30 August 2009

How to Get Your Tea Kettle to Sparkle Again

Do you remember these lyrics to My Favorite Things?
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with string
These are a few of my favorite things.
I agree with those lyrics, especially the part of about bright kettles. I love shiny tea kettles—they bespeak homeyness as well as the hygienic quality one prefers in one's Temple of Eats. But Alas! and Woe is Me! my tea kettle has not sparkled for many a year. It has been coated with a thick layer of grease and dust that all my scrubbing with Dobie, or SOS, or baking soda could not affect. So I was resigned for a long time to a tea kettle clean on the inside and horrific on the outside.

Until this week.

I was reading the fabulous tome, Home Comforts, my go-to guide on pretty much every housekeeping emergency, because for the first time in my life I had to clean out my oven. This seemed an alarmingly difficult task, but my Home Comforts book suggested first cleaning out anything I could with fine steel wool. I didn't know anything about fine steel wool, but, determined to have corn bread with my collards, I purchased some steel wool from the supermarket.

I got to thinking. If this stuff was such a super-material that it could handle an oven, maybe it could do other things. So I tentatively scrubbed my tea kettle, and suddenly it was shiny silver again! Such a relief! I tried it on my 4 quart pot as well, and all those brown lines I thought burned in forever also came off. I think it goes without saying that you should never use fine steel wool on non-stick surfaces or surfaces with any sort of coating that you don't wish to remove. But there you are.

I still haven't cleaned out my oven.

25 August 2009

How to Buy Stuff at an Asian Grocer

The short answer is 1) pick it up 2) bring to cashier 3) give cashier money.

The longer, better answer:

1) Before you even begin shopping, check out all the Asian grocers in the area. They could be listed in the yellow pages under Asian, Oriental, Chinese, Hong Kong, Korean, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Japanese grocery/ goods. Obviously there are other Asian countries, but in my experience, these are the main sort of groceries you will find in the U.S. You can also go to chowhound or yelp (websites) and search for these same categories.

When you get to the stores, take a good inventory of what sort of foods are available and what sort of languages they seem to be in. If it's English, you're in luck, but usually foods will be labeled mostly in the mother tongue of the owner. For example, one of the Asian grocers near my house seems to label everything in Chinese. As I researched further, I noticed that most of the condiments, dried goods, and vegetables were of the Chinese or Vietnamese variety. This clearly was a good store at which to buy food for Chinese cooking, but not so much for Indian or Japanese.

If the store is Korean, there is a 95% chance that you will find many of the Japanese products you need there as well; Korean and Japanese cuisine share a lot of the same ingredients. The same goes for Indian and Pakistani foods. Most Middle Eastern cuisines share a lot of the same elements.

Figure out whether the people working at the store speak or understand English. If you speak their language, obviously you can ask them for all the help you need. Of course, they may not be interested in helping you.

2) When figuring out what to buy or not to buy, try to use cookbooks written by natives of the country whose cuisine you are attempting. This isn't absolutely essential, but if you go this route you will probably end up with the smallest and most useful collection of condiments and dried goods for the cuisine. For example, fusion American-Japanese cooking calls for all sorts of random ingredients I barely use again (while eating up valuable pantry space), but if I stick to a traditional Japanese cookbook, all that I am required to keep in stock is shoyu, mirin, sake, rice vinegar, miso, kombu, umeboshi, dried shiitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, and shichimi-togarashi. And I use them up.

3) Try not to buy the same brands available at your local supermarket unless you live in a heavily Asian-American area. Those supermarket brands are almost always lower in quality than the traditional stuff used in the native countries. For example, Kikkoman is everywhere and its soy sauce will do in a pinch, but almost any other brand at an Asian market will taste better (in my opinion).

4) Try to buy the lowest sodium version of whatever you are buying. Now that we enjoy the convenience of refrigeration, we don't need as much of the preserving power of salt that we used to. A lot of Asian countries' cuisines haven't yet adapted to this reality. Trust me, your food will still be plenty salty!

5) Arm yourself with both the native and English names of the food you want to buy. Also make sure you know what it looks like. If no one speaks English at the Asian grocer, it might be helpful the first few times to bring (color) pictures with you that you can point at. Thank goodness for the Internet! To try this out, just go to Google Images and type in "banana flower." Voìla!

6) If you want to get anywhere tasty, experiment with brands and new fresh foods, but not too much at once. Ask the people there (if they speak English) how they would cook such and such. Ask them how to store it as well. Or look that up online too.

7) Trust your instincts. If the unidentified fresh food looks wilted, don't buy it. If everything is caked with mold and grime, leave. If it seems too expensive, it probably is. If the baked goods don't look yummy, they won't be. There is one exception: if the people working there seem like idiots, there's a good chance that the language barrier is the problem, because they probably think you're an idiot too. And trust me, you're not. Would you read this blog if you were?

Don't answer that.

23 August 2009


We've moved to the South, as you may have noticed, but we still don't know Southern food. That's why I purchased Cookin' Southern: Vegetarian Style by Ann Jackson to be my vegetarian's guide to the new local foods.

Gillian thoughtfully sent us a coupon for vegetarian meat so we tried a new kind of faux sausage, Italian sausage by Lightlife. Because George and I really enjoyed them (nicely browned), I suggested we make Jackson's recipe for jambalaya. My mother used to live in New Orleans and she's always going on about how good the food was there. Now is my chance to try it, one recipe at a time—I'm sure not going to wait around for a vegetarian restaurant to open that serves traditional Southern food. Vegetarian pigs will fly first!

We had different ingredients than Jackson called for, and I hate summer squash, and George didn't want that much sausage (go figure), so we changed around this recipe. If you eat gluten-free, just substitute real meat for the fake (and filled with wheat gluten—eek!) meat. Or if you're GF and vegetarian, try crisply browned tofu and/ or sautéed shiitake or black Chinese mushrooms. Here's what we did:

Vegetarian Jambalaya

1/2 Cup olive oil
3 Cups chopped onions
5 cloves garlic, peeled
2 frying peppers (we used Hungarian), sliced or chopped
2 small zucchini, chopped
3 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, and chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (I use potassium chloride salt for less sodium)
1/2 of a 14 oz. package ground vegetarian sausage, crumbled
1/2 package flavored seitan, cut into chunks
2 bay leaves
3 Cups long-grain white rice
2 umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums), pitted and chopped
6 Cups water

1. In a large pot, heat oil, and sauté onions, garlic, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, and half the salt until everything is golden brown and sticky.
2. Add sausage and seitan. Brown them.
3. Add bay leaves, rice, rest of the salt, and the umeboshi. Cook a little, add water, stir, and cover tightly.
4. Let it cook 35 minutes WITHOUT PEEKING. Ann Jackson writes here, "I'm telling you right now, young lady or young man, if you dare to lift that lid even once during the first 35 minutes the rice is cooking, I'm going to come over there and give you a piece of my mind. Is that clear?"
5. Uncover and make sure all the liquid is absorbed. Turn off the heat. Let it sit a few minutes, remove the bay leaves, and serve.

It serves probably about 8 and tastes great next to collards or any green. We've been eating a lot of leftovers. Home-cooked food is an amazing gift.

19 August 2009

What We Did With the Eggplant

I'm sure you're all on the edge of your seat, wondering what amazing concoction we devised for our fresh tiny purple eggplants from the North Carolinian farmers' market. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but we just chopped it and cooked it up in its own juices with garden green bell peppers and tomatoes. Then we added pasta sauce, heated up, and tossed with pasta. It seems like the better the vegetables get, the less we feel like doing much to them. Also, the only flavorings we currently own are Dead Sea salt (a wedding gift) and a some extra virgin olive oil. This will limit a cook.

I unpacked all my cookbooks and found to my shock that I own about forty. I have become accustomed to using only about 3, and now I find myself overwhelmed with riches. In fact, many of these cookbooks are ones I don't remember owning! I have so many choices that I am currently choosing none of them.

Another factor in limiting one's appetite for cooking is creative energy. I think most people have only so much. George is investing all his creative energy is learning to make and finish furniture, so he never feels like cooking. I am juggling everything involved in starting a new program of studies at a new school in a new state, and my brain feels tired when I get home. I don't have the same desire to leaf through cookbooks and come up with a shopping list and a week of menus. Plus, my kitchen is still a stranger to me, and it's filled with empty moving boxes.

We invited neighbors over for Sunday brunch this weekend, so we are going to have to force ourselves to get back into the swing of things. As a Jew, when I hear the words "Sunday brunch" I immediately envision lox and bagels, cream cheese, munster cheese, red onions, and fat slices of tomato with a side of smoked white fish. Of course for a vegetarian that won't do, and in any case I don't know where to find the authentic New York type of bagel around here. Suggestions for Sunday brunch? Anyone? Just click on "comments" below and Comment.

15 August 2009

Food in Durham

Hello my pretties, George and I have moved to Durham. We now have our kitchen set up (except that the oven smokes, so I will have to clean it—sigh!). I haven't posted for a LONG time because there was nothing to post; we ate the same sandwich for three weeks, or we ate fruit. Or fruit and a sandwich. This was the sandwich: tomato, lettuce, avocado (optional), cheese or tofutti, and once roasted peppers. Not much to write about, except that the tomatoes here are so incredibly delicious that we couldn't wait to tear into them at every meal.

Then we found our pots. So George invented a simple dish: pasta (we use mutli-grain) cooked then tossed with a Special Sauce> stir-fry sweet peppers and tomatoes in their own juices, then add pasta sauce at the last minute. Mix and eat. We ate that three times.

Then we broke down and cooked a crappy frozen pizza in the oven. There was much rejoicing. Our neighbors pitied us and invited us over for dinner twice. And that really was all there was to our gourmet lives.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I was determined to celebrate Shabbat properly. At the local market I found a bag of something that looked like fresh beans, labeled "crowders." Crowder peas, that is. They are a relative of black-eyed peas. We had no idea what to do with them, so we cooked them the way we do beans, but we didn't soak them first. We covered them with water, brought them to a boil, lowered to a simmer, added a bunch of cilantro stems, and cooked until tender. We drained them, tossed them with e.v. olive oil and salt and chopped cilantro leaves and served immediately. They tasted great! They're chewier and more "full of life," as George put it, than dried beans.

I served this with challah, two kinds of cheese (double gloucester and queso fresco), Kedem grape juice, and a cucumber dish adapted from the Voluptuous Vegan: peel cucumber, scrape out the seeds, chop into finger-thick sticks, toss with lime juice and fresh chopped cilantro leaves, and serve. It worked fine. In fact, George doesn't like cucumbers unless they are served this way, as tea sandwiches with cream cheese, as kappa maki sushi, or unless they are organic Persian cucumbers.

We just purchased a fat bag of baby eggplant at the farmers' market, so maybe we'll have more culinary adventures soon.
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