Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The perils of cooking

This makes me smile every time.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Better than I expected!

You know how sometimes you have an idea for a dish and it just doesn't work? I chalk those episodes up to educational moments. I learn something each time I fail. Equally, I learn when I succeed. And I get to do happy dances.

I recently had an idea for a seafood dish reminiscent of cioppino, but as usual I wasn't planning on following any real recipe. It worked beautifully and I'm still feeling smug, especially as this was a birthday dinner for a friend. Perhaps that means I really should have followed a recipe and I was just lucky.

I gathered together my ingredients:
  • peeled and deveined shrimp
  • cherrystone clams
  • chopped pepper, onion and garlic
  • chopped chorizo
  • chopped palm hearts
  • chopped tomatoes
  • a can of stewed tomatoes
  • a can of chopped clams
  • a can of seafood broth

I sauteed the peppers, onions and garlic, then added in sequence, letting it cook for a bit each time:
  • the sausage
  • the palm hearts
  • the tomatoes along with some basil and pepper
  • the broth and canned tomato
  • the shrimp and clams
I let the whole mess cook until the clams were open and ta-da! it was done and delicious. I served it on rice and felt unutterably pleased with myself. Frankly, I still do.

My friend enjoyed his birthday dinner and I was reminded that taking a risk and trusting my palate is sometimes exactly the right thing to do.

I'd love to know about some of your unexpected successes. It's sometimes easier to tell the disaster stories; when has a dish worked beyond your wildest expectations?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The taste of summer

For some people summer means grilling or soft ice cream. For me, it's all about the watermelon. Maybe it's a bit late, writing about summer tastes in late August, but now is the time that I become sentimental for what will vanish in just a few weeks.

I love watermelon. I'm not the only one. Watermelon originated in southern Africa; watermelon seeds were found in Tutankhamen's tomb. It makes sense that these melons evolved in southern Africa; they hold immense amounts of water (92%) and as they over-ripen they crack open, giving the seeds a wet, lucsious place within which to take root. There are stories about watermelon from around the world, ruminations on sweetness and bitterness, Anansi tales where he pretends to be a talking melon, and more.

When I eat watermelon in the summer I am at once a kid again, longing for seeds to spit (curse these seedless watermelons!) and an adult indulging in a forbidden sweet. I love the varied texture and clean sweetness. And I love sprinkling it with salt or feta for one of my favorite taste combinations, sweet and salty.

What's you favorite watermelon tip? I've heard about grilling it but haven't been able to resist it long enough to get it downstairs to the grill. For that matter, what tastes like summer to you?

(c) 2010 Laura Packer

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bread of peace

Ramadan began this week. I am not Muslim but I  respect this religion, as I do most faiths. In the US these days there is growing anti-Muslim sentiment that I find quite distressing; judging a person based solely on their religion is no better than judging them based on the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage. Some of the hate-speech I've heard sounds awfully similar to what was bandied about in Nazi Germany. This nation that was founded on religious tolerance is slipping into a fearful state, where someone will be condemned because of their faith. How dreadfully sad and frightening.

Ramadan is an amazing statement of faith and humility. For a month everyone becomes equal - all are hungry and thirsty. All have the opportunity to pray for forgiveness. All have a specific opportunity to be kind.

As I said, I am not Muslim. I am Jewish. I have fasted for various religious holidays and have an appreciation for the clarity it can bring. And for the succulence of the meal that breaks the fast.

I am fortunate enough to live in a multi-ethnic neighborhood; recently a Moroccan market opened, with the scent of rosewater and the scrape of ceramic tagines. I stopped in a few days ago and spoke with the proprietor, a kind and friendly man. We spoke of Ramadan. And of Yom Kippur. And how the differences between his family and mine are really quite trivial. A woman in a hijab was listening to our conversation and, as we began talking about what we eat when we break fast, she said, "You must try this," pointing to a plate of flatbread covered in plastic. The proprietor nodded and pulled out a piece for me to eat. "She makes this," he said, and she preened, "I stick it in the oven with butter and honey. It tastes like my mother feeding me at the end of the fast."

They both watched as I tasted the soft, chewy bread. It was delicious and as each layer unraveled in my mouth I could taste the time it took to create, the delight on the tongue after a day of considered hunger.

"It's wonderful, " I replied, and bought several, along with sweets and pomegranate syrup. They smiled as though I were a child bringing home a good report card.

