Tag Archives: food

No more flavorless tomatoes

It’s tomato season and I should be happy about that, right? Certainly I am, but tomato season brings with it the disturbing reminder that most people don’t have a clue that tomatoes even have a season, a fact that was reinforced for me twice yesterday in a most ironic way.

First, I read this great piece about workers who pay the ultimate price for our insatiable desire for tomatoes and what one woman is doing to change that.  Then, I went to dinner last night at a nice restaurant that claims to use “the freshest possible local ingredients”, and while it served me grass-fed beef, it also served a firm, flavorless tomato that was barely pink -all the hallmarks of an industrially produced tomato-with a salad.  Why on earth, when tomatoes are everywhere right now, would a chef serve this abomination to local food?  Perhaps he chooses to cut that corner because he thinks that since most people are willing to eat that kind of tomato in winter, they’re willing to settle for it at any time of year.

How is this possible? Every summer I hear the same thing: people oohing and ahhing over fresh homegrown tomatoes and how wonderful they are and how much better they taste than tomatoes they eat in the winter.  You’d think people would get a clue and quit wasting their money on tomatoes in the winter.

I finally clued in a few years ago during my gastronomy course when our professor used the term “esculence”, which technically means suitable for eating, but her usage implied not only suitability, but perfection or a peak ripeness.  Learning that word was a game changer for me and I gradually quit buying fresh tomatoes during the winter.  And you know what? It was liberating, culinarily speaking, especially when it came to making salads.  In place of fresh tomatoes I used pears, dried cranberries, sweet mandarin slices, and-yes- even sundried tomatoes that were preserved when tomatoes were at their peak.  All of these fruits helped make the salads a wonderful change of pace from the run-of-the-mill garden salad with lettuce, tomato and cucumber that is ubiquitous because it requires so little thought.

But the best part about my wintertime tomato ban is looking forward to this time of year when we’re inundated with tomatoes of all different colors, shapes and flavors.  This summer, because Iwasn’t lulled into complacency by insipid winter tomatoes, I was one of the first people in line at the farmer’s market to buy the first homegrown tomatoes of the season.  I can honestly say I’ve savored every bite knowing that I’ll never eat a flavorless tomato again.

A new take on shortcake

Strawberry shortcake is, in my opinion, the most perfect dessert.  Of course this is dependent upon the quality of the shortcake and the strawberries.

In June, you can pretty much count on strawberries being top notch. I’ve also found what is probably the best shortcake recipe on the internet– one that is as good as– no, actually trumps– the shortcake recipe on the Bisquick box which was long my favorite despite the fact it was on the Bisquick box.  The completely homemade shortcake recipe was on the Food Network website and it was really wrong, but thank goodness for reviews and comments because that helped correct all its flaws.   It makes a lightly sweet, slightly crumbly shortcake that’s soft in the middle and has a pleasantly crunchy crust. 

I’ve been making this particular shortcake for about a year and have recently found myself wanting to experiment with some new flavors.  My basil is starting to go nuts and I’m not quite ready to start making pesto, so I wanted to incorporate some of that.  I made a lemon-basil shortbread a couple of years ago that was absolutely intoxicating. I figured if lemon and basil works in shortbread, why not shortcake?

I mixed the dry ingredients for the shortcake together and cut in the butter and shortening before adding in the finely chopped basil, lemon zest and lemon juice.  After I’d incorporated that, I poured in the half-and-half (did I mention these aren’t lowfat?) and stirred until the dough just came together.  The shortcakes went into the oven and came out 15 minutes later lightly golden, flecked with basil and sparkling on top from a sprinkling of raw sugar.

I couldn’t even wait for them to cool before I pulled a tiny nibble off one of the shortcakes.  They brought the memory of that lemon-basil shortbread back to life.  With ice cream and strawberries it was a  taste of summer with the basil and lemon providing a  je ne sais quois — that turned the familiar into something new and intriguing.


Next time, I’ll try the shortcakes with blueberries– I think the blueberries and basil will be an even more divine combination.


