It’s Strawberry Season Again?

I have food guilt. Not the guilt from having eaten too much food. The guilt of knowing that food is going bad in my fridge RIGHT NOW! I really hate throwing fruits and veggies in the compost because I waited too long to use them. But sometimes I can’t keep up with my own kitchen.

Someone had left two baskets of strawberries in my fridge and I woke up one morning knowing they were on their last little legs. I could almost hear them calling to me, “End it! End our suffering!”

Okay, that’s a little morbid. I did feel the need to use them before they went off, and of course I had a loaf of beer bread eyeing me from the top of the fridge. The pressure was on. I diced up the strawberries and a few other things, tossed them into a sauce pot while we sipped our coffee on the back porch, and in ten minutes we were happily munching on breakfast.

I don’t know what this would be called. I like to think of it as a sweet chutney because of my Indian food background, but I guess it would be closer to a warm fruit spread. I welcome proper classification from a foodie know-it-all.

1 cup diced strawberries
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup (or less) white wine or dry vermouth

I diced up the strawberries into big chunks, and because they were not completely fresh, they were a little on the dry side. So when I put them into the sauce pan with the sugar, I poured a little dry vermouth in also, just to moisten the sugar and berries. (I always have a bottle of Martini & Rossi extra dry vermouth for cooking instead of wine because the vermouth has added aromatics that give a lovely depth to dishes.) I suppose if you’re boring, you could just add a little water.

The candied ginger can be tricky to dice up because it’s so sticky. I love having a big bag of Reeds crystallized ginger on hand. It’s great for digestion after a particularly heavy meal. And it’s fun to add a little pop of flavor to cookies, oatmeal, and now fruit. If you can find the grain on each piece of ginger, it makes your life easier here. Chop this up to a reasonably small size and mix that into the strawberries.

Then chop up the mint leaves into fine ribbons and add that as well. Mint is wonderful to grow because it hardly needs any maintenance as long as it gets enough water and light. My one plant is actively taking over the front porch. I suspect it makes nasty threats to the other plants when I’m not around.

Anyhow, on a medium low heat, stirring occasionally, this should be done in less than ten minutes. The strawberries will get very soft, but they should remain pinkish in the center, and the liquid will look like soupy jelly. Spread on some thick-cut toast and enjoy.

As for me, I can hear some potatoes and an onion in the fridge asking for Dr. Kevorkian, so I suppose I’ll need to make some soup today.


Basmati Rice is Easy

Easy Basmati Rice

Seeing the U-Haul logo still makes me twitch sometimes. We grew up moving a lot, and we always rented a U-Haul trailer to pack everything we owned for our schlep across the country. Everything a family of five needed was somehow crammed into a 5’x8’ box trailer and hooked up behind the station wagon. Suffice it to say, we were experts on things you need vs. things you want.

Usually our whole kitchen fit into three cardboard boxes. Maybe four if we were feeling luxurious and rented a 5’x10’ trailer. Dishes, pots, pans, flatware, dry goods, spice collection, towels, etc. Two of the things that absolutely always made it into the trailer were my mom’s cast iron skillet, and the pot my mom made rice in. To this day, I remember these two things with an awed sense of reverence.

By now you’ve picked up that I had a non-standard childhood, so when I say we had rice at almost every dinner until I grew up and moved out, you probably aren’t surprised. I’m not Chinese or India, which is usually the assumption people jump to. The truth is: Hippies. Vegetarian hippies.

Rice is a very popular option around the world because it’s affordable, versatile, and half of a complete protein. Combine rice with almost any kind of legume (beans, peas, etc), and you don’t have to worry about not wanting to eat meat, or not being able to afford it. There is an amazing variety of types of rice grown around the world. You’re more than welcome to read up on rice in general on Wikipedia, which is where I found out too much myself, such as what ratooning is and that there actually is an International Rice Research Institute.

I am only going to talk about my favorite rice right now. Basmati rice. With so many varieties of rice to choose from, why is this my standard go-to rice? It’s a long grained, fragrant rice (basmati often translates to “fragrant one”), and it gets fluffy rather than sticky when cooked properly. It also has a lower glycemic rating, so when you’re diabetic (or just watching your diet), this is one of the “whites” you don’t have to cut out of your meals.

Growing up, I watched my mom make rice a million times. It’s not difficult. I always felt like I had a rice handicap though because whenever I tried to make it, I ended up with a mess in a pot. Now I know. After all of these years of stubbornly trying and trying and trying. So now when people tell me they just can’t make rice, I can do more than shriek “I know! Me either!” back at them.

And now I know the secret of my mom’s rice pot.

Okay, that’s easy. It’s just a pot. But it was the SAME pot for all of those years. You see, the two things you need to know about making good basmati rice are 1) good rice, and 2) temperature.

Good rice is easy. Frankly, you don’t need to find a good Indian grocery store and buy it there, but I would recommend it. Personally I’ve resorted to buying it at Publix with the rest of my groceries, even though it’s pricier and only available in one-pound bags. You’ll be able to find Mahatma or Vigo brand in most grocery stores. The good stuff is imported from India, and I’m not going to get into how some suppliers mix other long grain rice in with Basmati to keep the cost down. You get what you pay for, and you have to be a bit savvy about what you buy. That’s a blanket statement for everything you do.

So the second thing is temperature. You’re not going to get this down perfectly the first time, but I promise that if you try a few times, and pay attention to your pot, your stove, and your rice, you’ll get the Tao of Rice Cooking. When I moved and had to switch from gas to electric stove, I had to seriously adjust my rice rhythm because, I am not kidding, temperature is key.

I have a rice pot now. It’s a one-quart, stainless steel, copper bottom sauce pan. And now that I’ve adjusted for my electric stove, I’m back to being a rice ninja. I never look at the clock for timing this process either. You know everything by looking at the rice, smelling it, and even listening to it.

So this is it. Rice pot on stove. Turn on burner to medium heat. One cup of Basmati rice and 1 and ¾ cup of water into pot. Stir up so it’s all wet. The rice will settle to the bottom. Put lid on pot at a little angle so steam gets out. If not, you’ll boil over and it’s more mess to clean up.

Yes, yes, yes… I know recipes ask you to start with salt, butter, oil, ghee, spices, bouillion, and whatnot here. You can do this. But learn how to cook rice before you try to do fancy stuff to it. Rice and water on the stove. Keep it simple.

After a while the rice pot will begin to steam, and you’ll hear it bubbling once it finally reaches a boil. Don’t be impatient. Don’t harass your rice. Peek into the pot once in a while if you have to. But I cannot say this strongly enough–do NOT stir your rice. You’re not going to actually do anything to your rice until it’s done. Just don’t.

Once your rice water is boiling, take the pot off the burner and turn the heat down as low as it will go. Put the rice back on the burner only when the burner has cooled down to the lowest heat. With a gas stove, I would give it a minute to let the metal grate cool. Electric stoves are more annoying because they cool slower. Please let it cool off though. Really.

When the burner is actually cooled to the very low temperature, put your rice pot back on the burner, lid slightly cocked still, and leave it alone. It’ll need about 15 minutes for the water to cook off completely. If it takes longer than this, consider turning your burner temperature up a hair.

You can tell your rice is done because the top layer of grains actually will curve a little and start standing upright. I kid you not. Or if you want to be sure without disturbing the rice, you can slide a butter knife down the inside of the pot and gently wedge a little gap so you can see down to the bottom. The water should be gone but the rice might still look moist.

Take your pot off the burner. Gently fluff your rice with a fork. And done.

No? What went wrong? Is it kind of crunchy or gritty? You cooked it too fast, so reduce your temperature next time. Is it mushy and sticky? Try using a little less water next time. Too much water and the rice soaks up too much moisture. Did you get a crusty, dry layer of rice at the bottom of the pot but the rest is fine? Check it sooner and take it off the burner as soon as it’s done. The grains all stick together like glue? You’re probably letting it boil too long, or you’ve stirred it when you should just leave it alone. Only give it a minute or less to actually boil, and take it off the burner completely while the burner cools to low. And don’t stir it. Both of these options bring out the starches which is why it gets gluey.

As I said, there’re more types of rice, and more rice recipes, than I could possibly begin to cover in a blog. Basmati is my go-to rice for meals, and we eat it at least once a week. It goes well with a lot of different dishes, and when your meal includes beans or lentils, you’re getting a complete protein and your belly will love you.

Now that I think about it, we lived in the wilds for a few months and my mom cooked on a two-burner propane camp stove, and she still made rice almost every freaking night. Maybe it was a magical rice pot.


Sexy Legumes

Well, what do you eat?

Growing up I had the fun, glamorous experience of being a vegetarian in the public school system. Whenever it came up (usually the first day in a new school, during lunch break), the other kids looked horrified and fascinated. From kindergarten through high school I got the same reactions. What do you eat?

It didn’t help that I was a bit chunky through high school. The general assumption was that vegetarians looked like waifs. Like starving heroin addicts. Oh, and that we supposedly smelled like vegetable soup. Huh?

The response of course was, “everything you eat except for the animal parts”. Often waving at my overly generous hips, I would elaborate on pizza, cookies, ice cream, and everything else that tastes yummy and can make you fat. To this day, I know some of those kids didn’t believe me.

Then I found a kid in high school that was trying to convert to being a vegetarian. He confided in me that he had only been eating rice and lettuce for a month and wasn’t sure he was going survive. Well, duh! We fellow vegetarians got together and gave him a quick education on nutrition. Maybe I’m biased, but I think that people with ‘alternative dietary habits’ tend to have a bigger education on nutrition than those ‘normal’ people. Survival skills.

The number one problem with being a vegetarian (besides the weird beliefs of the carnivores) is getting proper protein in your diet. There’s an ongoing argument about protein sources, so it’s a good idea to vary types of protein on a daily or weekly basis. And legumes are your BFF.

Legumes are peas, beans, soy, peanuts (no, they are not nuts), and lentils. There are many more that are not a common food source. They contain the essential amino acid lysine, but lack methionine. Which is nice because whole grains are rich in methionine and low in lysine. When you combine legumes and whole grains, you create the complete protein necessary to keep you going. This doesn’t mean you have to do this at every meal. Your liver stores various amino acids, so by keeping a balanced intake, your body can actually build protein as it gets the necessary parts.

If you look back at history and traditional meals of different cultures, you’ll see that meat at a meal was often a once-a-week thing (if at all, depending on wealth, the season, and environment). A lot of traditional meals already combined these two elements because people aren’t stupid and natural selection picks off the people that don’t eat properly.

In India there are a lot of rice and dahl combinations. Asian cuisine likes to combine soy with rice, and Indonesians like tempeh with rice. The Americas with a lot of Spanish and native influence combines beans with corn. Even kids like peanut butter sandwiches.

(Okay, don’t get all upset if I mention the word ‘tofu’. That’s another five-page essay in itself. People who don’t know it, think it’s like eating slugs. And people who know it too well, think it’s one of the worst things you can eat because it’s over processed. So we won’t even go into tofu right now.)

There’s always a lot of argument going on when you get people who feel passionately about eating ‘right’. So everyone has something to say about what the perfect diet is. I’m more of a moderation kind of person. The Man and I try to eat a wide variety of foods to not only fill our nutritional requirements, but to keep from getting bored, and learn to make different kinds of food. I feel like anything carried to an extreme is unhealthy. Whether that’s food, religion, politics, or even washing your hands.

Being a vegetarian is a challenge for many reasons. But like anything else, if you have a basic education in it, you can make good decisions. You know what GI Joe says about knowledge.

There are literally thousands of ways to bring legumes into your diet. And yes you can make it taste awesome. Don’t forget your whole grains along the way. When in doubt, put some cheese on it. That’s my usual M.O. Yummmmm!


Ketchup and Cheese Sammies

Growing up, I had a friend who had those cool anything-goes parents. My friend got to play in her mom’s make up. The dad gave her brother a full case of Bazooka bubble gum for his birthday with the one rule that it all had to end up in the trash immediately post-chew. They had a black Lab mutt named Cucaracha that would climb the shed in the back and jump up on the house’s roof to bark at neighbors and buzzards. When I slept over there were no bed times, or rules about the TV (which was always on) or when to take a bath. It was very Pippi Longstocking.

