How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tortilla Heaven

For this week's recipe, I dug into one of our favorite cookbooks, The Well-Filled Tortilla. by Victoria Wise and Susanna Hoffman. We purchased this book at a great little southwest book store in Tucson, Arizona -- where these things are decided. Its mix of simple and fancy, meat and veggie, savory and sweet, was just the thing for adventurous, thrifty cooking in graduate school. (A cursory look online shows that the great feminist book store Antigone and the great used book store Bookman's are both still in business, but I cannot find this southwest-themed store, whose name escapes me. Tucson readers: please tell me if it is still around. Meanwhile, it is good to know that Singing Wind in Benson is still a Mecca for readers of all things Southwestern!) Fortunately, more than 20 years after its initial publication, this celebration of the tortilla is still in print. At $10, I can think of no better cookbook bargain.

Zipf's Law, also known as the 80/20 rule, applies to many of life's distributions: 20 percent of volunteers (or employees) doing 80 percent of the work; 20 percent of a library's holdings comprising 80 percent of the circulation; 20 percent of songs taking up 80 percent of a radio's air time, and so on. For recipe books, however, Mr. Zipf's estimate is probably too conservative. We have cooked from this book hundreds of times, but I doubt we have prepared more than 5 percent of the recipes -- a 95/5 rule would be a generous estimation for this or any of our other cookbooks.

This common reality was part of Pam's motivation for the Nueva Receta project, and I am delighted. Thumbing through this volume, I commit to revisit some old favorites -- such as Turkish turkey tacos and Puerto Rican chicken fajitas -- but I disciplined myself to choose something we've never tried before. Because we have good beef in the freezer from last week's Julia Child adventure, and because of my recent interest in home brewing, I chose beef beer stew tacos (page 96) with a roasted red pepper, chili, and pine nut salsa (page 57).

This was an excuse to -- finally -- learn how to roast my own red peppers. The book includes an incredible assortment of salsa recipes, most of which are recommended to match particular fillings. I should have made more of those salsas when we lived in the Southwest, since produce in general and peppers in particular are much more limited in New England. I had made an orange/onion salsa quite a few times, but never any of the others. I have always wanted to roast red peppers, and finally got to it this time. Our oven has been acting up lately, so I almost resorted to a stove-top approach, but at the last minute I coaxed the oven into working. I roasted at 500 degrees for 25 minutes as directed, and many charred spots were beginning to appear. I will let it go a bit further next time, though, so that the outer skin will come off more easily, and by next time I hope to have a reliable oven! (These were red bell peppers, by the way, so there was no capsaicin problem working the pepper by hand.)

Confession: I simmered the beef in Mexican dark beer rather than amber, because my favorite -- Negra Modelo -- was readily available and a classic amber -- such as Dos Equis -- was not. Negra Modelo is dark for a Mexican beer, though not nearly as heavy as a dark European beer, so it seems to be within the spirit of this recipe. Also, I did not brew the beer, though a friend has given me a recipe with which I hope to clone Negra Modelo in the near future.

I shot this in-progress photo when I realized that several interesting things were on our counter at the same time. First, the counter itself: this is an ordinary, small island we purchased from Target a few years ago. We realized that we could use it as a small snack or breakfast table, if only its top were a bit wider, so we asked our friend Frank to build a new top for it. This gave us the added benefit of perhaps two more square feet of precious counter space in a kitchen that was not really designed for active cooking.

To the left of the counter is a box that I almost cropped out of the photo, but I might as well mention that it contains beer-brewing supplies. As we may have mentioned elsewhere on a blog, Pam discovered last year that National Home Brew Day is on my birthday (at least some years, it is), which has given us an excuse to add beer to the list of beverages about which we are becoming obsessive (see my recent tea post for others). We have not yet become completely obsessive, though: we are still working from kits. Eventually we hope to grow some of the ingredients ourselves and begin experimenting, but for now kits strike the right balance.

