Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Parsnips redux

For the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about food. Not just perusing recipes to figure out what to make for dinner (although that is one of my major hobbies), but about what I choose to consume.

It all started with Michael Pollan and In Defense of Food. Oh, Michael Pollan, you make me want to be good! You terrify me with your statistics and amaze me with your stories of Aborigines who reverse their Western diseases by returning to a traditional diet. You tell me to eat only food that could potentially rot. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." You tell me to shop from the perimeter of the grocery store, to patronize my local farmers' markets. Josh and I already visit our favorite farmers' market almost every Saturday, and I have been trying to eat more salads. It can't be that difficult.

Of course, then I had to go and see Forks Over Knives last week with a friend. It's a documentary that makes Michael Pollan seem like he's giving me a slap on the wrist. There are even more terrifying statistics, more fascinating stories of reversing Western diseases (like cancer....what?!), and a famed doctor from Cleveland to ante up the personal connection. He and the others tell me to eat a whole foods, plant-based diet. So, almost only plants.

Well. Okay. They do have some pretty compelling reasons.

But, as my friend and I discussed after the show, how do you change your diet over to an exclusively vegan one when you've grown up eating meat and dairy? Even if you can get your protein from plants, how do you change your mindset? And how do you resist the hot dogs at the farmers' market, the fish tacos and barbecue from the food trucks that are taking over Providence?

And how, for God's sake, do you accommodate your minor obsession with baking?

Maybe you have to adjust a little bit at a time. Maybe your grocery cart will be filled with mostly plants, but also with a carton of milk and a package of salmon, because you just love salmon. Maybe you'll go to the farmers' market every Saturday, and buy up all the root vegetables you could possibly need for the week, but you'll still stop by the hot dog truck and the bakery truck (because you just discovered their apple cider doughnut holes).

I'm not a person to make changes overnight, or lightly. I've thought a lot about adding more plants to my diet, and limiting the amount of animal products because I probably don't need as much as I think I do. And Pollan's book and the documentary were both sobering and inspiring. But I'm nervous about getting enough protein, and I know I'll need to adjust to the changes in my diet and shopping habits over time.

So this is how I'm going to do it: one recipe at a time. Reducing the meat here, adding a vegetable there. Giving myself permission to still use milk and eggs, because that will be a much more difficult transition.

Last night I returned to my enemy, the parsnip. It was time we had a serious discussion about how to make it more palatable. If I'm going to eat more vegetables, then they'd better start tasting delicious. And I wanted to see if I could align my plant goals with my historical cooking goals.

I turned to a simple Williamsburg recipe for mashed parsnips. You boil the parsnips until tender, then mash them up and "remove the strings" (I wasn't sure how to do this, so I just cut out the core). Return them to the pot and reheat with "Milk or Cream as necessary." Stir in a bit of butter, and you're ready to serve.

Not the healthiest way to serve a vegetable, that's for sure, but like I said, this is a slow and gradual process. Sometimes you have to trick yourself into eating more vegetables. And the result?A creamy, nutty mash, with hints of boiled milk. It was almost like parsnip porridge, in the most satisfying way.

I'm not sure how feasible it will be to eat more plants at the same time as cooking historical recipes (which call for lots and lots of animal products), but it'll make this project even more interesting...

Mashed Parsnips
(adapted from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery)

four small parsnips
1/4 - 1/2 cup milk or cream (I used a bit of both)
1 tsp butter
pinch of salt

Peel and trim the parsnips and boil in a medium pot until tender, about 20 minutes. Pour out the water and cool. When cool enough to handle, mash up the parsnips and remove the center core. Over low heat, cook the mashed parsnips with the milk or cream (whatever amount seems right to you) until thick. Stir in the butter and salt. Serve.

Friday, January 20, 2012

welsh rabbit

It sounds exotic, right? Welsh rabbit. Or, as Mrs. Hannah Glasse called it in her Art of Cookery in 1774, Welch Rabbit.

Surprise! It's cheese on toast. (Served with kale salad.)

My previous experience with this dish, also known as Welsh rarebit, is limited. Back in high school, I blazed through Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series, a wonderfully old-fashioned series set in turn-of-the-century Minnesota. The main characters deal with regular high school problems and romantic dramas, and every now and then they make exotic-sounding dishes like Welsh rarebit in their chafing dishes. I was fascinated.

Then a few years later I found myself at a very old-boys'-club-type restaurant that happened to serve Welsh rarebit, and of course I had to try it. The dish came as a piece of toast swimming in a luscious cheese sauce, accompanied by bits of bacon. I'm sorry to say that I didn't like it very much. The sauce was made with beer, and back then I was an innocent little freshman who'd never had a drink in her life. So I chalked it up as one of those unfortunate culinary experiences, never to be tried again.

Flash forward to the present day. My tastes have (thankfully) evolved since then, and the recipe didn't look too dangerous. The cookbook writer Mrs. Glasse did instruct me to "toast the Cheese on one Side, lay it on the Toast, and with a hot Iron brown the other Side," which could have gotten dicey. I don't know about you, but I like to reserve my iron for making my clothes smooth. So while this could have gone in a whole different direction, I kept it simple. Mrs. Glasse also didn't specify the amount of cheese to use, so I sliced up just enough to cover the toast and kept it at that. It made for a delicious, easy dinner.

And the fancy name? No one's sure where the name came from, but it might have originated as a slur on the Welsh people and their skill at hunting rabbits. Or their inability to afford rabbit's meat.

I'll take cheese on toast any day.

Very Easy Welsh Rabbit
(adapted from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery)

1 piece of bread
a few slices of cheddar cheese
1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 400 F and set a rack at the top of the oven. Meanwhile, toast the bread in a toaster. When it's ready, set the toast on a baking sheet and arrange the cheese on top. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and brown. Before serving, brush with the mustard.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

the care of rooms

My apartment is located in a grand old house, the kind with high ceilings and ornate trim and bay windows. It's beautiful. I love coming home every afternoon, because I feel warm and cozy within the elegant architecture. There's something comforting about living in a beautiful place.

However, there's also something dusty about living in an old place. Cleaning--something I hate to do at the best of times--really has to be done once a week to keep the apartment looking spiffy. Most of the time I'm too busy to care about sweeping and dusting all the hidden corners. (Of course, when friends come to visit, that's another story.)

Recently, though, I was forced to face my least favorite chore. Last Friday I discovered that some moths had been having a grand old time with a few sweaters stored over the summer. Tragedy! It seems as though cedar chips actually stop working when they're a few years old, and I should have replaced them or sanded them or sprayed them with cedar oil to keep the moths away. But it was too late now, and I had to deal with the consequences.

I won't go into the details of my cleaning frenzy, except to say that my dry cleaners have never been so happy to see me, and that it is awfully difficult to find cleaning solutions that don't destroy the environment. Luckily the damage wasn't too severe, and my apartment is now (hopefully) moth-free.

Because I'm a nerd, though, my thoughts turned to history. When I interned at a living history museum, we watched clips from 1900 House, a fascinating documentary that follows an ordinary British family that lives in a period-accurate Victorian brownstone for three months. One of the first things the wife and mother discovers is that cleaning the house is never done and takes forever. So she hires a maid, who happily takes to the bizarre cleaning methods of the turn of the century. I remembered some entertaining clips in which the maid has to take apart all the beds in order to rid them of bedbugs.

Over the course of my long evening of domestic endeavor, I started wondering how a Victorian woman would rid her house of moths. Would she scald all her clothes in hot water and dry them in the sun? Would she use some form of poisonous naphthalene?* Would she turn to some other cancer-causing cleaning solution?

my 21st-century arsenal

I turned to that pillar of domestic wisdom, Catharine E. Beecher. Beecher was an advocate of women's education and domestic tranquility. In her book The American Woman's Home, which she co-wrote with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine described methods of designing and caring for a home that were far more modern than the 1869 publication date would suggest. Her recommendations for ridding clothes of moths were surprisingly innocuous:
"Airing clothes does not destroy moths, but laying them in a hot sun does. If articles be tightly sewed up in linen when laid away, and fine tobacco put about them, it is a sure protection."
Granted, Beecher was far ahead of her time. Just for kicks, I looked up another domestic advice book, Maria Parloa's Miss Parloa's Young Housekeeper. Parloa takes an entirely different tack:
"Soiled carpets and garments may be cleaned by sponging with naphtha. Buffalo bugs and moths can be destroyed with it. For stuffed furniture use naphtha freely. Put the article on the piazza and pour the fluid into it, being sure that every part is saturated. After a day or two, repeat the process, and I think you will find that both worms and eggs are destroyed."
Pour the fluid into it? Saturate the garment? What was she trying to do, suffocate her readers with the fumes? She does note that one should always keep the room well-aerated and not light any fires for a few days, however.

Lesson learned? Unless you're a follower of Catharine E. Beecher's wisdom, you'd probably hasten your family to an early death by trying to rid the house of moths. Man, do I love the modern age.

* the primary ingredient of old mothballs. Or, the ingredient that gives them that pungent smell.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

new year, new disaster (or, steak and kidney pie)

I'll confess: I kind of have a thing for Britain.

Pubs, pints, high tea, scones, royals, BBC period dramas (anyone watching Downton Abbey this Sunday?), Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, the British Invasion, Tea & Sympathy...the list goes on. My sister and I have a whole separate mode of communication involving quotations from our favorite pieces of British media.

this lovely pub is actually in San Francisco, but, you know

So I naturally thought that something as British as, say, steak and kidney pie would of course be delicious.

Then I met the beef kidney.

It smelled...shall we say...like what the streets of New York smell like in the morning. Where homeless men have peed.

I think that's when I should have chucked the whole plan out the window.

But I was feeling stubborn, and slightly foolhardy, so I went ahead and made the pie. Essentially, you wash the kidney in cold salted water, then chop it up and dredge the pieces in flour. Then do the same for a piece of steak (much nicer), and saute the meat with some onions until brown. Simmer in water for an hour, thicken the sauce with flour, and pour into a pie dish. Cover with a pie crust and bake until the crust is brown and the sauce bubbly. And your apartment smells like a slightly nicer version of what I mentioned above.

However, the pie did look appetizing. So I cut myself a small slice and tentatively tried a bite.

I couldn't even swallow it.

This was an unmitigated disaster, my friends. Being British does not automatically make a pie delicious. I did look up a steak and kidney pie recipe in the Joy of Cooking afterwards. There I learned that beef kidneys should be soaked in cold salted water for at least 2 hours before cooking to wash away most of the "strong flavor," which may have been where my recipe went awry. Maybe the 18th-century Virginians didn't care so much about "strong flavor"?

It's not a promising way to start off the new year, but it is an interesting one. And let us say no more about that.