On the other hand, there weren’t actual meal times, and no one claimed responsibility for grocery shopping regularly. And although I doubt we would get into trouble for using the stove, we didn’t know how to cook. To make matters worse, the dad was almost always out doing stuff or in his shop, and the mom often wasn’t feeling so good (in retrospect, the word would be ‘hangover’). So we were sometimes left to fend for ourselves in an empty kitchen.

This is the first place I ever experienced a ketchup and cheese sandwich. At six-years-old, it was love at first taste.

I am not talking about grilled cheese with ketchup. Just two slices of bread slathered in your standard ketchup, and then closed around whatever slices of cheese you have handy. I prefer a nice sharp cheddar or Swiss. That’s it.

Over the years, I also grew to love jelly and cheese. If brought to school and left in your backpack for the morning, the jelly soaked into the cheddar and crystallized a little. Or cream cheese and jelly. My sister went in the other direction and developed a life-long love of mustard and cheese sandwiches. And my brother went another route and does Sriracha and cheese.

I brought this up the other morning while The Man was getting his coffee and I was making his lunch for work. He was duly horrified at the thought of a ketchup and cheese sammie. After much dramatics, he allowed me my sandwich because he liked mustard and cream cheese on a bagel.

Not one to let something like that alone, I posted this on Facebook and got back a volley of other personal favorites which included PB&J with hot sauce, grilled cheese with jam, and avocado/cheese/honey. I think everyone has a secret comfort sammie. Something they eat that is fast, weird, and a little ghetto. But hits the spot and makes your belly purr.

My dad was a repair guy his whole life and every day he would take a PB&J to work and leave it in the sandwich baggie on his dash in the truck. It would sit in the sun and heat up and get all soggy and crusty. If he didn’t have time to break for lunch, or it was a particularly difficult afternoon, he would sit in his truck in the shade of a tree for a few minutes and eat that mangled, baked, dripping sammie like it was a cold beer and a pizza. Comfort food.

If you haven’t tried the ketchup and cheese version, I highly recommend it. Preferably at 2AM, in your PJs, leaning over the kitchen sink. Possibly while it’s raining. It’s awesome.


Beer Yeast Bread Experiments

Yeast Beer Bread

We have friends over from time to time, and people bring beer. Then they drink our craft beer and leave their not-so-delicious beer in our fridge. Leaving me with the quandary of what to do with it. I’m certainly not going to drink it for the fun of it. I’m not really into beer all that much so if I’m drinking it, it had better be good.

So I’ve been experimenting with cooking with beer (with mixed results). No comment.

And then I thought about baking with beer. I’ve been treated to some great beer bread over the years, but it never crossed my mind to try making any. Of course, why stop there?

Traditional beer bread is baking powder/soda based, and more like a savory coffee cake. I knew there had to be a decent yeast and beer bread recipe out there. (Well if you Google it, there’s lots, but they look sketchy even at best.) So I picked a few that looked promising and worked them together into one that seems to work for me.

First of all, ‘beer’ means a lighter beer. I’ve experimented with a porter and a few other darker beers, but it just didn’t go well. I have a bunch of Presidente left over from a recent party, and this seems to work just right.

Now, because I’m either super busy or secretly lazy, I’ve always owned a bread machine. Just to make the dough. Who would want to cook it in there and end up with that huge cube of bread? Yuck.

Yeast Beer Bread
Makes 1.5 lb loaf

12 oz. bottle of room temperature beer
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3 1/3 cups bread flour
1 packet or 2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast

This is a long but almost labor-less process, so start off with pouring the beer into a bowl and whisking it a bit to get the froth out. Since my beer is all in the fridge, I have to let it sit out for an hour to get it to room temperature also. Then pour it into the bread maker bucket (remember to put in the little paddle if yours is detachable because that’s FUN to forget!). Then put in the ingredients in the order listed. Most bread makers tell you to put in all wet ingredients, then dry ingredients. But really who cares since you’re about to mix it all together.

Set your bread maker to dough only, then go about your life. Mine does this in about an hour, giving me plenty of time to check Facebook, do laundry, wash dishes, blog, etc. And I don’t have to fiddle with timing, checking, punching down, and resting it.

Just before the dough is ready, I get out a big bowl and oil the inside, and oil whatever pan or tray I’m going to use. This recipe makes very fluffy dough that gets out of hand, so I’m actually looking for an over-size loaf pan. Standard size just gives me a huge loaf with a giant bread-afro. When your dough asks to be let out, get your fingertips a little oiled so you can help scoop it out of the bucket and slide it into the oiled bowl. Punch it down a little in the bowl (I tend to overwork my dough which is bad bad bad), and then shape it into a loaf by gently tucking all of the corners and edges under for a smooth crown. Center this on a flat baking tray, or fit it into your loaf pan.

Cover this with a dish towel and set aside for an hour or until it doubles in size. And it will. Like the federal budget deficit during Ronnie’s first term.

Now, my oven and I have a hate-hate relationship, so I can only offer guidelines for baking. I put in a flat loaf on a tray at 360 for 25-30 minutes. For the loaf pan style, I go at 350 for about 40-45 minutes. To make sure it’s cooked through properly. Nothing like opening up a lovely loaf of bread to find it’s got a squishy middle.

Not only does this make a nice loaf of bread, it’s a great base for being creative with. Add ingredients to make it garlicky, sweet, cheesy, whatever. A few cloves of pressed garlic at the very beginning with the beer, some finely shredded basil leaves, some Italian seasonings, and 1/2 cup of pecorino romano, and you have some mighty fine bread there. Or dried cranberries, a touch of nutmeg and powdered ginger. Mmmmmm…

And you can split up the dough into smaller balls, roll them in garlic and oil before the last rise, and make dinner rolls. My next experiment will be using this to make cinnamon bun inspired rolls that don’t make your eyeballs want to fall out from all of the sugar.

Beer bread using yeast is unusual because beer naturally has a lot of yeast in it, so depending on the type of beer you use, you might end up with some super insane fluffy dough that crawls out of the pan while it’s baking (yes, I know from experience). And I have to make the observation that some of these recipes called for honey instead of brown sugar, which seemed to make the dough very unstable. Sounds yummy but not so practical.

I’m not all about the brands but I have to say that since I switched to Kind Arthur Flour Co. flour, I can absolutely tell the difference. Between the good quality flour, and the extra power of the beer, this bread is ridiculously easy and turns out really fluffy and soft. A little butter and good jam, and dig in while it’s fresh. It doesn’t get any better than this.


Ba na NA ner NA Ner Na na … Tequila!

Milagro Silver Tequila

The thing about the Tequila song is that you can sing it after drinking tequila. It’s a beautiful marriage of practicality and fun. There’s only one word and you say it only three times. The rest is just instrumental, which can conveniently be ‘played’ using whatever is handy nearby for the dirty sax and percussion.

I can barely hear anyone mention tequila without hearing the sax start playing in my head. And everyone has a tequila story, so when drinking stories come up, tequila is mentioned. This is one reason I was in my thirties before I tried the stuff. Dread of acquiring a half-remembered tequila story of my own.

But yes, tequila entered my life eventually. Not the cheap stuff that makes you feel like Ron Jeremy the next day. The good stuff that costs enough to remind you to drink it slowly.

By now most people know real tequila comes from the actual region surrounding Tequila, an actual place in Mexico. And the tequila association will send coa-armed jimadores after you if you erroneously label your bottle tequila instead of mezcal. Oh and yes, we’ve all been updated that the worm was a marketing gimmick and nothing else.

Tequila is either 100% agave or ‘mixtos’, 51%+ agave and the rest made up of other sugars. There are generally five different categories of tequila based on how long its aged: blanco/silver aged less than 2 months, reposado/rested aged 2 months to 1 year in oak, añejo aged 1 to 3 years in oak, extra añejo aged more than 3 years in oak, and the oddball joven/young which is a mix of blanco and reposado. So just look for the agave content and the age length to determine what you’re actually buying in that strikingly trendy bottle.

That out of the way, let’s talk about Milagro. With over 900 brands of tequila to choose from, you could get arrested 50 times over before you try even half of them. And tequila is like all other liquors. There’s the good and the bad, which have nothing to do with price or fanciness of bottle. You’ve heard of Patron if you listen to hip-hop, and Jose Cuervo if you listen to country. Don’t get caught up in the marketing or you’ll be eating worms.

Of the easy-to-acquire, Milagro Silver is one of the nicer ones for price, taste, and quality. It’s 100% agave, and blanco, so it’s fairly young. There is the typical grassy and succulent agave fragrance at first, followed by citrus. It has a very wet mouth feel but a peppery flavor and an alcohol burn at the end, leaving a slight bitterness. For shots, it’s not bad, but makes an excellent mixer.

The night we emptied this bottle of Milagro, we were doing shots. It went surprisingly fast. Many of our guests felt fine the next day. No one committed a typical tequila blunder like urinating in a closet. It was remarkably tame. Almost spooky. I guess it could have been worse.

Silver, 100% Agave
750 mL | 80 proof
$40-60 bottle


No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off, 2011

No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-offAs with most epic battles, it all started with two guys kicking dirt on each other. Somehow I got stuck in the middle, and innocent (okay, not so innocent) bystander.

I posted a link to a macaroni and cheese recipe to a friend on Google+ (the geeky version of Facebook). There was a bit of debate regarding the need for bacon, and amazement that Paula Deen’s recipe didn’t include mayonnaise (everything else she makes does). The Man got involved, being a back seat driver to my online conversation, and offering the opinion that his version was the best ever, end of story. That was the equivalent of a woman asking her friend to hold her purse and her earrings. The gloves were off.

Seeking further advice on the topic, I switched to Facebook and invited my foodie friends to weigh in on mac & cheese. I was surprised that everyone seemed to have the opinion that their mac & cheese was better than anyone else’s, and IT WAS ON!

Apparently there are very strong feelings about a dish that is basically noodles and cheese and a few other things. Screw politics and religion. Bring up mac & cheese among foodies and you’re going to have an argument on your hands. I suppose it’s because this is one of the most popular comfort foods in the US.

There are variations of macaroni and cheese around the world, including Switzerland (Älplermagronen, which includes potatoes), and the Caribbean (called macaroni pie). Even the French have a version, although they tend towards a traditional mornay sauce rather than our wacky cracky American cheesiness. And as always, the Italians take credit for inventing the whole concept.

Even among our friends, there was a vocal disagreement about what ‘real’ mac & cheese was. What shape pasta? What types of cheese? How many extra ingredients could go in before it was no longer mac & cheese? So many people were in on the pasta scuffle, we had to formalize the date and time, and fortunately friends at Loosey’s arranged for us to use the bar for neutral ground. The date was set for October 9th. A month of trash-talking, spying, comparing cheeses, and testing recipes gave way to the No-Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off.

Seventeen versions of macaroni and cheese arrived to fight it out. There were a few ‘classic’ styles, but the rest were an amazing variety of flavors and ingredients, proving it’s not just cheese and noodles. Once the judges had waded through them all and gone into a back room to deliberate (and possibly throw up from that much mac & cheese), they arrived at winners for the veggie category and the carnivore category. And the best-in-show overall crown went to a version that incorporated lobster bisque into the cheesiness.

Of course the feeding frenzy after the judges were done was just as much fun. Competitors and bystanders devoured the entries, sharing foodie notes, drinking beer, and slowly clogging their arteries in a convivial atmosphere. Eventually everyone had to sit down or go home for a nap. That’s a lot of carbs and dairy.

The casserole dishes were barely being scraped clean when conversation turned to the next cook-off. The what? Yep, the general populace wanted another food fight. Sometime around the holidays. So stay tuned to see what the next competition is about. I’m thinking pie. I like pie.

Many thanks to Loosey’s for becoming our Mac & Cheese Thunderdome. 🙂


Homemade Pickled Carrots

Pickled Carrots

I often live vicariously through my friends. Fortunately, I can reap some of their rewards yet not pay the fines or do the jail time. So far.

Take for example, my sister, whom I adore above all others except maybe The Man. I got to buy all of the itty-bitty socks and skater shoes and toys for her baby, but I didn’t have to grow huge like a melon and then actually give birth. She’s the kind of ultra-patient, baby-sign-teaching, granola mom I would like to be … in theory, one day, when I’m ready. And as a granola mom, she’s also into all of those handicraft things that people used to do because they had to, because Wal-mart and the internet didn’t exist.

Our most recent gift from her incessant handiwork was a collection of “canned” goods which aren’t actually canned. More like jarred goods. Our favorite, judging from how quickly it disappeared, was the jar of pickled carrots.

I’m not a huge fan of pickles, but The Man is a cult-follower. He’ll eat just about anything pickled (anything vegetarian). Apparently people around the world have pickled almost everything they can get into a jar, pot, or bin over the last few thousand years. Things that Mother Nature never intended people to eat, what to speak of pickle and save for later. The WHO (World Health Organization, not the band) has issued a tentative warning that people who eat pickled vegetable as their only veggie source have an elevated cancer risk. So no, these don’t count as your daily source of vegetables apparently.

But they are fun garnishes and additions to meals. Especially the all-knowing, glorious sandwich. A few slices of bread, some gouda, mustard, sprouts, and these carrots–yum! And pickled carrots are a world away from ‘pickles’ as we Americans know them… suspiciously shaped and ridged cucumbers that are the butt of a few bad grown-up jokes (haha I said butt!). Pickled carrots retain their earthy flavors, and get infused with the salty, soury, dilly, peppery flavors of the brine.

My sister used the more traditional bay leaves, coriander, pepper corns, and dill in a basic brine, but added cloves of garlic and rings of jalapeno pepper as well. Not that they were spicy. They added a depth of character and lots of frilly notes to the basic flavor profile. And of course the love.

I can’t help but think about my sister spending a few days straight shopping, washing, cutting, mixing, jarring, labeling, and putting up this vast collection of veggies. The same sister that used to tag along behind me, whining at me to play with her, is now doing grown up things like raising a son and teaching herself old-world skills that women abandoned in the ’40s when god invented supermarkets and credit cards.

Eating home-canned pickled carrots out of a jar while sitting on a milk crate on the back porch doesn’t sound so glamorous. It’s not so far from our humble childhood. We used to talk about being career women in a big city, living in a trendy apartment and eating at restaurants every night. I’m happy that life happened this way instead. She gives me homemade gifts because she’s a grown-up these days, and I give her fart jokes because I’m not. It’s an even trade.


Pee You Later, Asparagus!


Oh, yes! The jokes about asparagus-scented pee. Why the fascination? And why the historic argument about it? Apparently people have been arguing about asparagus-scented pee for hundreds of years. Whether everyone who ate asparagus has funny smelling pee afterward. Whether everyone could smell it. Whether it was a good smell or a bad smell. Really?

Leave it up to modern scientists to get down and dirty with the most trifling of arguments. They actually did studies about it and published big fancy papers on their results. At least we now know. Yes, everyone who eats asparagus has funny smelling pee. No, not everyone can smell it. Apparently because of genetics, only about 1/5 of the population can positively identify the smell. Some people cannot. And it’s a personal preference if asparagus is an improvement over regular pee or not.

I never thought much about it until I started reading Tom Robbins, and in his book Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas he colors an intimate exchange between characters with the promise of asparagus-scented pee. Very few authors could get away with this.

When buying asparagus, look at the dark tips to make sure they look fresh and not slimy. There are of course many incorrect things you can do when cooking asparagus. To me, the two worst things are overcooking it, and leaving too much stem on it. Asparagus should be just barely past raw. Lightly sauteed to wake it up. I generally like it a simple as possible to let the flavors speak for themselves. A little olive oil in the pan with salt and pepper, and maybe some diced ginger and a splash of lemon juice. Only when the pan is hot and the ginger sizzling, do I toss in the asparagus and cover-turn-cover for just a few minutes. When it shows the first sign of relaxing, long before it goes limp, take it off the heat and out of the pan.

Before you toss it into the pan, you have to take off the fibrous part of the stalk so that you don’t spend half the night chewing, or trying to figure out how to cough up an asparagus hairball with a little more grace than a cat. The simplest method to separate tender from tough is to hold the base of the stalk firmly in one hand pointed away from you, and with the other hand, gently grab the tip and start bending it towards you until you feel the resistance in the stem. It will usually snap itself easily at just the right spot. Try it a few times and you’ll see how easy it is to find the snapping point.

