Monday, July 30, 2012

Kitchen garden (IV)

It's been pointed out to me since last week's post that my memory is playing tricks. We didn't sing "Summertime" in high school, we sang it in middle school...with my friends, not my sister.

Maybe it's because I'm too busy thinking about my tomatoes. And that little guy above. He's taken up residence between two tomato cages, and he's a stubborn one. So after trying to discourage him several times, I decided to let him be. And now I'm glad I did.

I've been on the road these past few weeks, shuttling between Ohio and Rhode Island and Maine and Connecticut and New Jersey (sometimes with the little hamster in tow). These travels have been alternately exhausting, difficult, and relaxing. I haven't always had time to worry about how my plants will get watered while I'm away. And despite a wonderful week on the lake in Maine, and a fun wedding weekend with family, nothing warmed my heart quite like coming home to my beautiful tomatoes, which have finally sprouted fruit.

I'm hoping to harvest that first red cherry tomato before Josh and I leave for Ohio (once again), bound for a family vacation in Canada. And meanwhile I'll just enjoy peeking in on the tomatoes in between travels, watching them ripen.


Thursday, July 26, 2012


High summer in Rhode Island. The days are long and sticky and oppressive (but not as humid as Ohio, where summer can feel like you're swimming through tar). Although the mornings are cool and breezy, they burn off quickly once the blazing sun gets going. If you're out for a walk, you probably spend it hopping from one spot of shade to the next.

This kind of heat always makes me think of that Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess, "Summertime." You know the one: "Summertime, and the livin' is easy." My sister and I sang it a few times with our high school choir, and I remember our choir director telling us to slow it down, to saunter through the song. You can't rush a song like this. You have to imagine you're sitting on a porch in the twilight, shooting the breeze with a friend. Of course, try telling that to a bunch of high school girls who are always thinking of something more exciting than sitting on the porch in the summer.

Now I get it. I like the ease of having nothing in particular to do, of ambling through the day because there's no helping the heat. Every year around this time I get the urge to sing "Summertime" to my sister (we have a relationship full of musical clips and BBC quotations), just because it captures this season like nothing else. The words slip out slow like molasses, and your voice slides from one note to the next. It's the perfect song for summer.

And for refreshment?

Lemonade, only lemonade.

This is one of the simplest recipes I've ever made on this blog. You just need water, sugar, and a fresh lemon. It's a slow and easy recipe, like the Gershwin song. You can let the water and sugar take its time to dissolve, and squeeze in the lemon juice at the last moment. You can chill it overnight or just pour yourself a glass right there. It's a fairly sweet drink, so you might want to reduce the amount of sugar. It's up to you.

Of course, in my opinion there's only one right way to serve this lemonade. On the porch in the twilight, listening to Ella and Louis sing about summer.

(slightly adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

1 lemon
3-4 tbsp sugar
2 cups water

Heat the water just until boiling, and pour over the sugar. (You may want to start with 3 tbsp and adjust to taste once you've added the lemon.) Stir to dissolve, and let sit until cool. Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the sugar water, and stir to combine. Add sugar to taste. Strain the liquid to remove any seeds or pulp. Chill overnight, or pour yourself a glass over ice.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Nutrition, 1903 style (II)

Yesterday I posted some of my fan-girl thoughts on Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and presented a nutritional table from The "Settlement" Cook Book. Now I'd like to think about what this 1903 table has to do with our eating habits today.

The interesting thing about The "Settlement" Cook Book is that it's just the beginning of nutritionism, Pollan's term for focusing on the nutritional value of foods. It looks very similar to early nutritional science (developed by Justus von Liebig), which proposed that humans need only protein, fat, carbohydrates, and a few other minerals to thrive. Mrs. Kander has broken down these "macronutrients" into smaller categories, as well as identified the foods that will provide these essential nutrients.

In examining this table, you'll notice a few other interesting aspects:

  • She's not saying you should eat processed foods enhanced with these nutrients. There wasn't enough prestige attached to nutritional science yet, so there weren't very many processed foods on the market in 1903.

  • There are very few vegetables on this table. Peas, beans, potatoes...apparently leafy greens were considered nutritionally useless!

  • There's a lot of attention paid to meat, fish, eggs, bones, milk, and cheese.

greens, you're useless to me.

So how does this translate into the rest of the cookbook?

  • Much of the "Vegetables" chapter is taken up by potato recipes.

  • "Salads" often consist of lettuce with potatoes, meat, fish, nuts, or fruit.

  • The chapters break down thusly:
    • 4 chapters on meat, fish, or eggs
    • 2 chapters on vegetables and salad
    • 1 chapter on cereal
    • 3 chapters on bread and fried cakes
    • 9 chapters on desserts (!)
    • a few chapters on sandwiches, beverages, and canning.

What's striking to me about Kander's cookbook (and her informational tables) is that focus on nutritionism. By 1903, cooks were already thinking of food in terms of its nutritional value. This has to be connected to the number of recipes we see for animal products (full of protein) and starchy foods (like potatoes). And I guess it's also connected to the lack of recipes for leafy greens, which don't even make it onto the nutritional table in the first place.

It doesn't seem to promote a very healthy diet by our modern standards, that's for sure. On the contrary, the meals would look a lot like classic Midwestern food: meat and potatoes. My parents ate a lot of meat and potatoes growing up, as did a number of white, middle-class families in mid-20th century America. It makes me wonder if Kander's cookbook (and others like it) encouraged this trend in the early 20th century.

However, I hesitate to draw further conclusions about 1903 Wisconsin based on Kander's work. For one thing, it's only one cookbook (hardly representative of a nationwide trend). For another, we know she created her cookbook to train immigrants in American cooking, so there are a number of biases and assumptions about immigrants worked into the recipes. Finally, the content of the cookbook may be dictated largely by the crops grown in Wisconsin at the time, as well as the ethnic makeup of the area.

But it's a fascinating exercise in culinary history.

Of course, we haven't even touched the 9 chapters on desserts. Just a guess, but those probably couldn't be considered nutritional...

Works cited: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nutrition, 1903 style (I)

Now that we've gotten comfortable with the sorts of recipes available in The "Settlement" Cook Book, I'd like to take a look at the book's attitude towards food. Before this project (and before I did some serious thinking about food and health), I hadn't thought much about the different ways a person could view food. My mom has sometimes said that you can either live to eat, or eat to live (she's of the latter camp). So for a long time that was how I thought about food and eating (guess which camp I'm in). But Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food opened my eyes to the vastly different ways of considering food and eating, especially in this modern age of Nutrition Facts and Enriched Foods and Minerals With Fancy Long Words No One Can Pronounce.

One of the first arguments Pollan makes in his book is that in today's Western society, nutrients are considered more important than food. Scientists have reduced food down to its nutritional components, which allows big manufacturers to enrich their processed foods with the "good" nutrients, and tout their products as "healthy." So we're encouraged to eat a lot of processed foods that are Enriched and Full of Minerals And Vitamins, because these foods are "good for us." He calls this concept scientific reductionism.

Pollan's ultimate point is that it's far better to eat a limited quantity of whole foods (preferably vegetables) than to eat this host of nutritionally-enhanced products, because there are two major problem with scientific reductionism:

  • We don't fully understand how the complex variety of nutrients within whole foods impacts the body. We can isolate each nutrient, but each nutrient can behave differently when consumed with the other nutrients available in, say, an apple.

  • We don't fully understand how the order in which we eat foods, and how the combination of foods we eat at any one time, impacts our bodies.

Pollan says all of this much more eloquently and convincingly than I ever could (and if it's not evident yet, GO READ THIS BOOK). But what matters is this: we've gone ahead and created a manufacturing empire based on science we don't fully understand.

So what does all of this have to do with The "Settlement" Cook Book?

Here is the very first page of the very first chapter of the cookbook:

There you have it. Back in 1903, Americans were already thinking of food in terms of nutrients.

Tomorrow we'll look at this fancy table in depth to see what it tells us about 1903.

Works cited: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Berliner Pfann kuchen

We're fast-forwarding here (briefly) to the 1960s. After East Germany built the Berlin Wall in 1963, dividing Berlin into two parts, President John F. Kennedy paid a visit to West Berlin to demonstrate America's support for the divided country. During this visit, he gave a memorable speech in which he proclaimed,
"Ich bin ein Berliner!"
There's a rumor floating around that what Kennedy literally said was,
"I am a jelly doughnut."
See, while Berliner can refer to a citizen of Berlin, it can also refer to a popular German confection, Berliner Pfannkuchen, which is often shortened to Berliner. This pastry is very like a jelly doughnut. By using the article "ein" before "Berliner," then, say the critics, JFK was calling himself a doughnut rather than a symbolic citizen of Berlin. It's a fun story that gains a lot of traction in high school classrooms. Indeed, I think I first heard this story in my own 11th-grade European history class.

But unfortunately (or fortunately for JFK), this is one of those history myths. As my friend Aaron explained, it's still linguistically correct for a person to say "ein Berliner" if they want to say they are a citizen of Berlin (especially if they're trying to be symbolic, rather than literal, as the president was). So JFK did indeed say that he was a Berliner, or a citizen of Berlin. He was not a jelly doughnut.

But this is!

Remember that versatile kuchen dough that can be used for so many different confections? I made another batch a few days ago and turned it into Berliner Pfann kuchen: jelly doughnuts. Then they took center stage at a doughnut party I held for some friends.

This is a beautiful treat. After making a regular kuchen dough and letting it rise, you roll it out and cut out circles with a biscuit cutter (same as before). This time, though, you place a dollop of jam in the middle of only half the circles and place a plain circle on top. Seal it up by pinching the sides and let rise until light. Then you fry them up in fat (I used Crisco) and roll in cinnamon sugar.

Sigh. Is there anything better than homemade doughnuts?

I think not.

Berliner Pfann kuchen
(adapted slightly from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

1 batch kuchen dough
1/3 cup your choice jam (I used homemade strawberry)
egg white (you can use the leftover from the kuchen dough)
vegetable oil or Crisco for frying

Once the kuchen dough has risen, punch it down and roll out on a floured board to about 1/2 inch thickness. Cut the dough into circles with a biscuit cutter. Make an indentation in half the circles and place a dollop of jam in the middle. Brush the edges of the dough with egg white and place a plain circle of dough on top, creating a sandwich. With your fingers, pinch the sides of the dough to seal it shut. Let rise until light, about twenty minutes.

Heat the vegetable oil over high heat. Once a deep fryer thermometer registers 350 F, use a slotted spoon to place the doughnuts in the fat, about 2-3 at a time. Watch them carefully, as they'll brown quickly. When they've browned on one side (about 2 minutes), turn them over and let them brown on the other side. Remove to a pan lined with paper towels. While the doughnuts are cooling, you can roll them in cinnamon sugar (cinnamon + sugar, your choice of ratios) if you'd like.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flaxseed tea

There can be hidden gems in old cookbooks. Like last week's kuchen tarts, or the Little House apple turnovers, or the Old Virginia pancakes. Come to think of it, those hidden gems all have to do with baking or flour-based deliciousness.

Anyway. Sometimes there are successes. And sometimes there are failures. And sometimes there are just plain weird recipes.

Flaxseed tea is just such a recipe. It sounds promising, like the kind of tea brewed from garden leftovers that Marilla might have served to Anne out at Green Gables. Unfortunately, the properties of the flax seed make it into an entirely different beverage than you'd expect.

Here are the basics:

  • After washing 1 tbsp of flax seed (I just so happened to have some lying around...that's how I know I'm turning into a health-conscious cook), mix it with 1 cup cold water.

  • Simmer the mixture on low heat for an hour.

  • Stir in the juice of 1 lemon and sugar to taste (Mrs. Kander recommends 1 tbsp, but that's a lot. I didn't add any).

In simmering the tea for an hour, I discovered one of the basic properties of the flax seed: it is mucilaginous, which means that when it's blended with liquid, it becomes gelatinous. Like egg whites, for example. (I should have remembered this from the time I used my handy ground flax seed as a substitute for egg in a brownie recipe.)

This so-called "tea" thus becomes a thick, jelly-like substance. Once mixed with lemon juice, it tastes and feels like...well...lemon-flavored egg whites.

While I appreciated the nutritious aspects of the flax seed, I couldn't really get over the texture. This isn't one to try at home, folks. (Your home, really, since my home has been serving as a test kitchen for the bizarre for over a year.) I wish that I always had an open mind when it comes to unusual recipes, flavors, and textures, but alas: mucilage is one thing I don't want to learn to like.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Mint julep

Now that summer (with all its heat and humidity) is in full swing, my sister Lissa has been contemplating what would make the weather more bearable. There's swimming, long afternoons in Starbucks, evenings at the air-conditioned movie theater.* There's also the tried-and-true tradition of iced mixed drinks. Every few days, she sighs wistfully, "Wouldn't it be nice to be sipping a mint julep on a Southern porch?"

she's up to something

Yes, it would be nice. In fact, we can sip mint juleps right here on our Ohio porch. Except for the fact that Lissa doesn't drink alcohol.

Despite this drawback, I decided to make mint juleps anyway. Lissa could imbibe in spirit (hah), while my dad and I enjoyed a refreshing cocktail. So I flipped open the "Settlement" book to its recipe for "Mint Julep."

Then the trouble began.

You know how I've occasionally had to do complicated mathematics to figure out measurements? And how I rejoiced that this "modern" cookbook gave you all of the measurements so you didn't have to work too hard? Not so for mint juleps. Here is the recipe in full:

Large Thin Julep Glass--Dissolve one teaspoon fine sugar in water, one dash Maraschino, one glass whiskey or brandy as preferred, four or five sprigs mint held to side of glass, leaves up. Fill up with fine ice and do not bruise the mint. Trim with fruits. If preferred mint can be bruised, but above is the regular Southern julep.

Oh, it's all fine and dandy until you get to the "glass" of whiskey or brandy. How big is a "glass"?

So I turned to my trusty Joy of Cooking for advice. But the mystery only deepened, for Joy instructed:

Pour into bar glass: 1 large jigger bourbon whisky


Add more ice to within 3/4 inch of top of glass. Add: 1 pony whisky


For the first time I began to regret that I don't drink cocktails. If I did, perhaps I'd know the lingo. Apparently you don't have to go back in time to find hard-to-decipher recipes.

Finally, after much searching, I discovered a handy table in Joy that explained that 1 "jigger" equals 1 1/2 oz, not to be confused with the "large jigger" (2 oz), while a "pony" equals 1 oz. So after cross-referencing the modern recipe with the 1903 recipe, and discovering that our liquor cabinet had only brandy, and converting the weird bar slang to actual measurements, and failing to crush ice from our freezer, I managed to make two mint juleps, one for me and one for my dad. Lissa supervised the proceedings, though she did not taste the results. And indeed, the drink was refreshing, cool and minty.

Lest my sister ever complain that I'm not nice enough to her, let this be a testament to my devotion: I'm willing to battle multiple recipes and cabinet shortages to make her a cocktail she won't even drink.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't fun.

Mint Julep (1903 Version)
(adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book and Joy of Cooking)
two servings

for the sugar syrup:
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp hot water

for the drinks:
6 oz brandy or whiskey, divided
9-10 sprigs mint, plus more to garnish
ice to fill (it's supposed to be crushed, but I liked it with regular ice)

Make the syrup: mix the sugar and water together in a small bowl until dissolved.

Make the drinks: divide the syrup equally into two tall glasses (if you don't have julep cups, you can use tall bar glasses). Squeeze the mint in your hand to release some of the oil (a nice compromise between bruising and not), and place 4-5 sprigs, leaves up, in each glass. Pour 1 1/2 oz brandy or whiskey into each glass. Fill each glass with ice until 3/4 full. Pour another 1 oz brandy or whiskey into each glass, and stir to combine. Garnish with extra mint leaves.

Serve on a porch in the twilight.

* Except when the entire movie theater loses power. Like it did last week when we were one hour into Spiderman.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fourth of July Kuchen tarts

Right now I'm in Cleveland, enjoying a week with family and quiet mornings of blazing heat. While I love Providence, it's wonderful to escape from a city (even a small one) for a time. I get to remember what it's like to walk down the street hearing only the cooing of birds and the rustle of wind through the trees.

Plus, there's nothing like spending holidays with family, the Fourth of July included. We spent yesterday morning with my aunt and uncle and cousins, enjoying the local parade (and trying to stay cool).

Then we escaped back to the dark, cool house and set to the important work of preparing the evening barbecue. And because I can never ignore an excuse to bake, I made kuchen tarts.

My sister Lissa just finished her first year of a master's program in art history, and she spent her June taking German to pass her language qualifications. She is now the German expert of the family, and she tells me that kuchen (pronounced KU-khuhn, not KU-ken) means "cake" in German.

I made cake tarts!

There is absolutely nothing wrong or indulgent about that sentence.

(Lissa also speaks to me regularly in German. This is frustrating for two reasons: 1. I don't speak German, aside from the random phrases I've picked up from war movies. And 2. We used to speak to each other in Franglais, a broken form of French + English. She has left our Franglais behind for more exotic languages.)

Linguistic regrets aside, these tarts are amazing, as one might expect from something called "cake tarts."

They're made from a basic coffeecake-type dough, yeasty and sugary with a hint of nutmeg. Once you've let the dough rise, you can make all sorts of magical kuchen, from cakes filled with cinnamon and sugar to those filled with crushed poppy seeds and fried to perfection. Lissa tells me that modern kuchen aren't very much like those described in The "Settlement" Cook Book, but hey, it was 1903. We're using recipes that came over from Germany back in the 1840s and 1850s.

The kuchen tarts I chose feature a dollop of jam in the middle, perfect for Fourth of July color-coordination. I alternated between strawberry and blueberry jam to make a red and blue theme. Sadly, some of the jam melted off the tarts in the oven.

Later I discovered that you're probably supposed to put the biscuits in a cake pan so they sort of meld together like pull-apart coffeecake. But those are the mistakes you make when you're working from old-fashioned, unclear recipes that say only "place close together in a buttered pan."

But despite these drawbacks, the tarts were still delicious.

And my family only made a few jokes about the pronunciation of "kuchen."

Almost Kuchen Tarts
(adapted from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

For the dough:
1 cup milk
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
pinch of nutmeg
1 beaten egg yolk (save the white for another purpose)
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (or 1 package active dry yeast)
3 1/2 - 4 cups flour

For the filling:
1/2 cup your choice of jam (I used 1/4 cup blueberry and 1/4 cup strawberry)

Scald the milk over medium heat (this means to heat it until small bubbles form around the edge, then remove from heat). Let cool to lukewarm. In a small bowl, mix the yeast and 1/2 tsp of the sugar, plus 1/4 cup of the lukewarm milk. Set in a warm place to proof. (You'll know it's working when the mixture puffs up like a sponge.)

Meanwhile, add the butter, the rest of the sugar, the salt, and nutmeg to the rest of the milk in the pan. Stir in the beaten egg yolk. Add the proofed yeast mixture and combine thoroughly. Add the flour one cup at a time. You may only need 3 1/2 cups, but add as much flour as you need to make a smooth, elastic dough. Transfer the dough to a large bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in bulk. (This usually takes about an hour, but if it's as hot as it was yesterday, it may only take twenty minutes.)

When the dough is ready, punch down and transfer to a floured board. Roll out the dough to about one inch thickness, and cut with a biscuit cutter. Place the biscuits on a buttered cookie sheet and let rise until light, about twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 F and set out the jam filling. When the biscuits have risen, poke a hole in the center of each biscuit and drop in a spoonful of jam. Once you've filled all the biscuits, bake at 425 F for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 F and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until browned.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Frontier House (II)

A few days ago I gave an overview of PBS' miniseries Frontier House, where three modern families live for five months on Montana homesteads as though it were 1883. Here are just a few things that were fascinating about the series:

  • the historically accurate division of labor. The men build the houses, sheds, and fences, while the women cook, do never-ending laundry, and try to sew (there's just never any time). The kids care for the animals, do the milking, haul water, and help with the harvest. As you might expect, the women get the raw end of the deal. As soon as they're finished making breakfast, it's time to start making lunch for all those hungry workers who will be expecting a hot meal. And that's without considering that they have to wash all their families' clothes by hand.

  • the importance of family size. The families with four kids split up their work much as I described above. The newly-married couple with no kids has a much more flexible division of work: the woman helps her husband build fences and do a lot of outdoor labor, in addition to cooking and laundering. Now that I think of it, that's just more work for the woman.

  • the families' reactions to the hardships of homesteading. There's a lot of crying. Mostly out of frustration (like when a mom finds out she can't wear makeup for their family portrait, or when the dogs eat the breakfast that same mom spent hours cooking). And while some of the people try to work together, one family resists cooperation, which just leads to tension and conflict. This is probably the most "reality-show" part of the series.

  • the families' reactions to poverty. They're not given a lot of food to start with, since most homesteaders only had what they could bring with them. One family budgets their goods, while another family burns through their food and then spends all their money at the general store. To make more money, the father of that family builds his own still. And makes moonshine.

  • health concerns. One woman gets tendinitis in her arm because she's doing so much housework. One man, who's lost a good deal of weight, worries that he's starving. The doctor who examines him reports that he's actually much healthier than he was at the start of the show, he's at a healthy weight, and his only problem is dehydration. 

  • the emotional impact of killing animals. Periodically they take stock of the hens and realize they have to kill the ones that aren't laying. If they can't harvest eggs, at least they can benefit from the meat. But one of the kids grows emotionally attached to every animal, and protests mightily when it's time to chop off the head of his favorite chicken. "Then you shouldn't have named her!" his mom says. Ah, the reality of knowing where your food comes from.

  • the adjustment back to modern life. One couple reflects that they don't know what to do with their ocean-front mansion (it's too darn big!). Another couple separates to work out the tensions that emerged during their homesteading experience. One girl discovers her affinity with animals and carries that back to her life in Tennessee. Two other girls reflect that they're "bored" with modern life.

Josh commented that the final episode (showing the adjustment to modern life) was designed with a very specific message in mind: that modern life isolates family members from each other and makes it hard for people to be self-reliant. The producers of the show definitely emphasized this aspect. But to some extent, it's an accurate message. How self-reliant are we really? Do we really need these big houses? Do we use computers and television to mediate our interactions with family and friends?

This show has given me a lot to consider. Now I want to hear from you: are there weaknesses in our modern lives? If so, what do you think they are? How could we change for the better?