever decided that Norman’s were going to change your mind–particularly the thicker ones–and you close the book on ever making that recipe again.

Baking Weather

7 Jan

The world of food competitions is something I’m kind of fascinated with. I enjoy cooking and baking–trying new recipes and sometimes coming up with my own–but it’s not enough of a hobby to make it more than impressing my friends and my waistline.

I do enter the occasional food competition. I recently made a banana, spinach and pineapple pizza that I thought wasn’t half-bad, but it didn’t pass the muster in Chiquita’s competition. That’s understandable, given that the people who do win a lot of recipe contests really work at it and know how to develop a recipe. I’m just a yokel when it comes to that kind of thing, and the non-responses I’ve had to contest entries are proof that I’d have to put some real effort into developing that skill if I want to get somewhere with it.

However, I do enjoy judging from the couch and watching the occasional food competition show. My British friend Angwa failed me this week, when I discovered “The Great British Baking Show” all on my own, and not with the help of said friend who got me into watching “Top Chef.” Harrumph!

Have you been watching? It’s fantastic! Especially when everyone’s baking in The Tent, and it starts pouring rain. So British! And frankly, better weather than the cold we’re starting to get. The contestants have to do three recipe challenges per episode/food item, one of which involves making one of judge Mary Berry’s (who’s called the “doyenne of baking”–it’s got to be fabulous to be the doyenne of something) recipes. The instructions on these tend to be something like, “put it in the oven and bake until done.” Then you see frazzled contestants puzzle over just exactly what that means while furiously checking their pastry.

The contestants come up with some amazing items. During the “Biscuits” episode–after which I felt challenged to learn how to make a proper English biscuit, which will come just after I’ve finished perfecting the Swiss Roll that they had to make during the “Cakes” episode–they made these incredible 3D biscuit displays — think gingerbread house, but with dragons or pirates or ski mountain scenes. And then the judges ate them! Who makes these things?! Who eats them?! Apparently the Brits.

One thing I like about the show more than it just being a good reality competition show (one of my favorite genres to watch) is the fact that it does inspire me to try new things in the kitchen, get to know ingredients better and try new things with them.

For Christmas this year, I gave some foodie friends three jars filled with recipes I’d tried — some bourbon caramel sauce, some bacon jam (if you want a good bacon jam recipe, Cinnamon Cooper’s is the best. The chorizo makes it magical), banana bread muffins and mint chocolate flourless cake. When they’ve emptied the jars, they can return them, and I’ll fill them with other things I want to learn to make, things like homemade ketchup, a good BBQ sauce, pickles, different types of bread, some boozy cakes, etc. It’s a mystery food subscription, and I hope it’ll be fun to keep up with–or rather, with all of this inspiration, see if they can keep up with me.

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