"Next time," said the shopkeeper, "You bring us some of your food. It's good to eat together."

And so it is.

It took me a while to find a recipe for msmen, the bread I ate, and I've not yet made it, so I will simply give you the link. Whether or not you make it, next time your stomach rumbles in hunger, take a minute and consider all those who are hungry. As you break your fast take a moment and be grateful. Let the taste of your food saturate your mouth. And then share your feast with friends old and new, familiar and different. We build bridges with bread, with shared meals, with hands reaching out across boundaries.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cake fail!

Some time ago I posted about my problem with cookbooks. I have too many of them I don't use often enough. In that post I said I would try to use them more often and would blog about the results. Well, it's been awhile, but finally I have something to report - an exciting failure. I think we need to talk more about our failures because we learn as much from experimentation and failure (stretching our boundaries) as we do from our successes. I'm putting my money where my mouth is. And where my cake went.

I needed to make a dessert for dinner with friends. Rather than go to any of my tried and true recipes or the store, I decided to try something from one of my old cookbooks. After some pleasant reading I settled on this one, The New Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book by Ruth Hutchinson, (c) 1948 and 1958. Each chapter begins with some homely advice, the recipes themselves are straightforward and largely attributed to various wives - Mrs. Donald Hellferich, Mrs. Thomas B. Keck - with a few single women and men tossed in for good measure.

The molasses cake recipe looked good - I love molasses - and I had all the ingredients on hand. While the recipe had some unfamiliar steps and proportions I thought it would be an adventure. And it was.
Here is what I learned:
  • Creaming 2T of shortening into 1c of brown sugar is a challenge. 
  • I thought 1c water AND 2c molasses seemed like a lot of liquid for this recipe. I was right (see below) and need to remember to trust my instincts.
  • I'd never tried the soda-and-vinegar leavening method. I enjoyed the grade-school volcano experience. 
The batter was very liquid. I didn't add more than 1T extra flour, since this was a new recipe. I just poured it into the loaf pan and popped it into the oven.

Fifteen minutes later I smelled something burning. The cake had risen so much - and was still so liquid - that it had boiled over and a quarter of the batter was burning on the floor of my oven. I put a cookie tray on the bottom shelf, scraped off what I could from the oven and decided heck! it's summer! I'll turn on the fan and let it go.

After 45 minutes it was still molasses soup. Clearly something was amiss.

At 1:25 I finally took it out of the oven. The middle was still a thick liquid while the sides were a dense, soft cake. Kind of like a hot fudge pudding. Hmm. I scooped it into a bowl and we ate it - hot molasses pudding. Delicious. But not what I expected nor anything I could bring to our hosts. And my oven was a mess.

Next time I'll plan on the extreme leavening and make it in a much larger bowl, maybe use less water and more flour, or just go with the pudding effect. It was a good learning experience.

I ended up bringing strawberries to our hosts. And a story. Now they want to come over and taste the molasses pudding. I just hope when I make it deliberately it turns out half as well.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Monday, June 7, 2010

Quick sage pesto

For dinner tonight I made a quick pesto for boneless chicken thighs on the grill. I used to be afraid of pesto, always measuring out all the ingredients, but have finally realized it's just a matter of throwing a green herb, garlic and olive oil into the processor.The photos are terrible, so you just get the recipe. I expect the pesto would be great on potatoes too.

In a food processor or mortar and pestle smush together:

  • a lot of garlic (I used an entire head of cloves)
  • at least 10 good sized sage leaves, fresh from the garden
  • enough olive oil to encourage emulsion
  • salt and pepper to taste

Smear it on your chicken, potatoes, whatever and grill. Don't breath on anyone afterwards, this is a lot of garlic. Enjoy!

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dried limes

Some ingredients seem magical and unreachable. Their very names, even in translation, evoke distance, time, an immigrant's longing for home, the stories we tell to remind ourselves we are not lost to those we love. My list is undoubtedly different than yours (these may be everyday ingredients to you!) but here are a scant few:

Szechuan peppercorn
Black mustard seed
Durian fruit
Cashew fruit
Dried limes

Now, I've used or eaten most of the things on this list at one time or another. I fell in love with cashew fruit in Brazil, I love the pop of black mustard seed when I make Indian food, szechuan peppercorn thrills and then numbs my taste buds (though I don't cook well with it) and I've gotten past the initial shock of durian fruit to taste its subtle sweetness. But dried limes have long eluded me. I could see them in Middle Eastern grocery stores and wonder how on earth would I use them? Then I'd be distracted by the halvah and olives, forgetting to get dried limes just to see what they're like.

