Monday, April 28, 2008

you are what you buy

Have you heard of Fresh and Easy? Not yo mama -- the new grocery store craze that's sweeping the nation.

Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets are small grocery stores that are run by Tesco. Philosophy-wise, they support fresh foods, organics, sustainable growth, all that cool green stuff -- however, they are distinctly different from Whole Foods/Trader Joe's. Mostly, there's no pretension or smugness; Fresh and Easy isn't marketing itself to foodies and yuppies. "We think fresh, wholesome food should be accessible and affordable to everyone," they say on their website.

The stores are brightly lit and simply laid out -- and did I mention that they're small? They still cover pretty much everything bigger stores do; I did my weekly shopping there last week and didn't notice the absence of anything at all. Options are fairly limited -- usually there will be one or two brands per product -- but it certainly didn't bother me. The prices were good, even on national brands, and their cage-free eggs were way more affordable than any ethical choices at Fry's. They also offer a large variety of prepared foods, from whole meals to precooked cubes of chicken, that promise they are made of fresh, healthy, wholesome ingredients. I didn't buy any, but some of them looked quite good; a reasonable alternative to junky frozen dinners, for sure.

I quite enjoyed shopping at Fresh and Easy -- however.

However. I don't even know how to say this in a way that communicates the full horror of the situation. I will give it a shot --

Their produce is packaged.

No, see, I'm failing. That doesn't sound so bad. Sealed up! Encased in plastic!


I wanted a green bell pepper. I had to buy three, in a plastic sleeve. I wanted a squash -- I had to buy two, in a plastic tray encased in a plastic case. I wanted 5 apples; I had to buy four, in a little plastic square tray, encased in a thick plastic envelope.

It was so very, very wrong. Produce, as Barbara Kingsolver mentioned in "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral," is the last section of the supermarket where most Americans can still see the connection between the food we eat and the earth it came from. The plants we buy have stems, leaves, stalks, skins, sometimes bruises, sometimes traces of dirt.

It's also the last section of the store where we really have any control over what we buy. Quality control -- squeezing eggplant, sniffing melons, turning apples over to check for bruises. I think that choice is important, on some level; retaining a sense of control over our food can be empowering.

To take all that away? I couldn't smell, squeeze, select -- none of that. Only the bananas were available outside of a package.

It was in stark contrast to the shopping I did yesterday, when William and I went to a farmer's market in Ahwatukee. The market wasn't spectacular -- I can honestly say that the one in Harrisonburg is much, much better, but I guess that's what I get for living in the desert. Still, there was a decent selection of produce, all laid out -- covered in dirt, stalks and roots still attached, in wooden trays or plastic crates. I could squeeze and smell to my heart's delight.

Around me, other shoppers were asking for advice on how to cook the beets, or where exactly were the potatoes grown, and which were the best tomatoes, and how long until they could find... It was downright inspiring, all those people getting to know their food.

At Fresh and Easy, the plastic packaging on my squash said, "Grown in MEXICO." At the farmer's market, I asked about the different colors of baby eggplant, and the farmer rolled them into piles, saying, "now, these came from one tree," (eggplants grow in bushes -- who knew?) gathering the white ones "and these from another," gathering a darker shade, "and believe it or not, these all came from the same tree," -- dark green, deep purple, striped. "I don't know how it happened," he said, grinning like he'd just presented a magic trick.

I bought one of each color.

Any karmic benefit I got from buying local was immediately erased when I went straight from the market to Fry's, where I bought grapes from Chile, bananas from Costa Rica... but that's not the point. The point is that the difference between the two buying processes -- one avowedly green and plastic-wrapped, the other eco-friendly and covered with dirt -- mirrors a much larger split in the enviroconscious movement in general.

Organic foods: grown without the use of synthetic agricultural inputs, like fertilizers, pesticides and hormones. No GMOs. Clearly much, much better for the environment, and for your health.

But best of all, they are painless to buy, and relatively pain-free to grow. You don't think so? Any major grocery store in the country carries organic food these days. It costs more, but you are paying for a personal benefit, as well as an environmental one; nobody really likes ingesting petrochemicals. A justifiable upfront cost, and as easy as grabbing a different gallon of milk off the shelf.

As easy as going to Fresh and Easy.

Painfree to grow? Sure thing. Fits right there into the industrial model; you're spreading manure-based fertilizer instead of a petroleum product, but the process is the same. You double-till or use cover crops or rotate, but you have the same land, the same harvesting techniques; the same trucks take the same food to the same processing plant; if you are raising cows, you can keep them in the same pens, as long as the feed you give them is certified and you go easy on the antibiotics.