But why waste all of that stem and get only a little of a pricey veggie that makes you pee smell funny? Ultimately, because asparagus is a delicious source of nutrients, including a wide range of vitamins and minerals (significantly folic acid, vitamin K, iron), and fiber. Many different cooking cultures celebrate asparagus, so there’s quite a few ways to prepare it. Yet oddly enough, it’s grown in only a few places around the world (notably Michigan, Washington, California, China, Peru).

We are of course only talking about the typical green asparagus commonly available in most grocery stores. Originally there was only wild asparagus, much thinner than the current favorite, and this was harvested as far back as 3000 B.C. by the Egyptians. Our common green asparagus developed over time as it became a sought-after crop. There is a contemporary demand for white asparagus (shoots are grown under soil) in Europe, as well as a few newer breeds being developed. You can usually find it canned or ‘marinated’ if you can’t find it fresh. The Egyptians once dried it, which is just something those wacky folks seemed to love doing.

Asparagus is another of those veggies that has people worked up. Most people have an opinion about it. Some refuse to eat it. Some make websites devoted to its awesomeness. The possibilities are endless for this delicious, nutritious veggie. And worse comes to worst, you’ll know if you’re in that group of 22% who are genetically capable of accurately sniffing out asparagus pee.


The Humble Brussels Sprout

Brussels Sprout

Growing up, my mom always tried to make us eat well. No sugar, no preservatives, no junk food, the whole hippie food-style. The positive side of that is that I’ve been a vegetarian all my life, which I value. The down side of it is that I’ve been seriously traumatized by some foods.

For instance, brussels sprouts. Those little brassicas that look like adorable miniature cabbages. Most kids (and adults) would rather fish around in the kitchen sink drain and eat whatever they find there, than eat brussels sprouts. They probably had them prepared like my well-meaning mother did them, so that the final product was a squishy green fart.

I hated them for years, but when I hit 30, I decided to pretend to be a grown-up for a while and face my fears. Among other things, this meant trying brussels sprouts again. After a bit of hunting around, I found a good recipe for them and had a try. It was night and day. Instant convert to a brussels sprout fan in one bite.

The Man had his reservations when I first suggested making these for him. It took a little convincing, and the word ‘garlic’, for him to agree to have a taste. One bite. That’s all he would promise. And that bite was magic because he’s also a convert. I am not exaggerating here, even though I’m known to tell a tall tale or two.

I know you’re curious why they’re so delicious. You’re going to need a big frying pan and olive oil. Heat that up on medium heat with a good thick lake of oil (you can use butter, but it burns faster so watch it). Just salt and pepper, and about four or five cloves of chunky-cut garlic.

While the oil and garlic work their magic, slice the dry ends off the sprouts and cut them in half lengthwise from stem to crown. As soon as the garlic chunks start to get golden brown, scoop them out of the oil (The Man likes to eat these once they’re cool, like little garlic chips). Lay the sprouts in the pan, cut-side down in the oil, and then cover the pan.

In five minutes or so you’ll be able to stick a fork in them but they’ll still be bright green. When you take them out of the pan, you’ll see the cut sides are browned and crispy from the frying but the tops are still crunchy. The garlic oil has soaked up into the leaves like they’re sponges.

Serve as is, or with a sprinkling of grated hard cheese. They have a rich, nutty, cabbage flavor alongside the garlic, so I like to pair the sprouts with a nice plain rice or something fairly neutral. A small amount added to an ordinary dinner is ideal (they are brassicas after all and will make people play the trumpet if they over indulge).

Brussels sprouts have a good amount of protein, iron, B-vitamins, and fiber, and huge amount of vitamin C. Brassicas contain sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, both of which are proving in tests to actively fight cancer. As long as you don’t boil your brassicas, you usually get the full effect of these nutrient-heavy veggies.

So, remember the secret to Brussels sprouts is garlic and olive oil, a quick trip in the frying pan just to sizzle them, and then a touch of grated hard cheese. Try it. How bad can it be? Just one bite?