Monday, February 28, 2011

Everything I Don’t Like and Nothing that I Do Like

There is a story handed down in my husband’s family about a great aunt who dined grandly until the day she died. Very reminiscent of Jessica Tandy’s Miss Daisy character, this Southern, Jewish, relentlessly genteel lady served full, formal meals, always in the dining room, always prepared by her cook and presented by her ancient, uniformed black butler.

I’m told that she insisted on preheated dinner plates and sent any that failed her touch test back for re-warming. She demanded proper table manners even from the extended family’s youngest children, and, in fact, didn’t invite the little ones to dine with her until she deemed them old enough to act “civilized.”

Of course, parents in the clan carefully prepped their children in advance of visits to her table, but my husband’s now long-departed Uncle Louis (his mother’s oldest brother) on one occasion was apparently too irrepressible to follow the rules. After quickly surveying the various menu choices he scowled and said, “Humph, everything I don’t like, and nothing that I do like!”

Louis was immediately banished not only from Aunt Ida’s table, but from her house for a month. My husband’s grandparents were mortified, but Louis was unfazed, although he took care never to announce his food preferences in her presence again.

I’m sure one reason I love the Uncle Louis story is that he blurted out what I often thought but was never cheeky enough to say. I, too, was expected to eat and pretend to like whatever was served in relatives’ homes—under penalty of death (or possibly something more painful!). I remember exchanging secret horrified looks with my little sister as we took our first bite of a curried clam and tomato aspic served by a family friend known for “setting a fancy table.” It was by far the strangest, most challenging dish we’d ever confronted to that point. I can also vividly recollect my mother’s knowing, piercing stare warning us to say nothing, just to eat and smile!

Which leads me to this list, in which I’m going to finally—decades later and with every member of my personal manners’ police now gone to the grave—stop pretending to smile and say what I really think about certain foods. In fact, it’s relatively short and contains none of the usual vegetable suspects. Except for Jerusalem artichokes, which are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes but bland, fibrous tubers often (rightly) used for animal feed, I’ve never met a veggie I didn’t like. Here, mostly in random order, are the things I hope I’m not forced to eat again, at least not while smiling.

Rice pudding: Yes, I know many people find this plain, thrifty dish innocuous, even appealing, but in my opinion it’s the worst thing that ever happened to either rice or pudding. It turns the rice mushy and sweet—which is an unforgiveable thing to do to good rice. And it introduces nasty little starch pieces into what would otherwise be a smooth, succulent, mildly pleasant pudding. On several occasions when my mother served it, I tried to suck up the custard part and spit the rice bits into my napkin, but, of course, I got caught. The only saving grace was that because this disgusting stuff was considered “dessert,” I was allowed to (politely) decline it in the future. I have not since touched it to my lips, and fervently hope I’m never trapped at a table where it’s served. (For a home-style dessert I do like, see my blueberry-apple crumble or apple crisp.)

Oyster stew: I like crisp-fried oysters and I like most soups and stews, but this wretched concoction could easily be mistaken for rubber bands floating in tepid milk. (Close your eyes next time you try it, and you’ll see what I mean.) The broth is invariably flavorless and dishwatery, and the cooking turns the mollusks as chewy as conch or octopus, or, yes, rubber bands (all of which are too short on flavor and too long on mastication to enjoy). I’m guessing that somebody, somewhere might make a passable oyster stew, but with the opportunity to fry up these babies and toss them into a po’ boy instead, why would any sensible soul waste the oysters or effort to try?

Caviar: No, it’s not that I’m squeamish about eating fish eggs, and it’s not the faint fishy odor and flavor that bother me either. As a child I happily consumed both baked shad and fried fresh shad roe every spring when these fat, silvery Atlantic ocean beauties came in to spawn in the Chesapeake Bay tributaries and then over-filled our fish markets. But unless I take it in very small quantities, caviar is so unbearably salty that I develop a raging thirst gallons of water can’t slake. (Country ham affects me the same way, but it tastes so ethereal I’m willing to endure the day or two of misery.)

Since caviar isn’t normally dished up in abundance, I can usually tolerate it well, but a few years back at a food journalists’ convention I found myself at a caviar tasting facing a whole series of small glistening mounds, each said to be rarer and proffered with more fanfare than the last. With some justification our hosts believed they were bestowing priceless jewels upon us, and I knew that declining the gifts or leaving them untouched would be unspeakably rude. Fortunately, baking colleague Rose Levy Berenbaum, an ardent caviar fan, happened to be seated next to me. She was thrilled with all the little sodium-laden lumps I surreptitiously scraped onto her plate.

Hominy: Just to be clear, I’m not talking grits here. I’m talking about the popcorn-size, slimy, weird-tasting grayish blobs that some folks serve in place of potatoes or pasta or try to doctor up in a casserole with cheese. Hah! I hated hominy the first time I put it in my mouth, and later, after I learned that it was dried corn made “palatable” by soaking it in lye in a process called nixtamalization (no, I’m not making up the lye part!), I realized I didn’t need to say another thing to justify my aversion.
Actually, a few years ago at a culinary convention I was served a well-seasoned pork posole—posole is a Mexican-Spanish word cleverly designed to conceal from English speakers the fact that it’s hominy—and truthfully, I didn’t abhor the dish. It was cooked in the gorgeous micacious pots shown in the pic, which is probably what persuaded me to upgrade this “food” from the I-can’t-eat-that to the I’d-rather-not category.