Lemon Basil Shortcake

2 c. flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 c. sugar (or a little less)
2 Tbsp. shortening
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
2/3 c. plus 1 Tbsp. half and half
melted butter
raw sugar

Mix together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut or rub in shortening and butter until dough is the size of small peas. Add basil, lemon juice and zest and stir (don’t be tempted to the add lemon juice to the half and half– it will curdle it). Add the half and half and stir until all the dry ingredients are incorporated and the dough just comes together. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a cookie sheet. Brush tops with melted butter and sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake in a 400 degree oven 15 minutes until lightly golden.  Makes 8 shortcakes.

Sugar-coating the truth

We Americans are a bunch of sugar-addled addicts, a fact that has become  painfully clear to me while  carrying out some simple research on eating habits. 

A recent article in the  in the New York Times on the comeback of sugar completely missed the real issue at stake: we eat WAY too much sugar and sweetener of any kind.  The article did sort of pussy-foot around that issue by saying that nutritionists would like to see us eat less of all caloric sweeteners, but it really just wound up being a trend story about a backlash against high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in favor of sugar.

Perhaps the reporter didn’t want to upset the people in the HFCS industry, but the truth is, Americans started consuming more and more sweeteners just after HFCS hit the market in the mid-1970’s, according to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  As a basis for comparison, I’ve also dug up the sweetener consumption statistics for the UK and Australia, two countries that have fairly similar diets to ours, minus the HFCS.  Interestingly, sweetener consumption in those countries actually decreased while ours was skyrocketing upward:

Consumption of Sweeteners 1961-2001

              U.S              U.K.            Australia

1961    52 kg         52kg             56 kg
1981    56 kg         44 kg            54 kg
2001   71 kg         41 kg             45 kg


 For those who don’t do the metric system, 71 kg is 156 pounds of sweetener every year– which is the weight of an average woman, give or take a few pounds.  We eat, far and away, more sweetener per person than any other country in the world.

I’m not going to argue whether HFCS is worse than sugar.  That’s not really the point.  The point is, that ever since HFCS came onto the scene, our collective sweet tooth has gotten even sweeter and our consumption of caloric sweeteners climbed 40 percent in 40 years.  Now, you tell me why America has an obesity problem.

Would you like poop with that?

The U.S.D.A. just announced that it has approved an E. coli vaccine for cattle.  They say that like it’s a good thing.  But really, all this vaccine is doing is treating the symptoms rather than actually doing anything to solve the bigger issue of a food system gone completely awry.  It’s the equivalent of a restaurant in Mexico telling you to go ahead and eat the lettuce but giving you an Immodium A-D chaser, just in case.

Granted, the vaccine isn’t all bad if it leads to fewer E. coli infections, which affect 70,000 people each year in the U.S.  But really, the only true winners in this are the beef industry people who hope to make more money by telling us their beef is E. coli free.

What the vaccine does not do is get to the heart of the real problem, which is the American feedlot industry.  Feedlots handle about 88 percent of the beef that Americans buy, and feedlots just happen to be breeding grounds for E. coli.  Every cow has E. coli bacteria, but one strain, E. coli O-157, is the bad E. coli that makes humans sick.  It also happens to grow really well in the stomachs of cows who are fed grain, the staple diet at feedlots, as opposed to cows that eat a more natural  diet of grass.

Eating a cow that had E. coli O-157 in his belly won’t make you sick, unless for some reason you were actually eating fecal matter from said cow, or cow shit to put it bluntly.  That’s the other problem with feedlots.  Cows stand knee-deep (do cows have knees?) in poop at these places.  They go to the slaughterhouse covered in crap, and if they aren’t cleaned off real good, then poop gets into the beef, and if it’s E. coli infected poop, a lot of people are going to get really sick.

What really freaks me out about the vaccine, is what if it gives people at the slaughterhouses a false sense of security?  What if they think, “Well, hey, this poop isn’t going to kill anyone now, so if I don’t get the cow as clean as I used to, no biggie.”   To quote Betty Fussell in her book Raising Steaks:  “Sterilized shit is still shit.”

So lets review: The E. coli vaccine is merely a band-aid.  It is not a solution to the bigger problem, which is cattle raised on filthy feedlots.  The only winners in this scenario are the beef producers who are hoping to sell more beef because it’s “safe”.  The farmers don’t win, because they won’t get any more money for their cattle when they sell them to the feedlots.  The cattle sure don’t win, because they’re still living their miserable feedlot existence.  And consumers don’t win because the USDA just fed us a shit sandwich and called it a victory.

We’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid…

… so I find it kind of hard to blame a woman in Arkansas who accidentally served kids at her daycare windshield wiper fluid instead of Kool-Aid.  Of course, she can’t be the sharpest knife in the drawer if she’s stupid enough to put  wiper fluid in the fridge in the first place.

But still. Some of the Kool-Aid colors look positively radioactive.  I seem to remember one that was the color of antifreeze, so it seems entirely logical that one could mistake a household chemical for a kiddie cocktail.  And if an adult can make that mistake, how many clueless kids have been bamboozled?

If the color of some of these drinks doesn’t worry us, the names of the  flavors should at least give us pause: Purplesaurus Rex… Eerie Orange… Scary Black Cherry?  If you buy into that, you’re just asking for trouble.  Oh Yeah!

Springfield, MO: Center of the Culinary Universe

Just kidding.  But at least it is today.  I about fell over when I clicked to the NY Times food section today saw this article on Springfield-style cashew chicken. 

To those unbaptized in the oyster sauce gravy, this is a dish that unites Springfieldians culturally.  It’s basically fried chunks of chicken (all white, naturally), bathed in the aforementioned gravy and sprinkled with cashew nuts and chopped green onions.

I took this photo at Fire & Ice while I was in town visiting last summer.    This recipe is THE original SSCC.  Fire & Ice only serves this dish on Wednesdays and native Springfieldians pack the place to get a taste of  this particular cashew chicken because of its pedigree.  The then-chef at Fire & Ice was Wing Yee Leong, the son of David Leong who is the father of SSCC.

When I went back to Fire & Ice in January something was terribly wrong.  Someone had tinkered with the recipe.  I detected Chinese five spice in the batter and I was not pleased.  I looked around the restaurant’s open kitchen and noticed Wing Yee was not there.  Today’s NY Times article confirmed my suspicions. He left the restaurant in December. 

Even though SSCC isn’t authentic Chinese cuisine, its authenticity comes from its roots here in Springfield. And for people like me who cut their teeth on spare ribs at Leong’s Tea House and Gee’s East Wind, when you mess with the original recipe, you mess with perfection.

Kids in the Kitchen

It’s funny how every time I think everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket, there’s something to remind me that there’s still a lot of good in the world and that people do things for the right reasons.

Case in point: This past week there was a great article in Slate by Regina Schrambling about precocious kids who are being primed to be the next Escoffier, not that any of them would know who that is (Hint: He’s not on the Food Network).  Her article really put into focus why all the recent hype about these kinderchefs bothers me. 

I’m all for kids spending time in the kitchen and learning about food– in fact, I’d say not enough do.  But it really irked me that six year old “chefs” were becoming YouTube sensations and that a 12 year old was being touted as the next Craig Claiborne.  I thought perhaps I was  jealous of these kids with their newspaper columns and internet shows. Afterall, I am in my mid-30s and  in the process of re-inventing myself as a food writer after spending two years and a crapload of money to get a degree in Gastronomy.  But it turns out,  I’m not jealous of these kids, thanks to the insights in Schrambling’s article.  I am, however, completely annoyed by those in our society who, in fits of contextless celebrity worship, are mere minutes away from annointing the “next big thing” even if the “next big thing” knows next to nothing about which they speak.   And don’t even get me started on the parents who cashed in all their dreams to buy a McMansion in the ‘burbs and then had kids who are now just little mini-me’s living their parents lives instead of their own. 

That’s why I was so heartened to see this story on CBS Sunday morning today about a boy named Aaron Ware who started a baking business.  He didn’t go into business to earn fame and fortune, although he’s had some time in the spotlight lately, and deservedly so.  He started baking, something he loved to do, as a way to deal with his grief after the death of his twin brother.   He gives the proceeds to the organizations that helped his family during his brother’s illness.  Aaron’s just being a kid, doing a kid thing and we can learn a lot more about food from him than we can any of those celebrated kinderchefs who are actually trying to teach us something.

Frozen Foreshadowing?

I LOL’d when I pulled this out of the freezer at my parents’ house tonight.  Could any product have a name that better fits the current state of the food industry than this?  Not unless it was bagged spinach called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lethal”.

Thankfully, Blue Bunny’s Peanut Butter Panic hadn’t done the complicated food chain tango with the Peanut Corporation of America so we could eat it without wondering if we should also be making funeral plans.  And it tasted pretty good, too.

Not the same

Girl Guide Biscuits in Australia

Girl Guide Biscuits in Australia

We’re in the thick of Girl Scout cookie season in the U.S. In fact, my article about them ran in today’s San Jose Mercury News food section along with the orginal Girl Scout cookie recipe.
I spent six months of my life researching Girl Scout cookies for my Masters of Gastronomy dissertation, and during that time I never got to eat a Girl Scout cookie for inspiration since I was in Australia and no one, not even my own mother, was kind enough to send a box to me. 
My husband did bring home two packages of  Girl Guide biscuits which just aren’t the same.  They’re good, they’re just not Girl Scout cookies.  There are only two kinds, shortbread and shortbread with a chocolate coated bottom and Australians aren’t barking mad for them like we Americans are for Girl Scout cookies.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any mention of them anywhere in newspapers, on TV, or in general conversation.  I was as shocked as anyone to see this display– with nary a Girl Guide in sight–outside of a store in Glenelg last winter.
So America, don’t get complacent about your cookies.  Don’t let them become just another lame fundraiser kids have to do so that they wind up on the sidewalk outside of a tourist trap store next to a bin of koala and kangaroo socks.  Girl Scout cookies deserve better than that.

Define “Farmers’ Market”

Some people apparently have a pretty loose definition of a farmers’ market.  In my head, the name implies that, you know, actual farmers might be there selling things that came from the ground or off of trees– something that requires the seller of such goods to have some sort of contact with the earth.  I think the photo below is a pretty good representation of what one might expect to see at a place called a farmers’ market.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I went to a “farmers’ market” in a posh Arizona neighborhood (Scottsdale) recently to find that there were no farmers there.  I wish I had taken photos to show the paucity of agricultural products at this so-called “farmers’ market”, but the whole scene was so uninspiring it never occured to me to pull it out. 

 I saw lots of jewelry, clothing and knick-knacks but NOT ONE thing even remotely resembling fresh fruit or vegetables unless you count the knit scarves the color of tomatoes and eggplant.  I even jovially asked the scarf stallholder if there was any actual food at the market and she did tell me that “the farmer” wasn’t there today.  I thought, “THE farmer? Meaning just one guy?”  Then definitely don’t call it a Farmers’ Market (note emphasis on the plural). 

She also helpfully pointed out the stalls selling chocolate, salsa, pasta sauce and olive oil.  At least it was food.  But even the olive oil was a bit disappointing.  All of it was imported- not from California-but Australia and Spain.  More disappointing still was finding out later in the week that there actually is some locally grown and produced olive oil in the Phoenix area, so why wasn’t it at this market instead?

My point isn’t to harp on this particular market.  I’ve found this lazy defintion of a farmers’ market in other places (like Wichita, KS in the prime growing season last year).  The point is, it shouldn’t be called a farmers’ market if you can’t buy fresh produce there.  Further to the point, the people who run these markets and those of us who shop at them should demand it.  Otherwise, many reasons for a having a farmers’ market (i.e. supporting local farmers, providing healthier food, providing a sense of place and seasonality) are rendered null and void and we might as well head back inside to the supermarket.