Category Archives: KITCHEN TALK

EXPIRATION DATES AND OTHER FOIBLES OF THE CANNED FOOD INDUSTRY

What, exactly, is it about expiration dates on the packages of cookies or crackers, or expiration dates on canned food prod products? Actually, for what it’s worth, dozens of different kinds of expiration dated-foods can frequently be found on marked down grocery items and I veer directly towards them. I have found some fantastic sale items this way. In the fresh product section, I often find lettuce, yogurt, cottage cheese and other dairy items marked down as much as half price. One of my best finds a year ago were large bottles of Karo light corn syrup for 75c—more than half off. Then I began thinking about all the uses for light corn syrup during the holidays –but when I went back to the store, all of those bottles of karo syrup had been bought. Now I try to pay closer attention. A similar situation took place when my daughter in law bought 2-lb bags of brown sugar. I bought 4 or 5 bags and when I went back to the store, intending to buy whatever remained –and they had all been sold. And the reason those items were marked way down was that the manufacturer was introducing a new plastic bag. And if you worry about having too many bags of raisins or brown sugar, you can re-bag the products into glass jars. The major complaint that I hear from friends or family member is that “the product inside won’t be any good” This is probably the food industry’s number one “the joke’s is on you”

The reason I wanted to share these letters with you was due to comments that appeared in Cook’s Illustrated Magazine March/April in -2012. I have been contending for years that canned food with long-ago expiration dates, no dents or flaws in the container—are still safe to eat. Two of my grandchildren check the dates on everything edible (consequently, if I am preparing a food with a canned food content, I put the canned food into a baking dish and bury the cans at the bottom of the trash can).

What did Cooks Illustrated have to say about this issue?
A subscriber wrote to say she recently used a can of chicken broth and later discovered it had a “best buy” date of several years past–but the product tasted fine and no one got sick.

Says Cooks Illustrated “The best buy” printed on some labels is not a hard and fast rule; it refers strictly to the manufacturers recommendation for peak quality, not safety concerns. In theory, as long as cans are in good condition and have been stored under the right conditions (in a dry place between 40 and 70 degrees, their contents should remain safe to use indefinitely.

That said, natural chemicals in foods continually react with the metal in cans and over time canned food’s taste, texture and nutritional value will gradually deteriorate.

The question is when. Manufacturers have an incentive to cite “a best buy” date that is a conservative estimate of when the food may lose quality. But it’s possible that some canned foods will last for decades without any dip in taste or nutrition.

In a shelf life study conducted by the National Food Processors Association and cited in FDA Consumer, even 100 year old canned food was found to be remarkably well preserved with a drop in some nutrients but not others….”
I’m sure there have been or will be studies to detract from the above study – my point is just this: I have grandchildren who read all the labels and if any of the cereal or other breakfast food has an expiration date of even one week, they won’t eat it. They have been so indoctrinated that no one can tell them any different. (So I transfer food, including cereal, to jars whenever possible. No expiration dates. No problem). But I am also a believer in moving canned foods around so that the oldest in the shelves is up front and will be used next.
This also brings me up to date on another kind of canned food product – those you make yourself, using up fresh fruit when you have an abundance of a crop—or when a friend has more apples, pears, peaches, tomatoes—or any other food they can’t use. Actually, it’s not a matter of having too many apples, tomatoes or whatever—but rather, it’s being gifted with the neighbor or friend’s overflow. I just love being presented with whatever overflow a friend or neighbor can offer to us; Last summer, I dehydrated chili peppers and green bell peppers—other bell peppers were converted into stuffed bell peppers that were cooked, then frozen. We froze an enormous amount of bell peppers and cooked fresh corn on the cob to have for dinners. We picked little red tomatoes and I converted almost all of these into tomato sauce. There is a huge amount of work but an equal amount of satisfaction for having converted vegetables into tomato sauce, canned tomato sauce with hot sauce added to it, working on tomatoes until I had done something with all of it.

We have been giving serious consideration to “what will be next”. Mind you, my garden was a fraction of the size of my son’s in 2013. A survey of all the jars of tomatoes and sauces is very satisfying. (And doesn’t even take into consideration the canning of fruit juices in preparation for jelly and jam making. But that’s another story!

Sandra Lee Smith

CANNING VEGGIES FROM A “SMALL” CITY GARDEN

 My son Kelly planted a larger garden last spring. He has done a little dabbling in gardening in the past few years, mostly pumpkins for the kids to make jack-o-lanterns. This year’s garden was a more serious endeavor. He planted corn, tomatoes, small hot chili peppers, bell peppers and crookneck squash. Oh, and watermelon and cantaloupe too. Early on, the garden began overflowing faster than any of us could pick, cook, or can. The squash went crazy. I went to a birthday party for a girlfriend in June; it was at a restaurant in Gorman and about forty something guests showed up. I put crook neck squashes in paper lunch bags and labeled them all door prizes—got rid of about 20 squashes this way but I could have easily given away many more. Then watermelon and cantaloupe overflowed; we couldn’t eat it fast enough or find enough homes for the fruit.

Meantime, Kelly’s one packet of cherry tomatoes began taking over the entire garden. As fast as they ripened, he would bring a bucket of tomatoes over for me to can (I live right around the corner from them). Tomatoes not quite ripe enough went in 1-pint plastic containers that I put in a back window that gets morning and afternoon sun. They would finish ripening overnight.

The easiest thing I could think of for canning cherry tomatoes was to convert them into juice and cook it down to a puree. Every other day I would cook a pot of cherry tomatoes and run them through a food mill; then the juice went into a gallon jar until I had enough to fill 7 quarts (the maximum amount that fits into my canner). I discovered that the easiest way to cook the juice down without any scorching was to pour the jars of juice into my largest crockpot. When I thought it was thick enough, I would have the sterilized quart or pint jars ready along with lids that had been sterilized and kept hot in a small pan. (I often wondered what the importance of cooking the lids was – it’s to soften the sealing compound on the underside of the lid—so that you get a solid seal after the jars have been submerged in a boiling water bath for an allotted amount of time (which varies depending on what you are canning. I only can food that can go into a boiling water bath, rather than a pressure cooker).

Well, we picked and picked and picked cherry tomatoes for weeks—I just took my time cooking the tomatoes in a small amount of water and then running it through a hand-held food mill. Then the pulp went into newspaper and into the trash; the juice went into the gallon jar until I had 2 gallon jars filled (I have often regretted not having a compost anymore. Bob & I had a compost going in an enclosed brick space in my back yard in Arleta—we lived there for 19 years so whatever he dug out of the very bottom of the compost would be perfect for gardening – and we invariably had volunteer tomato plants coming up where ever he used any compost).  I can’t do a compost here in the desert – nothing that would attract coyotes or bears which, believe it or not, have been spotted in Quartz Hill and Palmdale a few times since I’ve lived here. I was sitting in my car about to go somewhere one day when a skinny old coyote came around the corner and meandered slowly up my street.  And critters have been known to capture and kill family pets. A black bear was spotted one day about halfway between mine and my sister’s houses. I think animal control had to come and get that little fellow. Sorry, I digress.

Well, long story short, I have canned over 50 quarts of tomato puree. Some of Kelly’s little hot chili peppers went into a few of the jars.  The last of the tomato puree is heating up in my crock pot even as we speak. I should get 7 or 8 quarts of puree from the last of the ripe tomatoes.

A few days ago I suggested to Kelly (as we were digging around in the garden picking the last of the ripe tomatoes we could find) that I wouldn’t mind trying to make some pickled green cherry tomatoes—so over the weekend he and I picked all the green tomatoes we could find – we filled two large stainless basins and a large strainer—and he began pulling out the vines and packing them into his trash bin that is for leaves, clippings, garden debris. He climbed into the trash can to pack it down – and we called it quits for the tomatoes

(His bell peppers are still producing blossoms and peppers. I diced dozens of bell peppers with my Vidalia food chopper – it has a small dice and a larger one – and I filled bag after bag of bell peppers to give to friends and to fill our freezers).  Most of the chili peppers went into my dehydrator and we have given a lot of those away too).

So, yesterday – after making sure I had everything I wanted to put into my green tomato pickles – I began sterilizing jars, filling them with the green cherry tomatoes and spices—and making pickles. I weighed the cherry tomatoes on my bathroom scale before starting – and had 14 pounds of tomatoes.  This has produced 12 quarts of pickled cherry tomatoes. How do they taste? Well, I have one jar in the frig—not canned—and we’ll give them a taste in a week. The rest are going into my jelly cupboard which I had to completely change around this morning to make enough space for all the tomato puree and the cherry tomato pickles.  Whew! We don’t have the pantry or cupboard space that I had in the Arleta house. And you can’t store excess grocery items in the garage – it gets too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.

To Make Pickled Green Tomatoes, I checked various sites I found on Google—which is easier and faster than going through my collection of notebooks on canning, preserving, jelly & jam making.  I made my own variations which included the omission of garlic, which none of us is crazy about in pickles. I also added a small hot chili pepper in some, not all, of the jars.

 What You Need:

(For 12 quarts of green cherry tomato pickles)

14 pounds of green cherry tomatoes
12 cups of white vinegar
12 cups of water
12 tbsp. of kosher salt
dill seeds
whole black peppercorns

red pepper flakes or whole small chili peppers—dried or fresh

Jars — either quart-sized jars or 6 pint-sized jars, as well as lids and rings, a hot water canner (if you’re planning on storing your pickles long term)
Jar lifter

Prepping Your Tomatoes

(Note: If you’re planning to process your pickles in a hot water canner, you should fill the canner with water, add your jars, and turn the water on to sterilize and warm your jars. Just leave the jars in the water until you’re ready to use them. Place the lids and rings in another pan with simmering – not boiling- water until you’re ready to use them.)

Gather and wash 14 pounds of green tomatoes. I used green cherry tomatoes because they seemed to stay firmer after processing, but any tomato will work. You can cut your tomatoes in half if they’re larger or cut them into quarters. (I left mine whole and used different sizes – large and small. The very small ones  filled empty spaces in the jars.)

Now, make your brine. Add the vinegar, water, and salt to a pan, and bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, it’s time to start filling your sterilized jars.

Remove the jars from the boiling water canner with jar tongs. Set them on a towel on your counter (so they don’t crack when they come into contact with the cool surface) and add the following to each jar:

  • 1 tsp. dill seeds
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp (or more if you want them spicier) of red pepper flakes–or small whole red chili peppers (fresh or dried)

Once your spices are in, start packing your tomatoes into the jars. Really, pack them in. Once they’re packed, add brine to fill the spaces between tomatoes. Use a chopstick or knife to go around the inside of the jar and remove any air bubbles, then fill with more brine if you need to. Leave 1/4 inch of headspace, then wipe the rims of your jars to clean up any brine, add your lids and tighten your rings.

Put your jars in your hot water canner, and cover with a lid. Once the water comes up to a boil, start your timer — you’ll be processing your pickles for fifteen minutes.

Once time is up, remove your jars and place them on a towel on a kitchen counter. They’ll have to sit there for several hours to cool. When they are cool, you can label the pickles and put them in a dark place to “age” – 6 weeks should be about right. This is the length of time I age my hot Hawaiian pineapple pickles.

Making Refrigerator Pickled Green Tomatoes–You can also forget about the boiling water processing if you just want to make a few jars of pickles to be eaten within the next month or so. Prep your tomatoes, add your spices, tomatoes, and boiling brine to the jars, and place in the refrigerator. They’ll be ready to eat in about a week.

What to Do with Pickled Green cherry tomatoes? You can snack on them or slice or dice the pickles to go on top of hamburgers or hot dogs. They can be diced and added to tuna or chicken salad for sandwiches—or cut up to go into salads.  The sky’s the limit.

–Sandra Lee Smith

 

LISTS, LISTS, MORE LISTS

We’re more than halfway into January and a couple more lists have come to my attention.  Well, one of them must have come in the mail encouraging me to renew my subscription to Rachel Ray’s Everyday magazine. Or maybe it fell out of one of her magazines—I don’t always remember how I acquire bits and pieces of stuff – like someone else’s list. This one was titled 12 Bites of Every Day Food Wisdom from Rachel.

  • Recipes: First Things First – Rachel instructs us to always read each menu or recipe through before you begin. It’s the best way to check out your ingredient list and get familiar with the steps. Good tip. I find myself checking the list of ingredients first, then reading through the recipe and then, often as not, I go back and re-read some vital piece of information, like yesterday when I was making pistachio dried cranberry ice box cookies for my daughter in law. I was well into the recipe when I asked myself “wait!  Where does the egg fit into this?”  Turns out the egg is just an ingredient that gets brushed onto the dough before it goes into the oven.
  • Shortcuts: sometimes Okay. Rachel tells us there are times when store bought items simply make sense. For example, she often suggests pre-shredded cheese and pre-cut veggies as options in her recipes. One of my favorite short cut ingredients is pre-made salsa, green or red, that comes in many sizes and varieties. I poured some into my chicken tortilla soup a few days ago to give it the kick that it needed.
  • Substitutions: Why Not? Rachel says personally she rarely uses them but it’s up to you. Substitute freely, she says, as you like or need. If you prefer reduced fat cheese and dairy products, she warns, be aware that the consistency of spreads, dips or sauces may be slightly thinner. I just want to add—my youngest son had to give up dairy for health reasons; I began buying soy-based shredded cheddar cheese for him; we tried different varieties until he found one the most palatable. Personally, I despise salt substitutes and would rather use less and stick to the real thing—well, we did graduate to sea salt.
  • Smell and Taste as You Go—Rachel says learning about food and flavor is part of developing as a cook. Bu tasting and sniffing your way through different types of recipes, your palate will play matchmaker and you’ll learn how to associate flavors and textures that complement one another. I thought this tip was just about as basic as anything you could learn at your mother’s elbow or in a high school cooking class—and I taste everything as I go. I keep a pan of hot soapy water in the sink to drop the spoons into so there’s no double dipping, but you know what? It amazes me how often a chef on the Food Network program CHOPPED (which I love) hasn’t TASTED his or her recipe as they went along. The judges often ask “Did you taste this?” knowing full well which contestants have or haven’t seasoned a dish. Those judges don’t miss much!
  • One-Fell-Swoop Washing.   After a trip to the market, says Rachel, unpack, rinse and re-pack greens—like parsley—in plastic bags with damp paper towels before storing in the fridge. It cuts prep time all week. And I want to add, I repack and freeze almost all meats that I buy in quantity. My daughter in law’s tip is to buy large quantities of boneless chicken breasts when on sale and then she repacks and freezes them in one quart size freezer bags. She always has the amount she needs on hand, and the one quart bags take less time to defrost.
  • SWEETENING SAUCE: To sweeten tomato sauce, says Rachel, don’t add sugar; add half a mince onion to the garlic beforehand. Let it soften and sweeten over medium low heat for 10 minutes, then add to your tomato products. I confess, this is a new one for me.  I can’t wait to try it.
  • PACKAGES BROTHS: Broths and stocks have come a long way in the last few years, says Rachel; not only with taste and consistency, but in terms of packaging. They now come in re-sealable containers found in the soup aisle. The proper containers make storage of remaining product super easy. Stock up. I have to agree with this but want to add that I search for any of these products to be  on sale and then stock up.
  • GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT. Rachel keeps a big convenient earthenware garbage bowl on the counter for everything from peelings to pits to plastic wrap as she is cooking. It saves steps and time by eliminating unsanitary and repetitive trips to the trash can across the kitchen and keeps junk out of the sink drain and out of your way. I want to add to that—before we moved to the high desert where it’s not exactly safe to have a compost in a coyote might visit your back yard—Bob had a large compost area in Arleta that was walled in. All the grass clippings and leaves went into the compost along with most compostable-items such as carrot and potato peelings. He had a steady supply of rich compost soil for planting.
  • E-Z SLICING-For easy slicing of raw meat, pop it  into the freezer for 10 to 15   minutes before starting to prepare the meat. This firms it up and you’ll find that it will be easier to control the thickness of slices. (all very true—sls)
  • CRUNCHY CAPERS. Roasting gives capers a new flavor. they become a little nutty and earthy and they pop when you bite down! I’d like to add to this that my favorite fish recipe is a white fish sautéed in lemon juice and sprinkled with lemon pepper—then sprinkled with capers.
  • Oil & Vinegar.  When dressing an oil and vinegar always put the acid (vinegar) on first before the EVOO. If you add the oil first, the oil keeps the acid from getting to the greens, and your salad isn’t really “dressed”.  My comment about this one? I never add any kind of salad dressing to salads; I put them on the table for everyone to add their own favorite salad dressing. The leftover greens stay fresh this way.

Happy cooking! Sandy

COOKBOOKS WORTH COLLECTING BY MARY BARILE

Sandy’s cooknote: This article was written in the 1990s when there were a lot more used bookstores than there are today. It has given me so much grief to go to visit a favorite used bookstore and find its been replaced with a furniture store. Consequently, today, I buy most of my pre-owned cookbooks from an internet website, such as Alibris.com and Amazon.com. I also resort to finding a lot of my pre-owned cookbooks at Friends of the Library book sales.

The following was written around 1994:

Within our world of cookbook collecting, possibly nothing creates more heated debate than the subject of the value of cookbooks and possibly topping the list may be books on the subject of the value of cookbooks.

Having said that, let me say that I had read and propose to review without bias the book COOKBOOKS WORTH COLLECTING BY Mary Barile Published by Wallace-Homestead Cook Company, in 1994.

As cookbook collectors, you may know, reference books on the Subject of cookbook collecting are a double edged-butter knife. It’s fun to read through books like these and sometimes we find references to books that we have in our collection. The downside is that every used book dealer is certain to buy the reference books too, and they price the books on their shelves accordingly.

What this means is that cookbooks are often greatly overpriced and you are less likely to find used cookbooks in book stores at reasonable, fair prices.

This is not to say that you won’t find the bargains in your search for cookbook treasures.  Years ago, I found a #1 Bake Off book at a rummage sale in Palm Springs—and bought it for $1.00! I didn’t find it in a bookstore – and the seller’s folding table was filled with boxes of cookbooklets and pamphlets, marked 50 cents each. I almost didn’t buy it when the seller said “Oh, I need a dollar for that one”. I almost balked—I don’t approve of that kind of salesmanship. But I bought that one and two others for $2.00 and it wasn’t until I was back in the car with my sister Becky that I took a look at what I had bought and I realized I had a #1 bake off book. (I’m sure you must all know, there isn’t anything on the cover indicating it’s the first one. Pillsbury didn’t know what they had started. It was the only bake off book I needed to complete my collection; I would have even purchased a facsimile edition if Pillsbury had published one. Now we are up to something like #45. As for the bake off booklet, I have seen #1 listed at different prices ranging from $50 to $75.00—and no, I would never have paid seventy five dollars for a cookbooklet. I don’t think I would spend that much on ANY cookbook.

I  do find much of the text in Mary Barile’s COOKBOOKS WORTH  COLLECTING to be informative and helpful—if you just focus on the TEXT and what she is sharing with you, and not on how much a cookbook in your collection might be worth—you’ll find it a good book to have.  I’ve also found references to books I’ve never seen or heard of before which inspires me to keep searching. There were even a couple of rhymed recipes, taken from community cookbooks, that I wish I had had when I was working on an article on that subject.

(*Sandy’s cooknote Rhymed recipes and kitchen-related poetry has been a pet project of mine for many years—I finally collected enough to do a series on this blog titled The Kitchen Poets. There are ten parts to the series).

COOKBOOKS WORTH C0LLECTING is interesting and well done. Like all cookbook reference books, you must take it all with  grain of salt—keeping in mind that price lists are, or perhaps should be, GUIDES and aren’t cast in stone. Also keep[ in mind when you buy a cookbook reference compilation that the featured books are usually the personal property of the writer and generally not for sale. Virtually everything I write in Sandychatter is based from books in my own collection.

State the publishers, “Whether you’re a chef, bibliophile, collector, historian or simply a cookbook lover, you’ll enjoy this guide to collectible cookbooks…it takes a look at the history of cookbooks from ancient Rome to colonial America to the nineteenth century. Charity and fundraising cookbooks as well as ephemera and related items are also discussed.

There are over 100 black and white photographs with detailed captions…over a thousand captions…over a thousand listings include bibliographic information and current values.

Mary Barile specializes in recreating menus and dishes from America’s past for historical societies and serves as food editor for Kaatskill Life magazine*. She is also the editor of JUST COOKBOOKS, for which I couldn’t find any references on either Amazon or Alibris.

(*Sandy’s cooknote: There is a Kaatskill Life Magazine, a quarterly that has been published since 1986. I don’t know if Mary Barile is still writing for the magazine).

But I could have had a field day ordering other books from Amazon—on the page featuring Mary Barile’s COOKBOOKS WORTH COLLECTING (which you can purchase on Amazon.com for $1.24, pre-owned,) while Alibris.com doesn’t have any of her books—however! I saw the following titles listed on Amazon:

Vintage cookbooks and Advertising leaflets, lowest price $9.56

Price Guide to Cookbooks and Recipe Leaflets, Linda Dickinson, paperback copy starting at 1 cent,

Guide to Collecting Cookbooks, Colonel Bob Allen

Collectors Guide to  Cookbooks. Identification and Values.

So, you can assume—there are books of this genre to be had but you might have to do some detective work finding them.

Happy Cooking & Happier cookbook collecting!

Sandy

THE WORST THING I EVER TASTED

It was while leafing through a book titled “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD” by James Lileks that I began to give serious thought to all of the bad food out there. Right up along with the bad food is a bad recipe.

Topping the list of “Bad Food” would be my mother’s library-paste rice and Hasenpfeffer (sweet and sour rabbit). Mom didn’t have much talent with cabbage, either. She would put it on to boil around 9 am so it would be slimy mush by 6 PM when we had dinner. My sister Barbara shudders at the memory of mom’s lima beans while we all pinch our noses remembering the smell of kidney stew. My mother’s philosophy seemed to be, if the recipe called for being cooked one or two hours, then three or four (or more) would be quite a lot better.  Granted, we never suffered the ill effects of eating undercooked food and dinner could sometimes be a mystery game, guessing what was in the pot. In the words of one writer, “she did not so much cook as assassinate food.”

I was born just as World War II began and not only were a lot of foods rationed, many things were simply unavailable. My mother stretched her ten-dollars-a-week grocery allowance by cooking a lot of organ meats, which were very cheap and unrationed  (liver, kidneys, tongue, and brains). Ew, ew. (No, don’t tell me it tastes just like scrambled eggs).

And, a child’s imagination could run wild with the names of certain things. Take “head cheese”. Actually, it’s not a cheese but more like a lunchmeat, but do you know why it’s called “head cheese”?  It was made with the head of a calf or a pig.  As for my own particular aversion to stewed rabbit, I’m not sure which I despised the most – the rabbit or the occasional BB that would be found floating around in the gravy. We only had hasenpfeffer when my father went rabbit hunting. The rabbits were then cleaned at the kitchen sink. Some things are better done out of the sight of small children. After I watched my then-husband clean fish shortly after we were married, I only ate fish sticks for several years. I think the only kind of fish my mother ever cooked were salmon patties (which, oddly enough is one of my comfort foods) but which bear no resemblance to anything that once swam in the ocean.

All of which only demonstrates that much of the visceral reaction we experience with certain foods can be traced to how the food was prepared, along with the deep-seated American aversion to eating some parts of an animal but not others.

James Lileks’s book “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD”, published by Crown Publishers in 2001, is, in the words of the publishers, a simple introduction to poorly photographed foodstuffs and horrid recipes from the “Golden Age of Salt and Starch”.  They point out that it’s a wonder anyone in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s gained any weight. “It isn’t that the food was inedible,” they note, “It was merely dull. Everything was geared toward a timid palate fearful of spice. It wasn’t non-nutritious—no, between the limp boiled vegetables, fat-choked meat cylinders and pink whipped Jell-O desserts, you were bound to find a few calories that would drag you into the next day. It’s just that the pictures are so hideously unappealing…”

Author James Lileks has made it his life’s work to unearth the worst recipes and food photography from that bygone era. His project began when he went home to Fargo, North Dakota, and found an ancient recipe book in his mom’s cupboard. The book was “SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE” from the North Dakota State Wheat Commission.  Lileks points out that these are not really recipe books; they’re actually ads for food companies with every recipe using the company’s products, often in unexpected and horrifying ways.

Lileks recalls how the pamphlet got into his mother’s kitchen cupboard in the first place; when his family moved to Fargo in 1962, a lady from the Welcome Wagon (remember Welcome Wagons? They came around with a bag of gifts, pamphlets, and samples.)  His mother took one look at “SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE” and stuck it away in a closet, in the back, under the Rand McNally atlas that no one used. And that’s where it remained until Lileks discovered it, in pristine condition, in 1996.  Says Lileks, “To modern eyes, the pictures in the book are ghastly, florid, gorge-tweaking abominations—the Italian dishes look like what happened when a surgeon get s a sneezing fit during an operation, and the queasy casseroles look like something the dog heaved up on the good rug….”

Lileks was off on a quest, checking through the rest of his mother’s cookbook collection and from there poking through garage-sale residues and rescuing tattered books from dusty bins in antique stores.

The illustrations and caustic comments provided by Lileks throughout his book are, at least, entertaining—even though you may not be inspired to dash out to the kitchen to whip up a batch of Campfire Marshmallow Fairy or Beet Pie Casserole, much less creamed brains on toast or Tongue Rolls Florentine.  However, you will enjoy reading the book and taking a nostalgic trip back in time when food company photography left something (actually, quite a lot) to be desired.

In defense of food companies and the recipe booklets being published today, I’d have to say, you’ve come a long way, baby. Some of my favorite recipe booklets include those from Quaker Oats, Sun-Maid Raisins, Pillsbury and Betty Crocker. I believe that the recipes in these booklets are tested and re-tested and can be relied upon to produce good results. And, cookbook publishers have also come a long way with food photography. Today, there are photographers specializing in this one particular area of photography, whose dazzling illustrations are sure to make your mouth water and have you trotting out to the kitchen to try their recipe. (I’ve often started out leafing through a cookbook, found myself inspired by the illustrations and then found myself spending the rest of the day in the kitchen).

James Lileks was a columnist for the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune and has a website, “THE INSTITUTE OF OFFICIAL CHEER” (still online) on which “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD” was based and can be seen at www.lileks.com.  And even though “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD” isn’t exactly what we would call a cookbook – it does contain some recipes. More than anything, it’s great fun to read.

If you want your own copy of “THE GALLERY OF REGRETTABLE FOOD”, I found it for as little as $1.00 on Alibris.com. Copies start at $46.25 (new) or $16.97 (pre owned) on Amazon.com (I can’t begin to explain the disparity in prices on these books. Obviously, somebody somewhere is disillusioned about the worth of their book).

But I wanted to discuss with you something besides just pictures of bad food. What about bad recipes?

I became curious about bad recipes initially when I was reading an (albeit unauthorized) biography about Martha Stewart.  The author claimed that many of the recipes in the first books published by Martha Stewart were not thoroughly tested, much to the dismay of unsuspecting readers.

James Beard, in a newspaper article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1984, when writing about Marion Cunningham’s 12th edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, wrote that “Research is Key to a Cookbook”.   “In preparing this book,” Beard wrote, “Cunningham spent many months doing research. She interviewed millers about flour, chocolate manufacturers about cocoa beans, microbiologists about yeast; she left no stone unturned to discover the secrets of fine baking and what it entails. And she baked and baked and baked.  At the end of it all, she produced a book that is so straightforward you can trust every recipe…””

Have you ever followed a recipe from a reputable cookbook, only to find the results dismally disappointing?  I have!  One notable experience involved a Betty Crocker cookbook and Baked Alaska. I wrote to the publishers to complain and received a reply that is still somewhere in my files. General Mills stood staunchly by their recipe. I was never bold enough to try it again.  Now, many years later, I feel I can often tell from just reading a recipe whether it sounds right to me. (This must be the inner voice of experience talking to me!).  One cookbook editor said that “the results you get by touching and smelling and seeing is what nobody knows anymore. Their grandmother didn’t teach them, their mother didn’t teach them and they haven’t a clue.” I don’t pretend to be a gourmet cook. I am a reasonably good cook who relies on cookbooks for most of my inspiration. But, if I don’t like the way a recipe is going, I’ve been known—often—to change it midstream. It’s one of the reasons I can never give anyone my recipes for homemade soup. It’s rarely ever made the same way twice.

My curiosity about bad recipes was further piqued when someone sent me a food section from the San Jose Mercury News, published in September, 1994.  The story was written by Kathie Jenkins of the Los Angeles Times, whose name I recognized. Jenkins opens the article, titled “IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE RECIPE” by relating the story of a lady whose hobby is trying recipes until she finds the perfect one. In her quest for the perfect crab cake, this cook tried many different versions including several provided by notable cookbook authors. “They were soggy little balls of yuck,” she reported.  “Even my husband wouldn’t touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting.”

All of this came as no surprise, Jenkins reports, “to the owner of the Cook’s Library, Los Angeles’ only all-cookbook shop (which closed its doors on April 30, 2009). “More than half the books in my store have at least one recipe that doesn’t work” reported the storeowner.  And John Taylor, who owns a culinary bookstore in South Carolina and is the author of “Hoppin’ John’s Low Country Cooking” observed that, if he only sold books where the recipes worked, he wouldn’t have any books on his shelves.

The trouble is, writes Kathie Jenkins, that recipe testing is nearly always left to authors who must do it or pay for it.  “For cookbook authors,” Jenkins notes, “slaving over a test kitchen stove can pay big dividends. The most popular personalities can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. Added to this are revenues from product endorsements, consultant fees, sponsorships, television shows, and video cassettes.”

Or,” she continues, “in the case of style czarina Martha Stewart, your very own magazine. She started out as a Connecticut caterer, wrote the book, “Entertaining,” and parlayed that into a reported $2 million empire – plus a stream of royalties from television shows, videos, CDs and all those Martha Stewart products sold at Kmart…”

Jenkins notes that a famous name is no guarantee that the recipes work, however.  Hoppin’ John Taylor commented, “Nobody in their right mind buys a Martha Stewart Book for a recipe.  They buy them for her ideas and great pictures. If a recipe works in a Martha Stewart book, it’s somebody else’s.”

In defense of Martha Stewart (and apologies to Martha Stewart fans), a spokesperson for Martha Stewart commented, “That quote sounds like somebody in the cookbook business who wrote a book and it didn’t sell. I think those are just sour grapes.”

Whether it’s sour grapes or not, I’ll leave that for all of you to decide. What is relevant to the subject at hand is that cookbook publishers have no test kitchens. Most newspapers don’t either and consequently, they can’t test every recipe they print from a cookbook. Most recipes are printed as they appear in cookbooks or from wire services. For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Times does have a test kitchen and a staff to cook in it.  All of the recipes in the “Best of the Best” cookbooks published by Quail Ridge Press are pre-tested.  You can generally expect a well-prepared Junior League cookbook to have tested recipes and they will often tell you so in their book by thanking the committee of testers who worked on the recipes.  Jenkins notes that, unlike newspapers, which can correct a recipe the following week, if necessary, cookbook publishers can’t correct even the mistakes they’ll admit to, short of a recall or waiting until the next printing. And while cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, Jenkins notes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers.

Added to the mistakes that may be made somewhere between the writing of the cookbook and its publication, there is another important element to all of this.  It translates to the difference between the kitchen of the cookbook author and the kitchen of the person who purchased the cookbook.

Author Paul Reidinger has written, “But the curious truth about recipes is that they often produce dramatically different results in different hands in different kitchens. Many times over the years I’ve told interested parties how I roast my chickens and make my salsa, and I am always convinced that my methods are simple and bulletproof – until I am advised that somebody else used one of my recipes exactly and still ended up with a mess.  These admonishments remind me that recipes are only partly science; following a recipe is not like solving a quadratic equation.  There is play involved, wiggle room, variance, uncertainty, and the person in charge has to know how to adjust.”

It’s also fairly well known that famed cookbook author Elizabeth David disliked giving exact measurements in her recipes. John Thorne, editor of a cooking newsletter called Simple Cooking, in writing about Elizabeth David, commented, “This – although contemporary food writers (or at least their editors) consider it (i.e., David’s distaste for exact measurements) an inexplicable even reader-hostile failing – expresses a direct truth. The responsibility for a dish must finally lie not with the writer but with the cook.  Too much instruction muddles the reality of his responsibility.  Cookbooks cannot hold hands; their task is to make the reader think. In Elizabeth David’s books, reader and writer face this fact across the page….”

And, not to run this subject to the ground, there are so many variables when it comes to cooking. The cookbook author’s oven is probably not the same as yours (and do you even know if your oven temperature is completely accurate? Have you ever tested it with an oven thermometer?). Are you using the right size pan? You are probably not using the same kind of flour or baking powder as the cookbook author used. Most recipes don’t specifically state what brand of flour is used, and a lot of people are unaware that baking powder has a limited shelf life. The same goes for spices and herbs.  A lot of people don’t know that herbs and spices should be stored in a cool place, away from the stove. I was horrified to see, in a nationally circulated, well- known magazine, the photograph of a kitchen with a spice rack built right over the stove. I wrote to them to complain – that’s the worst place to put a spice rack. They did not respond to my letter.   If your herbs and spices have been languishing on a shelf near the stove for a year or two, chances are they’ll have very little potency. That could affect your recipe.

Consequently, the skill and expertise of the cook is an important factor to the outcome of recipes.  I’ve told you before the story about my neighbor, Lynn, when I lived in Florida. I gave her my recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She botched every batch of the cookies that she made. “Lynn!” I said, “That’s the recipe on the back of the Nestle’s semi-sweet morsels!   I don’t know how anyone could ruin that recipe!”

When I went next door to watch her bake the cookies, I discovered that she was forcing two cookie sheets to fit side by side on one rack since she only had one baking rack. The air couldn’t circulate and the bottoms of the cookies were always burnt.

Bottom line is, not every cooking failure can be blamed on bad recipes.

But, as Kathie Jenkins reported in her newspaper article, there are a lot of bad recipes that have appeared in cookbooks. The test crew at the Los Angeles Times did a lot of research on their own and discovered there were some real losers (including two lemon pies from Martha Stewart’s “Pies and Tarts” cookbook).  Says Jenkins, “Many of the reportedly faulty recipes not only worked but tasted wonderful.  One award-winning cookbook author griped that he could never get Rose Levy Beranbaum’s genoise to work. We did. Another complained of far too much chile oil in the spicy soba noodles in Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s ‘City Cuisine’. The noodles were delicious. And Marion Cunningham’s gingerbread did not run all over the oven the way one authority claimed it would.”

“So many things,” Jenkins notes, “affect how well a recipe works—equipment, weather, ingredients, personal taste. So what’s a cookbook author to do?  Vigilance and thorough working knowledge of one’s recipes are probably7 the best insurance..”

Jenkins comment on weather struck a chord. When we lived in Florida for three years, I discovered that some of my favorite recipes were simply impossible to make. The Stained Glass Window cookies simply dripped all the “stained glass” after a day or two and when I couldn’t get melted sugar to set up for the kids’ graham cracker houses, I put them into the oven thinking they would dry out. I set the oven on fire.  You simply couldn’t make any kind of meringue cookie, due to the humidity,  – and I discovered that the sugar in Florida was much grainier than the Hawaiian sugar cane sugar we were so accustomed to using. For about two years, I had a girlfriend shipping me bags of C&H sugar from California. (This is probably not a major problem for someone who has central air conditioning in their home but that was a luxury we didn’t have, at the time.    I was so happy when we moved back to California where—despite the intense heat of summers—we seldom have humidity to deal with.

“Good cooking”, wrote Yuan Mei, “does not depend on whether the dish is large or small, expensive or economical. If one has the art, then a piece of celery or salted cabbage can be made into a marvelous delicacy whereas if one has not the art, not all the greatest delicate rarities of land, sea or sky are of any avail.”

HAPPY COOKING! OR HAPPY COOKBOOK COLLECTING!

SANDY

THE KITCHEN DIARIES – COLLECTING RECIPE BOXES

I began collecting cookbooks (primarily church-and-club type) over 45 years ago. Soon after, I discovered a “manuscript” cookbook – or more accurately, it discovered me. I was rummaging around in a used book store in Hollywood when the owner said “I have something interesting in a cookbook – let me show it to you”. It was a small 3-ring binder with an old leather cover and it was filled with hand written recipes as well as hundreds of clipped-and-pasted on recipes. Its owner had kept her notebook cookbook for decades – and I bought it for about $10.00 (which doesn’t sound like much, now, but at the time I was raising my family and it was a lot) – but I had to have it. Over the years, I’ve found a few more manuscript-type cookbooks but they’re really scarce. My theory is that this type of cookbook remains in the family. I don’t believe that the owner of that first manuscript cookbook, whose name, I discovered, was Helen, had any children. Surely, one’s children would never allow something so precious to end up in a used book store.

Then I became interested in recipe boxes when I found an old, green, wooden recipe box in Ventura, California, at an antique store. It was packed with the former owner’s collection of recipes. I was so intrigued by this type of collection – what I think of as a kitchen diary – that I began a diligent search for filled recipe boxes. These are just about as scarce and hard to find as handwritten cookbooks. Often, you can find recipe boxes – in thrift stores or antique shops –but they are usually empty. I think the storekeepers don’t imagine anyone would be interested in the contents, which are often scrappy little pieces of paper, recipes clipped from the back of a bag of macaroni or flour, recipes written on a piece of envelope, – but over the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve managed to find quite a few of these filled recipe boxes. One time my niece, who lives in Palm Springs, found three of them for me at a yard sale; it helps that so many people know about my fascination with old, filled recipe boxes.

Another time, a girlfriend of mine was telling me about helping a friend of hers clear out her mother’s apartment, after her mother had passed away. “Oh,” I said “Ask your friend if her mother had any recipe boxes”. She did – and I got it. She also had, and gave to me, several cookbook autographed by cookbook author Mike Roy, with whom her mother had been acquainted. On yet another occasion, I was given half a dozen filled recipe boxes that had belonged to the aunt of a woman I worked with.

Now, I collect all types of recipe boxes but the ones I cherish the most are those filled with someone else’s recipe collection. One of these boxes is so old that the contents are extremely fragile and bits of paper disintegrate whenever you handle them.

Yard sales where I live rarely yield such treasures although once we were at an estate sale and I happened to find a cardboard box – shaped like a file drawer – filled with handwritten recipe cards on oversize cards, about a 4×6” size. I was able to buy it for $2.00. Part of the charm, or intrigue, of owning these boxes is going through them piece by piece, and trying to learn something about the person who compiled the box. I leave all of these boxes exactly “as is” because I feel to change them would change the integrity of the collection.

What makes these recipe boxes so enticing? I think old recipe boxes, filled with someone’s collection of recipes, are a window into our culinary past. Eventually, no doubt, someone else will discover these treasures, too, but in the meantime, I like to think that what I have is a fairly unique collection.

– Sandra Lee Smith

GRANDMA BECKMAN’S COOKBOOK

Recently, I flew to my hometown of Cincinnati to spend a few days with relatives and friends. Originally, the “plan” was for me to fly to Ohio in August, when my son Steve & his wife were driving to Cincinnati for their vacation. Steve had not been to Cincinnati since he was ten years old and for Lori it was a first. I was to be the ‘in-between’ introducing them to all the relatives on both sides of Steve’s family – although I have been divorced for over 25 years, I have maintained a warm and loving relationship with my in-laws.

However, the health of my significant other, Bob, took a turn in August and I was unable to find anyone willing to check on him every day. We had misjudged when my daughter in law would be returning to the high school where she teaches. So, my son decided to book a flight for himself to California and the new “plan” was for him to be Bob’s caregiver for a week, while I took a short vacation. (Perhaps I should note, I had been Bob’s caregiver 24/7 for the past year without any kind of a break). My daughter in law rebooked my flight and I was scheduled to fly to Cincinnati on my birthday in September.

Even the best laid plans, etc etc – and Bob passed away September 22nd. Steve cancelled HIS flight and to make a long story even longer, I did fly to Cincinnati on September 28 after several hectic days of making arrangements with a mortuary to have Bob cremated. (Steve has rebooked HIS flight and will be arriving October 22nd – my granddaughter is thrilled; Steve is her favorite uncle).

I was reluctant to go, after all the stops and starts and worried constantly about my little Jack Russell terrier, Jackie, that she would be lonely and confused – first Bob’s departure, then mine. But, going to my hometown was healing and one of the greatest rewards was a reunion with two Beckman cousins I had not seen for over 50 years. A third Beckman relative is my cousin Irene with whom I have had a warm relationship throughout our lives. We even made our first communions together, and were partners walking up to the church.

The day after my arrival, the three cousins arrived at my nephew’s house (where I stay when I am in town) and we spent 7 hours talking non-stop and sharing photographs and memories. And Irene – who the family calls Renee—presented me with a birthday present – Grandma Beckman’s cookbook.

Now, a word about Grandma Beckman’s cookbook – I didn’t know it existed until a few years ago, when searching for a particular family recipe. Renee told me that she had Grandma Beckman’s cookbook, into which Grandma had written many of her favorite recipes. I was astonished when I first learned about the cookbook –I had NO idea it even existed. As for my paternal grandmother having a cookbook – that grandmother barely wrote English and all of her recipes were in her head. The wise one in the family was my Aunt Evelyn (whom we all call Aunt Dolly, a family pet name) who learned Grandma Schmidt’s recipes by standing by her side, watching every step of making strudels and noodles and Hungarian goulash. We finally published a family cookbook in 2004 and called it “Grandma’s Favorite” in honor of that grandmother.

But back to Grandma Beckman’s cookbook! The book itself is in a truly battered, tattered condition with the covers falling off and held together with old tape. Published in 1889, “OUR HOME CYCLOPEDIA COOKERY AND HOUSEKEEPING” was published by the Mercantile Publishing Company in Detroit, Michigan. There is no byline but the inside page offers a copyright by Frank S. Burton, 1889. (That being said, my favorite research resource, Google, offers a listing of this cookbook by the Library of Congress and indicates the author as Edgar S. Darling).

It would have been a contemporary cookbook when Grandma B. was a young woman and my copy shows a great deal of wear and tear, with some of the most stained pages are under the Dessert section. Did Grandma B. make a lot of pies? I don’t know. The only thing I clearly remember her making for us were some corn pancakes or fritters, once when she was visiting us. I admit, I am appalled by recipes for collared eels and cods’ head but a recipe for cooking beef kidneys rang a bell in my mother’s long forgotten recipe repertoire. Kidney stew with noodles appeared frequently on the dinner table. (Also bearing in mind, before and during World War II, “organ meats” or “offal” were cheap and unrationed. While browsing through the pages of Our Home Cookery, I also noticed a recipe for “mock duck” that is exactly the way a mock turkey recipe was made by my sister in law years ago. Interesting!

But it isn’t the printed pages of “Our Home Cookery” that captures my attention; it is, at the back of the book, recipes written in Grandma B’s own handwriting. This is really the piece de resistance in this copy of “Our Home Cookery”.

First there is a recipe for Blackberry Wine, followed by recipes for mustard pickles – there are some pages of recipes clipped from newspapers or magazines – a recipe for “stuffed and baked mangoes” (but the mangoes in this recipe are bell peppers…in Grandma B’s time—as well as my mother’s –bell peppers were called “mangoes” and I don’t think that was common anywhere else in the USA (write to me if you know otherwise!). Grandma’s stuffed and baked mangoes appear to be the same recipe my mother used. This is followed by a recipe for Upside Down cake, then one for Apple Sauce cake and a third for Angel Food cake—both of these pages are heavily stained . The following page contains recipes for “Hungry Cake”, one for cookies and another for cream puffs. (my mother made cream puffs; they may have been the same recipe—I will do my best to type up some of these recipes.) Next page contains recipes written in pencil for lemon snaps and “Churngold Dutch Apple Cake” – Churngold was and still is a brand-name for margarine. Margarine has been around since 1869.

Some of the pages are missing, ending on page 395 with directions for “keeping apples fresh all winter” and “curing ham or other meat for smoking”. Per Google and an entry for the cookbook by the Library of Congress, the book should have had 400 pages.

Here is the recipe for stewed kidneys, as directed in “Our Home Cyclopedia”:

Split the kidneys and peel off the outer skin as before (in a previous recipe titled Kidneys, Broiled or Roasted); slice them thin on a plate, dust them with flour, pepper and salt; brown some flour in butter in a stewpan; dilute with a little water; mix smooth and in it cook the sliced kidneys. Let them simmer but do not boil. They will cook in a very short time. Butter some slices of toast and lay on a hot dish and pour over it the stewed kidneys, gravy and all.

*Sandy’s cooknote: my mother cooked noodles to place the cooked kidneys onto. And I may be mistaken but I think my mother soaked the kidneys, like liver, in a bowl of vinegar before cooking it).

GRANDMA BECKMAN’S BLACKBERRY WINE

To every gallon of berries take one gallon of water; let stand 2 days and 2 nights covered with mosquito bar [netting] then strain.

To every gallon put 3 lbs of crushed sugar [before granulated was invented—you had to do your own crushing of the sugar) and dissolve & stir well; bottle and let stand open 2 days, then put the corks on loosely until fermentation ceases then put corks on tight but not too tight for fear of bursting bottles.

STUFFED AND BAKED MANGOES*

½ lb each ground pork and beef
½ cup of rice
1 onion, chopped fine
2 tomatoes
Cayenne pepper
1 egg

Mix with cracker crumbs and fill mangoes* put into pan and cover with tomatoes or pureed tomatoes.

(*Sandy’s cooknote: I have written about bell peppers being called “mangoes” in several of my earlier posts. As far as I know, bell peppers were called mangoes only in the Midwest or around Cincinnati. I remembered seeing bell peppers advertised as “mangoes” in supermarkets when I was 18 or 19 years old. In 1961 when Jim & I first moved to California, we met a wonderful couple named Teresa and Jim Keith. Teresa was a seasoned cook from Louisiana. When she asked me what I cooked, I mentioned “stuffed mangoes” (not KNOWING that mangoes are a fruit and well known in California). “Oh?” she said. “How do you make those?” and I proceeded to describe mixing together ground meat, rice, tomato sauce and egg and “putting that into the mangoes and cooking it in tomato sauce”. I don’t know how we ever figured out that MY mangoes were not HER mangoes. But this begged the question, in my mind, HOW bell peppers came to be called “mangoes” in the Midwest. I finally found an explanation in one of my canning cook books. See footnote below.) Meanwhile, here is Grandma
Beckman’s Applesauce Cake recipe:

GRANDMA B’S APPLESAUCE CAKE

1 ½ CUPS sugar
¾ cup shortening
1/8 tsp allspice
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp cloves
¼ tsp nutmeg
1½ cups unsweetened apple sauce
1 ½ tsp baking soda
¼ cup water
1 cup raisins
2 cups flour
Bake ¾ hour. Makes 1 large loaf

(*Sandy’s cooknote: Grandma doesn’t offer any directions. SHE knew how to make her applesauce cake and the cookbook wasn’t intended for other eyes.

So, what I suggest is this: cream together sugar and shortening. Sift together the flour, baking soda and spices. Add it the shortening and sugar mixture. Mix well. Stir in the raisins, applesauce and ¼ cup water. Mix well. Place into a large greased and floured loaf pan (or two smaller ones) and bake at 350 degrees.)

I had a second thought – maybe you should plump up the raisins with the ¼ cup water and then let it cool before adding to the cake.

Grandma’s Churngold Dutch Apple Cake

2 cups flour
½ tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
2 TBSP sugar
1 egg
1 cup milk
3 TBSP melted churngold (*use margarine or butter)

Beat egg until light and add milk alternately with dry ingredients. Add churngold and beat light. Spread dough ½” thick in greased tins. Arrange with apple slices in rows sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. (presumably, then bake @ 350 degrees until the cake is done.)

Sandy’s footnote: *In Jeanne Lesem’s cookbook “Preserving Today” she writes,[about Mock Mangoes] “Mangoes were a popular nineteenth century pickle in the United States—not the aromatic tropical fruit we savor today, but stuffed fruits and vegetables in a sweet-and-sour sauce, somewhat similar to authentic Indian mango pickles. William Woys Weaver writes in A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook (1982)’They became popular in England during the eighteenth century, mostly as a less expensive substitute for the real imported article…the pickle was popularized in this country through English cookbooks…Green bell peppers were generally used for ‘mangoes’ in Pennsylvania and western Maryland, and muskmelons in Tidewater Maryland. Other cooks used tomatoes, peaches or cucumbers.”
**

Coincidentally, “Our Home Cyclopedia” was reprinted in 2010 and is available on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. Barnes & Noble prices start at $23.26 while Amazon offers the book for $26.41 new or $19.95 used.

Happy Cooking and Happy Cookbook Collecting!
Sandy

WOK PRESENCE OR CULINARY ALCHEMY*

For maybe over five years I have been searching for a quote – a particular food quote.

I searched high and low and far and wide, somewhat under the impression that it was something that perhaps M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David had written. Needless to say I didn’t find it in either of their books that I have on my shelves. I searched through three books of food related quotes and did an extensive search on Google without having any success.

What the quote related to is the name of that “thing” – the subtle changes that occur when cooks trained in the same kitchen making the same dish, following the same recipe–end up with different results. Also got to thinking the other day as I was watching “Chopped” on the Food Network – that what they are doing is a take-off on this quote I am searching for. On Chopped, the contestants are given 3 or 4 of the same ingredients and in a specific amount of time, have to create a dish–appetizer or an entrée or a dessert.

They present their dish to the judges who decide which dish is the best and one contestant at a time is “chopped” or eliminated from the competition until finally one chef is declared the winner. You all are probably familiar with this show so perhaps I am unnecessarily digressing.

I accidentally found a quote recently while searching for something else. It was something Karen Hess wrote about in her outstanding book “THE CAROLINA RICE KITCHEN….THE AFRICAN CONNECTION”. Ms. Hess was referring specifically to African American women who, during the times of slavery, left their thumbprint on everything they cooked. They were a part of the south but they brought with them African influences which eventually changed the palate of southerners. Ms. Hess writes that the Chinese have a name for this, those subtle changes, and they call it Wok Presence. (*I wrote an article for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange years ago, titled “OUR AFRICAN HERITAGE” which appeared in the Feb/March 1996 issue of the CCE – which was how I was led to The Carolina Rice Connection by Ms. Hess).

Another cookbook author, Rosa Lewis, had a somewhat different take on the same concept and wrote, “Some people’s food always tastes better than others, even if they are cooking the same dish at the same dinner. Now I will tell you why–because one person has more life in them–more fire, more vitality, more guts–than others. A person without these things can never make food taste right, no matter what materials you give them, it is not use Turn in the whole cow full of cream instead of milk, and all the fresh butter and ingredients in the world, and still the cooking will taste dull and flabby–just because they have nothing in themselves to give. You have got to throw feeling into cooking.” – and no, this is not the quote I have been looking for.

I have been aware of these subtle changes for most of my adult life. It’s why a recipe can be published in a cookbook with exact directions and measurements and my results may not be the same as your results. And there may be a dozen reasons why not.

In the early 1980s, when I was living in Florida, I became even more acutely aware of this difference as I tried to share some favorite recipes with my next door neighbor. She would come crying to me “My cookies burn! They don’t turn out like yours!” – I was baffled – after all, it was the famous Toll House cookie recipe on the back of every package of Nestle’s semi sweet morsels. How could it be different? I went over to her house to watch her bake the cookies and discovered that she would put two cookie trays, side by side – wedged in really, on a rack. The air couldn’t flow; the bottoms of the cookies burned.

I have been a great proponent, ever since, for baking two trays of cookies on two separate racks and switching them, top to bottom, bottom to top half way through baking to assure even baking, so the hot air circulates.

But “Wok Presence” can affect us in many other different ways. For instance – a girlfriend of mine says my ranch dressing tastes better than hers. I discovered she uses Kraft Miracle Whip salad dressing. I use Best Foods Mayonnaise (Hellman’s if you are East of the Mississippi). Another time I discovered that a friend used a Polish Kolbasz for the Hungarian Layered potato recipe. You really need Hungarian Kolbasz to make an authentic Hungarian Layered potato casserole. That’s not to say that your dish won’t taste good. It just won’t taste AS good. It’s like – the difference you will get if you use margarine instead of real butter in a recipe. It will be ok. It just won’t be great.

Wok presence can be affected by the type of baking pans you use and the length of time something, such as a drop cookie, remains in the oven. I had this girlfriend at work who made such wonderful chocolate chip cookies. I asked her what the secret was. She replied that she under baked the cookies; she would take them out of the oven a few minutes early and let them stand on the cookie sheet on a counter until they were cool enough to remove.

Such a small change but it made the difference between soft and chewy – and crisp.

I adopted her under baking rule with most butter cut out cookies that I make – when they are brown around the edges yet firm enough – I take them out and let them stand on the cookie sheets for a while before transferring to wire racks to finish cooling. And cookie sheets! The kind of cookie sheets you use can make all the difference in the world with your finished product. Now I replace cookie sheets every few years – and I use parchment paper on all of them, all of the time. It works better than the aluminum foil I used on the cookie sheets for years.

Now I have two grandchildren who are learning how to make cut out cookies, how to bake them – and the “funnest” part, how to decorate them. They are learning hands on with grammy giving them a wide berth but at the same time, often tossing in a suggestion that will produce a better cookie. It’s a math lesson at the same time, as my nine year old grandson learns how to use measuring cups and measuring spoons and why the measurements need to be exact. But I digress.

The more I think about this – the more certain I am that someone else, a famous cookbook author (and I am still leaning heavily towards Elizabeth David) said that the FRENCH have a name for it, those subtle differences that take place when two chefs – cook the same recipe, with the same ingredients – but each will turn out differently. There is a NAME for this and I am going crazy trying to pin it down.

If anyone knows what that something else is, please write!

Happy Cooking!
Sandy

*WOK PRESENCE appeared originally in July, 2009, on my blog.

UNCLE BOB’S HOUSE

When we discovered we would have to move, in 2008, I was able to spend most of three months “dismantling” the house in which my significant other, Robert, (no relation to Uncle Bob) & I had lived for 19 years. When we moved into that house on my birthday in 1989, we had a great deal less than what we managed to accumulate in the nineteen years that followed. We had far fewer books, for one thing, and many less cookie jars. A friend helped Robert & my son, Kelly, and I move from a little bungalow in Van Nuys to the sprawling house in Arleta. We had so much space in that big old house, we didn’t think we’d ever fill it up. But fill it up we did.

Anything anyone didn’t want any longer—we happily accepted. My dining room table & chairs – once belonged to the mother of my friend, John. My kitchen table sat in the backyard of my friend Luther until we coaxed his landlady to let me have it. I have bookcases that had belonged to my former coworker, Mary Jo, and an old coffee table that I love was once my friend, Mary Jaynne’s. Mary Jaynne & her husband Steve also once owned the bar that is now in my family room.

Friends & family members knew we’d take any and all cast-offs, and the house on Arleta Avenue was truly a house of castoffs. You could go from room to room pointing out which pieces of furniture had once belonged to someone else. We filled the walls in almost all of the rooms with bookcases and filled the bookcases with books—mostly cookbooks. The only rooms without bookcases were the kitchen, pantry, laundry room and bathrooms. Bookcases even filled the hallway.

Well, moving from 3000 square feet (roughly) to 1500 square feet is a challenge. We’ve been in our new digs for almost three years and are still getting settled. And many things had to be sold or given away. The Lancaster and Burbank Friends of the Library have received boxes and boxes of books and the Boy Scouts of Palmdale received truck loads of things for their rummage sale.

I am telling you all of this because I want it understood that I know a little about dismantling a house—but Uncle Bob’s house was unquestionably a far greater challenge for my girl friend, on whose shoulders responsibility for the house fell, along with her husband, Steve sister Diane, and brother Ron.

Uncle Bob, who is formally known as Robert G. Mooney, didn’t have any children of his own. He did have a loving wife with whom he shared his life for 52 years and I’m told theirs was a true lifelong love story. Their niece, Mary Jaynne, – my best friend – used to spend summers at their house when she was a child, and because she was the closest relative to Uncle Bob, finding a new home for Uncle Bob – who could no longer live alone – fell on Mary Jaynne’s broad shoulders. She, her husband Steve, and sister, Diane, found an assisted living facility that met with Uncle Bob’s approval and bit by bit they got him settled in his new home.

I first learned about Uncle Bob years ago when MJ asked us to save all the little pull tabs on cans of aluminum soft drinks or beer. Uncle Bob was a member of Foresters and as a project, the group collected the pop tops and donated the money to Ronald McDonald’s House. They collected over 4, 000,000 tops and Uncle Bob counted every one of them.

We began saving all the pop tops and would give them to MJ once or twice a year. Mary Jaynne discovered, when they began cleaning out his garage, four more boxes about 14”x14” and about 12” tall, full of the can tops. She took them to the Ronald McDonald house in Bakersfield.

Then it became Mary Jaynne’s next responsibility to dismantle Uncle Bob’s house.

How does anyone even begin to dismantle a house in which the occupants lived for over fifty years? It was surely the most daunting task MJ ever took on. They had yard sales and sold things for next to nothing. Mary Jaynne tried to find homes with people like me for the things that had been Uncle Bob & Aunt Joey’s treasures, people who were sure to love and appreciate them. After a lengthy search she found Aunt Joey’s recipe box. Aunt Joey was Uncle Bob’s wife who died from Alzheimer’s in a nursing home when her loving husband could no longer take care of her.

I inherited Aunt Joey’s recipe box – and a handwritten recipe journal – along with some cookbooks and stacks of recipe clippings – and (be still my heart!) close to a dozen old, 50s style aprons that I have washed & ironed and hope to have posted on my blog. I also inherited a wonderful old 1950s deviled egg dish and some 50s tins; I am still working my way through the treasures that found their way to my door.

Aunt Joey had recipes – but, surprise, surprise! So did Uncle Bob! They both enjoyed cooking and I’m told that Aunt Joey was a wonderful cook. Uncle Bob lent a hand mostly with barbecuing but also for get-togethers with their church.

Uncle Bob was in the army from 1942 to 1945 and he was an army cook. I have in front of me several army cook manuals – the Technical Manual for the Army cook, dated April 24, 1942, a smaller manual dated July 1, 1942, a Baking Manual for the Army Cook dated October 5, 1943 and a Technical Manual for cutting up beef, dated July 1, 1943 (that could start with “take one cow”). I like the recipes for cookies – for oatmeal cookies you will need 5 pounds of sugar, 2 pounds of lard, 5 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of oatmeal—oh yeah, a pound of raisins and six eggs. (I hope the army had industrial electric mixers to put this cookie dough together! I certainly hope that the army cooks didn’t have to mix everything by hand!)

Another item from Uncle Bob’s pantry is a tea caddy that is the size of a small child’s ball—but absolutely perfect for someone like myself, who makes various pickled fruits from time to time—pickled watermelon and Hot Hawaiian pineapple pickles, pickled cherries and sometimes pickled cantaloupe.

Along with the army manuals is a “Service Writing Tablet” with Robert G. Mooney printed neatly at the top of the cover. This appears to be a school writing tablet for prospective army cooks (I had no idea that the army cooks had special training—but it makes perfect sense). The pages are full of handwritten recipes and directions, written in pencil, and on the last page, in large red handwriting are the words “Very Good!” written, presumably, by the army class teacher.

Aunt Joey’s family was Italian and so her small cookbook collection leans towards Italian recipes. Italian food was also Uncle Bob’s favorite. And, Aunt Joey’s Italian mother lived with them for about ten years, back in the day, and she made Italian “gravy” every Sunday morning so they could have spaghetti and Italian gravy (I would call it a sauce) with whatever was on the menu for Sunday night dinner.

Also, Aunt Joey & Uncle Bob got married in 1943, when World War II was in full swing. Wheatless Wednesdays and Meatless Mondays were encouraged by the government as a way of everybody being able to “do their part” in some small way. (And if you were Catholic, there were meatless Fridays, as well.) Aunt Joey’s collection of recipes contains a number of meatless recipes, such as cashew loaf and cashew patties.

Here, then, are a few recipes from Aunt Joey’s recipe box, written in her own beautiful handwriting:

For fun, here is Aunt Joey’s recipe for Cashew Loaf (presumably cashews were a lot cheaper in 1942 than they are today):

CASHEW LOAF

Mix all together, bake in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes:

½ onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 #2 can Chinese noodles
1 cup whole raw cashews
1 can cream of mushroom soup
½ soup can water
½ cup American cheese (grated)
Optional: ½ can diced fried chicken
~~~
MEAT BALLS* & SAUCE
Combine, form balls & brown in oven:
1 cup cracker crumbs
1 cup bread crumbs
5-6 eggs
1 onion, chopped
½ cup walnuts, chopped
½ tsp sage
½ tsp poultry seasoning
1 TBSP soy sauce
¾ cup grated cheese

While the meat balls are browning in the oven make a sauce of 1 small can tomato juice
1 can stewed tomatoes
½ cup chopped onion
½ tsp garlic salt
½ tsp salt
½ tsp parsley
½ cube butter (half of one stick. One stick of butter or margarine is 4 ounces. Half that would be 2 ounces)

Pour sauce over balls and heat in oven until hot & bubbly.

(*Sandy’s cooknote—if there is too much grease in the pan, I would drain off the excess before adding the sauce—also, there is no meat in these meatballs.)

From one of Aunt Joey’s cookbooks, titled “Favorite Italian Cookbook/from Northern to Southern Italy/500 Special Edition Recipe/sponsored by the Los Angeles District Council of the Italian Catholic Federation” (a title that is almost as long as those on very old cookbooks from the early 1900s) I came across a recipe titled “Spaghetti Gravy” and I really felt obligated to share it with everyone.

Here, then, is Spaghetti Gravy:
1 clove garlic
2 TBSP olive oil
¾ lb ground beef, veal or both
½ lb pork sausage
3 to 4 cans canned tomatoes
6 can tomato paste
¾ cup chicken broth
3 bay leaves
¼ c. dried basil
¼ c. dried thyme
1 TBSP salt (or salt to taste)
½ tsp pepper
2 chopped onions (optional)

Brown onion, garlic and meat in hot olive oil. Add remaining ingredients and simmer at least 1 hour. Remove bay leaves and pour over spaghetti. (my mother never put onion in her spaghetti sauce—said it was too sweet.) If uou like a darker color add red wine to sauce (1/2 cup).

ITALIAN SWISS STEAK (Bistecca Alla Italiano Svizzero)

(I often wondered where I found my recipe for the Swiss Steak, that I began making in the very early days of married life. I think now is was most likely something my sister Becky learned to cook and served to her family. Her first husband, Sam, was Italian and this recipe is similar to what I began cooking in the early 1960s. My sons all loved Swiss Steak and it was made with an inexpensive cut of beef):

1 ½ lbs round steak, 1” thick.
3 TBSP flour
1 package spaghetti sauce mix (such as French’s)
2 TBSP olive oil
2 large onions, sliced
1 tsp sugar
2 cups water
½ cup red wine

Cut the steak into serving pieces. Mix flour with a tablespoon of spaghetti sauce mix. Coat steak on both sides with this mixture. In a large skillet, brown meat on both sides in hot oil; remove from pan. Separate onions into rings; add to skillet & cook until lightly browned. Return steak to pan with remaining spaghetti sauce mix, sugar, water & wine. Cover pan and simmer 2 hours or until meat is tender. Serves 4.

Sandy’s cooknote: I used to add some chopped bell pepper to my Swiss steak recipe. My sons all loved Swiss steak with a big bowl of mashed potatoes to go with.

THE MOONEY’S FAVORITE HOT CHICKEN SALAD
Combine:

2 cups diced fried chicken (leftover fried chicken would be good for this or you could pick up a few pieces of fried chicken at the supermarket deli section).
2 cups diced celery
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup slivered toasted almonds
1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ACCENT
2 TBSP lemon juice
3 or 4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and diced
Pour mixed ingredients in a greased casserole dish. Top with 1 cup crushed potato chips or chow mein noodles and ½ cup grated cheddar cheese. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly.

AUNT JOEY’S RICE VERDE preheat oven 350 degrees

Combine:
3 cups cooked rice (This would be a good recipe to use up leftover rice)
¾ lb grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 TBSP chopped pimiento
¼ tsp Tabasco sauce
½ cup chopped mushrooms
2 cups sour cram
½ cup sliced olives
Bake in greased casserole at 350 degrees for ½ hour, uncovered.

AUNT OLIVE’S KENTUCKY CARROT CAKE* preheat oven 350 degrees
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 cups grated carrots
1 ½ cups oil**
½ cup walnut meats, chopped (You can substitute chopped pecans if you wish)
2 tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
4 eggs (let eggs come to room temperature)
1 8½ oz can crushed pineapple, drained—save the juice

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Bake in a greased & floured pan 8×13” at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until done.

Icing: Combine ¼ cup butter or oleo (margarine) ½ lb powdered sugar, small package of cream cheese, ½ tsp vanilla. Beat mixture until fluffy. Fold in 2 TBSP crushed pineapple. If desired sprinkle with finely chopped nuts to garnish.

(Sandy’s cooknote: Personally, I would double everything—it’s easier to measure, too. Use ½ cup or 1 stick of butter. Use a 1 lb box of powdered sugar and an 8 ounce package of cream cheese–and if you have the time, sift the powdered sugar – it will blend better. Leave out the crushed pineapple in the icing. Add a little of the pineapple juice to make the icing the proper consistency. Use the drained crushed pineapple in the cake recipe.)

*Aunt Olive was Uncle Bob’s Aunt.

**regarding the 1½ cups cooking oil that goes into most of the old carrot cake recipes, I discovered you can substitute ¾ cup applesauce for half of the oil.

Sometimes we wonder what became of things like a recipe box full of handwritten recipes and magazine clippings, or perhaps a particular cookbook that someone had kept for years, making notations from time to time on the margins of the pages. My friend Nancy tells me that sometimes these discarded treasures end up being swept up to give to a junkman so the house can be painted and vacuumed for the next occupants. Uncle Bob can rest assured; his and Aunt Joey’s recipe collection has fallen into the right hands and will be handled with care for many years to come.

Happy Cooking & Happy cookbook (or recipe box) collecting!

Sandy

WEIRD FOOD & WEIRD RECIPE REQUESTS–DISCOVERING TARO ROOT

It is not unusual for me to receive emails, text messages or even real telephone calls from friends, my friends’ children or their grandchildren, former co-worker or relatives back in Ohio—asking for a particular recipe or directions for cooking some obscure food. I think the last one was from a girlfriend in Oregon asking about quince. What did I know about quince? Almost nothing – it was right up there with loquats. We had a volunteer loquat tree down in Arleta in my back yard and I knew NADA about making jelly out of loquats. But we figured it out. If it grows on my property, I’ll find out a way to use it. And last January my friend Bev brought me some quince jelly to try. I want to say that I tried some quince wine her husband made but I can’t say I liked it.

Well, there is no guarantee you are going to LIKE everything you make or bake or cook with an obscure ingredient, like quince. Or loquat. And there may be a lot of things you have absolutely no interest in trying – like rattlesnake meat (ugh) or little fried fish balls that have eyes looking back at you—something a neighbor in Simi Valley tried to coax me into trying way back when. I told her I couldn’t eat something that was looking back at me.

Well, this friend of mine called a few days ago and asked “What do you know about Taro cake?”

“KARO cake?” I inquired, not understanding.

“No, T-A-R-O, TARO, he repeated.

Well, not a lot. I wish he had asked about KARO as in syrup because I know a lot more about the latter than the former. But I love a challenge and said “I’ll get back to you on this”.

Ok, from Google I learned: Taro is native to Southeast Asia. It is a perennial, tropical plant primarily grown as a root vegetable for its edible starchy corm, and as a leaf vegetable and is considered a staple in African, Oceanic and Asian cultures. It is believed to have been one of the earliest cultivated plants. Colocasia is thought to have originated in the Indo-Malayan region, perhaps in eastern India and Bangladesh, and spread eastward into Southeast Asia, eastern Asia, and the Pacific islands; westward to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean; and then southward and westward from there into East Africa and West Africa, from whence it spread to the Caribbean and Americas. It is known by many local names and often referred to as ‘elephant ears’ when grown as an ornamental plant.

The best description I have found for taro root comes from Grace Young in the Glossary of “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchern”. She writes, “The starchy root vegetable is six to ten inches lon, four inches wide and cylindrical. The skin is dark bron, hairy, and very dusty. The taro rot should be firm and heavy. Never choose taro root that has been sliced on either end. Check the root carefully for mold spots. The texture is starchy and reminiscent of a potato. It is used in braised dishes and in Taro Root Cake. Raw taro rot is said to cause itchiness when touched with bare hands so many people wear rubber gloves when handling it. The flesh is potato colored with fine flecks an doccasional blush spots; it turns a pale lavender color once it is cooked. Store as you would a potato and use within one week”.

From Wikipedia I learned: Taro cake is a Chinese dish made from the vegetable taro. While it is denser in texture than radish cakes, both these savory cakes made in a similar ways, with rice flour as the main ingredient. When served in dim sum cuisine, it is cut into square-shaped slices and pan-fried before serving. It is found in Hong Kong, China, and overseas Chinatowns restaurants. Other ingredients often include pork and Chinese black mushroom, or even Chinese sausages. It is usually topped with chopped scallions. Well, I know Dim Sum and have eaten it with my girlfriend Liza at the Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. But what about taro CAKE? I wondered.

Then I found references to Grace Young and her cookbook “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” – a cookbook I have, and in which she shared a recipe for Taro Root Cake for Epicurious in 1999:

Taro Root Cake (Woo Tul Gow)

yield: Makes one 8-inch cake, about 48 slices

Writes Grace: “Homemade taro root cake is unsurpassed if the home cook doesn’t skimp on the ingredients. Thick slices of taro cake, richly flavored with scallops, mushrooms, shrimp, Chinese bacon, and creamy taro are pan-fried until golden brown and fragrant. My Auntie Ivy’s mother, Che Chung Ng, makes such a recipe and is famous in the family for both her Turnip Cake and Taro Root Cake. Every New Year, she cooks several cakes and gives them away as gifts to close family members. Nothing is measured exactly, and it is impressive to see her produce cake after cake, especially because she is over eighty years old. Spry and agile, she cooks with full energy and total intuition, never missing a beat. She kindly taught me this recipe and the one for Turnip Cake. Wear rubber gloves when handling taro, as some people can have an allergic reaction to touching it. Also use rice flour, not glutinous flour!

Ingredients
• 1/4 cup Chinese dried scallops (gown yu chee), about 1 ounce
• 8 Chinese dried mushrooms
• 1/4 cup Chinese dried shrimp, about 1 ounce
• 6 ounces Chinese Bacon (lop-yok), store bought or homemade
• 1 large taro root, about 2 1/4 pounds
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 2 cups rice flour
• vegetable oil, for pan-frying
• oyster-flavored sauce

Preparation

In a small bowl, soak the scallops in 1/3 cup cold water
for about 2 hours, or until softened. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid. Remove and discard the small hard knob from the side of the scallops. Finely shred the scallops.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, soak the mushrooms in 1/2 cup cold water 30 minutes, or until softened. Drain and squeeze dry, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off and discard stems and mince the caps. In a small bowl, soak the dried shrimp in 1/3 cup cold water for 30 minutes, or until softened. Drain, reserving soaking liquid. Finely chop shrimp and set aside.

Cut the bacon into 3 equal pieces and place in a 9-inch shallow heatproof dish. Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered steamer large enough to fit the dish without touching the sides of the steamer. Carefully place the dish in the steamer, cover, reduce heat to medium, and steam 15 to 20 minutes, or just until bacon is softened and there are juices in the dish. Check the water level from time to time and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, wearing rubber gloves, peel taro root and cut into 1/2-inch cubes to make about 7 cups. In a 4-quart saucepan, combine the taro root, 1 teaspoon salt, and about 1 1/2 quarts cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, or until taro has turned a pale lavender color and is just tender when pierced with a knife.

Remove the bacon from its dish and reserve the juices in the dish. Cut off and discard the rind and thick layer of fat underneath. Cut the remaining meat into paper-thin slices and then finely chop. In a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet, stir-fry the chopped bacon over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until meat releases fat and just begins to brown. Add the minced mushrooms and shrimp, and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in pan juices from the bacon and remove from heat.

Drain the taro in a colander, reserving the cooking liquid. Return the taro to the saucepan, add the bacon and mushroom mixture, and stir to combine. In a large bowl, combine the rice flour and the reserved mushroom, scallop, and shrimp soaking liquids, stirring until smooth. Stir in 1 cup of the reserved hot taro broth. Pour this batter over the taro mixture in the saucepan. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and stir until combined. Consistency will resemble that of thick rice pudding. Pour the mixture into a heatproof 8-inch round, 3- to 4-inch-deep, straight-sided bowl, such as a soufflé dish.

Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered steamer large enough to fit the dish without touching the sides of the steamer. Carefully place the dish into the steamer, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and steam 1 hour, or just until cake is set and is firm to the touch. Check the water level and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the bowl from the steamer and cool on a rack about 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 to 4 hours.

Run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen sides. Place a cake rack over the bowl and invert to unmold. Flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board. Wrap the cake in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

When ready to eat, cut the cake into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges, but into two 2-inch-wide strips. Cut each strip crosswise into scant 1/2-inch-thick slices. This is the typical way of slicing a cake Chinese style.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet, over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add just enough vegetable oil to barely coat the wok. Add the taro cake slices in batches and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until golden brown. Serve immediately with oyster sauce.

(I wonder if my friend wears rubber gloves when peeling taro root?)

But be not dismayed! We haven’t given up – although it appears to me that in addition to being enormously popular with the Chinese, taro is a favored dish—in whatever form—of the Vietnamese as well. I became acquainted with several Vietnamese women at a manicurist salon I favored for many years, until we moved to the desert. From the Vietnamese then comes this:

To make a Taro and Coconut cake

You will need:


• 2 cups hot, peeled and cooked mashed taro
• 1/4 cup melted butter
• 1 cup freshly grated coconut
• 1 cup milk
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1/4 tsp. each ground nutmeg and cinnamon
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Butter a shallow 8 inch. cake pan. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Combine the hot taro with the melted butter, mashing again as you work in the butter. Add the coconut, sugar and beaten eggs, and mix in well. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, milk and vanilla, and beat all together by hand or with an electric beater for 1 minute. Pour into cake pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour (or until firm). Remove from oven and cool completely. Sprinkle top with sifted icing sugar if desired. (Flame Tree Cookbook by Sue Carruthers)

Well, while you are searching for taro or quince or loquat, I will try to focus on something simple. Like rhubarb. Or radish or turnip cakes. Or maybe something like strawberry shortcake!

But in the meantime, for some good reading and recipes, I recommend “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” by Grace Young and if anyone is interested, I will write a review of the book. Meantime,

Happy Cooking and Happy Cook Book Collecting!
Sandy