On the counter is a recipe-book holder, a gift that Pam received from my parents -- by fortunate coincidence -- just before this project began. We've tried a variety of approaches, and this is the best design we have encountered. Also in the photo are some beautiful peppers (though I'm sure my salsa will be better in the summer with local, if less photogenic, organic peppers). Some of the peppers are a lightweight mesh bag that we now use to replace the plastic produce bags at the grocery store. To the left of the peppers is a case for reading glasses -- the case itself comes from the El Chile women's weaving cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. In it we keep an old, crooked pair of glasses that is no longer suitable for reading books but works for occasional reading emergencies in the kitchen). Finally, in the background is a French press (also known as a press pot), which has nothing to do with this meal but is evidence of the near-constant presence of coffee in our lives, and of the great care we take in its preparation.

Our friends Anna, Brendan, and Amelia joined us for this small feast, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. I was grateful that Brendan brought guacamole at my request. He was raised in California, and even though Massachusetts in January is not natural habitat for avocados, he managed to provide us with a scrumptious appetizer.  The beef was exceptionally tender and savory, and the pairing with roasted red-pepper salsa was perfect. For our veggie daughter Paloma, I prepared her favorite rice-and-bean burrito. (The Nueva Receta project has begun with much more beef than we usually eat, so check this site in the near future for more vegetarian offerings!)

I was delighted that Pam prepared the table both with festive colors and with our real silver. Because washing it is a bit of an extra chore, we do not use our silver at every meal, but neither do we save it for once-a-year, formal meals. Silver helps to make any meal festive, as do fresh flowers (even if they are dyed unnatural colors).

Incidentally, using the silver with some frequency helps to prevent tarnishing.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pam's use of the phrase "cooking with ingredients" in her well-stocked kitchen post might seem redundant, but it refers to a specific observation we have made. For us, part of a well-stocked kitchen is an assortment of ingredients that can be made into food -- staples like flour, baking powder, beans, rice, good oils, certain liquors, and so on. With a variety of ingredients on hand, we can usually come up with something good to eat, even if we have not made a specific plan.

We first noticed this distinction when our daughter was young and we would try to help out babysitters by letting them know what was available to eat. We realized that what we were offering was not so much food as ingredients from which food might be made. At the same time, we realized that many of the wonderful young people involved really had no idea how to get from "ingredients" to "food," and we made some efforts to bridge that gap for them. In reality, we noticed that our regular sitters would just bring something, and that often we would find "box food" of some kind in our fridge that we, in turn, did not know what to do with!

Pam also mentioned the importance of tailoring the kitchen to the cook(s). Writing in today's Boston Globe, Beth Teitell describes a common and strange outcome of the wedding industry. As weddings and bridal registry have become increasingly grandiose over the past couple decades, many young couples have ended up with one-of-everything kitchen equipment collections, even if they do not cook. Her article, entitled Stick a Fork In It, describes some of the waste resulting from the disconnect between ideals and realities of domestic life.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A well-stocked kitchen

Those who read my "Celebrating the States" blog from 2010 know that I consider a cast-iron skillet a kitchen essential. I love my cast-iron skillets, and my cast-iron grill, and use them almost daily. My dirty little secret is that I once got rid of some cast-iron cookware because I didn't see how it was better than anything else, and it was just really heavy. After I read up on how to properly season, clean, and maintain cast-iron ware, and learned how to cook with it properly I discovered its true indespensibility. Cooking in cast iron will actually add iron to your diet and does not leach toxins as other pots and pans might. Plus it looks really rustic in your kitchen. Good kitchen utensils are important for those who want to cook with ingredients. Food preferences are personal, though, and acquiring the right things may take some trial and error. I know that for our family, beyond the cast-iron stuff, essential kitchen equipment includes good mixing bowls, and mixing spoons; a potato masher (I still have the one from the house I grew up in); a high-karma cheese grater (we threw away a lot of cheap ones, until we finally splurged and bought a cow-bell shaped, 100% stainless-steel grater for almost $20. It will last forever); good knives, a mortar and pestle, and a blender. I use the blender for anything that calls for a food-processor. It has, so far, made no difference. Likewise, I do not own a flour-sifter. For the kind of baking I do, mixing with a fork has always worked. Others may find that a food processor and a flour sifter are essential to their cooking. What I have found most important though, is to have things easily accessible and convenient to use. I know people who put away thier blender, toaster, any any other kitchen utensil when not in use. If the item is not out and easy to use though, it is less likely to get used.