Last week the New York Times food section ran an article highlighting some dried lime recipes. I jumped at the chance. And now, having made dried lime drink, I'm hooked I will try other dishes and see what transpires.

Dried Lime drink, from the New York Times with my notes

Break 2 dried limes into several pieces. (You can use a mortar and pestle or put them in a sandwich bag and smack them with a hammer. Their shells give after the second or third push with a pestle, but it seems almost a shame to crack them.) You can find dried limes in Middle Eastern grocery stores. They are lovely, suggestive memories of limes, inexpensive, you'll buy more than two in a bag and be glad you did.

Inside you will see soft, dark lime flesh, missing all moisture.

Combine 4 cups water, 1/4 cup of sugar and the lime pieces in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 4 minutes. Next time I may use less sugar.

Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. I lined a colander with one coffee filter and that worked well.

Discard the solids. The NYT recipe suggests you don't add the sugar initially but add it now. I prefer making dissolving the sugar as the water comes to a boil. It's up to you.

While you can drink it warm I preferred it cold. I added a few mint leaves from the garden for brightness.

It tastes like the stories limes might tell each other in the corners of smokey coffeehouses, absolutely a  lime drink, but with far more undertones than limeade. It was redolent with lime oil, tart and almost a bit sour. It was absolutely refreshing and lovely.

Try it. 

I'm going to go searching for more once-upon-a-time ingredients. Who knows what might happen?

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Blog Jog!

Thank you for stopping by cookpot stories! Please explore all this blog has to offer, then jog on over to www.cruisebugchatter.com. If you would like to visit a different blog in the jog, go to http://blogjogday.blogspot.com.

If you leave a comment with a link to your own page, one lucky winner chosen at random will receive a vintage cooking pamphlet from me!

Friday, April 30, 2010


Have you noticed that you can get fresh summer squash in the winter? Asparagus in the fall? Tomatoes year round? Sure, they may not be at their most flavorful, but many of the fruits and vegetables that we used to think of as seasonal delicacies are now available throughout much of the year, thanks to international shipping and modern growing techniques. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, asparagus is one of my passions, but I'm finding I miss the rhythm of seasonal foods. Now, when I find items that are only available in their own time, I embrace them, savor them, remember what it must have been like to be in awe of an orange in the toe of your stocking on Christmas morning.

I was reminded of this recently on a trip to Boston's Haymarket, our year-round open air produce and fish market. It's changed dramatically in the 20 years I've been shopping there (and I'm sure you can find essays that extoll it's glorious past and reduced present) but I love it. Everyone comes there, every age, ethnicity and economic status. Barkers call out to you to buy their tomatoes or avocados or celery. You can see the seasonal shift more readily there, not only by the dramatic price changes that are often disguised at the supermarket, but by the wonders you can find in the stands.

On my last visit I happily bought asparagus and leeks, celery and parsley. Then I saw a stand with a display of lovely, small, green fuzzy things. I had no idea what they were. I asked the vendor who waved his English-speaking brother over. "Green almonds," he said. I asked him how to eat them and had nearly reached the limits of his English while I speak no Arabic. He cut one open and I saw a glistening, soft gem. "Boil in oil. With salt."  I couldn't resist, bought a pound and brought it home.

They are beautiful, clearly showing their kinship to peaches. The rind is soft and easy to cut and the seed inside doesn't need oil or salt or any addition beyond itself. They are pearl white, translucent and glistening when broken open, so very tender. It tastes of spring. It tastes green. It tastes of living earth and new life and the hope of a new year. It is the reminder of almonds as currency, as precious beyond compare, as the offering for a loved one or honored guest. I am in love, but I know this love is fleeting, because green almonds are utterly seasonal, gracing our tables for only a few weeks each year and infrequently found in New England.

The ephemeral nature of this love makes it all the more sweet and as my mouth fills with the personification of the scent of grass I savor the fleeting moment, the reminder that time passes and spring,  while brief, will come again.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What the world eats

In 2005 Peter Menzel published a book called What the World Eats that captured families and their intake for one day. It's an amazing look at culture, economy, family and health.

You can see some of the pictures from the book here. Every time I look at this I am struck by how wealthy, lucky and unhealthy Americans are.

What do you eat in a day?

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cookbook addiction

I love cookbooks. As you can see, I buy far more cookbooks than my life realistically needs. I read them, ponder the recipes and commentary and consider their cultural context with great joy; when I find scribbled notes beside recipes or scraps of paper in used volumes it thrills me. What I don't tend to do is cook from them. This strikes me as kind of silly, a waste of paper and space.

It's time to change that. I'm going to explore some of these volumes, especially the older, odder ones, and record my adventures here. I look forward to some gloriously unpleasant dishes (because our gastronomic sensibilities in 2010 are not the same as they were in the 1940s - who boils broccoli for 30 minutes anymore?) and some gems. I hope you'll keep me company on the journey and let me know what you think. I'd like to thank my step-daughter, Cara, for the off-handed remark that led to this idea.

To start, let's take a look at my bookshelves. For a librarian's daughter, these are a shameful chaos, but each book has a reason for being there. Buried in here are:
  • three copies of Joy of Cooking 
    • the copy my mom obtained when she was in her 20s and gave to me when I moved out, so worn it no longer has a complete table of contents or an index
    • a slightly newer copy I bought at a yard sale so I could use the index
    • my husband's copy, newer still, brought into our home when we moved in together
  • binders and folders of recipes my mother-in-law collected over 50 years of cooking. I don't believe she used most of them
  • my grandmother's Jewish cookbook. I can't imagine she ever opened it
  • a stack of recipe cards from my great-aunt that include a startling array of uses for prunes
  • recipes my husband's grandmother cut out of the newspaper in the 1930s and '40s
  • many recipe booklets that came with appliances and goods (blenders, toasters, household ingredients) that I've collected over the years
  • guy cookbooks from my honey's single days
  • church and community fundraising cookbooks from around the country
  • gourmet and specialty cuisine cookbooks
and so on. I admit it. I have a problem with cookbooks. But boy, they are fun to read. And now I'll be cooking from them, too.

I look forward to your comments - does anyone else out there have a similar problem with cookbooks? I'd love to read your thoughts about cookbook addiction, cooking from obscure and forgotten tomes and more.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ritual and preparation

I don't know about you, but my life has been so busy lately that I've had little time to really think about the meals I've been cooking. Most are made simply and in haste. Okay, I have chicken breasts and a bottle of salsa. Great, that goes in the oven, chop up a salad and yup! dinner and leftovers for lunch. Whew!

While this is tasty and generally healthy (I'm trying to not eat like an idiot) I miss the time and attention cooking can take. The step-by-step nature of it. The linear acts that lead to completion. It's a comforting kind of ritual that binds me to patience, to time, to doing one thing at a time. We connect to ritual time in many ways (prayer, meditation, doing the same thing every day as get ready for work). I find it through cooking.

I had a chance to engage in this careful kind of cooking recently in honor of Passover. For those of you who may not know, the Passover Seder requires several ritual foods that are eaten in a specific order and that have specific meanings. There is also a meal served two-thirds of the way through that often has traditional elements.

The Seder plate includes, among other things, charoset (a sweet mixture of fruit, spices and wine), matzo, the sacrifice (a shank bone) and maror (bitter herbs). In the preparation of these three items I found my connection to ritual time again.

Charoset represents the mortar of the First Temple, that which holds Judaism together. It's also yummy. Chopped apples, nuts, a healthy splash of Manischewitz wine (very sweet stuff) and ton of cinammon. Mix it together and you have ritual sweetness. Mmmm. This year my step-daughter made the charoset; I talked her through the process and I was so aware of the generations of women smiling behind me as I passed this knowledge on. The crisp-thunk of the knife through the apple. A cloying sip of Manischewitz (I hate it, she loves it). The ancestral memory of spice routes as cinammon wfts through the kitchen. The richness of walnuts, modifying texture and taste. All tossed together to represent something greater than their whole.

The shank bone is roasted. I always admire the smallness of the joint and give thanks to the small, leaping animal who died so we did not, so we can remember how fortunate we are. As it roasts the house is filled with the scent of lamb, something rare and rich to my immigrant forebearers. I roast it until the flesh clings onto the bone as an afterthought, reminding us of the pain of this sacrifice. There is a midrash in which the angels sing when God kills the first born children as the last and most terrible of the ten plagues. God castigates the angels for singing, saying "They too are my children and my creation. Their depth is cause for weeping not for joy." And so the shank bone is a silent witness to sacrifice in the name of freedom.

And the last, maror, is my favorite moment of ritual time in preparation for Passover. The bitter herbs represent our bitterness over enslavement. I use horseradish. When I buy the root it's long, dirty, ragged with green tendrils. As I scrub away the soil then begin to peel it my eyes water over its pungency and I can't help but touch my tongue to its burning white. It always sears. I chop it as finely as I can. I ignore the salt tears that fall into the bowl. I imagine generations of grandmothers watching me in silent approval.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fortune cookies and fate

I recently finished reading The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food a delightful cross between memoir and food writing that explores the history of Chinese food in America, or more accurately explores Chinese-American food. It was a lot fun, I urge you to read it for yourself. 

As you may know, I love Chinese food. I also love fortune cookies. I've been saving fortunes for years and have some really good ones:

One year for my birthday I went with friends to a restaurant in Chinatown. My fortune was, "You bring happiness to everyone you meet," while my best friend's fortune read, "Happiness is sitting next to you." She was on my right. No kidding.

I've been thinking lately about the signs we look for in everyday life, how those portents can be woven into story and how the yearning for oracles can change the way we see the world. In this vein I conducted an experiment: I spent a day deliberately looking for omens.
  • I saw no fewer than seven green VW Beetles
  • I overheard or read at least four references to death by heart attack
  • and another three to death by wild animal attack
  • I made seven consecutive green lights
  • and then hit seven consecutive red lights (I was trying not to modify my driving, but who knows what my body was doing in service to this experiment)
  • At storytelling most of the stories were about funerals
  • Three of the phone numbers I called had the same four numbers
  • My shoelace broke.
So what does this mean? I'm about to be hit by a green VW Beetle by a driver having a heart attack? Or I'll be attacked by a swarm of green beetles? I should have played the lottery with those four numbers? Truthfully, I think it has more to do with the human ability to find patterns than anything else; I don't recommend playing this game, it's enough to make you paranoid and twitchy as you see more and more coincidence.

Order out from your favorite Chinese takeout instead. When you get to the fortune cookie, close your eyes, crack it open and enjoy the sweetness on your tongue as you contemplate small wisdom on a slip of paper. After all,

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New Year, Old Tradition

Happy New Year! I know I'm almost two weeks late with the wish, but it's still kindly meant, so please accept it in the spirit intended.

The New Year is a (somewhat arbitrary) time to look at our lives, evaluate and decide what we want to work on in the coming year. For example, I want to post in this blog more often. It's a time full of cultural tradition too, from the ball dropping in Times Square to fireworks to more personal traditions. In my family, I was allowed to stay up to midnight, watch Guy Lombardo and eat smoked oysters. A big treat, really.

This year I decided to see in the new year with a broader cultural tradition, enacted late because I rarely pull these things off on time. I made Hoppin' John. This is a southern dish (though I was introduced to it by a Rhode Islander) made of black-eyed peas and ham hocks. It's said if you eat Hoppin' John and corn bread on New Year's Day you'll be prosperous throughout the year - eat poor on New Year's Day, eat rich throughout the year. I'm hoping the luck of Hoppin' John extends beyond the first of the year, but it doesn't really matter because it's delicious even if the adage doesn't hold up. I've not been able to find the root of the name and would be delighted if you knew.

This recipe, like all my recipes, is approximate.

Slow Cooker Hoppin' John
  • Put 2 cups dry black-eyed peas and 6-7 cups water in a slow cooker. Turn it onto high and leave it alone for an hour or two until the peas begin to soften.
  • Add 3-4 smoked ham hocks, 1-2 chopped onions, chopped collards, 5-6 cloves garlic, salt and pepper.
  • Let it cook for two-three hours.
  • Remove the ham hocks. Cut the skin off and discard. Pull the meat from the bones and return both to the put.
  • Taste and adjust seasonings. It will probably need more salt and pepper. You may want to add some red pepper flakes too.
  • Cook for another hour or so until the beans and collards are well cooked.
  • Serve with corn bread. Enjoy!
(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer