Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Food Poem: The Tea and Sage Poem

The Tea and Sage Poem 
by Fady Joudah

At a desk made of glass,
In a glass walled-room
With red airport carpet,

An officer asked
My father for fingerprints,
And my father refused,

So another offered him tea
And he sipped it. The teacup
Template for fingerprints.

My father says, it was just
Hot water with a bag.
My father says, in his country,

Because the earth knows
The scent of history,
It gave the people sage.

I like my tea with sage
From my mother’s garden,
Next to the snapdragons

She calls fishmouths
Coming out for air. A remedy
For stomach pains she keeps

In the kitchen where
She always sings.
First, she is Hagar

Boiling water
Where tea is loosened.
Then she drops

In it a pinch of sage
And lets it sit a while.
She tells a story:

The groom arrives late
To his wedding
Wearing only one shoe.

The bride asks him
About the shoe. He tells her
He lost it while jumping

Over a house-wall.
Breaking away from soldiers.
She asks:

Tea with sage
Or tea with mint?

With sage, he says,
Sweet scent, bitter tongue.
She makes it, he drinks.

(c)2008 Fady Joudah

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bad foods

Like 68% of Americans, I am overweight and have been for most of my adult life. It's been an ongoing source of shame and frustration. I am fully aware of the health and societal consequences and yes, I've tried and continue to try to do something about it with mixed results. I exercise regularly and eat a moderately balanced diet.  But I've encountered what all the weight loss fads prefer not to admit: Losing weight is really hard. For many of us, our bodies like to hold onto fat because, in the whole of human history, we're more likely to have too little than to have too much. And "bad" foods just taste so good.

We are programmed to crave and enjoy carbs and fats, the very things that make us fat. It makes sense, evolutionarily, that our palates are tuned for the sources of nutrition that most effectively keep us alive when food could be scarce. It's our very abundance that's killing us.

In all of my weight-loss success and failure, what's been emotionally hardest is the guilt when I don't succeed and the frustration over labeling certain foods "bad." At the moment, I'm not interested in writing a woe-is-me post over weight-loss frustration. Instead I'd like to re-examine what it means for a food to be bad.

In weight loss circles, a food is bad if it has a high calorie to volume ratio. A small portion of something with a lot of calories makes it bad, be it sugar and other dreaded carbs or fats. I know this is a gross simplification, but I have come to believe thinking of foods as "bad" is also a gross simplification.

Yes, there are some things we just really shouldn't eat. Cheetos, delicious though they may be, have a lengthy ingredient list full of more chemicals than a cheese-ish snack really should have. But what about bread? Is that bad? Flour, water, yeast, salt, a smidge of sugar.

For some people, sure. Everyone's body is different. But I'm coming to realize that when I call a food "bad" I give it, and my appetite, more power over me. It's more likely to become a forbidden fruit or a vehicle for self-disgust should I eat it, than if I simply remember that it's a food I am healthier without. The food by itself is neither good nor bad, it's my reaction to it that makes it that way.

Instead of labeling foods good or bad, I need to balance my thinking. I need to remember that any food, made with real ingredients and a minimal amount of processing, is simply food. It's what I do with it that makes it more or less wholesome for me. By choosing to not think of food as good or bad, but as healthy or less healthy, dietary modification becomes less restrictive and more about choosing to live bigger.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Travelling - back soon with food adventure stories!

I'm in Los Angeles for a few days, visiting family. I'll bring back some food adventure stories for next week, I promise! I'm sorry for the delay in yumminess, but I decided I'd rather be honest with you and give you higher quality content later than just churn out something now.

Thanks for understanding.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Food Poem: Perhaps the World Ends Here

Perhaps the World Ends Here by Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

(c)1994 Joy Harjo

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winter squash

I love winter squash. I love the determination of the shell, the clever slippery seeds, the surprising variety in its taste and texture. It is one of my favorite winter comfort foods.

Late in autumn go to the farm stand. If you can’t get there, go to the supermarket, but be prepared to lie and tell everyone you went miles out of your way to find these lovely, eccentric squash.

Pick out a few beauties. Butternut, with its smooth, sultry skin. Acorn, with its seductive ridges. Dumpling, small and endearing. There are so many to choose from. Don’t let your squash lust run away with you. And only buy a hubbard if you have a good, sharp ax.

Cradle them like children in the back seat of your car. If you have a spare baby seat you may want to buckle the larger ones in. Bring them home. Store them in a cool, dry, dark place. They will wait for you.

When you’re ready to cook one, try this.

Pick your sharpest knife, for both safety and mercy. With as much strength as you can muster, cut the squash in half. Be careful - they can be quite resilient and you don’t want to get hurt. 

Scrape out the seeds. You can save and roast them as you bake your squash if you wish - they will be lovely and delicious - after all, pumpkin is a squash! If you want to do this, pull off most of the stringy flesh from the seeds, toss with oil and salt and arrange in a  single layer on a baking pan. Bake with the squash until they are golden brown and crispy, no more than 10 minutes. Let them cool a little before you eat them up, they can be vengefully hot!

Cut the squash into manageable portions - halve for delicata or dumpling, quarters for larger. Place them face up on an oiled baking sheet. Turn the oven onto 400f or so.

Some will tell you to use butter and sugar, but then you lose the delicate sweetness of the squash itself. Instead, rub the cut surface with a bit of EVOO, sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast until a fork slides into the thickest part of the squash flesh with only a little resistance.

Let it cool for a bit before you scrape the shell out into a bowl. Drizzle with a little more EVOO. 

Eat. Savor the product of sun and soil, summer and fall, lingering into your mouth in winter.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Comfort food for a long dark night

Here in New England winter has been slow in coming. Following a freak October snowstorm that brought down trees and powerlines, we had weeks of unseasonably warm weather that have been both lovely and unsettling. Warm days mean we’ve had a chance to spend more time outside, but we’re walking in early winter dark at 4:30, when it’s 65f amongst leafless trees. At night we see cold weather constellations but there are swarms of moths that cling to cars, follow headlights and flutter in confusion, thinking it must be spring.

I’ve been confused too. By this time of year I’m usually deep in cold weather cooking, making the things that bring me the most comfort against the chill dark. In this unexpected warmth I’m not quite sure what to do, but the dark, oh the dark calls for comfort.

Brightly colored squash and rich soups. Yeasty breads and roasted chickens. All of these speak to me of home and hearth, of warmth through the long winter, of companionship in the dark. The process of preparing these foods - the scraping and chopping, mixing and kneading, seasoning and tasting - and their long slow wait in the heat of the oven, brings me to the happily-ever-after once-upon-a-time of old women who offer magical feasts to travelers on a winter’s night. These are foods for long conversation and gratitude. They remind us of our ties to the earth, of the passage of our time on this planet, of the value of light in the dark.

What foods give you comfort? What tastes and textures bring you warmth and safety through the long night?

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A month of sundaes: on blogging more refrequently

I’ve decided to try to blog more regularly for the month of December. Really what I’ve decided is to blog and write more frequently, but sometimes setting a BIG but specific goal seems more achievable than a smaller, less specific goal.

Here is what I hope to accomplish from this experience:
  • Better writing habits
  • More engaged readers (you)
  • A better understanding of my own relationship with food and cooking.

To help me do this I’ve come up with an editorial calendar. Not to give too much away (hey, I need to keep some things surprises, right?) in general I plan to do the following:
  • Thursdays: Short takes (not short cake!). Links, quick observations, etc. Today is an exception, because I’m stating my intention to write more.
  • Saturdays: An observation about food, culture, my own life.
  • Sundays: A recipe that I have cooked.
  • Tuesdays: Someone else’s writing about food. 

I’d really love to have your feedback. Please let me know what you think of any of these posts. If I say something you have a response to, please say it! Part of the appeal of blogging is to interact with the world. I’d love to know what you’re thinking.

As if all this weren’t enough, I’m also going to be blogging more regularly on my personal blog and my organizational storytelling blog. Check those out later this week for more information.

Thanks for the support. I hope I write something interesting or useful for you!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cooking from cookbooks - corn chowder

As you know, I have a cookbook problem. I've written about this before, about my tendency to buy cookbooks and not use them. Sometime ago I set a goal of cooking from cookbooks weekly. I completely failed. Instead I'm trying to cook from cookbooks regularly. Sometimes good enough is good enough.

The Yankee Cookbook by Imogene Wolcott is one of several I acquired from my partner's mom. She loved to cook when younger and all of her cookbooks are well used. It's copyright 1939 though this edition is from 1963. I especially love the subtitle: An Anthology of Incomparable Recipes From the Six New England States and a Little Something about the People whose Tradition for Good Eating is herein permanently recoded. Lovely! I am charmed by the interstitial comments in this book, including attribution and other cultural notes.

I made corn chowder, more or less following the recipe in this book. Here it is, with surrounding recipes for your use and amusement:

I replaced canned corn with fresh (since I had some from my farm share) used half-and-half instead of cream and skipped the crackers.

The soup was really tasty, but boy, was it rich. Recipes like this remind me that not too long ago, fat wasn't the enemy. You got your calories where you could and savored every drop.

I hope you make this soup. Or deerfoot chowder, or any of the other recipes on this page. Let me know how it turns out, I'd love to know.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Sunday, October 16, 2011

World Food Day

Today is World Food Day, a worldwide event to raise awareness of hunger and food supply issues. You may think this has nothing to do with you directly, but you'd be wrong. Ask your elders. Look around your city. Take notice of who watches you eat.

You can make a difference in your community and around the world. Sign the petition, volunteer in a  soup kitchen, get educated, give a hungry person a meal. There are so many ways you can help. Nourish your soul; help decrease the impact of hunger worldwide.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Video poem: How to eat alone

A quick note: I love eating alone. It's a great sensual pleasure and an opportunity to remind myself of my own value. Here Anthony Bourdain reads "How to eat alone" by Daniel Halpern. Watch it, then go have a meal by yourself and enjoy the pleasures thereof.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sweet, cold comfort

I have lately been feeling fairly stressed. While I'm doing what I can to mitigate it (exercise, meditation, talking with friends and trying to address the underlying causes) it feels somewhat inevitable that I'm drawn to comfort foods. I'm trying to at least eat relatively healthy comfort food, so that means I'm eating a lot of watermelon.

I've written before about watermelon before, so I won't repeat myself. Instead I'd like to share someone else's watermelon wisdom with you. Clearly, if I'm eating a buddha I can't help but find peace from them.

No wonder they are my sweet, cold comfort.

by Charles Simic

Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The sacred bite - oysters and others

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."
- Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and The Carpenter

Today is National Oyster Day.

I have lately had a passion for oysters, raw and glistening on the half shell. Their brininess seems like the purest possible taste, the sea in my mouth, a gentleness against my tongue and palate that vanishes and leaves only a memory of the ocean. Yet I find them troubling, or, more accurately, I find my consumption of them troubling.

Let me say here that I eat meat (and if you read this blog then this is no surprise to you). If that offends you please stop reading now; I am not interested in converting you or being converted. I eat meat mindfully; I have been a vegetarian. I find I am healthier and happier if animal protein is part of my diet. I am grateful for the animals I have eaten and will eat. Equally, I understand that life comes from life. I must eat things that lived to live myself.

There is a thin line between eating something fresh and something still alive. We want our food to be as fresh as possible, so sometimes it gets pretty blurry. Most of the time we don’t think about it or, if we do, it’s in terms of convenience and flavor. Wilted lettuce will revive in cold water because of capillary action. Is it still alive because it draws water into itself? What about that tomato you just picked from the vine? As the juice runs down your chin, do you stop to think that a moment ago it was still pumping fluid, gestating seeds? We don’t think about this with vegetables because the line between actively alive and dead is more of a gradation.

With the higher animals we eat, the line is clear; dead is dead and tasty. Most of the time we encounter these foods that were once alive as dissected and wrapped, so we needn’t even consider their formerly alive states. Parts and cuts, filets and organs, all separate from the animal they once composed. Even if we encounter these animals as closer to whole before we eat them, if they aren’t moving they are probably dead and easily consumable.

Ah, but oysters…

It is inadvisable to eat a raw oyster that isn’t freshly shucked. To shuck an oyster you insert a knife into the closed shell of the living bivalve, sever the adductor muscle so the shells can be separated and remove the top half of the shell, leaving the oyster exposed. The shells are beautiful, the animal itself is soft, grey and immobile. Does this immobility mean it’s dead, albeit freshly killed for my convenience? I don’t know. Different authorities tell me different things. Some say the act of severing the adductor muscle and forcing the shell kills the oyster, others say it remains alive for a limited time. All suggest it doesn’t feel pain as we understand it. I hope not.

When I was a child and hadn’t yet developed a taste for raw oysters, my parents brought home raw clams and shucked them. I wanted to try one. As I slide it between my lips, my father said, “You know, that’s still alive.” I haven’t eaten a raw clam since; I say it’s because I don’t care for the texture, but I know it’s because the little girl inside me is still horrified. Now, I know that there is a good chance the oysters I so enjoy are still alive though immobile*, but I can eat those with relative abandon. How?

I think the key to eating any animal, barely alive or dead, is this: I try to approach it with gratitude and not take its life for granted. I try to eat it (and most of my meals) mindfully. When I can, I try to eat foods that were well treated before they died for me and I don't forget that this food was once alive. The ground beef came from a cow. The chicken is, well, a chicken. The tomato grew from a seed and stretched its leaves to the sky. The oyster filtered water and had its cool, secret life for years before it ever found its way to my plate.

I am grateful. And in my gratitude, each bite is richer, their lives given for mine. Each meal is a sacrament and I realize the oyster is as holy as any creature in the world.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

*I know there are cultures that enjoy delicacies so fresh, so alive, that they are still moving. I am not judging these foods, but I think it would be a challenge for me to eat something still moving, were it not a matter of starvation.

Image: Girl Eating Oysters, 1658, by Jan Steen. Courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Seared scallops and sorrel

I love spring cooking. My garden is sending up fresh shoots, the things I forgot about from last winter are surprising and delighting me. One of those is sorrel. I had no idea, when I planted it last year, that it would come back this year with such a vengeance. I've been at something of a loss as to what to do with it - I feel like a fool saying I have too much sorrel, when it's one of those things that is fleeting and delicate, but there you have it, more sorrel than I really can eat.

Then I remembered. Sorrel has a tart, fresh taste. Fish is complemented by tart things. Scallops, with their sweetness, benefit from tart accompaniments. And a dish was born.

My ingredients were:
  • butter (not shown)
  • about a pound of fresh, creamy sea scallops. If you've not cooked scallops before, or are worried about it, this video has good tips on selecting and preparing them
  • garlic
  • scallions, fresh from the garden - another spring surprise
  • 6 or 7 big sorrel leaves
  • pepper to taste (not shown)
I peeled and chopped the scallions, including a fair bit of green, smashed and minced maybe 4 cloves of garlic (I like garlic), cut the spine out of the sorrel and roughly chopped it. I also removed the tough little muscle from the edge of each scallop - when you look at the scallop you'll see a bit that looks a little different from the rest of the muscle. Pull it off and discard as it can be tough.

I then melted about a tablespoon of butter in the pan, let it brown a bit then lightly sautéed the garlic and added the scallops and scallions. I sprinkled it all with pepper and tried to sear the scallops on each side. When they were about half way cooked I flipped them (carefully!) and added the sorrel.

The sorrel cooked down very quickly, much the way spinach will. As soon as it was cooked down I plated and enjoyed.

The dish was wonderful though I'm afraid this photo doesn't do it justice. The sweetness of the scallops contrasted beautifully with the muted tang of the sorrel. The garlic and scallions added depth and balance. I'm so pleased by this dish.

Plant sorrel in your garden or in a window box. It grows very easily and offers wonderful possibilities for all kinds of taste adventures.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing about not eating on a food blog

I'm about to break one of the cardinal rules of blogging and talk about why I haven't been posting much lately. Stick with me, there's a point to this.

I have several unpublished posts ready to go. Meals in Tuscany, bread given as a gift, Passover foods, food related poems and link lists; all kinds of things. Each time I settle in to polish one to post, I get stuck, not because I don't care about the topic but because I have a friend who has an eating disorder. She reads what I write because she loves me and wants to support me. I'm concerned that something I write about food will be upsetting to her.

Friend, if you're reading, please remember that I love you and this post is about my feelings, not about anything you've done. My concern about upsetting you may not be realistic.

Loving someone with an eating disorder is like loving anyone else. You ache for them when they are in pain. You long to help them. You celebrate their successes. Loving this friend has taught me just how important it is to keep loving even when it's hard and how important it is to love the person, not what they do.

She is an amazing friend. I wish she could see herself the way I see her.

It's sometimes hard, since I love food and cooking, while for her these seem like enemies. What sustains me emotionally as well as physically seems repellent to her. This has forced me to find other common ground, other places where we can meet and share our lives. It means I have to make choices about what I talk about and offer her as comfort. I can't make her soup when she's distressed.

Eating disorders are so complex, I can't begin to fathom what it feels like to live with these demons. All I can do is love her. So I do.

She has given me so many gifts, both intentionally and unintended, including these: A deep reminder that life is precious. A reminder that if we can be half as kind to ourselves as we are to others, it's worth it. And a heightened gratitude for every bite I can take and savor.

Next time you sit down for a meal with your loved ones, look around. In that moment, give thanks for your health and theirs. Give thanks as you close your eyes and feel the soup swirl on your tongue, the cake crumble on your palate, the apple crunch beneath your teeth. Give thanks for sustenance, physical and spiritual. Then love those around you as much as you can.

Friend, I am so grateful for your presence in my life. You are loved.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Food poem: Cutting Greens, by Lucille Clifton

cutting greens

curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
my hand,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
Lucille Clifton, "cutting greens" from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1987 by Lucille Clifton.  Reprinted by permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.

Source: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir (BOA Editions, Ltd., 1980)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tasty links

Here are some of my current favorite sites in the food world. I'd love to know what sites you enjoy, please let me know in the comments section!

  • Chowhound is my first stop for restaurant info, wherever I may be in the world. This is a lively community with highly opinionated posters. It also has cooking and general info boards. Chowhound is a subsection of chow.com, a broader food site with curated recipes, articles, videos and so on. It's also the home of Ruth Bourdain the bastard child of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain. 
  • Like so many, I mourned the loss of Gourmet Magazine. The Gourmet website is great, with well written articles and luscious recipes. It's a bit sales oriented, so you do need to slog through, but I have found some real gems here.
  • Foodgawker is food porn at its best. Lovely pictures entice you to make even lovelier recipes.
  • food52 is a food community, with recipes and articles submitted by users and vetted by chefs. 
  • 101cookbooks is a lovely blog gone pro with a focus on healthy recipes.
  • Lastly, foodily is a social recipe search site. Enter an ingredient, a recipe, something you don't want to cook with, and a list of recipes with images and search suggestions appears. Nicely done!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Oscars, a recipe and a terrible pun

My friend Ilene hosts an Oscars' party every year. It's a lot of fun - witty people commenting on clothing, presenters and award winners. There are two contests at this party. You can win a cash prize (everyone chips in) if you guess the most Oscar winners. Or you can win the dubious Urn of Shame for your pot luck contribution. Everyone brings a dish related somehow to one of the films or people nominated.

I am both proud and dismayed to report that my partner Kevin Brooks and I won this year. We brought (may I have the envelope please) Natalie Port-man in Black Flan, a pun on Black Swan. A bottle of port wearing a tutu and tiara carefully nestled in cocoa dusted flan. You can see it for yourself.

I had feared flan would be really hard to make, but to my delight it was actually easy. I also think I'll continue dusting it with cocoa - the bitterness balances the sweetness quite nicely. The recipe I used included cream cheese, which makes it a bit more stable (appropriate since I was driving it across several towns and had a bottle of port stuck in the middle) but no less delectable. I hope you try this sometime. With or without the pun.

This recipe was inspired by several I found on the net.

3/4 c white sugar (I used an organic light turbinado sugar)
8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
5 eggs
14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
12 fluid ounce can evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract - next time I may try almond extract or maple syrup
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. You really want to do this early, so it's hot and at a stable temperature.
  2. In a small, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, cook sugar, stirring, until thoroughly melted. This will burn you if it touches your skin and will melt plastic spoons, so please be careful. Pour the melted sugar a 10 inch round baking dish (I used a pie dish), tilting to coat bottom and sides; scrape the pan to get most of it out. Set aside. I then filled the pan with very hot water to soak until I was ready to clean it.
  3. In a large bowl beat cream cheese until smooth. I used an immersion blender. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until well incorporated. Beat in condensed and evaporated milk, then vanilla until it's all smooth. Pour into caramel coated pan. Line a roasting pan or other larger pan with a damp kitchen towel. Place baking dish on the towel in the larger pan and place roasting pan on a middle oven rack. Fill roasting pan with boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the baking dish. This is important as it's the hot water bath that makes the custard set.
  4. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until center is just set - you can poke a clean butterknife into the flan midway between the center and side. If the knife comes out fairly clean it's done. Cool one hour on wire rack, then chill in refrigerator 8 hours or overnight (I chilled six hours and that was fine). To unmold, run a knife around edges of pan and invert on a larger plate. There will be quite a bit of sugar syrup and a layer of hard sugar on the pie-pan (soak and it will dissolve). I then dusted quite generously with dutch process cocoa.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Giving things away - 1970s cookbooks

As you know, I've decided to give some things away.

You've always wanted to know how to make a Hot House, right? (It's limburger cheese with butter on toast.) How about Pumpkin and Cheese pie? Or Flamenco Veal Chops? All of these recipes and more are in this set of cookbooks.

As you may know, I've been helping a friend clean out his mom's house. We've found quite a few amazing things there, including a trove of cookbooks. She enjoyed cooking in her younger days and would pick up every free cooking pamphlet she could find. I love cookbooks and so have taken many of them for my own collection.

There is no way I will ever use all the cookbooks I have.

This selection of cookbooks is from my friend's mom. You might enjoy the recipes, you might enjoy the astonishing 1960s and 1970s illustrations. I can't wait to see how dated our 2011 graphics look in 40 years.

This package includes:

  • 100 Ways to Be Original In All Your Cooking (by Lea & Perrins Worcestershire)
  • Great Food and Drink Inspired by the Taste of the Renaissance (by Amaretto di Saronno)
  • Recipes for Cheese with California Wines
  • Your Amaretto do Saronno Gourmet Secrets
  • The Calvert Party Encyclopedia (includes asparagus loaf!)
  • Salignac, The Unstuffy Cognac, Recipes
Come on, doesn't this sound like fun? Let me know why you want these treasures from my friend's mom in the comments section; make sure I have a way to reach you. . I can't wait to share them with you!

On my other blog I'm giving away a set of dominos based on The Little Prince. Take a look!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Giving things away

image courtesy of myrpgame.com
I’ve been thinking about stuff lately. You know, stuff. The accretion of physical objects that leak into our lives, become precious and then become anchors to where we are and who we were.

I’d like to have less stuff, but I’m awfully attached to it. This worries me.

As you may know, I’ve been helping a friend clean out his mother’s home – she is a compulsive hoarder – so I have some idea of what can happen when we hold on too tightly to all the stuff in our lives. I’ve been thinking about how to get rid of some of my stuff and have some ideas.
  1. Throw it away. Rent a dumpster and have a wholesale disposal party. I know a couple who had to do this when they moved (they didn’t plan well and ended up with more than they could take with no time left to give it away or sell it) and it broke their hearts. I don’t want to do this.
  2. Sell it in the local paper, craigslist or eBay. Some of this stuff is undoubtedly valuable. I have offered some of it for sale, with mixed results. Honestly, I find this kind of selling to be generally more trouble than it’s worth.
  3. Give it away via freecycle. I’ve done some of this, but have had some frustration with unreliable pick-ups and so on. I’ll do so again, but I don’t have the time to answer 400 items about a pair of socks.
  4. Sort through it and give it to a worthy charitable organization. I can also give it away directly, offering sweaters to homeless people and books to schools. I have done this and find it satisfying; I will do so again. 
All of these methods help with most of what I want to get rid of, but they don’t help with sentimental items, those things I no longer need or use but can’t bear to just put in a bag.

This is where you come in. I’d like to give you some of the things that come with stories attached. By giving them to you, I can tell myself they will be used and appreciated. I’m going to do this here and on my other blog over the next several weeks (I’ll give away more general items there; here I’m focusing on things related to food). This ties in with my increasing interest in the value of a giving things away in general, be it content, time or product.

Every Saturday I’ll post an item and its story. If you want the item please tell me in the comments section. Let me know why you’d like it, why it interests you, what you might do with it. A sentence or two will do. Make sure I have a way to contact you. I’ll pay for shipping within the U.S. Once you get the item, if you’re so inclined, post a comment and let me know how you’ll use it. This isn’t necessarily first-come-first-served. The best story gets the prize.

Just so you know, here are some of the things I’m thinking of offering here and on my other blog:
  • Old cookbooks and recipe booklets
  • Fabric
  • Jewelry
  • Beads
  • Books I have loved and would like to share
  • Paper ephemera
  • Music I have loved and would like to share
  • Etc.
If there is interest in this I think it would make a neat series. Thanks for helping me out. I’ll feel better, knowing the things I’m giving away are going to people who will appreciate them, people I have some connection with. And you will have a story and a new thing to play with. Check back on Saturday here and here for the first offering.

(c)2011 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Spice n Hot Indian Restaurant

I rarely post restaurant reviews here. I keep meaning to, thinking a food blog should include commentary on the places I eat as well as what I cook and the stories triggered by the meals, but I usually forget.

Today I remembered.

I had lunch with my friend Elsa today. We often spend Thursdays together in what we call "play dates." We'll each set a few goals regarding what we want to get done, work in the same house but not necessarily the same room, check in and help each other stay on track, and go someplace for lunch.

Today we went to Spice n Hot Indian Restaurant in Malden, MA. We walked, since it's a lovely day and the air is finally starting to smell like spring. As we walked we admired the temporary streams and springs from the melting mounds of snow. We smelled the earth, listened to the birds and agreed that it was a good day to be alive.

Spice n Hot is next door to India Bazaar, an Indian grocery. I've been a regular customer at India Bazaar for years, it's a sweet little store, a family-run business. The same family runs Spice n Hot. When you eat in you'll see the chef/proprietor run next door if he needs a particular ingredient. The shopkeeper will walk in for lunch. It's a nice sense of family.

The restaurant itself is quite small, with three full-sized and two half-sized booths. Most of the clientele are Indian (today we ate next to a mother, grandmother and grand-daughter). The food, as you can see in the picture, is lacking in presentation, but makes up for that in taste.

I've enjoyed everything I've eaten there. Considering it's a one-man operation, the menu is fairly comprehensive; there are always specials on the walls not listed in the print out. Because there's only one cook, the food can take a little while to arrive (15 minutes today, with a few other patrons in-house) but it's hot and fresh when you get it.

We ordered papdum, chicken and spinach and a paneer (cheese) tandoori special dish in a red sauce. We ordered our food medium - other times I've ordered spicy and it was more than my palate could bear.

The papadum was crisp and accompanied by onion chutney. The entrees came with plates of tender saffron basmati rice. The chicken and spinach was breast meat in a typical palak mix - nicely seasoned and smooth with tinges of cumin. The paneer tandoori was my favorite. The cheese cubes were tender and fresh, the sauce very rich and flavorful. It had wonderful mouth feel; ghee was clearly an ingredient in the mix.

