Sunday, May 31, 2009

Moules


(Photo from North 45 Pub.)

Last night, Boyfriend and I steamed a bucket of mussels for dinner and ate them with a loaf of semolina bread and a simple green salad. When we lived in England, we used to go to a small chain of Belgian-style restaurant called Belgo, for both its extensive Belgian beer list and the moules frites.

For about £12(GBP), we'd get a kilo of mussels (about 2.2lbs.) and a bowl of golden fries. There are limitless broths to make for steaming mussels, but the classic Belgian method is to use white wine, celery, garlic, onions or shallot, and a touch of cream. In English menus, you'll always find at least one option for some kind of Thai curry with cilantro (or "fresh coriander") and coconut milk. Another way I like them is with finely diced pancetta (or lardons, or smoked ham), onions, celery, light beer, and a lot of fresh parsley.

Cooking mussels at home intimidates some people, I think, because when you get sick from mussels, you get really, horribly, disgustingly ill. However, if you make them at home, there's so little chance of getting sick. Most people who get sick from mussels ate ones that were stored improperly. The trick is to keep them fully submerged in ice water, or on ice, and to change the water frequently. They can't be left in their own filth for long, so when mussels are left in the same water for a full day or overnight, as might happen in a busy restaurant, they essentially get sick or die, and eating dead or sick mussels is a recipe for disaster.

Storing Mussels
Another thing that turns people off is getting one single grain of sand in their food. There's a trick to making sure that doesn't happen. When you get a live batch of mussels home, put them in very cold water, and sprinkle a teaspoon or two of ordinary flour into the water. It will dissolve; the mussels will eat it; but then they'll realize they don't like it and spit it out. After they've been submerged for an hour or so, move them to completely for fresh ice water, and they'll continue to disgorge all the sand, flour, and whatever else they have in them, leaving you with sand-free moules.

Most importantly, always eat mussels the same day that you purchase them.

How to Cook Mussels
Coat the bottom of a very deep metal pot with cooking spray or a few drops of oil and set it over low heat. Except for the mussels and parsley, toss in the all the solid ingredients—ham, onions, shallots, garlic, celery—and cook until softened. Add enough white wine, beer, vegetable broth, or whatever main liquid you're using, to just cover the bottom of the pot and turn up the heat to medium. Bear in mind that the mussels will give off a lot of liquid, so you don't need much to start—just enough to give flavor.

Drain the mussels from their ice water, and gently tumble them into the pot. Cover and allow to simmer, just below a full boil, for about five minutes. Give the pot a good shake with the lid on, then check to see if the mussels have opened. If there are more than one or two that have not opened, continue cooking for another three minutes. It's hard to overcook mussels, so don't be afraid to let them go for up to 12 minutes. After that time, if any have not opened, do not eat them! Finally, while the pot is still warm, sprinkle on top the chopped parsley, cilantro, or other fresh herbs, and cream if using. Toss to combine.

Serve with fries or crusty bread and an empty bowl for collecting the shells.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trimmings

I thought I'd do a very typical blog-style blog today. Here are some scattered updates and trimmings from my life.

Photo Love
I've been threatening to get a DSLR camera for months. Many of the blogs I follow have stunning photographs of food, and I am completely envious of them. I would like to at least try to have comparable images.

I've got my eye on a Canon Rebel EOS XSi, which comes with a 18-55mm lens. From all the reviews I've read and from talking to a few camera geeks, the Canon Rebel seems like a good upgrade from my Nikon power-shot. I hear it's both beginner-friendly and fun for more experienced users, so I would hope I could learn the basics quickly and then grow to do more with it over time.

Often I find I have to talk about something incessantly before I actually do it, but I've been investigating and gabbing about this camera for months now, so I think I'm in the final stretch. I even went to B&H Photo one day to play with the display model.

Secret Cook Book
One of the side projects I've been working on lately is a cook book, with recipes contributed by people who work in a specific creative industry. I can't say much more about it quite yet, but it's been fun to read about people's favorites recipes, especially when they attempt to write them. Editing might be the thing I enjoy most in life, and editing recipes is pretty sweet. I just love doing it. I like being the person who takes ramblings and makes them more coherent, thereby making them more accessible to more people. I like working with ideas and words and people who have great potential and helping them realize that potential.

