Tag Archives: cooking

Kids and Food: Don’t waste childhood. Put it to work.

The Blog Title, “Culinary Promiscurity” allows musings on about anything related to food.

As anyone who has had or known one or its parents knows, kids have a lot to do with food. Either they won’t eat it, or they want more or they eat like a herd of wild boars on two legs. They’re allergic to dates or spit out the pablum. There are picky eaters and insatiable walking stomachs. Some are fat, some are not fat enough, and some are irritatingly food precocious   (Headlines like “12 Year old Culinary Phenom cooks with the top chefs of Poughkeepsie”  make one glad to live on the other end of the country so one is in absolutely no danger of running into him or his mother at Safeway.)

My son the empty pit, who oddly turned into one smart eater after years of begging to be taken to McDonald’s (He wasn’t), didn’t want to cook or eat anything from the ocean until well after he left home. He figured it out too late for my benefit.

I feel deprived in hindsight. It could have been otherwise. When John was young we sent him to  canoe camp and we sent him to Whale Watching Camp, which turned out to be a radical environmentalist propaganda machine – he was kicked out for standing up for the rights of “Big Oil (he was an odd child), Most camps then were pretty much all about horses and canoes or basketball. Boy oh boy, has that changed for the better.

Young parents take note. Camps today offer everything from hacking to foreign affairs, but the real deal is Cooking Camp. Wow! Cooking camp can, suggests a recent article, teach your child to respect food and choose health and nutritional elements to promote his lifestyle.

Yeah. Nice. As if anyone who sends their kids to cooking camp doesn’t already do that. The article misses the point: Cooking Camp teaches the munchkins and revolting adolescents to cook! For you! Brilliant! For a price you can turn your picky eater or undiscriminating empty legged gobbler  into your own personal chef.  Strike that: GOURMET chef.

Not only that, any cooking camp worth its salts is going to teach them to clean up!  After themselves. After you!

Exploitation? Hardly. Imaging the experience, the camaraderie: Can’t you picture the campers, all in their adorable white uniforms with camper badges, seated around 2500 BTU burner making s’mores with marshmallows they made themselves and Scharffenberger 60% Chocolate while they sing camp songs – “Does your sauce Bernaise lose its flavor overnight, can you stick it to the bedpost, can you toss it left and right..”  Imagine the bragging rights they take back to school: “Yeah, Dimbrain, you may have learned how to break into the Kremlin’s cyber vault, but I bet you can’t even make a decent Tarte Tatin, and your Genoise sucks!”(neener neener neener).

Why would you want Jennie to learn to saddle and groom ponies or paddle canoes and identify moose droppings, skills poorly suited to daily life, when she could come home and beg, “Mom, can I make a soufflé tonight? Puhleeeassssse! PleasePleasePleasePlease. You like promised.”

I have stinging regrets of opportunities missed: “Hey John, want to cook for a party of twelve? Got your Vitello Tonato game on?” – “ will you lend me a hand with this piglet I am stuffing? Or “Would you mind watching the fritto misto?”

I wish I could have said, “If you don’t like it, cook something better,” knowing that I’d at least be able to expect a Caprese or coque au vin.

If I still had small children or were expecting one, I’d be rushing to doors of every cooking camp in the country to sign them up at birth.  Voluntary child labor. What a stupendous idea.

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Kitchen Stuff vs. Culinary Zen


The hiatus in Culinary Promiscuity’s postings was due to a minor calamity; a neighbor desiring more bang than his home renovation buck deserved hired cheap and fairly irresponsible contractors who, fearing that coming rains would harm whatever internal improvements they had made, diverted all the rain water from his higher roof onto mine. The $35K  resulting damages left me with three months of nothing but a kitchen and a bedroom intact and furnished. All the rest of the furniture was removed, leaving an empty hull of waterlogged drywall, bare studs and curling floor boards with a view.

The catastrophe that upended my life and business also brought an odd blessing: As the bright, freshly finished floor and the pristine white walls emerged from the wreckage, the space became light, open, and for want of a better word, Zen –  accidental Sheng Fui – a few dishes in the kitchen, no chairs, no trappings and no table. I ate seated on a kitchen stool at a pull out bread board by the sink, listened to music and read. Not once did I have to look for my keys. I cooked some, i sat on the deck a lot and made friends with couple of bread junkie blue jays.

The empty space was soothing, full of its emptiness and at times vaguely blissful.  I briefly considered calling the furniture removal  team to tell them to keep it all and send me a prayer rug – impractical unless one prays and probably not very comfortable in the long run,   Instead I put a yellow bistro table with a batch of flowers in the middle of an otherwise empty  living room. It gladdened my mornings.

The furniture was returned on Wednesday, catapulting me into five days of something like spring cleaning – arranging, selecting and culling, not only the returned three rooms of the house but the kitchen

Aromaster Coffee Maker

Braun Aromaster

Mostly culling. Less is not more, but less and better for being that.  Three months of  forced minimalist living left in its wake a need for more space, simpler surroundings and fewer possessions.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. The real world dictates more stuff and more complexity.

During the final reconstruction phase  a dysfunctional painter somehow disappeared my  simple “vintage” Bauhaus style  Braun coffee maker – the kind with a single on or off function, simple elegant design and great coffee.  I looked for a similar replacement. It does not exist. I  ended up with a contraption reminiscent of Darth Vader with a grinder and  NASA pretensions – a menacing piece of equipment with options requiring something like pilot training to make ten cups.  It’s green lights snarl at me when I enter the kitchen.

The Empire makes coffee

In search of something as theoretically simple as a coffee maker, I discovered that just about everything  in the Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s kitchen appliance department is like that. Simplicity, elegance, reliability and the basic on/off switch have been replaced by imposing things with circuitry. Not only has the pompous design and engineering of everyday items expanded beyond the modest needs of a one family kitchen, the number of things proposed for the home cook has exploded.

A practiced cook prepares a poached egg by slipping the egg into nearly boiling water, gently folding it over onto itself as the whites seize, finally removing a neat, delicate package with a slotted spoon. The perfect egg requires a pot and a slotted spoon.  The gourmet products market offers electric (electronic) egg poachers, microwave forms and silicon egg poaching pockets, as well as single purpose items like Smore’s kits, $100 milk frothers,  single sandwich presses, carrot curlers, electr(on)ic asparagus steamers and chocolate fountains.  While some of the newer items – say anything Silpat – are welcome, even indispensable improvements,  one could live and cook better without most of them. They are mostly  cabinet clutter and decidedly un-Zen, distasteful metaphors for an unpleasant evolution of the relationship between people with kitchens and food.

Thomas Mann subtly mocks the bourgeoisie in his novel Tonio Kröger,  noting ironically that the  Krögers, a wealthy North German Merchant family,  were cultured and educated, as they possessed all the knowledge of the civilized world in the unread books in their vitrines.  The food revival, the culinary madness of this millennium, has created a similar foodie bourgeoisie with all of the potential great dishes of the world in their cabinets, or worse, on their counters..

Pimping out kitchen basics comes at a price. The food prestige and luxury marketing industry has replaced the fifteen dollar citrus juicer with a $199 Breville sans reservoir.   Coffee makers have evolved from light, sleek and simple with one on/off button and great coffee to space age pod machines and  $100 – $300 mini IT coffee factories, heavy and loaded to the gills with delicate circuitry which guarantees you will be paying to replace or repair within less than a decade.  I dread to think what will happen when my magnificent first generation DeLonghi espresso maker bites the dust – the newer models have the footprint and the price tag of a small European car.

The question, following the food / society / people theme of this blog, would be who buys this stuff and why? If it’s basic and good,why not?  New owners of exorbitant  All Clad  pans are amazed at difference in ease and precision in  cooking – sometimes outrageous price is based on solid quality. There are, however, a limited number of such necessary cooking utensils and appliances, and the food equipment industry has long outgrown the market’s actual needs.The greater part of the luxury and single application appliance sales are driven by luxury marketing principles and created desire rather than the usefulness and need for products. It’s obviously successful. If consumers did not want space age $120 toasters, those could not have replaced the original simpler, more economical and robust models.

But toast is toast, and higher prices and prestigious design do not mean better coffee or waffles.  The only logical conclusion I can reach on the reason for the replacement of good by not necessarily better but more expensive and unnecessarily complicated items is that the great demand for this equipment is propelled by social aspiration rather than the real pleasure of the kitchen. Desire for prestige rather than practicality. Working appliances and equipment have become status symbols, a role previously reserved for Limoges porcelain, Baccarat crystal and other luxury dining settings.

Remember that those with the means to enjoy such luxury generally paid someone else to cook their meals,so it is logical that the status symbols were confined to the spaces where they entertained rather than the kitchen, were solid and serviceable were the standards,

Having lived Zen for a quarter year now, I have a low tolerance for complexity and clutter and limited desire for luxury in the form of over the top  or superfluous machinery. I was having a bit of trouble with it even before the great flood, but  I am now realizing the desire for order and a lighter domestic load, at least as far as it is possible. (The coffee maker is a total failure in this regard.)

Dan Scherotter, Chef Owner of San Francisco Restaurant Palio D’Asti shared as he showed me his lovely, vast but minimally furnished kitchen (Zen) that as a chef he abhors clutter and that any piece he did not use daily had a place only in the garage. If you walk into the best restaurant kitchens you see not more but more robust equipment. Dan’s point is that a good cook or a chef relies on his knowledge and skill to cook with an economy of exceptional tools. He does not expect the tools to cook for him.

I have taken his point. Less is less and less is better. I want my counters clear and my shelves roomy and organized. If I don’t need a thing frequently, it does not earn kitchen real estate.  If a kitchen item  isn’t crammed in the back of a cupboard, it won’t need looking for. Stuff:  bad / Zen:  good. On/off button: good / electronic timer with alarm and timer: annoying, bloated frippery. If you are unimpressed by my toaster, stay home and make your own damn tuna sandwich. My kitchen is there for me to enjoy, not to impress anyone. But then, I was never very “social” so it’s an easy decision.

“THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

The World is too much with us. Wordsworth, 1806

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The Bread Game

Food as sport divides up fairly tidily into two categories, contact and spectator, with a bit of media, a few big talkers around the fringes and vast secondary economies cashing in on every aspect of the game.

The active mode, growing, brewing, cooking, canning and baking, has experienced a surge under the current food movements, which have catapulted millions of Americans into their gardens and kitchens much as the back to the earth and self sufficiency communities of the seventies sent young hippies into growing and baking communes.  Of course the-bus dwelling, pot-growing Hippies didn’t have Arclinea kitchens and Whole Foods markets, and their clumpy all grain breads and biodynamic grain gruels were usually barely edible, but the sentiments of the two factions are similar.

The current culinary moral imperative – know your food, calculate your water footprint, save the planet – traces its roots straight back to the children of thee summer of love, and that’s a pity, because it misses the point of the downright fun of playing with your food. Dogma is a poor reason for embarking on the creative process that ends up with golden loaves of bread and shelves of Mason jars filled with jewel toned jams.

Swiss Zopf

The spectacular thing about home production for me is that it doesn’t require justification or social motivation. It’s fun – a joyous, sensual, self affirming process starting with a flat of berries, a dead fish or a bag of flour and progressing through a series of motions and senses to a completed, delicious, lovely edible item you can either share with your friends or hoard for yourself.

My favorite food for play is bread. I inherited the knack for it from my mother and aunt, the McClintock sisters, who may have begun making it out of the frugal fiats of their Scott’s heritage, but were skilled enough to create identities for themselves from their successes, Maxine (my mother) winning the Pillsbury bakeoff from which she brought home a pile of swag which included the newest GE stove, a mink stole and a mixer, and Jimmie, who baked her way to the top of her Tidewater society, getting up at 5:00 am daily to pour herself a pint of beer and set up the starter for the day’s bread and food. The smell of rising yeast and fresh loaves was and is for me synonymous with home.

Unlike pastry, bread is not a science. It is an instinct, hedonistic, atavistic and Dionysian. It draws on living things and earth, yeast, bacteria and the gluten strands, which thank the baker for brutalizing the cells of the grain by forming chains to hold water and air.  American breads are – or were – mid things between bread and pastry. By the time I reached adulthood, you had to go overseas to experience the infinite possibilities of leavened grain.

Fifteen years after the war I had the good fortune to land in Europe with the limitless offerings of regional bakeries not yet impacted by the gargantuan food corporations which would eventually decimate them when European women began to demand convenience and price without realizing the quality it would cost them in their foods.  Master bakers still ruled, and the preferred shops were easily identifiable by the lines of disciplined shoppers stretching out onto the sidewalk.

In Germany, where I landed, there were  “Semmel” – hard crusted, soft centered breakfast rolls with a pinwheel on top, which cost me a few clothing sizes – and “vollkorn”, dense, black-brown, moist breads baked with entire grains and berries. Smeared with pate or white cheese sprinkled with herbs, it was dinner.  The German word for dinner is not “Abendbrot” or “evening bread” by chance. Each town or village had its own signature baked goods, and every other country – France, Sweden, Austria added to the wealth.

A few years later I found myself in Switzerland with my own kitchen and mixer with a mill/grinding attachment. Since our back yard was bounded by a hundred or so acres of wheat, barley or depending the season, corn, baking was a given. Every housewife knew how, had her own recipes and tips, and everyone wanted to share.  On holidays we baked with the kids. Our kitchens and homes smelled like fresh loaves. Bread was a social connection, a metaphor and a health food.  That was twenty years ago, and it could not last.

About a year back I got bit by the baking bug again at Rainbow Grocery. I had gone for something else, but one minute I was standing in front of bins of hard wheat and soft wheat, rye, graham, 00 and high/low gluten flour, and the next I was at checkout with $20 worth of different flour varieties.

They shouldn’t say that something you stop doing and then start again is “like riding a bicycle.” They should say “It’s like making bread.”  Once you learn, you never forget the right feel of the dough, the look of the surface and even the sound of the dough slapping against the butcher block.  It’s hard for me to understand how I went for so many years without the ceremony of cutting off the hot heel of the oven hot loaf and smearing it with butter.

A lovely friend, whose previous incarnation was as a baker and celebrated pastry chef, says there’s an old village (that’s redundant – there are no new villages) in the Canton of Vallais outside of Geneva, where the local bakery gives weeklong baking courses for making the original breads of the region. It would be in autumn. Maybe I’ll go.

In the meantime I have a sweet dried apricot rye that brings happiness from the moment the yeast bubbles to the last end crust of the double loaf.   I’m in the game again, just for the pleasure of it.



Peach jam with rose petals

A couple of weeks ago after reading David Lebovitz’s blog on apricot jam I stumbled on a flat of beautiful apricots for about $6 and decided to make a batch. It turned out surprisingly well – perfectly, actually – considering the 20 years elapsed since the last time I made any.

Preserving was one of the unremarkable and occasionally annoying givens of a life I once had on a the side of a short alp. I made a lot of jam before returning to the land of supermarkets, but I thought I’d managed to break the habit. Perhaps Lebovitz’s blog got me going, or Barbara Haim’s animated account of teaching her City College students how to put up preserves, Maybe it was the $12 half pint jars of apparently precious preserves at a farmers’ market that got me going. Whatever the impulse I’ve fallen hard off the no-canning wagon.

After the apricots I happened on $5 bags of cherries, followed by half a flat of strawberries for $7.   Then came the peaches, enormous white and sweet for $5 the flat. Who could resist?

A line of pretty, jewel toned jars are now sitting on my top shelf.  They are all good – far better than what I could buy – but the best so far is the peach and rose petal jam. The petals – organic by dint of laziness rather than credo – were intended to add color to the pale fruit, but the flavor is exquisite.

The basic recipe is simple: Three cups of sugar to a quart of finely cut or mashed peaches, a touch of lemon to brighten the flavor and keep the color, and a packet of pectin. (Peaches require a little help, but pectin also allows the jam to cook for a shorter time, so it doesn’t take on a cooked down sugar flavor). Put everything in a pot at lowest heat until it juices up, turn  up the heat and bring to a boil.

As the jam simmers there is a change in its appearance shortly before it seizes up – the syrup becomes visibly more viscous, and the bubbles begin to look quilted. From that point it takes between five and ten minutes for the jam to thicken. The hardest part of jam making is determining when it is right before it gets too thick or the pectin breaks down. I pour the liquid back and forth between two spoons to cool it and see if it thickens and “sheets off the spoon” rather than dribbling. Lebovitz suggests putting a drop on a plate cooled in the freezer and seeing if it forms a small mound.

You pour the jam into canning jars you have boiled leaving about 1/2 inch head room, cover them immediately and turn them upside down.

The USDA insists that jam needs to be boiled in a water bath, but considering that the boiling jam is hotter than boiling water, the inverted jar should sterilize itself and form a vacuum seal with the lid. It’s certainly more effective than the earlier method of sealing the jars with wax. On the other hand, opening a jar of jam and finding mold on top is distressing enough to warrant the extra step. (Jam is generally acidic, especially if you add lemon, so there’s little danger of botulism.)

My kitchen is sticky, my stove needs cleaning, and I haven’t got the accounting work done I’d reserved for the weekend. Was it worth it? You betcha. Fun? Maybe. Oddly satisfying, at any rate.

Have I saved money?  Debatable. Yes, if you consider the current celebrity status of artisan preserves and their resulting prices, but compared to industrially produced jams, perhaps not.  Jars run  $1 and change each, and one time investments for canning equipment such as  a wide mouth funnel,  jar lifter and a terrific little stick with a magnet for lifting lids for a few dollars each or a water bath or canning kit for perhaps $30 raise the ante for the first year, but I haven’t seen white peach rose jam on the shelves yet. It is, by the way, fabulous.

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