One important thing this anal-retentive librarian had to get over when we started cooking seriously was that our kitchen is never completely clean, with every thing in its place. It is especailly important to me that we eat in the dining room, so I don't have to look at all the clutter in the kitchen at mealtime.

Julia's signature dish

In 2009 (my year of reading year of books) I read Julie & Julia, I also saw the movie based on Julie Powell's book, and Julia Child's My Life in France, which I also later read. Ever since I read Powell's book I have felt a great need to prepare Bouef Bourginon. The recipe is provided for free by Knopf Doubleday in a .pdf file, exactly as it appears in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The time to make this dish finally came this Sunday. Although I had printed out the recipe a long time ago, when I found it I discovered that I was missing part of it. James found some  instructions online and so we took our laptop into the kitchen and began what we thought would be a 2 1/2 hour project. I was undaunted by the website's warning that this was a "difficult" recipe and that it took "over two hours". It turns out it is at least a four-hour project, which, to be fair, is more than two. Since we didn't start until after 3:00 and James had Male Bonding Band practice at 7:30, we decided to take Child at her word when she says that it can be prepared a full day in advance, and eat the meal on Monday, so as not to rush through it. We decided to do the "day ahead" preparation even though we saw that it turned out to be a disaster when "Julie" tried the same thing. James made some extra coffee so we would not succumb to her fate of falling asleep while the pot cooked. We put the prepared stew pot into the refrigerator on Sunday evening and reheated it the next day. James was worried that this would make it dry out, but not so. The meat was tender and juicy, and the extra time gave the flavors time to meld perfectly. We served this over noodles, and paired it with the same beaujolais that we used in the recipe itself. It was fun to cook this together and gave us an opportunity to reminice about how we met in French class. I was also glad that I waited until some of the coldest days of the year to make this. The oven was on for a long time, which helped to heat our old New England home during a time of single-digit temperatures outside. As a bonus the house still smells good.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Splendid Table

The Splendid Table is a program from American Public Media that airs on Saturday evenings on WBUR in Boston, our regular NPR station. The timing is such that we do not catch it very often, but oddly enough it was while shopping for this blog project that I happened to hear it this evening. I was on my way to Fresh Catch in Mansfield when I heard several segments of this week's program.

I learned, for example, why the sense of smell is most closely associated with emotional memories, and the difference between flavor and taste. I also learned what Thai cooking has in common with the early American ideas of health involving the "humors" of hot, cold, wet, and dry. I was most excited, however, to hear the geographic segment known as "Where We Eat," in which Jane and Michael Stern discuss independent restaurants they visit throughout the United States (and sometimes Mexico). Today their report was on a "hole-in-the-wall" place known as the Tucson Tamale Company. From vegan to sirloin, this place seems to have it all. We have not been in Tucson for quite a few years, and few of our friends are there any more, but when we return, this place is on my list. (I am just coming into my own as a tamale preparer, and also have been learning a bit about the Central American equivalent: nacatamales (made with banana leaves). From the on-air description, I am sure I could gain an education from the Tucson shop.

For this pair of foodie-geographers, the "Where We Eat" archive looks like a gold mine: organized by state, it has scores of reviews, with a map to each location!

Final note: last week the guests included Tom Owen of Sweet Maria's with a discussion of home coffee roasting. I look forward to hearing that one.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

All in This Tea

"Food" includes "beverage" and in our household, a dedication to quality coffee has grown to encompass many of the lesser beverages, including beer, whisky, and tea. (We've not yet delved into milk, but it appears to be equally deserving of attention, as does sake.)