Pigs’ feet: I’ve saved the worst for last. These should be declared unfit for human consumption! I’ll start simply by mentioning that though human and dog feet can reek they are roses compared to hog’s feet on the funkiness scale. In an effort to mask the noxious odor and tenderize the tough tissue of these porky appendages, people usually boil them in a strong vinegar brine, but this is as helpful as dousing the living creatures with perfume. Moreover, the boiling yields a gelatinous texture and ghastly, pungent odor that lurks in the house and continues to punch you in the nose for days: In the autumn, when my parents and cousins usually gathered to cook pigs’ feet, I tried to stay outside all day and at night slept with a spread over my face in a desperate, though completely futile attempt to block out the stench.

I do understand and appreciate the tradition of conservation and thrift driving the consumption of “trash” parts like pigs’ feet. In the Maryland farming country where I grew up, people generally tried make use of “everything but the oink,” when they slaughtered hogs. Which is, of course, what accounts for scrapple and chitins and other “delicacies” that those who can afford (literally) to eat “higher on the hog,” prefer to skip. That said, while I think I could subsist on all the other items listed here, I would probably starve if I had to eat these dead ringers for really rank pickled tennis shoes.

So there you have it. Everything I don’t like and nothing that I do like. Now, how about a list from you?  

If you liked this post, you might also like Bye-Bye to Bad Food Trends--Five That Shouldn't Be Mourned.
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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Maple Kettle Corn--A Taste of Morse Farm Maple Sugar Works

A number of years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a few days in Vermont during maple sugaring season. It was an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. One of the many amazing individuals I met was Burr Morse, who runs the family sugaring business at the Morse Farm Maple Sugar Works, in Montpelier, Vermont. The pic at the left was taken by my hubby from inside the Morse Farm sugar house looking out to the yard. Below right is Burr Morse, who likes to say he lives "where the sap flows sweeter!"

Burr aptly describes himself as a "real Vermonter," with “roots that have reached into the same Vermont hillside for seven generations.” Other qualifications he mentions: “I constantly crave dried beef gravy, sugar on snow, and peas with new potatoes. To me, splitting wood and hefting bales are the two best exercises." (In case you haven't heard of it, sugar on snow is a simple taffy of boiled-down maple sugar that's cooled by drizzling it over snow.)

Though Burr claims that his late father was the true larger-than-life character in the family, his quick, sly wit and cultivated air of back woods folksiness win him plenty of "colorful Yankee" character points of his own. For example, he says he was "agape the whole night," the first time his son took him to a Boston Red Sox game, adding, "wow, I never realized the crucial role beer plays in a ball game.....bucket brigades of it went past us into the stands!"

Burr also has a great sense of whimsy that was evident everywhere when my husband and I visited Morse Farm. He likes to collect and rough-carve fanciful-looking old gnarled tree stumps and branches and turn them into folk art works that are displayed around the sugar shack yard. Among the "statues" shown in the pics here: A tree trunk shaped a bit like a reclining, armless woman, which he calls, "Venus de Maple." Another exhibit features what resembles the head of an elephant and the rear of an ass; it's titled "Republicans and Democrats." The pic below, shows an intricate, toothy, totally charming dragon. I wish I had him for my yard!

Maple Kettle Corn

I'd never tried maple kettle corn until I visited Morse Farm, and I will now always associate it with my time there. Burr says he invented his recipe out of dire necessity after he purchased a huge stock of pricey customized cardboard tubs to use in packaging maple gift assortments.

“I’d had to order over 17,000 containers, and customers just weren’t taking to the gift buckets like I anticipated," he recalls. "The money I’d wasted really bothered me and I knew I just had to come up with a way to use up those tubs. As soon as I first tasted regular kettle corn at a farmers' market in Florida, I had a brainstorm–make a maple version and sell it in the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks buckets.” The Morse Farm website now offers maple kettle corn only in bags, so he must have used up all 17,000!

While Burr's maple kettle corn (shown below, right) requires a 20-gallon kettle, canoe paddle, and an outdoor setting, I've come up with a substitute can be prepared in my kitchen using only ordinary kitchen equipment.

I start by making popcorn the old-fashioned way–heating oil and popping the kernels in a large pot. Then, I cook the maple-salt-sugar mixture, and quickly stir the popcorn back into the syrup. The two-step cooking process doesn’t yield exactly the same taste or consistency as the all-in-one-pot method, but my stove-top maple “kettle” corn is tempting enough that almost nobody can stop eating till the bowl is empty. If this has put you in the mood for more maple treats, check out the maple pie or maple bars. You can also learn more about my visit to Vermont during sugaring season here.

Tip: If desired, you can ready (following package instructions) a 3.0 - 3.5 ounce bag of regular microwave popcorn instead of popping the corn on the stove. Homestyle, Natural Light and Old Fashioned flavors all work well. Avoid using popcorn with extra butter or special flavorings. In this case, since the package includes salt, omit the salt from the following recipe. (You will need about 6 to 7 cups of popped corn, the yield of most microwave bags. The following recipe is from my All-American Dessert Book.

Tip: If possible use grade A Dark Amber or grade B syrup. The grade A dark amber has a robust maple bouquet and hearty flavor that’s excellent for sauces and confections. Grade B is the strongest and darkest table grade syrup and is excellent in baked goods, where a subtle maple taste would be too muted or completely lost.

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup, preferably grade A medium amber or dark amber, or grade B
3 tablespoons corn oil, canola oil or other flavorless vegetable oil, divided
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unpopped popping corn

Set out a very large bowl for holding the popped corn. In a small bowl, stir together the maple syrup, 1 tablespoon oil, and sugar, and set aside.

In a 6-quart or larger pot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and 3or 4 test kernels of corn over medium-high heat until the kernels pop. Discard them, and stir the remaining corn and the salt into the oil. Cover the pot and cook, frequently shaking the pot to redistribute the contents, until the corn begins to pop. If the pot begins to smoke, lower the heat slightly. Continue cooking, shaking the pot constantly, until the popping mostly subsides, about 2 minutes longer. (Don’t keep cooking until all kernels pop, as the bottom layer may scorch.)

Immediately turn out the popped corn into the large serving bowl, discarding unpopped kernels, if desired. Rinse out the pot and wipe it dry with paper towels. Add the maple syrup mixture to the pot. Cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, until the mixture boils, then gradually thickens and darkens just slightly in color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Immediately remove the pot from the heat. Quickly and vigorously stir the popped corn into the maple mixture until evenly coated. Turn out the corn into the serving bowl. If desired, add a little more salt to taste; stir well to incorporate. Kitchen kettle corm is best when very fresh as it loses its crispness after a few hours. Makes a generous 1 quart kettle corn.

For yummy maple sundaes.

For my homey maple custard pie.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Leite's Culinaria is Having a Birthday! So I Baked a (Chocolate-Glazed Banana) Bundt Cake

One of my all-time favorite culinary sites, Leite's Culinaria, hosted by one of my all-time favorite bloggers, David Leite, is having a birthday! And, because it's what I do on special occasions, I baked a cake.

Nothing super-fancy or tricky, mind you. Just a good, basic, chocolate-and-banana comfort-food cake that will come out fine even for those in a hurry or who never went to pastry school. And, of course, I chose a cake that I thought, virtually speaking, David and his staff would really enjoy feasting on. Notice that slices are cut, and plates are waiting.

If you are among the few foodies on the Internet unfamiliar with Leite's Culinaria (tag line: "Hot Food, Dry Wit") or its founder, David Leite, you need to go the site and get yourself up to speed right now. There are literally many weeks' worth (well, twelve years, actually) of stories and food to savor (including, I'm proud to say, some recipes of mine).

Did I mention that David is not only a justly acclaimed culinary website host but a very nice guy and an excellent--and sometimes very funny--writer? In this story about his "emotional baggage of nuts," (really!) he confesses, "....well, Brazil nuts were too weird for me then, and I still don’t like them now. It’s like biting into a flavorless, oily macadamia nut. (Desculpe, all my Brazilian brethren, but it’s the truth.) Almonds in their shells reminded me of peach pits sucked dry by toothless octogenarians."

And he's just winding up: "No nuts of any kind can or should be added to chocolate chip cookies. Period. It’s an abomination against God and the memory of Ruth Wakefield, the creator of the cookie." He goes on (read more here), but you get the idea. He really does have a nut problem!

Anyway, since the featured guest is not actually here to enjoy the cake, I will force myself to eat it for him. But in case he wants to replicate it, I've provided the recipe below.

David, may you and your pride and joy live long and prosper, my friend.

Banana-Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake with Chocolate Glaze

I love banana and chocolate together, and they pair perfectly in this gratifying, but not overly rich home-style cake. (The Good & Easy Satin Chocolate Glaze is here.) Be sure to use really soft, over-ripe bananas, and mash them very well. Oh, yes, and since David has a nut problem, never, ever, add any to this recipe. 

2 1/2 cups unsifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt 
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cool but not cold and hard
1/4 cup corn or canola oil
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups thoroughly mashed over-ripe banana (3-4 medium bananas)
1/4 cup low-fat or regular milk
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate morsels 
 Glaze Recipe
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Very generously grease a 10-inch Bundt pan, or a 10-inch tube pan with removable bottom; or spray with nonstick spray. Evenly but lightly dust the pan with flour all over, then tap out the excess.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt onto a sheet of wax paper. In a large mixer bowl with the mixer on low, then medium speed, beat the butter, oil, and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes; scrape down bowl as needed. Add the banana and beat until very smooth. With mixer on low speed, beat in half of dry ingredients. Beat in milk, eggs, and vanilla; scrape down the bowl sides. Stir in remaining half of the dry ingredients and chocolate morsels just until evenly incorporated and smooth.
Turn out batter into pan, spreading to edges until evenly distributed. Bake (middle oven rack) for 50 to 60 minutes or until the top is browned and a toothpick inserted in the thickest part comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly pressed. Transfer pan to wire rack and let stand until cake is completely cooled. Very carefully run a knife around pan edges and center tube to loosen cake from sides and bottom. Rap pan sharply against counter several times to loosen completely. Invert pan and slide out the cake, or, if a tube pan is used, run a knife under cake bottom and then invert.

Prepare the glaze following the recipe here. Let the glaze cool and thicken, stirring occasionally, until it has enough body to slowly flow (but not run). Then spoon it over the cake, allowing it to flow attractively down the sides. The cake keeps, covered, 3 or 4 days.  Makes about 12 servings.

If cake just isn't your thing but the chocolate sounds good, how about chocolate pots de creme or rocky road fudge or classic brownies
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kneadlessly Simple Cheese and Chiles Bread--Crusty Bread That Doesn't Require a Pot

If "no-knead" makes you think only of the rustic white "pot" bread that appeared in the New York Times several years ago, you may be surprised that some no-knead breads don't require a pot at all! My Cheese and Chiles bread (pic here, recipe below) is one the "kneadless," breads in my Kneadlessly Simple book that requires no baking pot. And the best news--it comes out delightfully crusty. (It is a fab choice to serve with chili btw!)

Leit'es Culinaria Testers' Choice (Jennifer Piercy) says about the recipe: "This bread was awesome! I haven’t always had the best luck with no-knead breads, but this one turned out great, with a good crust and crumb. Easy to make and easy to customize. Highly recommended."

A number of other breads in my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook are also readied in loaf pans and come out looking like traditionally made sandwich-style loaves. But make no mistake--they are not made the "traditional" kneading way!

First, directions simply call for stirring all the dry ingredients, including the yeast, together in a big bowl. Next, cold water (yes, that's right, ice cold!) is mixed in with a spoon just until a stirrable, but stiff dough forms. Then, the bowl just sits there over many hours, during which time the bubbling yeast actually kneads the dough very thoroughly. The next step is to stir down the dough, adding in the cheese or any other extras, called for. Finally, the dough gets turned out into the loaf pan until it rises again and is ready to bake.

The advantages of the Kneadlessly Simple method over the "traditional" approach:

> The dough gets mixed in and rises in a single bowl, greatly minimizing clean-up.
> All kneading is skipped, eliminating the usual effort and counter-top mess.
> The long, slow "self-kneading" process not only produces great texture but develops rich flavor normally only found in true artisan loaves.
> You don't need to know how to knead, shape dough, or worry about "proofing" the yeast.
> You don't need to stick around waiting for the rising to complete; while the dough "does its thing" for 12 to 18 hours, you can go off to bed, or to work, or to play.
> The long rising time is very flexible, allowing you to actually "hold" the dough for significant periods and fit it in when you're available.

If you haven't the expertise or the time to spend fiddling with dough all day, this method will probably seem like a godsend. I'll admit, though, that if you actually prefer the old-fashioned way of setting aside a day and completing your bread straight through from start to finish, this may not really suit your style. Kneadlessly Simple breads take almost no effort or baking skill, but they do require a long, slow, unhurried rise. It's the secret to their exceptionally good texture and taste.

In a survey conducted for Fleischmann's yeast of their customers who had tried a sampling of my Kneadlessly Simple recipes, nearly 90 percent said they were "very satisfied," or "satisfied," and a whopping 97.9 percent said they would use the recipes again. So, while my kneadless method isn't for everybody, it comes pretty close. BTW, the Cheddar & Chiles bread, below, was one the breads made by those surveyed. (Check out another of my kneadless loaf pan recipes from the book, an easy oat bread. Or see my Peasant Style Pot Bread that's similar to the one that appeared in the New York Times.)

Cheddar & Chiles Bread
Instead of introducing this bread myself, I'm going to let a tester from the Leite's Culinaria site do the talking for me. I'd be embarrassed to praise it so highly myself, but am perfectly happy to share other folks' rave reviews!

Leite's Culinaria Testers' Choice (Duane DeMello) says: This loaf of bread was without exception the best I have ever made. I took the long route of ten hours in the fridge, followed by a 15-hour cool rise. For the second rise, I went for 20 hours in the fridge. The result was a dough standing 3/4 of an inch above the top of the loaf pan. Upon baking, it rose another 3/4 inch, finishing with beautiful overhanging edges on each side. The taste was superb and the crunchiness of the crust, on all sides, likewise, was wonderful.

3 1/2 cups (17.5 ounces) unbleached white bread flour, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon instant, fast-rising, or bread machine yeast
2 tablespoons corn oil, canola oil, or other flavorless vegetable oil, plus extra for coating dough top and baking pan
1 2/3 cups ice water, plus more if needed
8 ounces (3 lightly packed cups) coarsely grated very sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup very well-drained and patted dry chopped canned green chiles

First rise: In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. In another bowl or measuring cup, whisk the oil into the water. Thoroughly stir the mixture into the bowl with the flour, scraping down the sides until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. If the mixture is too dry to incorporate all the flour, a bit at a time, stir in just enough more ice water to blend the ingredients; don’t over-moisten, as the dough should be stiff enough to hold its shape. If necessary, stir in enough more flour to stiffen it.
Brush or spray the top with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. If desired, for best flavor or for convenience, you can refrigerate the dough for 3 to 10 hours; this is optional. Then let rise at cool room temperature for 15 to 20 hours; this is required.

Second rise: Vigorously stir the dough, gradually sprinkling over and incorporating the cheese and chiles. Fold them in very thoroughly to ensure they are evenly distributed. If necessary, thoroughly stir in enough more flour to yield a very stiff dough. Invert the dough into a well-greased 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. Evenly brush or spray the dough top with oil. Using well-oiled kitchen shears or a serrated knife, make a [1/4]-inch deep slash lengthwise down the center of the loaf. Cover the pan with nonstick spray-coated plastic wrap.
Let rise using any of these methods: for a 11/2- to 21/2-hour regular rise, let stand at warm room temperature; for a 1- to 2-hour accelerated rise, let stand in a turned-off microwave along with 1 cup of boiling-hot water; or for an extended rise, refrigerate for 4 to 24 hours, then set out at room temperature. Continue the rise until the dough nears the plastic. Remove it and continue until the dough reaches 1/2 inch above the pan rim.

Baking Preliminaries: 15 minutes before baking time, place a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat to 425 degree F.
Baking: Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned. Cover the top with foil and continue baking 20 to 30 minutes longer, or until a skewer inserted in the thickest part comes out with just a few particles clinging to the bottom (or until the center registers 203 to 204 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer). Then bake for 5 minutes more to be sure the center is done. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Turn out the loaf onto the rack; cool thoroughly.
Yield: 1 large loaf, about 12 to 14 slices each.
Serving and Storing: Cool thoroughly before slicing or storing. Store air tight in plastic or aluminum foil. The bread will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, and may be frozen, airtight, for up to 2 months.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

7 Steps to Tastier Food Writing

Nancy Baggett, 7 Steps to Tastier Food Writing © 2011

The following was a handout I provided during a food writing workshop David Leite and I presented at a BlogHer Food conference in Atlanta in May, 2011. 

Seven Steps to Tastier Food Writing

1. Dive right into your story.
Stories are usually much more compelling when you plunge instead of wade in. Some editors routinely lop off writers’ first few sentences before the story gets rolling to ensure a lively start. You can do this with your own work.
Here, the tale begins post-eviction, with the subject out on a stoop with his suitcases but without his precious freezer full of corn dogs. Notice how the colorful, vivid simile, the husband as a "bowling ball with legs" helps zip up the prose. And notice how much is packed into two paragraphs.

“June 1988. I stood on the front porch of my friend Patty’s Arlington, Texas, home with suitcases in hand, not unlike Felix Unger in the opening credits of “The Odd Fellow.” Like him, I was being thrown out–not out of a tiny Upper East Side classic six–but rather a sprawling six-bedroom casa, complete with pool, three-car garage, automatic sprinkler system, and, what I would miss most, a freezer full of corn dogs. As Patty’s husband–a bowling ball with legs who had skin like tobacco-colored crepe paper–put it, I was an “unnecessary risk.”

Patty and her husband, Dan, were getting divorced. While he was shacking up with his dental assistant, I was living non-conjugally with his wife and three kids after I had, for the nth time, denounced New York City. The greater Dallas area was my new home, I told myself, and I embraced it with all the excitement and innocence of Kennedy in 1963.”
David Leite, “Savior on a Stick,” ( ) Leite’s Culinaria

2. Use strong, active verbs to power your sentences.
Using strong, active verbs is among the most important steps to take to write more compelling prose. Notice that the following story also starts right in the middle of the action and is loaded with active verbs, like run, roil, whips, signals, and scramble. (For a handy list of culinary verbs, go to .)

“Under heavy fire, we run for the chopper. Grey clouds roil overhead as the wind whips our faces. The ground man signals us to scramble in, but then stops and waves for us to turn around. As we do, we’re blinded by white flashes.

We’re not being fired at though ... The shotgun blasts are automatic “bird bangers” to scare birds away from the fields of Niagara grapevines around us.

This isn’t Bahgdad, but it is war.”
Natalie MacLean, “Flying High,” password-dames Natdecants

3. Choose topics you’re passionate about.
Passion is great insurance against ho-hum prose. Write about a dish you’d either love or hate to eat; a restaurant or ingredient you either adore or avoid like the plague; or a food memory that makes you smile or cringe.

Notice how the first sample uses parallel construction to add drama to a reminiscence. Notice that the alliteration in "tenderize the tough tissue," "porker appendages,” and "dead ringers for really rank pickled tennis shoes," lightens the tone of the second example, a rant.

"Corn is a science, maybe even an art. Pick it too soon and you waste it because there will not be enough on the cob to shave off even with the sharpest, oldest butcher knife, and people who grew up poor cannot live with themselves if they waste food. Pick it too late and all it's fit for is hogs. But pick it just right, Lord God Almighty, and it's a reason to live."
Rick Bragg, "Dinner Rites,” Food & Wine Magazine

Pigs’ feet should be declared unfit for human consumption. I’ll start simply by mentioning that though human and dog feet can reek, they’re roses compared to hogs’ feet on the funkiness scale. To mask the noxious odor and tenderize the tough tissue of these porker appendages, people usually boil them in a strong vinegar brine, but this is as helpful as dousing the living creatures with perfume. Moreover, the boiling yields a gelatinous texture and ghastly, pungent odor that lurks in the house and continues to punch you in the nose for days. …. I would probably starve if I had nothing to eat but these dead ringers for really rank pickled tennis shoes.” Nancy Baggett, "Everything I Don’t Like," Kitchenlane

4. Be sure to actually describe the food you’re writing about.
Analyze and convey how the food not only tastes, but smells, feels on the tongue, and sounds when munched. Avoid generic words like delicious or mouthwatering, and find fresh, specific, telling details. Warning: If you need two or three adjectives, a better one may exist.

"Caviar has always had a hold on me. It is a mysterious ingredient, almost otherworldy; the individual eggs look like jewels from an alien planet. Caviar tastes briny and vaguely floral, and the textural surprise of the pop in your mouth has led more than one writer to liken it to pop rocks for adults.” Hank Shaw, How to Make Caviar Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook

I’m not a huge fan of hot drinks in glasses and it always seems so counter-intuitive to serve a hot drink in a glass without a handle but it seems most places are insistent on serving lattes like this...The pate comes out first as requested and it comes with caper berries and five generous slices of toasted Sonoma ciabatta bread and a sweet jellied top. The actual texture of the pate is firm, like fridge hardened ganache, perhaps too firm but the flavour is excellent without any bitterness and the overly firm texture is forgiven with the lovely flavour.” Lorraine Elliott, Not Quite Nigella

5. Write like yourself; never try to write like somebody else. Get comfortable expressing what you think and revealing at least some of who you are.

Notice how the writers sound completely different from one another, and their tone, approach and subject matter reflect who they are.

“When I go to flea markets or stop by a neighborhood garage sale, I always find myself rummaging through weathered cardboard boxes looking for cookie cutters. Vintage ones, distinctive ones. You might imagine I have drawers full of them, but that's not actually true. I have two small shoe-box sized containers of cookie cutters. That's it. It doesn't actually feel like a lot to someone who loves to roll and stamp cookies as much as I do, but the good ones are hard to come by. Beyond shape, I have a fondness for metal cutters with sharp edges, and good structure. Shapes that can cut cleanly through a currant or dried cranberry if need be.”
Heidi Swanson, 101 Cookbooks

I never stopped trying to find excellent food. I searched. I asked. If you think it's hard to find somebody in an airport who will give you an honest answer as to why your flight is delayed, try to find somebody who can cook an honest meal. By the end of my quest, I had consumed exactly five food items—not five meals—that tasted pretty good…. Starbucks's coffee was consistently good, but its croissants were right up there with the very worst airport food, much of which involved bread.So terrible is the bread, in fact, that I devised a theory, admittedly hard to prove, that the air in airports somehow mimics the air in microwave ovens, which turns conventional breadstuffs (and probably the people who eat them) rubbery and dry....” Alan Richman, “Food in Review—Mission Impossible,” GQ

“Last week, I attended tomato school.
Sitting in a room at a packing plant near Immokalee in southwest Florida with about 50 migrant laborers, I learned that I had a right to earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, could take regular breaks in a shady area provided by the farm—including a lunch break. I was told exactly what constituted a full bucket of tomatoes when I was working on a “piece,” or per-bucket basis. For some of my work, I would get an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes I picked—which amounted to a 50-percent raise….
Barry Estabrook, Politics of the Plate

6. Develop the habit of always editing your work, if possible after letting it get cold.

Tempting prose is like good stock—clear, strong, rich, and full of flavor. Too many extra prepositional phrases, adjectives and adverbs, and passive voice constructions water it down the same way too much water dilutes broth. Go through and routinely, ruthlessly prune away excess verbiage, redundancies, and passive constructions; your writing will instantly be more powerful and appealing.

Redundant, passive: We were peeved and put out by the chef.
More concise, active construction: The chef peeved us.
Wordy: I’m hoping that the restaurant will be a success.
More concise and direct: I hope the restaurant succeeds.
Ho-hum adjective choice: The peppers were far too spicy. Better: The peppers were incendiary. Better: The peppers seared my tongue.

"SIN is in, gastronomically speaking. Which is why I found myself pulling up to Nueske's Hillcrest Farm, about 65 miles west of Green Bay, at midmorning one crystalline day in January, with the car's digital thermometer stuck at 5 implacable degrees below zero.
I was there in pursuit of postgraduate studies in bacon. "
Johnny Apple, "The Smoky Trail to a Great Bacon," NYTimes

7. Try using literary devices to liven your writing.

You can blog and communicate successfully without ever employing any of the commonly-used literary devices. But if you want to stretch, grow, and write prose that sings and makes readers smile, take advantage of the same devices these writing samples feature: hyperbole, foreshadowing, alliteration, assonance, similes, metaphors, personification, parallelism, puns and other plays on words.
For inspiration, find and read some fine food writing samples. The Best Food Writing series, edited by Holly Hughes, and posts by award winning bloggers are a good place to start.

Readers note: I've added an additional, important step 8 to help you; click here.

Tastier Food Writing—Practice Exercise

Practice Exercise: Finding or strengthening your voice. 

Sit down and write as freely and spontaneously as possible for 5 minutes. Immediately put the sample away for at least a week. Then read it, asking yourself the following:
Is your writing: literary, funny, poetic, friendly, factual, quirky, long-winded, flowery--what? Does it sound like you? If not, analyze why not. Are you too cautious, over-polite, politically correct, formal, unfocused, or wishy-washy? Notice what you like and what rings true, and what you don’t like and want to correct or avoid. Use these insights to make changes and improvements whenever you edit your writing in the future. ###
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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sweet Valentine’s Cookies—Sugar Cookies Decorated the “Marbled” Hearts Way

If you’re one who loves to decorate holiday cookies but are not experienced at fancy piping, this just might be the method for you. It’s a technique long used by European pastry chefs to gussy up large cakes and tortes, but don’t panic—for these cookies only the most minimal piping skill is involved. Really, it’s true! (If you're looking for another different, equally easy technique, check out my stained glass Valentine's cookies.)

Marbling can be used to create a number of different effects (see my array of somewhat fancier marbled heart cookies here (see bottom right). But in this post I’ve adapted it to make simple but eye-catching little heart designs using icing; the how-to pics are below. (The name comes from the fact that two contrasting icings are marbled together to form a design. The patterns often look geometric, but as you see from these cookies, marbling can create a completely different effect.)

Before you begin the decorating, ready at least two very fluid powdered sugar icings, one to serve as a background color, the other an accent color for forming the hearts. (Note that the colors of these icings are natural and come from fruit juice concentrate; details are here.) Also have the thoroughly cooled sugar cookies, a spreading knife, some toothpicks, paper towels and a clean work surface ready. Finally, put the accenting color in a pastry bag with a fine writing tip, or in a paper piping cone, or in a sturdy baggie with a very small hole cut into one corner.

As the first pic shows, to start, a fairly soft, wet icing is spread over the entire cookie. Remember, the icing must be fairly runny, because it needs to blend and “marble” slightly with a contrasting-colored icing that is immediately added over top. I say immediately because the second icing has to be applied before the first layer sets.

Next, using the accenting color, put two dots of icing side by side in every spot you’d like a heart.  Alternatively, you can pipe only one slightly larger dot and then draw a toothpick down through the middle of it.  You can place one large dot or set of dots for a heart in the cookie center, or add several sets of dots randomly or in a line as shown here, if you prefer.

The next step simply draw down through the dot or pair of  dots so a heart shape forms, as shown below. Since the icing flows a little differently each time, every heart (and every cookie) will be unique. As necessary, wipe any icing build-up from the toothpick.

You can add more dots to form a border around the cookie, as shown below, or even add them all over for a polka-dot look, if desired. (Be sure they don't run into the hearts though!)

That’s it, except remember to allow plenty of time for the icings to set. Since they are wet to start with, it may take at least two or three hours before they are firm enough for the cookies to be packed away; I let them stand at least five or six hours if they will be stacked on top of one another. After all, I don't want to mar the look of my little masterpieces!

For the best, easiest way to roll out cookie dough, check out my short how-to video here.

For more elaborate marbled hearts looks like the one below, check out the pics here or  here.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Jeweled Light Catcher Valentine's Cookies

It's fun and easy to make eye-catching "stained glass" or "jewel studded" cookies like the ones pictured. You can use a gingerbread or my Sugar Cookie Dough, which is from my All-American Cookie Book. You can cut out the cookies with whatever seasonal cutters you like–hearts for Valentine's Day, pumpkins for Thanksgiving, or stars for Christmas, etc. (For some other decorating techniques go here. Or to see the Valentine's Day cookie house my granddaughter decorated click here. And check out the marbling decorating technique shown on the cookies in the pic at the end of the story.

Then, using mini-cookie cutters, mini fondant cutters or the end of a metal pastry piping tip (or a thimble or small bottle cap) cut out a cut-away or several small cutaways from each cookie. (The cookies are easier to eat if the cut-aways are not too large, though if you plan to use them mainly as light-catcher decorations, a large expanse of "glass" is very pretty.) Next, bake the cookies as you normally would following the recipe directions. If you plan to hang up the cookies, be sure to make a stringing hole in each before you bake. (Put a piece of toothpick in the holes so they don't close up during baking; carefully slip them out before the cookies cool completely.)

Once the cookies are completely baked, lay them, slightly separated, on a foil-lined baking sheet; do not omit the foil or the cookies will stick to the pan. Fill the cut-aways in the cookies with crushed clear hard candies, such as lollipops, Lifesavers, or Jolly Ranchers.

The best way to prepare the candies is to put them in a tightly closed double layer of plastic bags and crack them into fine pieces using a mallet, heavy rolling pin, or heavy metal spoon. You need to spoon in enough candy to fill the cut-aways, but don't pile in too much or it will overflow. If necessary, use a small, clean artist's paint brush to brush away any candy bits that drop onto the cookie surface.

Put the cookies back into the oven just long enough for the candy to melt but not boil over, about a minute or two–keep checking, as the time will vary depending on the brand of candy used. Let the cookies stand on the baking sheet until completely cool again. Be sure not to touch the "stained glass" parts during cooling as they will be extremely hot and can cause bad burns. After the cookies are cooled, they peel right off the foil.

It's fine to serve them as is, but I like to add coating of powdered sugar icing, preferably in a contrasting color, so the jewel in the cookie center will stand out. If desired, immediately sprinkle the tops with some colored sprinkles (or leftover crushed candy shards) for a simple, but pretty finish like that on the cookie in the middle at the top. Or, if you wish to add piping, it can accent the center "jewel" beautifully as well.

These make lovely gifts or attractive edible ornaments. I package them individually in little celephane bags and tie them with a colorful ribbon.

The cookies below are prepared by a decorating technique called marbling. Learn how to do it following the pics here .

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Is No-Knead Bread Here to Stay?--A Survey Says Yes!

It’s hard to believe that more than four years have passed since New York Times columnist Mark Bittman turned the home bread baking world upside down with his story on Jim Lahey’s crusty, tasty, no-knead pot bread. Thousands of foodies have since tried various “kneadless,” methods, and interest in them stills seem high. (Go to my crusty white pot bread recipe, pictured, or to details on the very durable, economical cast iron pot .) Or find more info here.)

The question I’ve been raising with my food colleagues lately is whether no-knead is a fad or here to stay? (The results of a survey presented below give strong clues!) As an author of my own book on the subject, Kneadlessly Simple, I, of course, hope it not only lasts but that even more home bakers will jump on board as word of its ease and good results spread. (Click for details on what pot to use.)

The food pros' answers to the question are mixed, though the majority seem to think the method is going to last. One “kneadless” fan said he adapted a version to his own sourdough starter, and “loved it.” Said another advocate: “The no-knead technique is a godsend to busy cooks who want real food with less work.” In contrast, a naysayer commented, “It’s a fad—at least I certainly hope so.” Still another colleague volunteered that while he thinks kneadless is here to stay, his fiancĂ©e still wants him “to make ‘real’ bread.”

I suspect that this last comment reflects the completely mistaken notion that the no-knead method skips the kneading—and therefore can’t make fine bread. In fact, the dough just sits and slowly kneads itself as the natural bubbling action of the yeast shifts it around. (While this happens, wonderful flavor develops, too.) Or, perhaps it reflects the notion that the old way is always better, which is ironic considering that no-knead was the original way, and that kneading was a shortcut bakers came up with to artificially accelerate the natural process. (The snapshot on the left is my roasted garlic-parmesan bread from Kneadessly Simple.)

Survey of Home Bread Bakers

The results of a fascinating survey conducted for Fleischmann’s yeast of its customers who tried some of my Kneadlesssly Simple recipes sheds a lot of light on the question. (Note that I had no knowledge whatsoever that the survey was being conducted.) While many home bakers apparently started out a bit skeptical, the overwhelming majority were sold after trying the approach: Counting both the respondents who said they were switching to no-knead recipes exclusively and those who planned to use them occasionally, a whopping 97.9 % said they would use the recipes again. Obviously, I was thrilled with this news!

Here are some other survey findings, all provided courtesy of Fleischmann’s. The results strongly suggest that no-knead is around for the duration. (BTW, the Cheddar & Chiles bread, pic below right, was one those tested in the survey.)

Compared to your expectations how would you rate the recipes?
1.1% Significantly worse than I expected.
5.3% Somewhat worse than I expected.
25.0% What I expected.
36.0% Somewhat better than I expected.
32.6% Significantly better than I expected.

How Did You Like the Recipes?
2.4% Very Dissatisfied/Dissatisfied
8.6% Neutral
37.8% Satisfied
51.2% Very Satisfied

Impact of Ease/Convenience on Your Baking Habits
16.4% No-knead will not affect my amount of baking.
18.9% No-knead will increase my amount of baking by 10%.
26.4% No-knead will increase my amount of baking by 25%.
38.8% No-knead will increase my amount of baking 50% or more.
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