Michael Pollan did a really interesting section on industrial organics in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." His conclusion? Industrial organic agriculture is indeed better for the land than traditional chemical farming, but they look an awful lot alike.

Buying local, on the other hand, hurts. It's not just a higher upfront cost; it's a sacrifice of variety, of convenience, of availability, sometimes of quality. To eat local, you can't shop at the same grocery stores; you'll almost always have to seek out markets or CSAs or buying clubs. To eat local, you can't eat the same foods; you can't cook the same recipes. You need new skills: cooking, canning, baking. Some things you will just have to give up.

The organic movement asks for change that works within the system. The local food movement asks you to abandon the system.

That right there is the central struggle, I think, of the entire green movement. Is it easy, or is it hard? Can we do what we've always done, but better, or do we have to do something different altogether?

Take CFLs. People are really starting to get the message about CFLs. Undeniably better for the environment than incandescents. Readily available. No major lifestyle changes -- screws right in to your old sockets, thanks-very-much. The upfront cost is made up for by long-term energy savings. Good for the environment. Good for you. Easy!

And not nearly enough. What we really need is for people to turn off more lights. We need to live in smaller houses. I read an article in the newspaper a month or two ago where a man was lamenting his family's high energy bills. He had a 2,000-3,000 square foot house, two stories, two air conditioning systems, several TVs with video game systems... his comment? "But we haven't got a normal light bulb in the entire place!"

That's the problem. So we raise awareness about CFLs -- and do people think they're done? Because CFLs are a tiny, tiny start, and the more we convince people that going green is as easy as switching their lightbulbs, the more we lie. Marketing corn-based plastic products as being the "green" alternative is doing society a disservice. We will need to use less plastic; we can't just make it out of corn.

Buying organic produce is great. But when it is raised in a massive, vulnerable monoculture, trucked across the continent, washed in a factory, packaged in plastic... this is not the face of sustainability. The sustainable option is available once a week, in a wooden crate, covered in specks of dirt. We need to eat locally... but it hurts!

Hybrids are great, but we really need to drive less. Walking, biking, public transportation -- but it hurts!

You can buy a hybrid at your favorite dealership, drive your same route, use your same parking place, leave at the same time, justify the cost in the gas savings. It's easy. You pay with your money, not with your time or your convenience or your comfort.

It's easy, and it's not enough.

So here's the question: do we do this gradually? Do we start with organic pretzels and organic yogurt cups and plastic-packaged organic produce, with CFLs and hybrids and bamboo flooring and hemp clothes, and slowly work our way up to the real lifestyle changes? Do we gloss over the need for smaller houses, fewer cars, closer vacations, less shopping, less exotic food, smaller families -- less, fewer and smaller of everything? Or do we need to start, right now, hammering in the fact that the way we live is not sustainable, and the changes we have to make will, indeed, hurt?

I see the value in not scaring people away from the green movement. Heck, it's working really well. But at the same time, I am terrified that we will grow complacent well before we really can.

Economic forces will help us, if we let them. Gas prices are going up! It's fantastic! (please don't shoot me!) But it would be much more comfortable if we can start adjusting before we absolutely have to.

As I say this, of course, I don't buy organic all the time. I don't buy local all the time. William and I drive to Mesa two to three times a week. I am speaking not as a perfect carbon-neutral angel passing judgment on others, but as a fellow human being who also wishes that living sustainably hurt a little less.

But all the same, it will hurt. Should we be pretending that it won't?


Sunday, April 27, 2008

polly wanna?

I've been baking a lot of crackers lately. It's instant-gratification baking; no rising, no long baking times, no kneading, no frosting: one bowl, one baking sheet, two pieces of wax paper and a rolling pin. Done!

And, of course, you get munchable, munchable crackers at the end. And unlike cookies, you can eat as many as you want without any qualms!

Here are the three recipes that I've tried out. The process is essentially the same for all three: to roll them out, place the dough between two pieces of wax paper. If you are broke and clueless, butter two pieces of parchment paper like I did. Works! Then roll it out with a rolling pin until it is "1/4 inch thick." Or, as I like to say, pretty thin.

Score it deeply with a knife, prick each square with a fork a couple of times, and sprinkle on top anything you want to sprinkle on top.

The contenders:

1. (from Bob's Red Mill Rye Crackers)
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 T sugar
1 tsp baking powder
4 T margarine
3 T milk

Combine dry ingredients; work in margarine with a pastry knife; stir in milk to make a soft dough. Roll out VERY thin -- 1/8 -1/16th inch, and score. Bake at 400 degrees for 5-6 minutes.

These were very hard to roll out as skinny as the recipe asks for, which is probably why the crackers I wound up with were rather too thick. They were crisp, but not overly so, and took rather longer than 5-6 minutes to bake. Also, they seemed to bake better when separated, not just scored, which is way too much work. With salt on top, they were okay -- not great, though. And I always strive for greatness. NEXT!

2. From Mark Bittman's cracker recipe

3/4 c white flour
1/4 c whole wheat flour
1/4 t salt
2 T cold butter
1/4 cup water
2 t honey

Combine dry ingredients. Work in butter with a pastry knife. Add the water and honey, and combine to make a soft dough; add more water if necessary. Roll out to 1/4 inch thick, score, and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.

Flaky and delicious! These crackers were almost pastry-like -- not surprising, looking at the recipe -- and very, very flaky. They were crisp, and browned nicely without having to be separated. Topped with salt, they were good; topped with sugar and cinnamon? Freaking amazing. Houston, we have a keeper.

3. from straight from the farm's artisan herb crackers
1 c white flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp dried herbs
1/2 t salt
2 T olive oil
3/8 c water

Combine dry ingredients. Add olive oil and water, then more water if necessary, to make a rough dough. Knead briefly, until the dough comes together. Roll, score, and bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

These cookies were denser than the last, with a harder sort of crunch. Mine also tasted DREADFUL -- but that's my fault. I scribbled down notes on the recipe a couple days before baking it, and "dried herbs" became transmuted to "fresh herbs." So I put in fresh rosemary, and the flavor was downright overwhelming. The batch got chucked, that's now much I couldn't stand it.

I don't blame the recipe, though. I might try again in the future... but I'll wait a while.

We have a winner... Mark Bittman, I'm buying your books at the first opportunity!

Should I get How To Cook Everything, or How To Cook Everything Vegetarian? I just don't know.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

product indorsement

I admit it. I am a sucker for anything promising to be a Happy Indulgence. What's not to love?

We stopped at the local japanese market after work, because William had a gyoza craving. It was hot today -- 93 degrees -- and a cooler of popsicles caught my eye. Fruitfull, they said. Happy and healthy. A happy indulgence!

So I sprang for it, and bought a truly delicious strawberry popsicle. It had bits of strawberry in it and it hit the spot. A happy indulgence indeed.

And the packaging was amusing, and their website is like a blast from the past. Pretty much just awesome.


Friday, April 25, 2008

playing ketchup

Not dead! Me! Not dead!

That was a strange way of explaining my absence, but I’m kind of a strange cookie sometimes. Other times, I’m a strange cracker.

(Incidentally. Ketchup? Catsup? Catchup? Strange word for sauce, no matter how you spell it, neh? Wikipedia, my supplementary brain, reports that it is believed to come from the Amoy dialect of Chinese. Or from Malay. Strange indeed.)

Returning to our regularly scheduled programming, I am indeed not dead. I went home for a delightful weekend with family and friends, and after two delightful days with family I started vomiting my brains out, and remained quite sickly for the remaining day-with-friends. I might possibly have gotten food poisoning.

Food. Poison. What a dreadful combination of words. I felt downright betrayed! I love food! I always try to do right by it, and enjoy it properly and all, and here was a meal most emphatically not appreciating my efforts. While it may have been a stomach virus after all, I am still very suspicious. I hate to look askance on a fine-tasting portabello cooked in the restaurant of a family friend, but I’m afraid I can’t quite tamp down my doubts.

So a weekend of fine food and not mucking around in any kitchen turned into a weekend of almost no food and not mucking around in any kitchen, except for when I made ramen and jello. I really enjoyed the jello. I made two boxes and ate one scoop… you’re welcome, familia, for the jiggly goodness in the fridge! :D

It really does jiggle. It is possibly the best thing ever.

So I have only recently returned and recovered. Faced with an empty crisper and scantly-filled cupboards, I made tacos. Because pantry + cheese = dinner. And how can it get much more perfect than that? A lot of great young-broke-and-clueless dinners consist of pantry+cheese. Pasta. Rice and beans. Well, that's all I can think of, actually. So I'll say it again: lots.

Anyway, taco-making also involved making my first corn tortillas. The process is incredibly easy; probably the easiest recipe in the world. Mix masa harina and water; press into a circle; cook on ungreased skillet for 50 seconds per side.

Of course, being so easy, I managed to find every possible way to make it harder. Here are a few suggestions: Suck at measuring things. Randomly decide to add extra water. Don't have a tortilla press. Don't have a timer.

Actually, not having a tortilla press was kind of fun. Kind of. It meant I had to press the tortillas flat with a big cast-iron skillet; so first I tried on the counter, and let me tell you what, my upper body strength (or lack thereof) was not cutting it. Or pressing it, rather.

So I ended up with a plastic-covered cutting board on the floor, masa on top of that, then a big skillet, then a plastic bag, then me. Me, standing in that skillet in my professional kitten-heels, moving my weight around to try to press the tortilla evenly... I sort of rocked back and forth a little like I was pretending to surf.

Would a tortilla press have been that much fun? Certainly not!

(P.S. -- I want a tortilla press.)

So the tortillas turned out okay -- some a better thickness and texture than others. I need more practice. But masa harina was really cheap, and the whole thing was a bit of an adventure.

Last night I made indian food; rice pilaf, curried vegetables, garlic naan. It was all okay. The naan recipe I used this time had yeast, but no yogurt, which is interesting, as the last recipe I used had yogurt, but no yeast. I wish I could do a side-by-side taste comparison, because my memory has them both tasting like, well, naan. I guess I could do a taste test... but I'd feel silly making two different kinds of naan.

Exciting discovery! Naan can be reheated in a toaster. Okay, maybe it's obvious to you. But it was totally the delight of my afternoon.

That's all.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

my starter and I

We are getting along just fine now. I take back everything I said. About two days ago it decided that it was time to grow up and get out into the big, big world, and it suddenly swelled up to two-thirds of the mason jar. Needless to say, I was ecstatic!

This delightfully living starter is now safely tucked away in the fridge. I do hope it will still be alive when we get back. I cannot wait to see if it will actually work and raise my bread. It just doesn't seem entirely possible...


Monday, April 14, 2008

starter's game

I am having starter drama. My starter has finally stopped smelling like something died in it -- now it smells strong and sour, but entirely edible. I would say, in my limited experience, that it smells right.

HOWEVER. It is NOT rising up. It is not crawling up the sides of the jar. It is not gently doming on the top. It has not increased to 3 cups -- nowhere near. It looks alive -- it is full of little bubbles and all -- but there is a distinct lack of expansion.

Also, it is incredibly liquid. It was a stiff sort of batter , then a less stiff sort of batter, and then -- POOF! -- it turns into something I could drink. You know, if I wanted to. Watery. Sloshing about. I am wondering if I accidentally added water twice on one of these days. I would like to think I am not that dumb, but I am not dumb enough to think that I am not that dumb. Is that dumb?

No, really. I think I might have. It's just... very, very liquid.

I was really hoping that it would be established enough to be refrigerated by the time we went home for 4 days. Because traveling with my starter just doesn't seem like that good of an idea. But if it hasn't expanded by Friday, I think I'll have to throw it out and start over.

It's so sad! I don't want to break up with my starter! But I feel that I have no choice... alas!

My life is so tragic.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

i'll probably be the next fleming or something

blargh. i am sick of bad cheese. I swear that mozzarella wasn't that old. and yet there it sat, super duper mcmoldy. And not 'cut off the moldy bits and use the rest' moldy -- and besides, the internet tells me that it's only okay to do that on harder cheeses, like cheddar. apparently poor mozzarella is too squishy.

super. duper. mcmoldy. And my pizza dough was all ready! I could have cried. That's what I get for knowing what I have in my kitchen and not bothering to check.

So I sent William out to fetch me some. Every time I look despairingly out of the kitchen and say, "dear, would you mind..." a little piece of me DIES.

I am a little more dead today.

But yes. Yesterday for dinner we had pizza. Pizza and soda. and it was deeeelicious.

I feel like some folks have wound up with the impression that I am all health-nutty. I was talking about chocolate with one of my coworkers and she said, "wait -- as healthy as you eat, you still like chocolate?" I almost choked. What is this nonsense about me eating "healthy?" I bake cookies and pies on a regular basis, I love chocolate and ice cream and cake -- I like things that taste good. Who doesn't?

And how on earth did she get the idea that I could live without chocolate?

The thing is, I don't like eating gross food. Pizza in a box? Usually gross, although there are some exceptions. Those soft, strangely-colored "cookies" sold at supermarkets? Gross. Shrink-wrapped little debbie cakes? Disgusting. Anything with aspartame? I can freaking taste it -- like somebody sprinkled sour metal shavings into my no-fat yogurt. I don't care how "healthy" they say that is, it is gross. Limp sandwiches that are 90% sprouts? Gross.

Most sodas? Gross, gross, gross. I don't know. I have somehow moved away from liking anything that comes out of a soda fountain. Right now the root beer is about all I can handle, and even that isn't too enjoyable. I don't know what about it tastes so bad -- it's too sweet, too syrupy, or something.

We had Fufuberry instead, and that is some delicious stuff, yo. Props to Jones Soda for the only soda of theirs I really love. Props also to them for all their other, very creative sodas that I don't love at all.

I suppose my food philosophy, if it could be summed up, would center on the fact that I like eating delicious food that doesn't make me feel bad. Food that doesn't make me feel physically bad, like fat-filled meals make me feel heavy and nauseous, and like sugary candies make me feel ill fifteen minutes after I eat them. Food that doesn't gross me out, like anything with lard in it does. Food that doesn't make me feel guilty, like factory-farmed meat or -- well, the category of 'food that makes me feel guilty' seems to be expanding, thanks to my reading choices. Drat.

Things that taste good but feel bad seem like they should be easy to avoid, especially when there are all kinds of yummy foods that make a body feel good. In fact, these days, the only place I have problems is with candy. There are always jars around in the office, and even though I know I'll regret it, I frequently grab a few and gulp them down. And then I regret it.

My own desserts rarely make me feel regretful. It turns out I can eat a fair amount of pie without feeling icky afterwards. Cookies are easy to have in moderation -- they're the right size and everything. And a lot of what I make for dessert starts life as non-threatening fruit, and doesn't get much transformed along the way. Have you ever had broiled grapefruit? (Recipe: Turn on the broiler. Sprinkle as much brown sugar as your sweet tooth desires on top of your grapefruit halves. Pop them under the broiler til they smell delicious and you can't wait any longer. Enjoy.)

Most of the time, I eat food that actually makes me feel good. I'm usually proud of myself for having made it, and I am continuing to discover what sorts of dishes leave me feeling energized and refreshed, and what sorts of things leave me a little bloated or queasy or sleepy or just feeling off. My body certainly doesn't have ascetic tastes -- it's anti-grease and salt, but loves spicy foods, roasted vegetables, dark chocolate after dinner, fruit smoothies, coconut milk, lots of fruit, honey -- even deep-fried things, in moderation. Did you know that if you deep-fry things right, they shouldn't be greasy?

And just like soda doesn't have to be sickly-sweet and cloying, pizza doesn't have to be a greasy, limp mess. Mine was tomato sauce, mozzarella, sauteed onions and red bell pepper, broiled eggplant, and spinach. A bit of canola oil, a bit more olive oil -- no grossness required. I did learn a few things -- I didn't saute the spinach, and I think that if I try that again, I will put the spinach under the cheese. It seems obvious in retrospect, but there was some pretty crunchy spinach involved. But overall, it was good.

The last couple pizzas I had made were thin-crust; good, but not the same as the thick, crisp, chewy crust that my dad makes. I was really craving pizza like I grew up on (I miss all kinds of things!) and I called him to find his recipe, but I couldn't reach him. What to do? I decided to go with the Joy of Cooking recipe, figuring that odds were pretty good he had started from there. If not, hey, it'd still be pizza. And it turned out pretty darn close!

I totally understand that people are reluctant to eliminate tasty things from their diet in favor of low-fat, low-calorie, low-carb, low-pleasure diets that leave them hungry and cranky. Pretty much everybody agrees that those diets aren't good for you, anyway. But why would we seek out foods that make us feel ill, and avoid good, wholesome foods: whole-fat, whole-calorie, whole-carb, whole-pleasure diets that actually nourish?

A live without pizza would be a sad one indeed -- but trading greasy deliveries for fresh ingredients, a crust just how you want it, and a far more flavorful experience... how is that hard? Why is that unusual?


Thursday, April 10, 2008

mucking around

Last night I made potato pancakes with carrots, peas, bell pepper and corn in them. They held together poorly and were incredibly greasy. It's a pity, because I think there was a lot of potential there -- even in that sad state, they tasted pretty good. William, of course, liked them -- greasy hash browns with vegetables? What's not to love?

While trying to figure out how to made them, I looked up recipes for classic potato pancakes, for croquettes, and for boxty. Heh. Boxty. I've had boxty... they're, um, potato pancakes. With a funnier name! Next time, instead of mucking around (fun though that is), I think I will just straight-up make croquettes. Well. I think that's what I should do next time... but in all probability, I will just muck around.

I tell myself that "just mucking around" is actually a complex learning process in which I am experimenting in a natural and holistic way to discover what works and what doesn't in a kitchen, and that if I keep it up, I will someday be a cook -- someone who does more than just follow recipes. It will give me a deeper understanding of the true nature of cooking and allow me to follow my whims, and the constraints of my pantry, and truly create dishes of my own. I strongly suspect, however, that it really is just mucking around.

Speaking of just mucking around, I have 4 pielets in the oven. Pielettes? Minipies? I could say tarts, but they're sort of... I dunno. Taller than that.

One is apple/strawberry/raspberry, one apple/strawberry/pineapple, one banana/strawberry, and one -- aw, shoot, what is that one, hold on while I check -- right, apple/pineapple/raspberry. The raspberries aren't that important, because I'm pretty sure they'll be delicious no matter what -- the real experiment is apple/strawberry vs. apple/strawberry/pineapple vs apple/pineapple. The banana/strawberry is a wildcard.

That was a lot of slashes. The point is, I am just mucking around and pretending it is An Experiment. True story? I wanted pies. Those were the fruits I had. I wasn't confident that any of those combinations would work well, I didn't have that much of any fruit, I improvised.

And, you know, instead of mixing the fruit in bowls with sugar and cornstarch, just put the fruit in and haphazardly sprinkled the dry stuff over it. Sometimes I put in bits of butter... sometimes I didn't. Gosh. If these turn out it will be entirely despite me.

(Dinner tonight was peanut-sauced noodles topped with bell pepper, carrot and tofu. It was going to have bean sprouts, too, but... I forgot. It's like when I put things in the fridge, they don't exist any more! At least I turned the oven off this time... and didn't manage to set off any fire alarms. I'd say that's an improvement.)

ETA: Having sampled the apple-pineapple and apple-strawberry pie babies, I can authoritatively report two facts: 1) Camila really likes pineapple pie, but neither Andrew nor Willikers did, and 2) Camila should have been much, much more haphazard in her sprinkling of cornstarch. By which I mean those things were JUICY.

did you see how that was in the third person? That's right. That's because I was being SCIENTIFIC and OBJECTIVE.



Wednesday, April 9, 2008


that wasn't even a remotely good pun. What's wrong with me?

I threw together a quick dinner of rice and beans tonight, all braced for running out the door to our Balboa lesson but, alas, our instructor has a bronchial infection, so no dancing for William and Camila. Instead I lay on the couch reading Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (she makes her own CHEESE!) and then I got up and baked some crackers.

On the back of my Bob's Red Mill Organic Dark Rye Flour, purchased for the starter, there is a recipe for Rye Crackers that states, "These crackers are far superior to any commercial brand cracker we have tasted. You will love these crackers." You will love these crackers -- simple declarative statement, without the exclamation point that would push it over to the overblown-copy zone. I would love these crackers? Why, how could I resist?

(Speaking of that starter, I fed it this evening. It smelled bad. A 'faint citrus odor' my ass. Rotten citrus, maybe. I tried to think happy thoughts towards it but I strongly suspected I was cultivating rotten flour in a jar. Ah well. Onward and upward...)

With a few alterations for the sparseness of my pantry (no turbinado sugar or caraway seeds here), these are

Bob's Red Mill's Rye Crackers

1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 T sugar
1 tsp baking powder
2 T sesame seeds
4 T margarine
3 T milk

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the dry ingredients, including seeds. With a pastry knife, work in the margarine until fine. Stir in the milk, form a ball, and roll the dough out between wax paper (or greased parchment paper) 'til 1/8-1/16th of an inch thick. Cut into whatever shape your little heart desires, prick with a fork, and gently transfer to an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 5-6 minutes until lightly browned on edges. Cool on a rack if you have one, in which case poor Camila envies you, and then store in an airtight container.

Gee, that was quick! The result isn't really something I'd eat on it's own -- it's a little rye-y for me-- but it is delicious with honey. I think I'll mess around with the kinds of flour in that basic recipe, then try out some other cracker recipes for comparison. It's so easy and quick, why not?

I salted one and handed it to William, who bit into it with a curious look before saying, "it has a wheat-thin-like consistency, which I approve of." (Doesn't he sound like a hoighty-toighty connoisseur? true story: Camila sucks at spelling french words even more than she does at pronouncing them)

Then he looked at me with something approaching awe, and said, "You can make anything!"

Nope. nope I can't. But I'd sure like to try! I think I am approaching Andrew's parody of me, creating every meal item myself -- shaping grains of rice out of flour. But I don't mind one bit. I like eating food I made so much more than eating food other people made.

Seriously. Why pay someone to do the cooking for you? Cooking is so much fun! It's such a rewarding experience, so closely tied to our human identity. You might as well pay someone to tend your garden -- oh, wait -- might as well pay someone to raise your kids -- oh, wait. Truly, though, you might as well pay someone to live your love life for you so you don't have to cope with the distractions. How long till we reach that point, too, 'till we take that enjoyable aspect of the human experience and outsource it to someone who doesn't care?

Because really, who cares as much about what you eat as you do? And if they care less, why do you think they'd do a better job of feeding you?

As I said, I'm reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and quite enjoying it. The move from Tucson to Virginia nicely mirrors the one I'm preparing to go on this July, which makes it still more interesting. The book is giving me guilty thoughts about organic-ness... I'm running the budget calculations in my head as we speak. Unfortunately, Saturday workdays preclude most farmer's markets, but I hear there's a Sunday one in Ahwatukee...

Most worrisome, though, is this: I find my thoughts turning to CHEESE. "That's all it takes to make cheese?" Cogs turning, gears grinding...


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

hot potato

I made potato bread last night and forgot about it THREE TIMES, resulting in a sadly neglected dough that produced an ill-shapen loaf. It was fine potato bread, I guess. I sort of thought that since all the potato bread I'd ever had was store-bought, "real" potato bread would be better. I thought it would be some sort of magical discovery.

Instead, I discovered that potato bread does, indeed, have a potato in it. Also, that I still don't really like it.

Also, I made eggplant parmesan last night and burnt EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. I fried them in batches. You'd think I would have gotten it right once!

All in all, I didn't have a very successful night. The pasta was okay -- penne with red pepper and spinach. I think I managed to not mess that up (okay, I could have used less oil.) But other than that? Gosh. Downright disheartening.

Then today, I left the oven on all day long. 7 a.m. until 6 p.m... at 400 freaking degrees! It's a wonder I haven't burnt down the condo -- heck, it's a wonder I haven't burnt down the whole city. The apartment was 90 degrees by the time I got home, with the fans running and the door open. Sheesh.

Tonight I began a sourdough starter, and I am doubtful. I am looking at the thick, gloppy mess of flour and water in a jar, and distinctly doubting that it will ever become a magical leavening agent. Call me a Negative Nancy, and send my little starter happy thoughts to counteract my bad ones, will you?


Sunday, April 6, 2008

on kneading and needs

A while back, Steve suggested that I make Rosemary Focaccia out of that great bread book I checked out from the library, and boy, would I love to! The bread looks delicious, and so many people have reported catastrophes with it that I am helplessly tempted... I do love a good, dangerous challenge.

The problem? The problem is that the recipe requires a stand mixer. Requires -- not recommends, not suggests, not encourages, prefers or requests. I don't know squat about bread baking (yet), but even I can tell that something is strange with this one. 2 cups of water... 2 and 3/4 cups of flour. And that combines to make a dough??

Not by hand, it sure doesn't. That's a dough that you mix in a Kitchen-Aid and pour into the pan. That's a dough that I would love to mix in a Kitchen-Aid, if only I had one.

I once thought stand mixers were silly. I thought they were old, from when mixers were so heavy you couldn't hold them by hand, and now outdated. I wondered why anybody would want them, save the extremely lazy, because how hard is it to hold a mixer in place?

Now that I bake more than cookies, though, I want one so freaking badly. There is only so much my hands can do, only so much my hand-held can do... sometimes, you just need a machine.

Strange thing for me to confess! I also wondered, until maybe two or three weeks ago, why anybody would want to knead their bread in a machine. Breadmaker, stand mixer, knead-0-matic... by any name, it seemed to me like a way to take kneading away from me. I love kneading dough -- love it, love it, love it. I've never been able to meditate, take deep breaths and clear my mind, sit still and organize my thoughts... none of that. I get restless. I get bored.

When I'm kneading, though, I can totally immerse myself in the rhythm of my hands, and everything I've been thinking about is suddenly flowing through me, instead of getting backlogged in my brain. As I watch and feel the dough make an incredible transformation from a sticky, floury, shaggy mess to a smoothly elastic ball that feels downright alive, I feel myself making a similar transition -- from disorganized mess to a smoother, calmer, stronger self.

Why would I let a machine steal that away from me?

Lately, however, my mind has been changing. I've started thinking a little less about myself enjoying baking, and a little more about the bread itself, and how delicious it could be. A lot of the recipes I find most appealing -- artisan breads, slow rises -- have very sticky doughs. In fact, almost all of the recipes in Beranbaum's Bread Bible say, "knead the dough. The dough will be very sticky at this point." She could continue, "In fact, it will be so sticky you kind of want to kill yourself instead of kneading it, but please don't. Suffer through for five minutes, then let it rest for 15 minutes. I say that it will be easier to work with then, but that's really in the hopes that the placebo effect will make you feel better about it. Life will still suck. You should buy a stand mixer."

Kneading dough that sticky, especially without a proper kneading board and without a bench knife, isn't a calming, relaxing experience at all. It is just plain frustrating. I have to admit a certain amount of defeat, and accept that I will have to add a little bit too much flour -- there's no way around it. Even with that capitulation, it feels like I am battling the dough, not coaxing it to perfection.

Those doughs are the ones where I need a stand mixer most -- not to do the work for me, but to do the work far better than I can.

Last Monday, when I set out to bake some bread, I made a cake from The Bread Bible -- dunno why it was there, either, pretending to be a "quick bread" -- but when I went looking for a bread recipe, that "very sticky" line kept turning me away. I wanted to knead bread, damn it -- wanted to feel the tacky dough under my fingers, feel the dough changing under my hands. More importantly, I didn't want to wrestle with a gloopy mess. So I made a version of The Simple Dollar's bread recipe instead. Less delicious? Mm, probably. Maybe. But it satisfied my need to knead, and it turned out just fine.

Sometimes, I need a bread recipe that will give me a calming experience, a rewarding tactile sensation, a great knead.

The rest of the time, I need a stand mixer.


Thursday, April 3, 2008

pease porridge gross

Well, I've had a pretty delightful week away from the computer. I'll have some sort of a proper post soon, but for now I will just share two not-delightful things I have learned in the past week.

1) Canned vegetables are GROSS. I know. I should have known this, somehow -- I feel like I should have had some sort of warning sensation in my gut when I contemplated the cans. The things is, I have a natural distrust of anything canned, bagged or boxed. Everything but fresh fruits and vegetables, basically, makes me suspicious.

But canned beans work pretty excellently, and frozen veggies are working out far better than I had thought. I thought I would be open-minded. I thought I would give canned vegetables a try.

EW. Just plain ew. How did I miss the part where canned vegetables have not only already been cooked, they've already been OVERcooked? I am so foolish. I opened the can of green beans and THREW THEM OUT. I never throw out food!

Um. On that note, I accidentally served my boyfriend and his family rice and beans topped with rotten cheese. Man, did I ever want to cry. I'll be throwing out cheese more frequently, now. Or maybe I just won't buy pre-grated cheese -- my cheese blocks aren't stinky yet. We bought pre-grated stuff because I'd been recruiting William as my grater and he really hated it, but I think I'll just grate my own cheese from now on. It's not worth it.

Anyway, back to the canned grossness. I threw out the green beans. I opened the peas and decided there was no way I could add anything of that color and that squishiness to a delicious curry. The next day, I tried the only thing I could think of: pea soup. Blended with some veggie stock and heated with onions, carrots, salt, pepper and thyme, the result was edible... just.

Moral of the story: Canned vegetables will never again feature in Camila's kitchen pantry. That is all.

2) A camera enthusiastically swung on its strap becomes a camera enthusiastically dropped into the red dust of Sedona becomes a camera enthusiastically broken. It was off! The lens was closed! I was holding the strap, I thought we were all so safe!

Oh, it is so sad. It makes sad little noises like whirr-whirr-whirr-whirr tik-tik-tiktiktik when it tries to open the lens... it makes the same sad little noises trying to close it. It won't close at all, now.

This weekend I will take it to the nice camera store next door and see if they can fix it. I do hope they can. I can't afford a good replacement camera. And I'd just learned how to use this one properly!

Oh, it is so, so sad. I just look at it, permanently open, lens staring like the single eye of a dead cyclops, and I want to cover it with a coin or something. Do dead cameras go to heaven?

No! Don't say that, Camila! There's still hope!

It can be saved!

I hope.... *sniffle*