I'd urge you to visit Spice n Hot should you be in the neighborhood. You'll support a local restaurant, get a glimpse into the local community and have a good meal, all at the same time!

(c) 2011 Laura Packer

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The bite on my tongue, the story in my mouth

Oh, I love seasonings. It's a bad habit, really, I pick up spices whenever I'm in a shop with ingredients new to me, regardless of whether or not I know what they are or how to use them. I'll close my eyes and luxuriate in the scent of a new blend, the texture on my tongue. I'll imagine how I can use it. Sometimes I'll take the time to look it up, but honestly more often than not I plunge ahead and try it. Often it works. Occasionally it leads to a spectacular failure.

When I moved into my current home, I first unpacked my books. Then I unpacked my spices, stacking them and organizing them. Soon my kitchen smelled right, the spice cabinet a chamber of mysteries, unlabeled bottled and bags clustered with store bought tins. The organization quickly fell into a tumble, the most frequently used items eclipsing the others, but I still venture into the cabinet, reach towards the back and find treasure.

Every time I open the spice cabinet I imagine I'm an explorer, a trader on the spice routes, the scent of pepper and nutmeg, cinnamon and grains of paradise mingling with camel and blowing sand. I look at the fortune therein and remember that it once was not only for flavor but for life, as so many of these seasonings were medicinal. The scent suggests possibility to me and reminds me to be grateful for these tastes and textures. I don't have to pay a dowry in salt, I instead use it to season my food. Pepper is a pleasant bite on my tongue, not a cure-all for what ails me.

Every bottle contains a story. Where I found the seasoning. How my mother taught me to use it. The scent of the places I long to visit. The fairy tale where it becomes more valuable than gold. The blood spilled to bring this flavor to the new world. The belief that this taste would bring your true love home. Each time I open a container I become more than a home cook, I am blending together the ingredients that build the world.

What are your favorite spices? Where do they take you? Do you dream in cumin?

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Scallops in a sake reduction

A few days ago I picked up some lovely bay scallops at Whole Foods. I wanted to honor their loveliness, all creamy smooth and shining, and I had lemongrass in the fridge, so I did some digging for some kind of recipe that combined scallops and lemongrass. I found a recipe from Caprial and John's Kitchen, a cooking school and catering firm in Oregon, but I didn't have quite the right ingredients in the house. I improvised. Boy, did it turn out well. I am grateful to Caprial and John for sharing the recipe that inspired me.

If you've not used lemongrass before, try this tip. Bend the entire stalk. Cut it at the point where it bends, the same way you would asparagus. Cur off the botton quarter inch or so and peel off the outer layer. Smell it, close your eyes and savor the incongruity of the finest lemon you've ever sniffed from a woody stalk. Imagine it growing. Be grateful. Now take the flat of your knife and whack the stalk a few times until it cracks a bit; this softens the fibers and releases more of the aroma. Chop the stalk into thin slices and set aside for use.

Place 1c sake (cheap is fine), 4 cloves garlic, 2 chopped stalks lemongrass and about 2t grated ginger in a saucepan. Simmer until about 1/4 of liquid is left. Add 2 cups fish stock (you could sub in chicken stock) and 1/2 of a bird chile you've seeded. This is important. If you leave the seeds in the whole thing will be terribly hot. Sinner again until you have about 1 cup left. Whisk in 2T melted butter, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer,  then add 1/4t fish sauce. Taste and decide if you want to add a little more, then strain the whole thing and set the liquid aside. Keep it warm. Discard or compost the solids.

Sear about a pound of scallops in a heavy pan, coated with a little oil. Season then with a bit of salt and fresh pepper. Don't overcook them, break one open after a minute or two and see if the inside is just creamy, not transparent. If so, it's done.

Plate the scallops (I put them on a bed of baby spinach) pour some of the sauce on top. Close your eyes. Enjoy.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer