Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Best. Amateur Cookbook. Ever.

"I think I need more," she said, with only the slightest trace of sheepish guilt in her expression. "If I give you money, can you see if they have more?"

Tomorrow is my CSA pick-up day.

But today, my coworker, a fellow local food devotee, is hitting me up. She's shoving money in my hands. For vegetables? Nah. For fruit? Nope. She wants cookbooks. Cookbooks produced by CSA volunteers, no less.

Well Seasoned Cookbook

Honestly, I bought one out of obligation. Sight unseen, I plunked down my $20 and expected I'd receive in return some homely little packet of jumbled text.

I expected an amateur effort that I'd push into my bookshelf and never, ever reach for (except to drag it from living space to living space throughout the course of my life). That's how these things work.

Well Seasoned Vegetable Guide

But lo! The cover was actually pretty nice. The pages were attractive. The photography was certifiably gorgeous. The interstitial artwork was tasteful. The recipes looked genuinely tasty. Indeed, it appeared this might be the first amateur cookbook I'd put into regular use in my kitchen.

My coworker saw it the next day and immediately wanted one. So at the next week's pick-up, I bought one for her and an extra copy for myself.

This week, I'm going back for more. I'm buying these cookbooks not out of some idea about nurturing the community, but out of a need for more of these great cookbooks that I can give as gifts.

Well Seasoned Side Dish Pages

Keep in mind, this was a very small-run book. You probably won't ever actually see one. (You can cook my two contributions — Summer Succotash and Divine Brine for Ramps, Scallions or Onions — from the recipes here.) But you may someday be involved in creating a community cookbook yourself. After all, thousands of these things are published on small press runs every year.

If and when that happens, you might be interested in doing what the Williamsburg-Greenpoint CSA is doing, because clearly, they're getting a few things right.

Well Seasoned Chapter Pages

Making Your Community Cookbook ROCK (Learnings from the GWCSA Cookbook)
1. Know the Readers. (CSA members, in this case.)
The folks who put this book together were very selective about which recipes would be most useful to their audience. They didn't use every recipe that came to the desk. And I think they chose well. A recipe like Zucchini & Caramelized Kohlrabi Quesadillas might not be right for every cookbook, but that page is bound to be a great relief to someone faced with a bunch of kohlrabi and no ideas. (That'll be me next month.)

2. Keep it Focused.
The Well Seasoned cookbook has a real sense of place. In addition to recipes from GWCSA members, the editors include recipes from beloved local restaurants. I'm looking forward to cooking Enid's Sweet & Hot Collard Greens and making Taco Chulo's Escabeche this summer.

3. Include relevant extras.
The front of the book begins with a guide to identifying and cooking all the major CSA vegetables we see throughout the season. The back of the book features a conversion guide, cooking terms, cook's notes and a nicely organized index. There are sidebars on Home Composting, Cooking for Pets and Preserving Summer's Bounty (canning, pickling and drying).

4. Use gorgeous photography.
So many small-run cookbooks neglect the mouthwatering beauty that color photographs provide, and that's a shame. I know it involves extra cost in the printing, but nothing inspires and motivates a cookbook reader like visions of tastiness dancing in the head.

5. Pay attention to detail.
The book printed on recycled, chlorine-free paper using wind power (see point #1). Each recipe includes servings/yield and the approximate preparation time. Vegan recipes are noted with a symbol beside the recipe name. All the food photography notes the recipe name and its page number. The book is spiral-bound to make it easy to use in the kitchen. There's a consistent recipe style used throughout. Attention to this kind of minutia might seem fussy, but it's essential when you actually want to prepare the recipes, as opposed to using the piece as a coffee table book.

The truth of the matter is this: my CSA, the GWCSA, is populated by very talented professionals. This amateur cookbook isn't strictly amateur. I note that the editor of this volume has years of experience in publishing, the art director/illustrator works for Saveur and the lead photographer seems to know her way around a food shot.

That said, I think anyone doing their own small-run cookbook can heed five simple hints from the pros (know the reader, keep it focused, provide extras, use color photography, mind the details) and polish a rough-hewn booklet into a useful and appealing little gem that'll keep people (like my swooning coworker) coming back for more.

Happy Eating!
Miss Ginsu

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Dear Miss Ginsu: My Soup is Bland.

Dear Miss Ginsu,

I need help with my bean soup. It's bland. I've already added the salt. What am I doing wrong?

-Desperately Seeking Flavor

Black Bean Soup

Dear DSF,

Bland soup is so disappointing. I feel your pain.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I'm not psychic. Without reading the recipe you used or tasting the soup myself, it's difficult to know what to tell you to add.

That said, I can offer some general help.

I'm assuming you started your bean soup with a flavorful stock, whether vegetable, beef, or chicken. That's the number-one thing you can do to give beans a chance. Well, that and seasoning the pot with salt and pepper before you serve it, but it sounds like you've already hit the shaker.

The next thing I'd ask about is the other ingredients. Smoked pork/bacon is a classic flavor enhancer for bean soups. Likewise, tomatoes also bring a lot of "meaty" taste to a soup. Did you use sautéed onions and/or garlic? They're called "aromatics" for good reason.

And then there's herbs and spices. You didn't mention using pepper. A bay leaf during the cooking is certainly your friend. A little rosemary can help a lot. Allspice is nice. I'm big on dried thyme.

But all those things are what you'd want to think about during the cooking process.

If it's all cooked and you're stuck with a pot of uninspiring soup, the best thing to do might be to work with your garnish options.

Slices of avocado, a little chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of sharp cheddar or mild goat cheese can work wonders on a black bean soup.

A bland navy bean soup could liven up with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. Or swirl in a spoonful of pesto.

Or try a dollop of sour cream, a bit of fresh-cut basil or parsley, some grated Parmesan, some flavorful croutons, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or a few drops of Tabasco sauce.

You get the idea. If you don't load in the flavor while you're cooking, you need to find a way to bring it in at the end.

Good luck, and happy eating!
Miss Ginsu

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Dear Miss Ginsu: Poisoned by Bay Leaves?

Dear Miss Ginsu,

I have a culinary/biology question. I made black bean soup yesterday — the kind where you blend the beans into a purée.

I took out the bay leaf, blended the beans and finished the soup. Then remembered I actually had two bay leaves in the pot. Today I was in, um, intestinal distress, hot flashes, dizzy, etc. Could the bay leaf be the culprit?

— Bad Belly

Bay Leaves

Dear Belly,

Sorry. Wasn't the bay leaf.

Bay leaves are perfectly edible... they're just not very digestible. It's like eating a piece of tree bark. A little tough on the throat maybe, but it wouldn't be more than roughage in your guts.

Does sound like that's an unhappy tummy, though.

This is probably more than you wanted to know, but there are actually two forms of "food poisoning"

A. Food intoxication
B. Food poisoning

Food intoxication is caused by the toxins that the little bacteria produce. So if a dish is left out for three days, then frozen or cooked and then eaten, the little buggies might all be dead, but the toxins they made when they had their big bacteria party are still there. Intoxication tends to hit faster (2-8 hours after ingestion).

Food poisoning is created by the microbes themselves having their little bacteria party in your guts. That's why actual poisoning takes a bit longer. It's generally not the last thing you ate, since it takes more like 8 to 24 hours to create problems.

So it probably wasn't the bay leaf or even the beans. Since you made them fresh, there was really no opportunity for growth. Hope that helps!

Here's to happier tummies,
Miss Ginsu

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FoodLink Roundup: 09.22.08

Cupcake's Link Roundup
Last week, Cupcake was spotted (by two clever folks!) in Bryant Park, NYC at the Flatiron Building. Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Post your guess in the comments.

Frothing at the Latte
Some casual research on whether lattes signal political preference.

Unscrambling the Boastful Egg
Decoding what all that labeling is trying to tell you.

Dry sodas — soft and complex
Small-batch soda made with care. I approve.

How to be a thriftysomething: scrimping stylishly
Recession-proof for the Brit set.

6 Food Mistakes Parents Make
Seems like sound advice to me.

New food links — and another postcard from Cupcake — every Monday morning on missginsu.com

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Dear Miss Ginsu: Pickling green beans?

Dear Miss Ginsu,

We have a huge bean harvest — got any recipes for pickled beans?

— Swimming in 'em

garden beans

Dear Swimmer,

Oh, how I lurv pickled beans! They're so very tasty. And texture-wise, I prefer 'em to pickled cucumbers. In fact, I hope there's still some CSA or farmers' market beans to be had. If I can keep from just boiling and eating them straight away, I'd like to get some into jars.

You can really just use any regular dill pickle brine recipe — bring it up to a boil, pour it over beans packed in jars, cool 'em and throw 'em in the fridge.

Or you can do the whole canning thing if you're inspired, though I'm rarely up to actually canning, so the refrigerator pickles are fine by me.

Here's a spiced vinegar brine that's good for pickling beets and beans and other stuff:

Spicy Bean Pickling Brine (Makes enough brine for about 1 quart of beans)

2 cups cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2" piece horseradish root, sliced thin (or 1 tbsp grated horseradish)
1/2 tsp whole allspice
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 cinnamon stick
10 whole cloves
1 lb green beans, washed and trimmed

1. Bring the vinegar, sugar, salt, horseradish, allspice, mustard seeds, cinnamon stick and cloves to a boil.

2. Place the cleaned, trimmed beans in a sterile quart jar. Carefully pour the hot brine over the beans.

3. Cap the jar, cool it down, refrigerate and wait a week before munching.

Enjoy your pickled beans as-is, or standing proud in Bloody Marys, or displayed among appetizer assortments, or chopped up in salads. Try them tossed into a summer succotash or served alongside a plate of Middle Eastern-style mezze delights. Nom!

Yours in pickle worship,
Miss Ginsu

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FoodLink Roundup: 09.01.08

Cupcake's Link Roundup
Though an excellent guess was tendered for Yellowstone, last week, Cupcake was actually located in at the geothermal ponds of Iceland's Blue Lagoon. Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Post your guess in the comments.

Earthquake-proof a wine cellar
...with o-rings and zipties. A nice hack for connaisseurs living on fault lines.

Celebrating the produce pioneers
An article on one of the Bay area's produce boosters... followed, inexplicably (not that I'm complaining), by veeeery tasty looking brown-butter almond cake with plums. I'd eat that.

Marrow filled with spinach, bulgar and feta
Apparently in the UK, a "marrow" is a summer squash. Good to know.

Think Twice Before Jumping Into the Restaurant Business
The anatomy of fail: “I seriously thought we were going to die of exhaustion”

What It's Like to Be a Butcher
What makes the butcher? Find out in this really nicely done piece. Kudos to Esquire.

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Dear Miss Ginsu: Bitter Tomato Sauce?

Dear Miss Ginsu,

Ok, I figure if anyone knows the answer to this, it's you.

Spaghetti sauce: aside from adding copious amounts of sugar — how does one keep homemade sauce from being sour/bitter?

I'm assuming this comes from a combination of the tomato sauce and bell peppers? Not sure how to counteract this flavor without turning it into "candied" red sauce.


Dear BS,

Cooking all the elements of the process long and slow is a sure-fire way to increase the natural sugars.

Caramelizing the onions so they're nice and brown, getting a little color on the garlic, long-simmering the tomato sauce — not to mention making sure you've removed the skins from the tomatoes... that'll all alleviate bitterness or sour notes. Some people strain out the seeds, too.

So much depends on the quality of the tomatoes you begin with. Since the natural flavors in tomatoes vary so greatly, you can see how it might be difficult to give precise measurements for a sauce recipe.

That said, a *small* amount of sugar added at the end of the process as you're adjusting the seasoning can certainly improve the balance in naturally very acidic or bitter tomatoes.

Though — as you noted — too much sugar just takes the sauce too far down the sweet continuum into candyland.

Also make sure the salt you're using in your recipe isn't "iodized" salt. The iodine that's added to some salt products might protect you from goiters (ew!), but it also adds a note of bitterness. That's just one of the reasons some recipes call for kosher salt.

Hope that helps!
Miss Ginsu

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Dear Miss Ginsu: I have eggplants.

Dear Miss Ginsu,

This week the farm share delivered a bunch of eggplants. I have not really done much with them before, so I ask your advice. Other than tossing some sauteed eggplant into a bean salad (not that there's anything wrong with that), what other tips do you have?

Best Regards,
— Desperately Seeking Produce Advice

Grilled Vegetables
Just about anything is tasty when it's brushed with olive oil and grilled...

Dear DSPA,

A ratatouille is a classic use (or stuff hollowed-out shells with ratatouille and bake 'em) and there's always the classic eggplant parm.

Lil Frankie's in the East Village serves eggplant halved, roasted and topped with a zippy chili oil, but I think you'd have to have their wood-fired oven to make it taste that rich and smoky. I've tried it in my oven, and it's just not the same. But eggplant does love the grill. There's something about the smoke that really compliments the flavor.

I usually go Middle Eastern with eggplant (either roasted with olive oil and za'atar spice or in a baba ganoush) and serve it alongside cucumber/tomato/feta salad, hummus and spicy lamb balls.
Baba Ganoush
1 large eggplant
1 garlic clove
2 Tbsp tahini
2-3 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp good olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
Chopped parsley and/or mint (optional, for garnish)

1. Preheat oven to 450F. Poke the eggplant several times with a fork (to create steam-escape routes) and place on a baking sheet.

2. Bake until it is soft, about 20-30 minutes, or you can grill the eggplant (it's okay for it to char) about 10-15 minutes.

3. Allow the eggplant to cool before cutting in half, draining off any excess juice and scooping its flesh into a food processor/blender.

4. Blend eggplant, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil and salt until smooth. Season to taste with a little more lemon juice, olive oil or salt, as you like. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with chopped parsley and/or mint and serve with pita.

If you dig the heat, I find baba ganoush is pretty great with a little Aleppo pepper added in or sprinkled across the top. I know they sell it at Penzeys (along with za'atar), either online or in shops... there's one at the market at Grand Central Station here in New York.

Happy eating!

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When Agritourism Attacks!

In Italy, where agritourism has been nurtured by government subsidies for decades, business is booming. Who goes to the Italian countryside anymore without participating in a farmstay? C'mon! All the cool kids are doing it.

In case you're new to the concept, it goes like this: a farmstay or agritourism vacation entails traveling to a farm, eating there and (often) staying at (or near) the farmhouse, as you would at a bed & breakfast.

Orchard-picked plums at the farmstay

There's generally participation of some kind in the regional rural lifestyle... Picking fruit in the orchards or vineyards. Observing or helping with food and/or wine-making processes. Currying the ponies. Milking the sheep and making cheese. Feeding the chickens. Stuff like that.

Farmstay in Sora, Italy

And on the off-chance you've managed to miss the press recently, agritourism may have grown up in Italy, but it's not just for European farmers anymore.

There's plenty of folks now betting on U.S. agritourism being big business for rural America.

Evening table setting at the farmstay

And why not? Thanks to renewed interest in food sourcing and a little press from some writer named Michael Pollan, some farmers are already cashing in.

Since I grew up on a tiny Midwestern farm, I suppose I still find the concept of paying (and in some cases, paying dearly) for participation in agritourism to be kind of a bummer. To my mind, it's a bit like paying for content on the internet.
"What? I have to pay for this? But the internet is free, isn't it?"

Realizing I sound like great-grandpa as I say this (type this?), when I was a youngster, farm chores were part of the deal. You didn't pay to do them. If anything, one's weekend spending money was based on completing those tasks.

A curious fellow in Sora, Italy

I understand why it all needs to be monetized. Like Big Daddy Kane says, "Farmin' ain't easy." But it still makes me a little sad if I'm only welcome to visit the countryside if I arrive with a fat wallet.

That said, I do live in the city now, I am starved for contact with the sources of my food, and I was very excited by the prospect of visiting a farm in Italy, breathing fresh mountain air, picking my way through an orchard and conversing with goats. And... I'm perfectly willing to pay for all those benefits.

Rooster water spigot at the farmstay

I'd just offer this advice to city slickers like myself who might be eyeing fertile fields: as more farms transform into tourist businesses, it's going to be increasingly more important to view them as businesses.

Different farms are going to offer different benefits, and like any commercial enterprise, some will suit you better than others, so do your research. Read reviews online before you go. Make sure you know what you'll give and what you'll get.

I have no doubt that the majority of agritourism farmers are truly lovely, generous hosts, but there will be those who simply want to milk you like they milk their cows. Caveat emptor applies as much to wholesome-looking farmhouses as it does to hotels, motels and B&Bs.

Yours in wanderlust,

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The Wisdom of Food Proverbs

Whenever I cook with tomatoes, I remember what my dad always used to say: "Where a tomato appears, basil is welcome." And you know what? It works. Bruschettas, sauces, lasagnas, salads, soups... When the tomato is involved, I add the basil and it's nice. This method might work less well in a salsa, but honestly, it wouldn't be bad.

That got me thinking about other food proverbs or traditional sayings.

Perhaps I'm just leaving a treasure of wisdom sitting out on the front stairs by ignoring the supposedly Polish proverb: "Fish, to taste right, must swim three times — in water, in butter and in wine." I generally just encourage my fish fillets to swim in a nice pool of olive oil, but I don't doubt that a few generations of unnamed ancient cooks are on to something.

There's certainly great truth in Benjamin Franklin's "Fish and visitors smell in three days." I've always tried to keep that notion in mind when I shop as well as when I travel.

As I poked around the internet, looking for food proverbs, I came up with "Talk doesn't cook rice," commonly credited to the Chinese, and "A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat," credited to anonymous, pithy New Yorkers. Both seem like very sensible, very practical notions.

Garlic Bulb
One free seat on the subway, coming right up.

And what about "There's no such thing as 'a little garlic'"? Much as I love the stuff, I've found that it really does proclaim itself the king of any dish in which it appears.

I think I'll have no trouble abiding the merry Czech proverb: "A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it's better to be thoroughly sure." On the same tip, we find the Egyptian: "Do not cease to drink beer, to eat, to intoxicate thyself, to make love and to celebrate the good days." As an amateur hedonist myself, I couldn't agree more.

Most endearing among the food wisdom I found was this one, credited to an anonymous Chinese author: "When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one and a lily with the other."

I like that one a lot. It says a great deal about the value of beauty, and I'm going to try to remember it so I can keep it close at hand in my daily life.

Bread and Butter at Les Enfants Terribles

One last food proverb I found (commonly credited to an Arab source) seems less useful for developing culinary prowess, but ominously valuable as a life lesson, or rather, a warning: "He who eats alone chokes alone."

Have a favorite? I'd love to hear it. Post in the comments and you can share with anyone else who happens along this way on a quest for food wisdom.

Cheers, all!

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A Guide to the Guides

I find that as marketers and advertisers become increasingly more savvy, it becomes increasingly more difficult to parse the difference between the authentic rave and the shill.

On a recent trip to Baltimore, mom and auntie and I stopped at a Maryland tourism center conveniently set up in one of the roadside rest stops along the turnpike. The brochures, of course, were legion. And you have to expect that in that environment, 97% of the material is going to be marketing and maybe 3% is going to be made up of legitimately helpful advice and maps.

I picked up a couple of the guides relating to food (you're surprised, right?) and found that one was great, and the other was utter garbage recycling.

In comparing these two food guides, I was able to come up a few helpful questions that I believe will be useful for me (and, hopefully for you) on the future forays into unknown lands.

How to tell if the guidebook in your hands offers genuinely good dining advice or just a bunch of advertorial content.

1. Who wrote it?
The Dish guide (seen above), was written by the editors of Baltimore magazine. They're putting their names on it. The Maryland Dining Guide (also above) was written by "Media Two" in conjunction with the Maryland Restaurant Association and the State of Maryland.

While magazine editors might actually give you the real dish in the Dish be assured the Maryland Restaurant Association isn't going to risk ticking off any of its members. You know darn well that Dining Guide will feature glowing praise for every Applebee's in the state.

2. What's the advertising to information ratio?
Is the guidebook in your hands chockablock with ads? Are there more ads per square inch than restaurant listings? If your guidebook seems more like an adbook, you can probably assume they're far more interested in cashing in than in helping you out.

3. How many coupons does the guide feature?
This is not to say that coupons are necessarily the mark of the beast for a given restaurant. They're simply a strong warning sign. If the food's great and it's reasonably priced, people will go there. Great local places generally don't need big ads and coupons to bring the mouths in the door.

4. Are there images and reviews of restaurants and cafes, or just listings?

If the guidebook's intent is to list every eatery in town, they're not offering guidance. They're offering a phone book.

5. If there are reviews, do they use the words, "scrumptious," "delectable" or "succulent" a lot?
A word like "scrumptious" is rarely used by a professional reviewer because it's an empty word. It means delicious. But what does "delicious" really mean? It's vague.

The phrase, "The pancakes at Joe's are scrumptious" has nothing on "Cookie Joe serves up flapjacks the way his Grandpappy Joe did: thick, airy and stacked up high on the plate." The second phrase tells you more about those pancakes than a simple, soulless synonym for "delicious" would.

Along the same lines, a shill is never going to have a bad word to say about a restaurant. It's a sign of quality if the reviews give some credit to the bad along with the good.


In sum, determining what's advertorial content is tricky. It's meant to be tricky. They want your money.

If you're really interested in eating well on the road, you might consider skipping the tourism center altogether and hitting the regional forum messageboards at chowhound.


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Food Quote Friday: Alice May Brock

"Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good."

Alice May Brock

More food quotes can be found within the food quote archive

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Diet & Exercise, Circa 1900

By now, I think most of us who pay attention to food trends know Michael Pollan's succinct mantra, as stated in the New York Times last year: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

This weekend, J ran across a little gem on Google's online and out-of-copyright book collection that reminded me of Pollan's levelheaded, simply stated health advice.

It's a book on training by a boxer who was perhaps the biggest badass of the late 19th Century: Robert Fitzsimmons, AKA The Freckled Wonder.

Though the word choices are antiquated, I love how well his simple statements have held up over time. A few updates to the prose and Fitzsimmons could be addressing the denizens of cubicle-land today...

Rock Climbing in Central Park


A Simple Diet and Easy Indoor Exercise

HERE is some advice for the business man, the lawyer, doctor, broker, clerk, salesman: any man, in fact, who is kept indoors much of the time.

Most men of this class take on weight. They become big and fat: uncomfortably so.

This advice will show them how they can keep in fairly good trim, notwithstanding the fact that they have practically no available time at their disposal for exercise of any description.

Take the business man who, having reached middle age, is beginning to get stout. Owing to this increase in weight he begins to have aches and pains. His muscles are not trained to support the extra weight which he is taking on.

Here is your diet, and you must adhere to it if you want to obtain proper results.

Abstain from the use of all fatty and starchy food. Eat all kinds of meat except pork. Eat all varieties of green vegetables, fruits, and dry toast, and drink your tea without sugar. Do not eat potatoes, butter, fresh bread, or sugar.

Years before the Atkins plan or modern nutritional research, Fitzsimmons' advice sounds a little South Beach Diet-y, doesn't it? As my mum says, "There's nothing new under the sun..."

At this point The Freckled Wonder prescribes a daily regimen consisting of two exercises to be done in both the morning and evening: paired leg lifts (20 reps) and basic push-ups (ten reps).

My favorite part of this chapter is what comes next: A smart little pep-talk on the power of persistence.
Above all things you must be regular, and do not look for too speedy results.

You cannot hope to stick to this diet and these exercises for two or three mornings and then jump on the scales and find that you have dropped five or ten pounds.

It will be at least two or three weeks before you commence to lose weight. Then you will drop from two to five pounds a week.

You must impress it upon your mind, how ever, that there must be no weakening on the tasks that you have laid down for yourself.

Some cold mornings you will get up, possibly after a hard night, feeling languid and unrefreshed. Instead of taking your cold bath, rub down, and exercises, you may be tempted to say, "Oh! I’ll just skip it this once, and jump into my clothes."

Such weakness is fatal. Persevere!

Yes, dear readers! January resolutions may, by now, have smashed to bits upon the rocks of passing weeks, and a sodden February lull may have taken up their place in your mind, but Perservere! You, too, will find your way to successful harbors.

In the same way that Michael Pollan slimmed down his voluminous dining advice for easy consumption, Fitzsimmons can probably be trimmed thusly:

Avoid simple carbohydrates. Do basic calisthenics daily. Keep at it.

Good advice in 1901. Good advice more than a century later.

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Recipe Rock Star #7: Perfect Your Presentation

The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series meant to make you a better home cook. It's essentially kitchen hacking.

So far, we've covered one focused minute, mise en place, the importance of quality, the proper tools for the task and details that make a big impact and organizing under pressure. These aren't necessarily ordered, so feel free to read, review, skim or skip. Now then...

sushi appetizer with shiso flowers
A gorgeous little appetizer from Soto in the West Village, NYC. Note the color contrast, the vertical rise, and the shiso flowers: A beautiful, delicious garnish.

Recipe Rock Star #7: Perfect Your Presentation

What's a major differences between your delicious home-cooked delights and those you find in a restaurant? Setting aside tab, tax and tip, tablecloth, menu, crumb-scraper, cook, dishwasher and waitstaff for a moment... it's presentation. Restaurants endeavor to feed your eyes as well as your mouth.

Professional cooks have a bag of tricks that make food look real purty. You can snatch up one or two and make a big difference in the number of oohs and ahhs you rack up at any given dinner party or special occasion.

In Edition 5, I mentioned the Last-Minute Herb Attack... a staple of any mid-level kitchen environment.
Ever notice how restaurant chefs often toss a pinch of fresh-chopped parsley, cilantro, basil, chervil, rosemary, chives or mint on top of your dinner entrée? It's not just garnish (although fresh herbs do generally make any dish look a little more swanky.) The vibrant, verdant flavors of the last-minute herb sprinkle (or citrus squeeze) have a big flavor impact... particularly in heavy dishes that benefit from the contrast.

Let's expand on that a little. Japanese food, just for example, is often presented with a great deal of attention paid to eye-appeal. Consider: Dark seaweed wrapped around white rice. Interesting, varied shapes. Striking color contrasts. Geometric plates. Dramatic, edible garnishes.

Metal rings in action as the veggies await the fanned slices of meat, a drizzle of sauce and an herb attack at the chef's station.

Restaurants will often use metal rings when plating starches or vegetables. Meats are sliced and fanned across. Plastic squeeze bottles are sometimes used to distribute the sauce just so... here in a pool, there in a drizzle.

And then, of course, there are garnishes: Edible flowers. Micro-greens. A chiffonade of herbs. One lovely shiso leaf. A perfectly placed pile of roe. A sprinkle of fleur de sel. A tiny flake of sparkling gold leaf.

In culinary school, plate presentation was so key, we were asked to make drawings to plan out all the meals we were to cook. Food elements were to be arranged in odd numbers and triangles. Attention had to be paid to height, color balance and distribution on the plate, with focus at the center.

The next time you're planning a special meal (perhaps in say... a month from now around Valentine's Day?), consider thinking past the grocery list and the clean fold of the napkins. A little attention paid to how a plate looks makes a big difference in how it's received.

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The Food FEMA Forgets

Two years ago, in the midst of Avian Flu scares, I typed up a quick Foodie's Apocalypse Kit... a nice grouping of emergency preparedness items I felt (and still feel) FEMA and the Red Cross really missed the boat on.

Now that two years have passed and the flu scare headlines have been replaced with the terror du jour, folks may have forgotten their annual apocalypse kit freshness review. So... How're those expiration dates looking? National holidays ought to correspond to the practical needs of the citizenry, so shouldn't the second Thursday of January always be Check Your Apocalypse Kit Day?

As we all take a moment to take stock of our stockpiles, I think it's particularly appropriate to plan for a very practical emergency preparedness component that FEMA forgets: Vice.

Tucked in alongside the 10 Essentials, addicts of every stripe need to lay in stock for their needs. Stressful times are not the right moments to quit smoking or try to kick the caffeine.

There's three underrated bug-out bag essentials I'm thinking about at the moment: Coffee, Chocolate and Hard Liquor.

apple martini

Coffee is a no-brainer for bean-worshipers like me. It's le soma quotidien. I feel ooky without it. Ooky is most certainly not what I want to feel if there's anything that's required of me.

Chocolate isn't much of a mental stretch, either. If there's a disaster, you're probably going to feel very unhappy and uncomfortable. For most people, chocolate is something soothing and pleasant. A staple diet of brown rice and canned beans might keep the body working, but a nip of good chocolate is food for the spirit.

I've already mentioned the liquor in brief, but as it's still not on any emergency preparedness list I've ever seen, I'm pressed to make my case with more persuasive detail.

Even if — like me — you're no fan of clear liquors like vodka (or whiskey, or rum), said fluid should be de rigueur for nearly anyone's go-bag. Aside from obvious benefits as a mental balm during hard times, liquor is endlessly useful:

  • It sterilizes wounds and cleans tools.

  • Liquor preserves foods.

  • It's a local anesthetic and disinfectant. Use it on cuts and broken blisters.

  • For painless bandage removal, rub a vodka-soaked cloth on the bandage to dissolve the adhesive.

  • Liquor can be used as an accelerant.

  • I've not tried it, but vodka's rumored to take the sting out of jellyfish encounters and poison ivy incidents

  • Liquor is a commodity that maintains its value. Trade it to the neighbors for something you want or need.

I was around for the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and I can tell you with great certainty that in the sudden absence of electricity, people become very interested in clean water, long-burning candles and a good, stiff drink.

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Goal 7: Make a Date with a Fish

In my experience, there's a lot of things the experts recommend for good health, but those things don't happen if you don't schedule them and/or make them into habits. Or, maybe more precisely, they do happen, but the occurrences are sporadic.

The thought here is simple: If you want to make good health a priority, you need to make space for it. On your calendar. With a pen.

Fish, for example, is recommended by nutritionists as part of a healthy diet, but how often do you manage to work it into your meals?

trout duxelles
Trout duxelles with roasted fingerling potatoes

J and I have a running date with a fish every week (a threesome, if you will) for Fish & Film Friday. The Netflix show up, one of us brings the fish and we share a healthy habit that sticks... week after week.

Need to work in more leafy greens? Figure out a Swiss Chard Saturday and a Turnip Greens Tuesday. Want to start taking a multivitamin? You'll have better luck making that habit stick if you attach it to something else you already do each day.

The Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia had a similar idea when they started their Healthy Monday project (aka "The Day All Health Breaks Loose"). What if each and every Monday of every week became the day to start and sustain healthy behavior?

Any goal becomes more real when you make it a concrete part of your life and your calendar. Set up salad time. Invite oatmeal along to cawfee tawk. Make a date with a cabbage. Share your Friday with a fish.

Miss any of the previous resolutions? You'll find #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 and #6 linked here.

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Goal 6: Unlock the Salad Code

My boss loves it when I make salads for our department lunches. He's not really into vegetables (he usually claims his favorite veggie is either the potato or the onion), so it's kind of a nice compliment when he takes a big portion of salad.

I find it disturbing, however that he believes there's some kind of magic behind making a good salad. Shouldn't a set of basic salad skills be one of the rights and responsibilities befitting a modern citizen? (Just behind the our rights to participatory government and free speech, of course.)

Salads shouldn't be relegated to the corner as "virtuous" food alongside culinary misfits like alfalfa sprouts, rutabaga and wheat germ.

Though they invariably contain heaps of healthful vegetables, salads are often quite fatty. In my book, salads really have more in common with the food of jubilation than the food of deprivation.

Granted, while I worked in a garde manger position, I did spend nine months of my life doing little more than making salads at high speed. One could say I have a certain expertise in the area.

The thing is, most people have been buffaloed into believing salads are not only virtuous but maybe even difficult.

I'm here to tell you it's not true, and I'll prove it with an infographic. Whee!

I've broken down some popular salads based on their major components. You'll note that the pattern is pretty easy to follow...
    1. Take a bowl of the lettuce of your choice.
    2. Sprinkle on a sweetly savory component, such as roasted red peppers or cherry tomatoes.
    3. Chop up an herbaceous component.
    4. Add crumbled/diced cheese or boiled egg.
    5. If you wish, add cooked beans or a diced protein.
    6. Dress with a harmonious vinaigrette.
    7. Toss and serve.

Salad Chart

Just remember... every salad you make is an opportunity for a party on your plate.

Miss any of the previous resolutions? You'll find #1, #2, #3, #4 & #5 linked here.

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Goal 4: Snuggle up with a good label

I think it's sad that Whole Foods Market has taken over the world. I can no longer proclaim my love of whole foods without people misconstruing it as a love of Whole Foods.

Research continues to show us that best stuff we can choose to eat is the food we've had available to us for the several hundred thousand years we've been on the planet. Food that's as close to its natural form as possible. Carrots. Beans. Apples. Blueberries. Fishes. Honey. Walnuts. You know... whole foods.

The category of "almost as good" includes very minimally processed things. Olive oil, nut butters, tomato juice, apple sauce, steel-cut oats, boiled lentils, plain yogurt, split pea soup... the ingredient list on these items is short and pronounceable.

Then, there's the "sure, but don't pig out" food category. Vanilla ice cream. Couscous. Banana muffins. Lemon curd. More, and more processed, ingredients.

Finally, the "really, you shouldn't" category: processed foods. Not sugar or honey, but high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame and acesulfame potassium. Not butter or oil, but partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed and/or palm kernel oil.

Incidentally, do you know what that "and/or" means on a product label? It means they don't exactly know which product they're using. It means they're holding out to see what's cheapest on the ag markets.

Food Value Pyramid

I've created an infographic (because I love 'em) to demonstrate this point a little better. Clearly, it's my own reinterpretation of the USDA's food pyramid.

All you need to do for better health is get in the habit of actually looking at nutrition labels on the food you're about to put in your mouth.

Is the thing you're about to eat a whole food? It probably doesn't have a label at all. Great! Try to make sure your diet is filled with whole foods.

Minimally-to-partially processed food with just a few things on the ingredient listing? Fine. If you're the one doing the processing, that's all the better.

Food that's processed to the point at which nothing that grew or flew is verifiable in it? Can't readily explain to a 5-year-old how people make or find all the ingredients it contains? Those are bad signs, friend. Put that thing back on the shelf and back away. Or, if you really can't resist, keep consumption to a minimum. One or two Oreos. A small handful of pita chips. A candy bar in the "mini" size.

We really are made up of what we eat. You can give your body far better building blocks than Doritos will ever provide.

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Recipe Rock Star #6: Hack your way out of the weeds

Plate Lineup
Plates pile up along the meat line at Tabla. More food photos: MissGinsu @ Flickr.

The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series meant to make you a better home cook. It's essentially kitchen hacking.

So far, we've covered one focused minute, mise en place, the importance of quality, the proper tools for the task and small stuff that makes a big impact. These aren't necessarily ordered, so feel free to read, review, skim or skip. Now then...

#6. Hacking your way out of the weeds.

Anyone who's read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential can probably recall the phrase "in the weeds" (which has a few more profane variations which I'll leave to Bourdain to explicate).

Being "weeded" (as we often say) is a situation that occurs in any deadline-driven vocation. You work in graphic design? You work in editing? You work as a tailor? Any overwhelming pileup of projects or work orders on your desk (or work bench, or stove, or in-box) is clear evidence of being in the weeds.

In a kitchen, a cook who's in the weeds is a danger to everyone on the team. Hungry customers are unhappy, making the waitstaff unhappy, making your expediter unhappy. The other cooks begin to fall behind. The plated food turns cold, or melts, or burns, waiting for one crucial element of the dish. There's often screaming. Or panic. You're much more likely to burn yourself. It's really unpleasant. Nobody wants to be in the weeds.

For the home cook, being weeded isn't generally a dinnertime situation. It's a dinner party situation. "In the weeds" is guests knocking at the door (early, of course) just as you're hit with the realization that you forgot to turn on the oven two hours ago. Thus, your roast is raw. Meanwhile, your sauce is burning, your mousse is melting, your child (or roommate) has burst into tears, the cat is batting appetizers across the floor, there's a line of ants marching in across the windowsill, and there's terrifying sparks flying out of the microwave.

I know how it is. I've been in the weeds. I'll probably be there again. But for the moment, I can offer five pieces of tested advice that actually apply to any vocation in which a person might find suddenly himself in the weeds.

How to Hack Your Way out of the Weeds:

1. Stay calm.
Control your breathing. This might be the most difficult, most counterintuitive act in a high-pressure situation, but it's the most crucial. A well-oxygenated mind is a clear mind. A clear mind is a creative, productive mind. And with the extra boost of adrenaline you'll get from feeling stressed, you might find that you become shockingly productive. Super-powered, even. But first, you have to be calm. As soon as you begin to feel pressure, make your breathing the first thing you check.

2. Prioritize.
Even if it seems like everything needs to happen at the same time, you need to make some decisions. If you really can't choose between tasks, just start somewhere. Do something. Priorities should immediately become more clear as you dive into action, and simply doing *something* will help you begin to dig your way out.

3. Ask for help.
Once you're calm and you know your priorities, you can (and should) ask for help. You'll even have the presence of mind to tell that sainted helper what, precisely, they can help you with. That's key.

4. Repel distractions.
When you're in the weeds and there's someone or something within your radius that isn't helping you, there's a good chance he/she/it is simply distracting you. In the kitchen, the distractor could be a clueless intern, a jittery waiter or some ill-placed pan of onions you're supposed to dice by the end of your shift. See if there's a way you can quickly, gently dispatch the distraction until you're out of the weeds. It's better to have the extra mental and physical space.

5. Clean up and get organized.
As soon as you possibly can (and forever thereafter), work on getting your ducks (whatever variety of ducks those may be) in a row. Make sure your work surface is clean. Make sure your tools are sharp. Make sure your backup is in top condition. Look for ways to make your work more efficient. These are the things that help you get ahead and stay ahead. Though it might not always be possible for the clean and organized worker to avoid getting weeded, as Chef Floyd Cardoz always used to say, "The messy cook is always in the weeds."

Next time, we'll behold the power of presentation.

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Top-Ten Real-Food Workout Foods

park-side power food

In elementary school, I was always the slowest kid at the track during the mile-run in the annual Presidential Physical Fitness tests. Every spring I'd see all the other kids perched at the edge of the track, pulling up tufts of grass while I puffed my way around the turns to complete those eternally long mile-long runs.

Even my most patient gym teachers grew drowsy watching their stop watches before I poked along into the final stretch.

Thus, it tickles me pink that I'm now a person who runs. I may even be so bold as to call myself a runner.

This month, in fact, I'm in training to run a jaunty little 3.5 miles for the gigantic JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge run in Central Park. I have an official number that'll be pinned to my tanktop. And I'm not just going to complete it, I'm going to run the whole thing.

Yeah, it's no Ironman, but I bet even old Mr. Wolf would be slightly impressed at my bookworm-to-budding-jock progress.

One of the things the newbie athlete (or honestly, anyone who has working eyeballs) can't help but notice along the journey to fitness is all the so-called "power food" on the market. Endurance workouts are undeniably hungry-making, and there's all kinds of products competing to fill your empty belly. Nutrition bars. Performance beverages. Magic athletic potions and powders.

I have a hard time believing that convenient, inexpensive real-food snacks (such as a handful of dried prunes mixed with raw almonds) could somehow be less powerful for an active body than those nutrition bars that run between $1.50-$2 and contain:
Soy Protein Nuggets (Isolated Soy Protein, Rice Flour, Tapioca Starch, Malt, Salt), Milk Chocolate Flavored Coating (Sugar, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Nonfat Dry Milk, Cocoa Powder, Lecithin, Salt, Natural Flavor), Corn Syrup, Sodium Caseinate, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sweetened Condensed Milk, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Peanuts And Less Than 2% Of The Following: Butter, Lecithin, Gelatin, Salt, Natural Flavor, Ascorbic Acid, Magnesium Oxide, Ascorbyl Palmitate, D-Alpha Tocopherol Acetate, Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, Fish Oil, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin, Vitamin A Palmitate, Thiamin Mononitrate, Chromium Chloride, Folic Acid, Sodium Selenite, Sodium Molybdate, Biotin, Cyanocobalamin.

I don't buy into products with yard-long ingredient statements, and I don't believe anybody's body really needs more high-fructose corn syrup. Thus, I offer my top recommendations for cheap, easy, tasty performance foods that are made out of genuine, old-school food.

My Top-Ten Real-Food Workout Foods:

1. Boiled Eggs. Mankind's original power food. Eggs come in their own biodegradable packaging, offer protein, iron and vitamin A and cost about 18 cents each for the high-end organic variety. Boil a few on Monday for workout snacks all week long.
2. Yogurt-Fruit Smoothies. A tasty, nearly-instant breakfast. Combine, in a blender, a half-cup of yogurt, a cup of plain soy milk, a half-banana (store the other half in the freezer for future smoothie action) and a tablespoon of peanut butter or a half-cup of any fruit you happen to have around. Throw in a tablespoon of wheat germ and a scoop of whey powder for a fiber + protein power boost if you're into that. Blend until smooth. Drink. And feel pleased you've avoided any sticker shock you might experience at the local Jamba Juice.
3. Fruit & Nut Bars. The Clif company recently produced a line of bars they're calling Clif Nectar Organic Fruit-Nut Bars. I'm pleased to report that they're tasty and the formula contains no high-fructose corn syrup... just dried fruit, roasted nuts, cinnamon, vanilla and the like. All certified organic, of course. That's great, but it seems to me that the cheaper route would be a DIY bar made of the same stuff. As it happens, others have already had this idea. So if you've got a blender, an oven and some plastic wrap or waxed paper for easy wrapping and transportation, you're set to make "power" bars on the cheap.
4. Juice + Water. Gaterade? Powerade? Vitaminwater? You're paying dearly for their national marketing campaigns. My co-worker, a Gotham Girls Roller Derby powerhouse, needs to drink a lot of water to keep up her speed and bruiser moves on the rink. She dopes that quart-size water bottle at her desk with juice to keep the hydration task more interesting. Do like the rollergirl and tip in about a half-cup for every quart of water. WebMD recommends you add a half-teaspoon of salt and/or baking soda if you want to give it electrolytes like the ones found in Gatorade or Smartwater.
5. Scrambled Egg Burritos/English Muffins. Fry or scramble an egg in a small amount of olive oil with salt and pepper to taste. Pile onto/into a warmed tortilla or a toasted whole-wheat English Muffin. Fast fiber + protein = yum.
6. Ripe avocados. A hyper-fast post-workout snack. Full of fats? Pshaw. It's all good fat. Do 'em up like my big, strong (and remarkably slim) boyfriend: Cut avocado in half lengthwise, remove the pit, sprinkle each half with salt and pepper. Scoop into mouth with a spoon.
7. Apple slices with peanut butter. Fuji apples are a good choice, and Smucker's Natural PB has a nicely roasty flavor.
8. Carrots with hummus. Vitamin A, protein, fiber and flavor.
9. Classic trail mix. Throw some raisins or dried currants in a little bag with your favorite nuts. Add some apricot pieces or coconut chips if you're feeling wacky.
10. Chickpeas/Garbanzo Beans. A great source of protein with iron and fiber... but that's not why I eat 'em. They're deliciously addictive when drizzled with the slightest amount of good olive oil and a sprinkle of fresh pepper. Add a squirt of fresh lemon or some chopped cherry tomatoes if you're into it. Go fancy with some chopped parsley or diced cucumbers if you have 'em around.

Got a good real-food workout snack of your own? Throw it in the comments!

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Faster? I’m the fastest.

This entry falls into the "confessional blog" category, so if you're just here for a recipe or a pretty picture, skip on down to a different post. This one gets a bit ugly.

After reading an article in my dad’s Yoga Journal (the April, 2007 issue, I believe) on the benefits of fasting, I was intrigued. Now, I realize this blog is "The Hedonista," and fasting is about as anti-hedonist as it gets, but I'm all about exploration.

I did a little more research, and the arguments in favor of the occasional fast seemed compelling. It’s a process our ancient ancestors probably underwent with some frequency, initially due to shortages and later, due to religious motivations, so it seems likely that human bodies could be well adapted to experiencing both feast and famine periods.

Fasting practitioners claim that fasts provide all kinds of benefits from a body detox and an increase in energy and clear-headedness to an improvement in the workings of the body’s elimination systems (health fasters seem to be big on the elimination thing). More than that, voluntary fasting is inexpensive, practiced worldwide and often tied to reasons of religious and spiritual focus. I figured I’d also gain even more appreciation for the flavors of food once I started eating again.

One of the pieces I read mentioned that fasts are often undertaken in the spring and fall to emphasize moments of inner cleansing and renewal (And you'll note that Lent, Ramadan and Yom Kippur each take place in the spring or fall).

Having just rolled past the spring equinox, I was already jonesing to wash the floors, scrub the tub, lubricate my bike chain and prune the stack of magazines clogging the coffee table, so why not try an internal spring cleaning as well?

I decided on the juice fast, which seemed like a low-impact route. Juice fasters are supposed to reap the benefits of fasting without many risks, so it seemed like a wise move for my first foray. I figured three days would do the trick: I’d be a little hungry on the first and second days and then I’d achieve physical and mental clarity and enlightenment on the third. Whee!

I found a recipe for a special potion you’re supposed to sip. It’s supposedly detoxifying (you'll note this is a big buzzword in fasting circles), and it's extremely simple to make.
The detox beverage
2-3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper

Mix and combine with 8 oz fresh water. Sip throughout the day.
Inexplicably, everyone from my coworkers to my roomie already knew about this stuff (I’ll refer to it as LMC), so I took that as a good sign. Also, when working at the garde manger station at the restaurant, we happened to always have fresh lime juice, maple syrup and water on hand, so I ignorantly used to mix a variation of this magic potion and sip it while I worked. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was cold and refreshing and kind of reminded me of limeade or homespun Gatorade.

Lacking a home juicer, I bought a bunch of easy-to-squeeze limes, 100% tomato juice, 100% carrot juice, 100% fresh orange juice and whole ginger, along with some herbal detox tea, laxative tea and a few chicken backs that I could simmer into a chicken-veggie stock (the chicken stock at the store was full of crazy additives, and I didn’t really think modified food starch and “seasonings” were appropriate for my spring cleaning).

I chopped up the ginger and simmered it in water, put up three quarts of chicken-veggie stock, had a big, green salad for dinner and drank a cup of the laxative tea before bed (which, in retrospect, was perhaps my first mistake).

The next morning I awoke, hungry, but having successfully completed the first ten hours of the three-day adventure. I sipped a blend of orange, carrot and ginger juice.

It was Friday. A lighter day. I’d be a little hungry, then I'd keep busy cleaning the apartment on Saturday and I'd finish up the fasting on Sunday.

Cue the doom song. You can probably imagine how the rest goes, but here’s the diary I kept:

7:30 a.m. I resist the urge to make a smoothie. It's a strong urge.
8:00 a.m. I sip a carrot-orange-ginger juice while I juice limes. Juicing limes is good for the biceps. The COG juice seems thick with a nice balance of sweet, sour and spice. I savor it and wonder whether I should pack a thermos for work. No... the Lime-Maple-Cayenne drink will sustain me, right?
8:45 a.m. I bike to work without incident. I don't think I'm supposed to bike. I'm supposed to sit quietly and meditate or something.
9:00 a.m. I begin drinking my detox tea and sipping a 32 oz portion of the LMC concoction. It's revolting. Might be better over ice. The next batch will definitely have less cayenne in it.
9:15 a.m. My intestines feel queasy.
9:30 a.m. Bathroom dash.
10:00 a.m. First meeting. I leave the LMC at my desk. It looks weird. The tea doesn't look suspicious. I resist the open-topped, beckoning box of Jewel Dates near purchasing as I walk to my meeting.
10:45 a.m. There's those dates again on the way back to my desk. I continue my incredible program of resistence.
11:00 a.m. I'm supposed to be proofreading the ad copy. I'm doing a hack job of it. I can't focus. This sucks.
11:45 a.m. I can't concentrate. My hand keeps floating toward the desk drawer that contains my dried fruits and nuts. My mind is wandering loose around the room. Someone just brought by a plate bearing chunks of freshly baked maple-glazed ham. I salivate and resist. I drink another swig of LMC.
11:55 a.m. I'm a floaty cloud. I'm a floaty cloud that needs go find the bathroom again.
11:57 a.m. Passing Merchandising, there's those dates again. I resist. Passing Purchasing... Oh, no. It's the ham. I am weak.
11:58 a.m. Who knew maple-glazed ham went so well with dates?

I didn’t even make it to noon. Fifteen hours total. Fastest fast ever.

The lessons: Clearly, working at a food company is not an asset to fasters. People who need to carefully concentrate on important tasks should think twice before fasting on work days. Laxative teas deserve respect. Also: quitting both a hefty caffeine habit and a well-established food routine on the same day… probably not a recipe for fasting success.

Post-fast, I'm sure those who eat a lot of packaged foods and fast food could experience effects in mood and energy by cutting out these foods in favor of fresh fruit and vegetable juices, but I now wonder how beneficial fasting can be if a person already eats a varied diet of mostly fruit, nuts, whole grains and veggies.

I may try fasting again, but if I do, it’ll be a project undertaken after kicking the caffeine monkey. I’d start on a day when I don’t need my brain for anything, and I’d definitely remove myself from contact with food.

I now know that even if my will starts strong, I can never again underestimate the empty belly’s weakness in the presence of a maple-glazed ham.

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Recipe Rock Star #5: It's the little things

resting pork loins
A pair of pork loins, resting. From missginsu @ flickr

The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series meant to make you a better home cook. It's kitchen hacking. So far, we've covered one focused minute, mise en place, the importance of quality and the proper tools for the task. These aren't necessarily ordered, so feel free to read, review, skim or skip. Now then...

Recipe Rock Star Lesson #5:

It's the little things

My father likes to say, "Don't sweat the small stuff." He means, of course, that life's details weren't worth a lot of stress.

We live for a short period of time, after which we're dead for a very long time. Within this perspective, an ugly chink in the paint on one's new car really means nothing at all. Water off the proverbial duck's proverbial back.

Now I'm going to contradict myself a bit, because one of the lessons I picked up from cooking school and restaurant gigs is that good cusine really does require that some fussing over the small stuff. In cooking, the details make the difference.

The key is knowing which details matter and how much they matter.

Take stock, for example. Long ago, good home cooks put down a pot of water to simmer at the back of the stove before they began their other kitchen tasks.

As they cut vegetables, the trimmings went into the stockpot. As they picked herbs, the stems went in the stockpot. As they butchered meat, the bones joined the veggie trimmings and herb stems. When it came time to moisten a sauce, a stew or a braise, well... no problem. The stock was waiting there at the back of the stove.

Who makes stock anymore? Restaurants do, but for home cooks, stock is a neglected detail. Home cooks have day jobs, and the broth that comes in cans and aseptic containers is more convenient.

And yet, a quality home-brewed stock adds flavor characteristics that canned broth can't match. If you're making a soup, stew or a simple sauce, good stock is one of the details that makes the difference between not bad and daaamn!

Better still, making stock is a small effort. Just put a pot of water on the stove. If you're already in the kitchen cooking something else, you're bound to have things to simmer in that pot. Carrot peels? Wilty celery? Onion ends? Parsley stems? The bones from that rotisserie chicken you picked up at the deli yesterday? Into the pot!

Simmer everythig with a couple of bay leaves, some thyme (if you have it) and maybe some peppercorns. When you're done working in the kitchen, strain out all the spent aromatics and bones through a strainer or colander, cool down the stock and transfer it to small containers. Keep 'em in the freezer. Some people freeze stock in ice cube trays and later transfer the cubes to freezer bags for easy portioning. When you need stock, it'll be waiting for you.

There's a lot of details that make a big difference in the final dish. Most take very little time. I'll quickly list six more of my favorites:
  • Warming first, resting later. Don't take a piece of meat, fish or poultry out of the refrigerator and slap it down in a hot pan. Proteins cook more evenly when they're a few degrees closer to room temperature, so take it out to warm a few minutes before you cook it. (I'm not suggesting you take that steak out after lunch when you're planning to eat it for dinner. Just let it warm for twenty minutes while you prepare the salad or chop the vegetables.) And while you're at it, plan for a little resting time after the protein is cooked. Heat drives juices to the center of meat and chicken. A five- to ten-minute rest on the cutting board allows the muscle fibers to redistribute the liquid, ensuring a juicy steak or cutlet and preventing a soggy cutting board.

  • Minding the texture. Does the recipe call for cheese or citrus zest? The texture makes a big difference in the final dish. For example, if you use a microplane to zest a lemon, you'll end up with small, airy shreds, which are going to release oils and hit the tongue in a different way from the plump shreds you might get from a box grater. Similarly, a powdered Parmesan cheese tastes different from one that's lightly shredded or sliced.

  • A quality sear. When cooking meat, it's generally a good idea to start with high heat in the pan and reduce the temperature once the protein has a good sear. As it turns out, that sear produces a chemical reaction that really makes a big difference in the meat's flavor in a process called the Maillard reaction. That sear is important whether you're braising, grilling, broiling or pan-frying. Keep that in mind next time you use your slow cooker. The sear is a great investment in flavor.

  • Browning that roux. Thickening a sauce, stew, gravy or soup with a flour and butter mixture? The few minutes spent patiently stirring and toasting the roux can mean the difference between a bland or even slightly bitter dish and something that's rich, complex and toasty.

  • The last-minute herb attack. Ever notice how restaurant chefs often toss a pinch of fresh-chopped parsley, cilantro, basil, chervil, rosemary, chives or mint on top of your dinner entrée? It's not just garnish (although fresh herbs do generally make any dish look a little more swanky.) The vibrant, verdant flavors of the last-minute herb sprinkle (or citrus squeeze) have a big flavor impact... particularly in heavy dishes that benefit from the contrast.

  • Freshly whipped cream on desserts. Cool Whip is more convenient. Spray cans are more fun. But there's nothing quite as flavorful, decadent or impressive as topping your dessert with cream you've freshly whipped yourself. Bonus: Whisking is great bicep exercise.

  • There's more. A lot more. Just keep this in mind: Sometimes cutting corners means you save time, and sometimes it just means you deprive yourself of flavor. Know what the shortcut really costs.
    Next time in the Recipe Rock Star, I'll discuss why being "in the weeds" is unpleasant and what can be done about it.

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    Food Quote Friday: Xenophon

    Ginger Gold Apple
    Ginger Gold Apple at the Midtown Farmers' Market in Minneapolis, MN

    "You should watch yourself throughout your life, and notice what sort of meat and drink and what form of exercise suits your constitution, and you should regulate them in order to enjoy good health. For by such attention to yourself you can discover better than any doctor what suits your constitution."

    Xenophon, from Memorabilia: Recollections of Socrates

    (Bountiful thanks to J.)

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    Seven simple solutions for surplus celeriac

    workers harvesting celery
    Migratory laborers cutting celery, Belle Glade, FL, January 1941 via the NYPL digital gallery

    Maybe you bought too much for a recipe, and now it's just sitting around the bottom of your crisper. Maybe you got one in your Christmas stocking. Maybe your favorite farmer wanted to give you a little something extra, and now you don't know what to do with it.

    It doesn't matter how you got it. You're stuck with a celery root — that knobby, crispy vegetable also known as celeriac — and you don't want the poor thing to go to waste. And there's no need. Celeriac is delicious, and it plays well with others.

    Herein, find 7 Easy Ways to Use Your Extra Celery Root
    (In relative order of simplicity.)

    1. Roasted Celeriac

    Peel a celery root and slice into into evenly sized pieces. Toss in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of both salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast on a sheet tray/cookie sheet in a 375°F oven, stirring every 15 minutes to avoid uneven cooking, until lightly browned and tender. Serve as a side dish on their own, or cool and toss into a green salad with your favorite vinaigrette.


    2. Celery Root Mash

    Peel a celery root and slice into into evenly sized pieces. Put the pieces in a medium-sized pot and cover with water. Add a teaspoon of salt to the pot and bring the water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and when the celeriac is tender enough to crush (about 30 minutes), drain away the water. Mash the pieces with 1/2 cup of cream or whole milk. Season to taste with salt, ground black pepper and a pinch of ground
    nutmeg. Serve hot.


    3. Braised Celeriac

    1 celery root, peeled and sliced into evenly sized pieces
    1 tsp olive oil
    1/2 cup vegetable broth or chicken stock
    Salt & freshly ground pepper

    1. Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a medium-sized skillet on medium-high heat until shimmering, but not smoking.

    2. Add the celeriac pieces to the pan. Keep the pieces moving in the pan, coating them with the oil.

    3. When the celeriac begins to brown, turn down the heat and add the stock. Cover the skillet and cook until tender.

    4. Season to taste with a grind or two of pepper and a pinch of salt. Serve hot.


    4. Céleri Remoulade

    1 celery root, peeled and grated or shredded
    1/3 cup mayonnaise
    3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
    1 tsp Dijon mustard
    2 Tbsp heavy cream
    1 tsp fresh tarragon or parsley, chopped (optional)
    Salt and freshly ground pepper

    1. In a small bowl, use a whisk to combine the mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard and cream (and herbs, if using).

    2. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Toss the dressing with the celery root shreds and chill for 1/2 hour or more. Makes a tasty vegetable side, and it's delicious alongside smoked salmon for brunch.


    5. Super-Easy Cream of Celeriac Soup

    1 large celery root, peeled and cut into uniform pieces
    2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
    1/2 cup heavy cream
    Salt and ground black pepper and ground nutmeg, to taste

    1. Put the pieces in a medium-sized pot, cover with stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, until pieces are fork-tender (timing depends on the size of the pieces).

    2. After about 5 to 8 minutes, the celeriac should show a little color. Reduce the temperature to medium-low, and add about a 1/4 cup of stock to the pan. Cover the skillet and allow the vegetables to steam until tender. If the celeriac is still too firm when the liquid is gone, add a little more stock or water to the pan.

    3. Purée the celery root with the remaining stock using an immersion blender or
    "stick" blender. (If you don't have an immersion blender, just cool the celery root down and purée with the stock in a standard blender or food processor.)

    4. Stir in the cream, season with salt and pepper, to taste. Sprinkle on ground nutmeg as a garnish.


    6. Apple-Celeriac Slaw

    1 celery root, peeled and shredded
    1-2 tart apples, shredded
    1 carrot, grated or shredded
    1 scallion, thinly sliced on the bias
    1 Tbsp lemon juice
    1/4 cup mayonnaise
    Salt and black pepper, to taste
    1-2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley, mint or tarragon (optional)

    1. Blend the shredded celery root, apples, carrot (if using) and scallion in a bowl.

    2. In another small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice and parsley, if using.

    3. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Combine the shreds and dressing. Serve immediately or chill and serve cold.


    7. Celeriac-Potato Latkes

    1 large celery root, peeled
    3 large russet potatoes, peeled and trimmed
    1 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
    1 large yellow onion, peeled
    2/3 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
    4 large eggs, lightly beaten
    1 1/4 teaspoons salt
    1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
    1 1/2 cups vegetable oil (for frying)
    Applesauce and/or grated horseradish (optional, for serving)

    1. Place a metal rack on a sheet tray in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 200°F.

    2. Coarsely grate the celery root, onions and potatoes into a bowl. Add lemon juice and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a colander, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Return the veggies to the bowl and stir in the flour, eggs, salt and pepper.

    3. Heat about 1/2 inch oil in a skillet over moderately high heat until the oil is hot, but not smoking. Spoon about 1/4 cup vegetable mix into the hot skillet, using a spatula to flatten the mound into a pancake (about 1/2-inch thick).

    4. Add 1 to 2 more latkes, avoiding any crowding in the pan. Fry the first side 2 to 3 minutes, before carefully flipping the latkes and continuing to fry the other side until golden, about 1 1/2 to 3 minutes more.

    5. Remove cooked latkes from the oil and drain briefly over paper towels before transferring to the warming tray in the oven. Fry the rest of the veggie mix in same way. Serve with applesauce and/or grated horseradish, if desired.

    Bon appetit!

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    In praise of the microseason

    Williamsburg CSA
    Williamsburg CSA

    First day CSA
    First Day of my CSA (June)

    Last day CSA
    Last Day of my CSA (November)

    See more food photos: missginsu @ flickr

    Some people know the season via the calendar. These folks enjoy what I consider the seasonal four-pack: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

    Those in close contact with farmers' markets and CSA groups know a veritable color wheel of microseasons within those macroseasons embraced by the rest of the population. There's ramp-morel-lettuce season followed closely by spinach-pea-strawberry season. There's the highly anticipated tomato-corn-zucchini season. Right now, it's very clearly sweet potato-cranberry-Brussels sprouts season.

    Thanks to Just Food, a nonprofit org dedicated to things like food-selling opportunities for small farmers and food-buying opportunities for urbanites like me, I was able to hook up with the Williamsburg Community Supported Agriculture group this year and enjoy six months' worth of microseasons in the form of organic produce from the farmers at Garden of Eve.

    CSAs exist all over the country (I used to belong to the Loring Park CSA in Minneapolis), and while I wouldn't say membership is a good decision for everyone (some people, for example, just wouldn't be satisfied with the "Iron Chef Mystery Ingredient" aspect of a CSA group's weekly variety pack, and some would have no clue about what to do with three pounds of kohlrabi or a quarter-peck of habañero peppers), I've found that supporting local produce from actual people has been ethically, sensually and culinarily satisfying for me*.

    Additionally, I've learned a lot about preservation. In years past, home cooks dealt with the seasons as they arrived. If it was tomato-corn-zucchini season and the kitchen overflowed with bags and bags of red, yellow and green produce, everyone ate succotash, zucchini bread, fresh vegetable chowders, and buttery cornbread muffins.

    Thanks to a constant flow of produce available in any local shop, today's cooks are far less practiced in using up a surplus. Canning, drying, fermenting and pickling are the arts of the ancients. We buy what we need. The majority of us will never be pressed into anything resembling our progenitors' annual frantic frenzy of canning, baking, stewing and jamming an entire orchard or garden over the space of a week or two during the harvest.

    That said, today's CSA member (and thrify produce buyers in general) often discover a need for those techniques of antiquity.

    In a month or two, (around Meyer Lemon season), it will be time to start signing up for a new CSA year. For those who plan on joining one (localharvest.org compiles national listings), here's a few tips I've discovered that might make your produce microseasons more efficient and enjoyable:

    Block out some time. Right after pickup, you'll want an hour or so to care for your vegetables. Rinse the apples and pears. Wash and dry the lettuces. (I love my salad spinner.) Cut the carrots into sticks for easy snacking. Separate the celery stalks from the celery roots. Rinse and chop up the beet greens for easy sauteing.

    Triage. Softer fruits and vegetables will rot first. Can't use 'em right away? Think: chutneys, sauces, jams, soups. A lot of fruit and veggies freeze better once they're already cooked (Quickly blanch and shock tomatoes to get the skins off, then toss 'em in a freezer bag.) Save any root vegetables for last.

    Same technique, different vegetable. Enjoy mashed potatoes? Try the same thing with mashed celery root, carrots or parsnips. Ratatouille, soup, slaw, salad and stir-fries are all your friends. The butternut squash soup is just as good with acorn squash. Sauteed greens are yummy whether they're beet greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, escarole, chard, kale, frisee or spinach. Nearly anything can be pickled. Almost everything is tastier when it's done up with a layer of olive oil, salt, pepper and some roasting time in the oven.

    * That is, apart from the getting dressed and leaving the house early on Saturday morning thing.

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    Recipe Rock Star #4: Tools make the chef

    Lightning-fast ginger chopping
    Dave's skilled paws chop ginger at lightning-speed

    The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series. We've covered one focused minute, mise and the importance of quality. Feel free to read them in whatever order you wish. Moving on...

    Recipe Rock Star Lesson #4:

    Tools make the chef

    In a professional kitchen setting, those who clock into work with dull knives have doomed themselves to an 8- to 13-hour shift of culinary hell. Delicate herbs will be crushed, not sliced, beneath a shoddy blade. Vegetables are hacked into misshapen chunks that cook at different rates, making some pulpy while others are crunchy. Because dull knives tear meat rather than carving it, the resulting slices are clumsy, thick and ugly. A cook using a dull knife has to use force to cut things, increasing the risk of chopping up fingers. (Unfortunately, I know this from experience.)

    This is why chefs baby their tools. They sharpen their knives, massage oil on them and take them everywhere. Why? Any chef worth her salt knows she's more like Batman than Superman. That is to say, chefs might appear to have superhuman superpowers, but (like Batman) it's all about ace skill augmented with impressive hardware. Take away the utility belt and the Batmobile, and you've left Batman in a bad, bad place.

    It's not just the knives. Inexperienced cooks usually don't want to invest much money in a new endeavor, so they tend to purchase inexpensive pans made with thin, flimsy metals. That's about the worst thing a newbie can do, since this type of pan is extremely difficult to use. Because heat is distributed unevenly, these pans tend to warp or develop hot spots.

    What does this mean for your dinner? In a cheap pan, you're almost guaranteed to burn your meats, scorch your sauces and find your fish fillets, omelets and cutlets sticking anxiously to the surface of the pan, rather than sliding easily onto your spatula. I've found that a plate of shredded omelet alongside a pan of charred remains doesn't really boost a new cook's sense of accomplishment. Don't worry, though. It's probably not you. It's the equipment.

    Though I could go on forever about various pieces of equipment I love, here, in brief, is what I consider to be the very basics for your utility belt (along with some nice accessory items listed thereafter).

    Essential Kitchen Equipment

    1. A set of sharp, good-quality knives (and a safe place to store 'em):

    • chef's knife (about 8")
    • long serrated knife
    • short paring knife
    • honing steel (to keep those knives in shape)

    I have a set of Wüsthof-Trident knives I picked up on the cheap, but there's a lot of good brands. Just find something that feels good in your hands. Some people also like a mid-length utility knife, but I never use 'em.

    2. Two non-slip cutting boards.

    I prefer wood. You'll need one for meats and one for fruit/veg. Label the boards with a permanent marker. On the fruit/veg board, use one side of the board for veg and the other side for fruit. Nobody likes their apples to taste like onions. Or raw chicken. Bleah!

    3. A very basic set of high-quality pans:

    • small saucepot with a lid
    • large, heavy-bottomed stockpot with a lid
    • small sauté pan
    • large sauté pan
    • large roasting pan

    If you have extra interest and money, it's really nice to have a large cast-iron pan, a wok and a dutch oven.

    4. Bakers will need a few extra pans:

    • muffin tin
    • sheet trays (It's good to have two.)
    • 13"x9" cake pan
    • 9" round cake pan (It's nice to have two of these for doing stacked birthday cakes.)
    • What they now call a "fluted tube pan." I call it a bundt pan.
    • 9" pie pan
    • 9" tart pan
    • loaf pan
    • a cooling rack (or two)

    There's a host of other pans for specialty items. These few will assist you with the basic pies, cookies, tarts, muffins, cupcakes, brownies, cakes and quickbreads. Folks who really dig baking will need to get springform pans and pans that accomodate additional shapes.

    5. Other necessary tools:

    • timer (Unless there's already one on your stove)
    • meat thermometer and oven thermometer (You'd be shocked to know how many ovens run too hot or too cool...)
    • vegetable peeler (the OXO one rocks)
    • mixing bowls (I'd advise a small, medium and large one. The metal Martha Stewart ones at K-Mart are good and cheap.)
    • heat-proof rubber spatula
    • metal spatula (I believe these are also called pancake turners.)
    • whisk
    • set of teaspoons
    • set of dry measuring cups
    • liquid measuring cup
    • ladle
    • long-handled meat fork
    • ricer or potato masher
    • slotted spoon
    • wooden mixing spoon
    • colander
    • strainer
    • citrus reamer
    • carving fork
    • heavy-duty kitchen shears
    • butcher's string
    • grater
    • pepper mill*
    • metal steamer basket of some kind
    • can opener/bottle opener/wine opener
    • blender/food processor (immersion blenders are nice, but heavy-duty stand up ones work well, too)
    • rolling pin (or a clean wine bottle)
    • fire extinguisher

    If you're a baker, add in a candy thermometer, pastry brush, sifter, pastry bag and a pastry scraper (also called a "bench scraper").

    These days, I might be tempted to list a stand mixer, a Silpat tray liner, a kitchen scale, a microplane and a spice grinder (aka coffee grinder) or mortar and pestle as essential equipment as well, but since I got along without 'em for many years, maybe they're not essential... just awfully nice.

    With all this stuff, you'll have a properly equipped utility belt, or at least a nicely stocked kitchen. In the next edition, we'll work on the other part of the Batman equation... skills.

    * Cooks grind a lot of pepper, so we have arguments about the best one... I dig my Vic Firth, while fellow cook Molly loves the Unicorn Magnum. As long as it puts out a satisfying grind and volume, you're fine.

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    Recipe Rock Star Lesson 3: Quality is delicious.

    best garlic ever

    The Recipe Rock Star tutorials continue. We've covered mise and one focused minute. Now let's have a look at those ingredients....

    Lesson 3: Quality is delicious

    There's a reason packages of Doritos have an ingredient statement the size of Oklahoma. There's a reason top chefs increasingly choose to cook seasonal produce. And there's a reason why you should seek out the best possible ingredients you can find.

    The reason is simple: fresh, seasonal ingredients taste better. Furthermore, delicious components make the meals you serve more flavorful.

    At risk of offending anyone who's ever studied virtue ethics, let's compare a delicious appetizer to Plato's concept of the ultimate happiness: eudaimonia. To achieve ultimate recipe happiness we combine virtue (aretē) and knowledge (epistemē).

    Let's examine bruschetta, for instance. It's thin slices of high-quality bread that's grilled or toasted, rubbed with the cut side of a halved clove of garlic, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and topped with some freshly diced garden tomatoes. Maybe you toss some chopped basil on there. Maybe a sprinkle of salt and a fresh grind of pepper. Maybe you gild the lily with a pinch of grated Parmesan. Regardless, it's tangy, crunchy, juicy, luscious wonder. In season, bruschetta is simple, delicious and perfect.

    Now imagine the same preparation, but substitute slices of lightly toasted Wonder bread, drizzle it with vegetable oil, top with a shake of garlic powder, a supermarket tomato like the ones you get in January, a sprinkle of dried basil and a pinch of Kraft Parmesan Style Grated Topping shaken out of the little green can. Revolting. And yet, what's the difference, really?

    The difference is quality. This is why bruschetta should not be attempted in the winter. You achieve something close to an appropriate look for the dish, but it tastes nowhere near as wonderful as it should.

    The downside? Fresh, seasonal ingredients are more expensive and tend to go bad rapidly. They don't ship well. They don't stay "Good Thru 2009." Because the packaged foods business requires low cost and long shelf life, those products don't generally use the highest quality ingredients, so they tend to lack flavor balance and subtlety. Manufacturers end up compensating for the natural flavor dimensions with long lists of salts, sugars and nitrites.

    But you're not a manufacturer and you don't need to produce food that will survive twenty years past the apocalypse. You're making good food for yourself and those around you. And you achieve that recipe awesomeness by hunting down the best ingredients and preparing them with your excellent cooking skills. Voila! Edible eudaimonia.

    In Lesson 4, we'll pick up some tips from the pros.

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    Recipe Rock Star #2: Mise will change your life.

    Mise en place at Tabla
    Entremet mise en place at Tabla

    This is lesson #2. Missed lesson #1? It's back here.

    Recipe Rock Star Lesson #2:
    Mise will change your cooking. And maybe your life.

    In my experience, professional cooks populating the high-end kitchens of America love to butcher the French language. It's how we poke the 800 lb gorilla.

    You see, back in the day, it was the great French chefs — Escoffier in particular — who codified, modernized and organized the professional kitchen. Yes, Escoffier elevated the trade from random gangs of drunken knife-wielding degenerates roaming the kitchen to orderly lines of drunken knife-wielding degenerates working quietly at fixed stations with swanky French titles. Titles such as "Garde Manger," "Sous-chef," "Saucier" and "Grilliardin" which deteriorate into bastardizations like GM, Sous and Grill.

    With a little imagination, the interested amateur can probably parse the original Frenchy intent of the titles. It may not be so easy to determine why cooks are so worried about their mise (meez), a word that sounds more like baby talk or nonsense than what it really is: the most important thing at a cook's station.

    Mise is pidgin kitchen-French for "Mise en Place" (MEEZ ahn plahs), a phrase that literally means "setting in place," and philosophically means that everything is in its place and you, the cook, are locked, loaded and ready to rock.

    The knives are sharp. The cast-iron pans are seasoned. The oven is preheated. The recipe is firmly implanted in the mind. Tongs are twitching. Ingredients are diced, sliced, blanched, caramelized, grated, marinated and whatever else they need to be in order to make the food happen. Everything is easily accessible in tidy, convenient containers. You are organized — physically and mentally — and there is no way in which you could be more ready for what you're about to do.

    This, friends, is the concept of "mise en place." I watched far too many episodes of The A-Team as a child, so the vision of mise in my mind always returned to siege preparations that crack commando unit made three-quarters of the way into every episode. For you, inspiration may be different. Rachel Ray's organized set-up on 30 Minute Meals or mental reel of Rocky Balboa training to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger," perhaps.

    The most important thing in attaining "mise" is thinking about how to make your own kitchen station as ready as possible before you begin a recipe. Are the tongs at hand? The colander? Invest in a set of small bowls or custard cups so you can place everything within easy reach.

    If you have to dig for herbs at the bottom of the fridge and chop them in a hurry while the dish simmers away on the stove, you're far more likely to wreck the meal or chop off your fingers.

    Once you're ace at "mise," you'll find it makes your whole life easier. Mise your bathroom. Mise your workout. Mise your desk. Mise your DIY projects. A little upfront mise makes you better at anything you do.

    Thanks, Escoffier. Thanks for the mise.

    In the next Recipe Rock Star lesson, we'll see why it's important to conjure visions of Plato while grocery shopping. Meanwhile, happy cooking!

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    The Recipe Rock Star (aka... you)

    Potato Recipe in Progress from the missginsu photostream at Flickr

    I know how it works. It happens to me all the time.

    You're paging through a book or magazine, or clicking around on the web, and there it is: an irresistible recipe, singing out from the page with a sonorous siren's strain. You skim the headnote. It makes your mouth water.

    You clip it, print it, or scribble it. You stalk the ingredients and the equipment. You bar the door to the kitchen and warn away foolish intruders. You take up your tools and you look to the page for guidance. You chop. You toss. You fling, and you flip. And then, you fail.

    Smashed to the rocks. Devoured by monsters. Your hard-earned money, precious time and good intentions splattered into a mess on the stove.

    It's too watery. It's too dry. It's salty. It's greasy. It's boring. It's weird.

    What went wrong? (Hard to say.) Can it be fixed? (Maybe.) Was it me or the recipe? (That depends.)

    I've been working a lot with designing, writing and editing recipes lately, and I've been hearing a lot from people about what's gone well... and what's been disastrous.

    I want you to be a virtuoso at the stove. I want your friends to be impressed with your savvy. I want you to be able to look at a recipe and say, "Pfeh! This won't work at all!" and know, deep down in your being, that you can make that thing so much better.

    Most of all, I want you to be confident in your abilities and proud of what you make. You will not just competently, consistently produce delicious food... if I have my way, you will rock in the kitchen.

    With these thoughts in mind, I'm launching a new feature: The Recipe Rock Star.

    You'll be that guy who can play his way through a song after hearing it just once. But with food.

    So! Let's begin.

    Recipe Rock Star Lesson #1: Use the power of one focused minute.
    This step will seem simple and stupid, but it might save you much in the way of suffering. (I know this from sad, sorry experience.)

    Diligently gathering the your ingredients and lightly skimming the recipe isn't enough. You must take one minute of the time you've dedicated to doing this project and read every line of the recipe. Don't skim it. Read it.

    I'm embarrassed to think of the number of times I've been stopped cold by a little note buried in step #6 that says "chill and marinate overnight" or "cure for 8 to 10 days" or "serve over cooked rice." (Rice!? What rice? Where did it tell me to make rice?)

    I'll probably emphasize this again, because it's important. In the same way that not all advice is good advice, not every recipe is well-written. Many recipes published by seemingly reliable companies, cooks and writers are confusing, incomplete or overly vague. Just as often, recipes will be perfectly accurate, but you'll get snagged along the way by a missing piece of equipment (A fluted tube pan? What's that?*) or a serving suggestion tacked on at the end (the afore-mentioned cooked rice thing, for example).

    Yes, you're excited to get going on the project. Just take one minute to stop, focus, read the instructions very carefully, and use your critical thinking faculties to check for anything suspicious.

    The single, focused minute is a powerful investment.

    In Lesson #2, we'll have a look at what cooks call "mise" (MEEZ). 'til then, happy cooking!

    * These often go by the traditional brand name: "Bundt Pan"

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    Pasta sans soul, per favore

    A charming passage from Paolo Villoresi's little book, Whole Wheat My Love:
    Concerning methods for determining when pasta is cooked, I have heard nearly everything, including the suggestion of throwing a piece of pasta against the wall. If it sticks, it is ready, if not, you must repeat the operation a bit later. Horror and error!

    In reality, to determine whether or not pasta is cooked, it must be tasted with the teeth. I set a kitchen timer for one minute before the cooking time indicated on the box. Then I taste the pasta several times to be certain it is al dente. The pasta is ready when it is "without a soul!" In other words:

    a. pull out one strand of pasta
    b. bite it, and look at the center of the strand
    c. if a white point, the "soul," is visible, the pasta is not yet cooked

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    Food Quote Friday: Charles H. Baker, Jr

    "Words to the Wise No. VII. Offering up an earnest plea for recentness in all eggs to be used in cocktails or drinks of any kind, for that matter. A stale or storage egg in a decent mixed drink is like a stale or storage joke in critical and intelligent company. Eschew them rabidly. If really fresh eggs can't be had, mix other type drinks, for the result will reflect no merit round the hearth, no matter how hospitable it may be."

    Charles H. Baker, Jr. (from the 1939 volume: The Gentlemen's Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask"

    More supremely fresh food quotes here.

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    Do You Know the Way to Flambe?

    There's a warm time comin' for you all
    History-rich image courtesy of the NYPL online collection

    Call it a tour of technique. Herein, three cookbooks... three authors... three ways to describe the mystical, mezmerizing mastery of controlled kitchen flames.

    Flambéing ("French Farmhouse Cookbook" by Susan Hermann Loomis)
    When flambéing—that is, sprinkling a dish with brandy or other alcohol, then igniting it with a match to burn the alcohol off—follow these safety precautions:

    • Tie back your hair
    • Work off the heat and away from obstructions
    • Stand back from the pan and avert your face
    • Use a long kitchen match
    How to Flambé ("Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook" by Ruth Van Waerebeek)
    1. Heat the alcohol in a small saucepan over high heat.
    2. When it is hot, remove the pan from the burner, and standing back, carefully ignite it with a long kitchen match.
    3. Pour the flaming alcohol slowly over the dish that is being flambéed.

    Safety Tips
    • Make sure the hood fan on your range is turned off.
    • Make sure there is nothing close by that can catch fire, including overhead shelves and paper products. Also make sure your clothing doesn't interfere or get in the way of the flames.
    • Keep a large lid at the ready to cover the flames if they should get out of hand.
    • Use good-quality alcohol and pour it from the bottle at the last minute so it does not evaporate.
    Flambeing ("The New Basics" by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)
    Flaming a dish with brandy or liqueur must be done very carefully. Use long kitchen matches (they work best), be sure not to lean over the dish while you're igniting it, and always remove it from the heat source first.

    In order to flame, the brandy must be warmed first. Warm it in a small, heavy saucepan, remove it from the heat, then ignite it and pour it over the prepared dish, which is also off the heat. Or skim the accumulated fat from the cooking liquid, add the brandy to the skillet, allow it to warm, then remove it from the heat, and ignite. The flame will die out quickly.

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    The Foodie's Apocalypse Kit

    With pandemic paranoia pulsing in the press, the time seems ripe to discuss one of the treasures reaped from a recent bookshop foray: How to Develop a Low-Cost Family Food-Storage System by Anita Evangelista.

    Sounds dull, right? The low-budget 1940s-era clip art on the cover might not convince you to give it whirl, either. But just wait until you find out what's on page two: Eleven Reasons to Store Food.

    1. Severe seasonal weather, with road closures, power outages, and supermarkets depleted by panic buyers.
    2. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, volcanoes, or tornadoes, with supermarkets unable to restock shelves.
    3. Ecological disasters, such as the Three Mile Island nuclear facility's failure, and the contamination of foods.
    4. The possibility of nuclear holocaust with all food deliveries suspended.
    5. Tainted foodstuffs, either by purposeful maniacs (as in the "pain-killer poisonings") or improper processing (as in the glass fragments found in baby foods or the salmonella bacteria in dairy foods.
    6. Riots, civil insurrection, collapse of local or regional governing bodies, gang warfare, looting, racial incidents; inability to shop at all.
    7. Long-term illness.
    8. Loss of employment and inability to secure a new job.
    9. Strikes, either by truckers, food processors, food pickers or supermarket employees.
    10. Destruction of standing food crops in farmers' fields, either willfully or by natural calamities.
    11. Collapse of the currency system, and inability to purchase needed goods.

    Wow! Choose your poison — that's enough paranoia for everyone!

    Evangelista tours readers through the various practical traditional and non-traditional food acquisition systems (shopping, gardening, foraging, gleaning, etc.) and food preservation methods before pulling out the really fun stuff in Chapter Five: Where Do I Put It?

    I was particularly interested in this section, thanks to my teensy New York apartment. What's a budding packrat to do, given a cramped kitchen and no closet space?

    The easy answer? Five gallon plastic buckets. The path of dedication? Camouflage your booty by opening up the walls, installing interior shelving, replacing the wall and slapping on patch and paint 'til the evidence is invisible.

    I know... you're saying to yourself, "I hate making trips to Home Depot. Why would I bother with all that?"

    Ask anyone who's ever worked as a waiter or waitress whether they've found people to be on their best behavior when they're hungry. Now imagine a city full of cranky, hungry people. Now imagine a bunch of cranky, hungry neighbors busting into your nest and rooting for your neatly stored cans of black beans and your tasty treasure trove of apple sauce and your shiny silver cans of Le Sueur Baby Peas.

    Good thing you plastered those cases of SPAM and light-syrup pineapple rings into your wall, right? Trust me... You'll thank Anita Evangelista later.

    In all seriousness, there really is a chance that avian flu could wreak havoc (it happened in 1918), in which case it's good to have extra water and canned goods stuffed into your limited closets. Here's the Flu Wiki and advice from the Red Cross on all the stuff you should already have on hand anyway.

    In addition to a solid first aid kit, a lot of water and all the items from FEMA's boring list of staples, from my personal apocalypse kit, I can recommend:

    • Tasty Bite Dinners.
      Indian and Thai curries! Far more flavorful than the standard shelf-stable MREs.

    • Amy's Kitchen organic soups.
      Soup is good food.

    • Desert Pepper Black Bean Dip.
      Because I'm an addict, okay?

    • Frontera Chipotle Salsa.
      This stuff could make cardboard taste good, and if I'm reduced to roasting rats, I want something nice to dip them in.

    • Jacques Torres Wicked Hot Chocolate Mix.
      It's yummy, and disasters are always short on yummy.

    • Orange-blossom honey and fruit jams from Sarabeth's (or homemade).
      Delightful with Carr's water crackers

    • Sardines in Hot Sauce or Mustard (Bumblebee sardines are good).
      Mmm... Sardines. I eat these even when I have fresh food around.

    • Muir Glen Crushed Tomatoes.
      So versatile, so delicious. And the cans are lined, so they don't have that awful "can" flavor.

    • Jars of spicy Spanish olives, oil-packed Italian tuna and jars of roasted red peppers.
      I reckon this'll make for good post-apocalyptic tapas.

    • Praline spread from Le Pain Quotidien.
      Again, seriously delicious. And yes, this stuff would make even my homemade hardtack edible.

    • Quality tea and coffee in factory-sealed containers.
      Lack of caffeine is a disaster unto itself.

    • Aseptic packs of Parmalat milk, Ceres fruit juices and Silk chocolate soy milk.
      Open a fresh container after the spare daily ration of rice and water grows tiresome.

    • Bottles of vodka and bourbon (or your favorite hard liquor).
      Barter with the neighbors for some of their Slim Jims. Disinfect a wound. Preserve fruit. Or just have a consolation drink. Liquor is endlessly useful in hard times.

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    The Birth of an Entrée

    Alas... my digi camera is dead dead dead. Mourning its decline, I perused my archives and thought y'all might enjoy this little "back of the house" tour from the perspective of a veg cook (one of my kitchen stations back in the day).

    Keep in mind, we're not talking short-order slapdash here. This ain't no Denny's. This is how it's done in a *good* kitchen.

    It's the foundation of your station. You never find a line cook in a high-end kitchen just standing around. There's always something to chop up or clean up. This is Davey making quick work of a ginger julienne.

    Mis en place (mees-ehn-plahs).
    It's all about prepwork and organization, folks. In this cooler drawer (called a lowboy) we find lovingly trimmed turnips, boiled potatoes, lamb bits, braised squash with mustard seeds, toasted coconut, blanched green beans and brussels sprouts, and on the upper left, roasted shallots, turnips and cauliflower, methinks... I can't remember what that reddish-colored stuff is. The meat cook made that.

    On fire.
    When you hear the order come in, down go the pans. This is a chickpea panisse for the lamb dish. You'll note the blue "side towel" in my friend's hand here. You don't see hot pads or oven mitts in professional kitchens. You see side towels, and god help you if you don't have a dry side towel, because you'll learn the conductivity of water in a heartbeat if you grab a hot handle with a wet towel. Zow!

    The lineup.
    These plates just came out of the warmer, so they're still pretty warm on the fingers. The veg generally goes in rings to shape it while it waits for the meat cook to finish slicing and fanning out the meat.

    The product.
    Here we see the lamb veg (turnips, potatoes, leeks and bits of lamb roast) and the afore-mentioned chickpea panisse just before the meat cook makes his addition. You'll note that my veg plays backup to that juicy spread of lamb. All this dish needs is a drizzle of sauce, a garnish, and an approval by the chef. I'm actually hungry just looking at it...

    Chef puffs his cheeks, deep in thought.
    Nothing goes out without scrutiny from the chef or whichever of his sous chefs happens to be manning the front line. He's got a whole palette of funky garnishes he can use to give your entrée a finishing touch. You know... stuff like finely chopped chives, cilantro chiffonade, mint chiffonade, microgreens, fried ginger, fried lotus root strips and the like.

    Just in case any of this makes you hungry, all these photos were taken in the kitchen at Tabla (Corner of 24th & Madison, NYC). The chef is Floyd Cardoz, and the disembodied hands belong to my brother in arms, Dave S.

    Miss Ginsu

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    Dear Miss Ginsu: Why All the Different Salts?

    Dear Miss Ginsu,

    I'm confused. What's the difference between sea salt, kosher salt and iodized salt? Are any of these salts better for a salt-reduced diet? And why do some recipes have unsalted butter?

    — Brine on the Brain

    Dear Briny,

    That's a lot of questions! Let's number them as we go along...

    1. What's the difference between all the salts on the market?

    All three are variations on the same compound: sodium chloride. The difference between these salts is found in the flavor (from trace minerals) and the crystal size (from the manufacturing method).

    The salt we use in kitchens comes in in several crystal sizes, from very fine (almost powdery salt used for popcorn); to fine-grain or granulated salt (like table salt); kosher salt (flaky, larger crystals); and coarse (the crystal size you see on pretzels). There's also rock salt, but that's only really used for making homemade ice cream and thawing your sidewalk, as far as I know.

    Iodized salt is generally a table salt, which has a small crystal size that's meant to slip out of your shaker with ease. When compared directly with non-iodized salt, iodized salt will have a slightly bitter taste. It also makes your pickles go dark if you're doing cucumber pickling. Iodine was included for reasons of public health and not for culinary artistry, and that's why the top chefs never use iodized salt.

    Chefs sometimes use sea salt because it has additional minerals that give it subtle flavors (and sometimes pretty pastel colors). These other minerals tag along when the salt is harvested from the saltflats in one of a handful of exotic areas around the globe. The very expensive sea salts should only be used as a sprinkled garnish, because the delicate flavors would be overpowered in most dishes.

    For everyday kitchen use, I find that chefs generally prefer kosher salt, which has larger, flake-like crystals that make it easy to pinch, measure and sprinkle in a dish.

    As a side note, you shouldn't measure out table salt (iodized or not) in a dish that calls for kosher salt. Because kosher salt crystals are larger, you'll use too much salt in the recipe if you substitute table salt.

    Table salt's very small crystals actually fit together tighter in the teaspoon than kosher crystals, which leave some space. So you end up salting more than you'd reckoned on, and the dish can be too salty.

    In short, it's most efficient to use a table salt (iodized or not) in your shaker, kosher salt for cooking, salting meats, etc., and sea salt for extra-fancy garnish.

    2. Are any of these salts better for a salt-reduced diet?

    Technically, no. But you might end up using less salt in a dish if you're using kosher salt, because it's easier to control.

    Those "lite salt" mixtures are usually potassium chloride mixed with the standard sodium chloride. I personally feel that fresh herbs and spices, vinegars and citrus juices are better flavoring options for salt-restricted diets.

    3. Why do some recipes have unsalted butter?

    Again, that's about controlling the flavor of a dish. If you're using unsalted butter, you're responsible for how much salt you want to add, not Land o'Lakes or Hotel Bar.

    Long ago, salt was added to butter as a preservative, but thanks to modern shipping and refrigeration, that's not generally necessary these days.

    Incidentally, the salt level in a stick of butter varies from one dairy to another, so it's difficult to put a firm teaspoon amount on how much salt you're getting in a stick.

    Hope that helps!

    Miss Ginsu

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