It is in this context that Pam found the intriguing documentary, All in This Tea, which is available both as a DVD and streaming video from Netflix. This 2007 film follows tea buyer David Lee Hoffman as he pursues tea in China. As I've read elsewhere, China has always preferred to keep its tea at home. Most of the tea that does get out goes through a series of intermediaries, lowering both pay to farmers and the quality to customers. This film follows Hoffman from the institutional sellers to the farmers themselves.

Online reviews of this film have been mixed, some emphasizing the education about tea and the insights into rural China and others noting Hoffman's arrogance and (apparent) lack of language skills. The former is evident throughout, though his arrogance is directed at sellers who appear to care little for their product or the producers, and it is on behalf of the farmers and the tea itself that he sometimes waxes strident, so I cannot blame him for being a bit curt with these merchants. The equivalent characters in coffee circles are known as coyotes, and even though I'm polite to these folks, I don't blame anyone who calls them out, as Hoffman does. Regarding his language skills (which I do consider to be very important), the fact that he speaks only English on camera has several possible explanations, aside from Ugly American-ness.

At least one online review suggests that the film provides a field-to-cup overview of tea, and I consider this overstated. Many steps are shown, but not in any systematic way, so that a much richer appreciation of tea can be gained, though not a comprehensive understanding. The film, in fact, does create one very serious false impression, as it implies that black, green, and oolong teas are different. In fact, they all are produced from Camellia sinensis, with differing levels of post-harvest oxidation.

Far more important than any technical details or personality traits, however, is the great appreciation for tea and tea farmers that this film conveys. The lush landscapes and intimate portrayals of a variety of tea-producing locales are memorable. As with every tea documentary I have watched so far, this one is extremely soothing, with sights and sounds that leave the viewer with a memory more like that of a dream than of a waking journey.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Apple-Gruyère French Toast With Red Onion

I found this recipe last month in the New York Times during Hanukkah. I printed it out, but never got around to preparing it, until last night. The name of the dish says it all. This was tangy, sweet, and tart. James and I both liked it. I knew better than to serve it to Paloma. She just had plain old boring french toast. I did insist that she eat some apple though.

I did not follow the recipe exactly as presented. I did not use challah bread, nor did I cut pockets into it, instead I made "french toast sandwhiches" with regular wheat bread. I can see how thick slices with pockets would be less messy though. Perhaps next time I will follow this method. I already had white onions at home, but not red ones, so I used what we had. I did not add salt and pepper to the egg mixture, nor top the toast with a fried egg. We ate ours with a bit of powdered sugar. Tasty.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Eating: A Very Serious Comedy about Women & Food

Three women are celebrating milestone birthdays in Henry Jaglom's film about food. The premise is that one of the party guests is also a filmmaker and is interviewing the other guests about their relationship with food. There are also some "off camera" conversations about men, and other interpersonal relationships. This came off as nothing more than a bunch of rich women whining about how they will never be thin enough, and never be good enough for their boyfriends, husbands or mothers, and never be able to enjoy eating: dieting, starving, and binging were the main topics covered. The tone was misogynistic and none of the women came off as likeable, strong, or secure. When one of the guests of honor, Helene, discovers that her husband is not coming home from a business trip because he is having an affair she goes on an embarassing quest to find out with whom. The backstabbing and cat fighting was really enough to make me want to just turn it off. I did end up finishing the film, but I had to watch in two sittings. I have seen similar films that don't really have a plot but rather "eavesdrop" on party conversations and I remember liking them. This one was just bad though.

Recipes - Week 2

I wound up making two new recipes today. When I realized that it was the 92nd anniversary of the Great Boston Molasses Flood I decided to make some molasses muffins and chose Apple Streusel Walnut muffins from the Crosby Molasses Company website. I like things with a lot of texture and the combination of apples, nuts, and molasses gave this a good mix of flavor and texture - moist, yet chunky. James, Paloma and I all liked these, and they only took about 20 minutes to mix and 20 minutes to bake. They went well with coffee and with milk.

Earlier this week we experienced a power outage, so I had thawed some ground turkey figuring that, since we have a gas stove, I would be able to cook turkey burgers on the stove top. I intended to invite some friends who have an electric stove to come over so we could all have a hot meal, but the power came on well before dinnertime, and my friends invited us back to their house for lasagna, which had been the plan in the first place. So, I still had the thawed turkey and was running out of week, and decided to see if I could find a new turkey burger recipe. Jane Brody's Good Food Book to the rescue. This cookbook is an old favorite, and we are on our second copy of it, having worn out the first. Brody's turkey burgers call for bread crumbs, chopped onion, ketchup, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, paprika, Tabasco sauce and black pepper. She suggests eating them on pita bread  with lettuce and tomato. I made the following changes to her recipe:

         When I squeezed our almost-empty ketchup bottle the plastic cracked, so I threw it away and
          substituted barbeque sauce
          We did not  have soy sauce so I put in extra Worcestershire sauce instead
          I used a plain old hamburger bun rather than pita bread

These were juicy and tender, and had a lot of flavors. They were especially good with the sweet potato fries I served with them. James and I both liked them. (Vegetarian Paloma did not join us.) I think, though, that I will stick with my old favorites for turkey burgers in the future: cheddar cheese with barbeque sauce, or the Apple Turkey Burgers I made last summer in honor of Arkansas Day.

Friday, January 7, 2011

First Recipe - Classic Italian Soup in Reverse

James and I subscribe to the Brockton Enterprise, which isn't a very good newspaper, but it is how we get our local news, Dear Abby, and some pretty good recipes. Every Wednesday is "Good Taste" day which features recipes and food related articles. I was looking to make a pretty simple recipe this week since James is away and I wasn't counting on Paloma, our daughter, to share it with me, since she doesn't want to try many new things, so I was happy to see this recipe  for pan-fried sourdough bread and tomato soup published on Wednesday. It only took 20 minutes to make, and since Paloma was sleeping at a friend's house I didn't have to worry about preparing something different for her (she generally eschews anything with tomatoes). The "reverse" referral is in regard to putting the bread in first, rather than last. The bread is essentially sauteed before any other ingredients are added. The fresh bread soaked up the olive oil and white wine in short order, which I think may have accounted for the exquisite flavor of this dish.

I made the following changes to the recipe:
1. Instead of canned tomatoes I used locally-grown tomaotes that I had frozen over the summer
2. I never use garlic power when real garlic will do
3. I used vegetable broth instead of chicken broth

This soup had many flavors and many textures, and was so easy to make. I wish James had been here to share it with me. He would have liked it.

On this Day in Cooking History

Famous Universalist Fannie Farmer introduced standard cooking measures when her cookbook The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook was published on this day in 1896. Read more from this Mass e-moment

Eat, Pray, Love - the movie

I read Elizabeth Gilbert's book during my Year of Reading "Year of" Books. I had been looking forward to the movie, and finally got to see it last night. One of the things Gilbert learns on her pilgrimage to Italy, India and Bali is the joy of eating. She stops worrying about the weight she is gaining from eating so much pasta and simply buys new jeans. At the ashram her new friend Richard dubs her "Groceries" for all the food she enjoys. She does not let this bother her, rather she embraces the name. Another important lesson she learns is "bel far niente" (the beauty of doing nothing) - a concept American's really have a hard time with.

Although I liked the book better, I did enjoy movie, and that Javier Bardem sure isn't hard to look at.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the early 1990s. A memorial garden was dedicated to him in August 1993. He told me that he and his partner, John, prepared "una nueva receta cada semana" (one new recipe a week). With the help of my partner - my loving husband James - I will attempt to live up to Bob and John's standard. The blog will not be written in Spanish, nor will it be recipes exclusively from Spanish-speaking countries. I will be using my own myriad collection of cookbooks and looking beyond the pages that are bookmarked with my favorite foods. I will also blog about food-related books and movies along the way.