It would be nice if I could pick up a new camera soon and use it to take some shots of the cook book recipes being tested. I've outsourced a few recipes for initial testing, but all the recipes need to go through a second or third run before they can really be finalized. (Leave a comment on this blog if you'd like to test recipes, too. It's a bit more involved than just making the dish and deciding whether you like the final outcomes, but I can walk you through it.)

What I've Been Eating
I haven't been cooking anything too grand lately. It's mostly been simple dinners, but always done well with good ingredients. Last night I broiled boneless, skinless chicken thighs with sliced new potatoes and yellow onions, all dabbed with olive oil, salt and pepper. A simple cheese quesadilla with Marie Sharp Belizean hot sauce (amazingly flavorful and truly hot) and sour cream, and green salad rounded out the side dishes, plus some chicken soup for Boyfriend, who has a cold.

A couple of days ago, I went out to Long Island to The Shack, an outdoor clambake kind of place that also just happens to be a major motorcycle gang hangout. I had a lobster roll (a mark of summer) and a plate of steamed little neck clams to share.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kitchen Science: Homemade Yogurt

I've been thinking in general about science lately and the ways in which I am curious about the sciences. Although in my career I've been exposed to a huge amount of information related to technology, my personal draw to the sciences tends to come more from the things I can do in my home that affect my real life.

In other words, my idea of doing a science project might look something like this:


Photo borrowed from eHow.

I always have a bunch of little experiments going on around the house. What happens whey I try to germinate seeds on a damp coffee filter? Can I create a concoction from baking soda, salt, and water that will unclog my sink? How much heat can a few baked potatoes wrapped in foil emit if I place them around a metal pot that I want to keep warm?

Over the weekend, I made yogurt from scratch, which is nothing short of a science project. The ingredients and steps are extraordinarily simple.

Ingredients: milk and yogurt.

Steps: Heat milk to 180º F. Cool milk to 110º F. Add a few tablespoons of yogurt. Keep warm for 7 or 8 hours. Strain.

It's an experiment that I want to try a few more times because I was not entirely pleased with the results.

First, I used a bain-marie to heat the milk, but I think it was unnecessary. Second, I used a half gallon of 2 percent milk and about 3 tablespoons of low-fat Fage Greek-style yogurt. Next time I will use less milk, and I'll use plain Dannon yogurt, which many bloggers recommended as a starter culture. Once you've made your own yogurt, you can reuse some of your own as the starter culture.

To keep the yogurt warm for several hours, I left it in an oven that had been recently warm from baking sweet potatoes and beets. I placed the still-warm vegetables, wrapped in foil, next to the metal pot to help keep it warm. Although I thought the oven-and-baked-potatoes method would be sufficient, I have a feeling this was the step that needs the most improvement. After seven hours, I checked the yogurt, and it had barely thickened. So I re-warmed the bain-marie to about 110º F, set the metal yogurt pot in there, and left it alone over night, for another seven hours. In the morning, it had thickened a bit more, but I have a feeling the temperature had dropped too soon.

One trick that I have read over and over is to use a heating pad, the kind people use for backaches, and set it under the yogurt pot, which is swathed in a large towel. I don't own a heating pad, and I don't really intend to buy one (I already had to purchase a cooking thermometer), so I'll have to think of some other crafty way to replicate the results.

The final step, draining the yogurt, did significantly improve the thickness, but it still wasn't quite to my liking.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Self-Confidence Bean Salad

Tough Times and Even Tougher Emotional States Call for Resourceful Foods



For Mother’s Day, I bought my mom a blue watch with orange seahorses on it. This is not the kind of gift I usually give. The fact that it’s plastic and the fact that it cost only $15 makes me worry that it will be seen as a cheap gift. And because I actually am cheap, but don’t want other people to see me that way, I usually overcompensate in the other direction and try to give gifts that are generous, both in thoughtfulness and expense.

I shouldn't sell myself short, though. The little seahorse watch certainly was not a thought-less gift. When I was visiting my mom a few weeks ago, she mentioned that she liked my watch, which is the same style as the one I got her, only with a different pattern. Then she said she needed a new watch. See? I had listened. I had paid attention. But then I only spent a lousy $15.

On the other hand, I’m technically unemployed, and for this simple fact, people have been explicit about cutting me a break or two, which, sadly, is a double-edge sword. If my friends ignore the issue completely, I find myself tactfully bowing out of spending money, like ordering another round of beer or going to restaurants. When people do cut me a break and give me an out about spending money, I feel like I’m wearing a scarlet “U” on my chest. It's been tough to feel out how much I should and should not bring up the "U" word: unemployment. I don't want to be ashamed of it, but I don't want to overcompensate by drawing attention to it needlessly either (for example, the original title of this post was going to be "Unemployment Bean Salad.")

I was laid off from my job eight weeks ago. Since then, I’ve collected a chunk of severance and completed a freelance job or two. Tack on to that unemployment checks and a decent amount in savings, and I’m not in any position to complain or even fret about money. It’s the uncertainty that terrifies me.

Money Matters
When I was younger, my family lived through some tough financial times, not due to loss of employment or external economic factors, but because my mother married a man who became a hard drug addict. Every dollar within sight disappeared—and fast. We were always in debt. There were always people coming and going from the house, looking to borrow money or collect money that had been borrowed.

It’s not something I talk about much, and when I do, it’s not something I talk about emotionally. I only bring it up now because it is the root cause of my feelings about money, about the shame that's associated with money, both in not having it and having plenty of it. During the years when we had no money—and by “no money,” I mean that our power had been turned off in the house, and then the house was sold, but no one was qualified for a mortgage to buy a new house, so we were technically homeless for four or five weeks until we secured a place to live—my method was to work as hard and as often as I could, and then stash away everything.

My philosophy, I guess, was to sever myself and my own financial circumstances from my family’s. I remember hiding money (which doesn’t really work around drug addicts—they’re like hound dogs). I remember opening a bank account without telling anyone. I remember being bullish with my boss at the bagel shop about how many hours I could handle working during finals week in tenth grade. And even before that, I remember the routine of being driven home by some fatherly figure at one o’clock in the morning after babysitting, who would always ask, “Wait, how old are you again?”

“Fourteen.”

I stashed away as much money as I could. But everyone knew. The next morning, after a babysitting job, my mother’s husband would ask me how much I made. What time did you get home? How much an hour are you charging? He’d do the math and then say, “We have nothing to eat, and your sisters need diapers. Give me 40 bucks.” I'd hand him two twenties knowing I'd never see it again.

In addition to being cheap, I have a major guilt complex, and money is precisely where it comes from. Growing up in a big family—there were as many as nine of us in the house at a time—there is a constant struggle between watching out for yourself and watching out for the group. Anyone who grew up with a few brothers and sisters knows the joke about eating dinner with two hands: one for shoveling food into your mouth, and one for guarding your plate. You develop a canine growl to fend off scavengers who at any moment might swipe the pepperoni off your pizza, or the new pair of jeans from your drawer. You learn to share a room, share a closet, shoes, chores, friends, pets, attention. And the moment you try to have something just for yourself, you are made to feel like you are selfish, stingy, ungrateful.

If you take this concept of family sharing and put it in the context of a very poor household, anyone who has money that she is not sharing is made to feel like a fascist. Keeping $60 only for myself was seen as depriving everyone else of basic needs, like food, toilet paper, fuel.

The circumstances don’t really matter, either. Or maybe they do. Maybe if the cause of our hardship hadn’t been drug abuse, I wouldn’t feel so tormented about making personal sacrifices for the rest of my family. Maybe if we had all been immigrants, struggling for work through language barriers and citizenship status, crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, the mentality would have been different. But we weren’t. We were white, English-speaking Americans on Long Island living with a drug addict.

Learning to Sing My Praises
I had a job interview the other day where the man interviewing me pulled a little bit of a power play. I could tell it was half in jest, but he was half serious, too. He essentially told me point-blank that he intended to pay the person he hires way less than she or he is worth.

It wasn’t really surprising to hear him say that, based on what’s going on in the job market at the moment, but it rubbed me the wrong way. I left the interview a little bit stunned, and have gone over and over the things I should have said (which I know is what everyone does on job interviews, but it was particularly the case for me this time).

While the interview was happening, I felt like I focused too much on how to deal with the interviewer's personality and power dynamic, and not enough on the content of my answers. I should have talked more about the kinds of hooks I would use to draw in readers. I should have talked about my ideas for writing about prototypes of products rather than products that have been on the market for three months. I should have discussed why I think hardware and software can't really be dealt with separately anymore. I should have sung my praises loudly, called attention to my achievements, and steered the conversation where I wanted it to go. But what I did, or so it seems to me in hindsight, was clam up and go into a defensive mode, acting more reserved and more composed to overcompensate for the fact that I didn't know how to offensively thwart the disarming tactics this person was throwing my way.

However, I’m not a reactionary person, and it takes time for me to assess a situation and approach it in a rational and unruffled manner. I think this is why I'm a writer. I like to think things through and craft an idea, then hone the language surrounding it before I present it.

I don’t really know how the interviewer expected me (or anyone else) to react to his open acknowledgement that he will knowingly undervalue the person he hires. Again, I think this was part of the half-joking power play, but it still struck a sour note.

The Great Nurturer
So I’m wracked with guilt about buying my mom a plastic watch with seahorses on it, and emotionally distraught over the fact I haven't figured out the best way to talk about my job status, and worried that I don’t know how to stand up for myself.

It’s time to turn this conversation to food.

Food is the great nurturing element in my life. No matter what the problem is, food helps. If I’m feeling bad about my body image, eating healthful foods rejuvenates me. When I’m uninspired, the magical process of baking never ceases to amaze me. At times when money has been tight, being able to concoct a hearty meal out of nothing more than dried beans, olive oil, and a few herbs helps me to see that I am a resourceful person who has every right to be confident in her abilities.

Self-Confidence Bean Salad
2 cups dried kidney beans, soaked overnight
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon (or to taste) very good olive oil
salt, preferably coarse sea salt
1 cup fresh chopped parsley
4 ribs of celery with leafy tops, chopped


Once beans have been thoroughly soaked, drain them and place them in a large pot. Cover beans at least an inch deep in cold water. Set over low heat and cook for 40-50 minutes, until beans are tender. Drain.

While still warm, add the garlic and stir. Next, sprinkle the beans liberally with salt. Gently stir in the parsley and celery. Add olive oil to taste, about 1 tablespoon. Serve warm. Serve with lemon wedges if desired.

Variation: Although I like the color contrast of the brick red kidney beans and green parsley, cannelini beans are also an excellent choice for this simple dish.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

HFCS Ads: ‘Hey Retard! It’s Not Corn Syrup’s Fault You’re Fat!’

I was floored the other day to open a glossy magazine and see this ad:



The campaign includes several television spots, a couple of newspaper and banner ads, and two more glossy print ads just like it, only with different faces and the following dialogue:

My dry cleaner says high fructose corn syrup is loaded with calories.

A registered dietician presses your shirts?


My hairdresser says sugar is healthier than high fructose corn syrup.

Wow! You get your hair done by a doctor?


I don’t even know where to start. Am I most appalled by the fact that the Corn Refiners Association is proud of this campaign? Is it the way the ads slant the corn syrup argument that makes me most angry? Am I horrified that the Corn Refiners Association thinks so little of people who don’t work in the medical field, like hair dresser and dry cleaning employees, that it believes they couldn’t possibly know the first thing about health, diet, and nutrition?

I really feel like I would be preaching to the choir to go into the real argument about industrial corn and high-fructose corn syrup. To summarize my viewpoint, it’s not about what high-fructose corn syrup is (a nutritionally devoid chemical product), it’s about the fact that’s it’s in everything! It’s pervasiveness is the problem! Even if research showed that nutritionally, HFCS is nearly the same as white sugar, the difference is food manufacturers aren’t using sugar to pad out everything from sliced bread to dog food.

Michael Pollan’s first section in Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) (see chapters 1 through 7) does a fantastic job of explaining the science and politics behind the argument. The documentary film King Corn (2007) also covers almost exactly the same facets that Pollan covers.

Curious as you might be to visit the Corn Refiners website, don’t. Don’t give them traffic.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Recipe I Twittered

"Buy sausage. Grill. Place in super fantastic boyfriend-winning tomato sauce. Simmer. Win hearts. Manipulate if desired."