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A tall tale from Vermont. February 28, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As a passionate cook, I’m always interested in what the folks at Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country are up to. So I subscribe to their founder Christopher Kimball’s monthly e-mail newsletter, “Letter from Vermont.” The “Letters” typically focus on what Mr. Kimball and his family have been up to over the past month, and often include a word on what’s been going on at “America’s Test Kitchen,” Mr. Kimball’s flagship show.

But the part I love best is the story of old-time Vermonters, famous for nailing any situation in the fewest possible words, which Mr. Kimball always includes in his e-mails. These are always entertaining, but today’s was priceless. Here’s the gist of it:

A Vermonter bought an old, tumbledown farm and set about renovating it. He worked hard, and the place began to look great and thrive. One day, a minister stopped by. Marvelling at the improvement, the minister proclaimed, “Isn’t it amazing what God and man can do?”

“That may be,” the farmer said. “But you should have seen the place when God was handling it alone.”

‘Til next time,

Silence

What do vegetarians eat, anyway? February 27, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I’ll bet a lot of people whose meals revolve around meat (whether it’s charbroiled steak, rotisserie chicken, pepperoni pizza, a gyro or Philly cheesesteak, burger or hotdogs, spaghetti and meatballs, salmon or sashimi) have asked themselves this question at least once.

Maybe they picture an underfed twentysomething perched over a dinner salad with tuna. (Oh, wait: Tuna isn’t vegetarian.) Or a hippie-era, Birkenstock-clad idealist eating gorp, granola, and other leaden, tasteless, gluey, brown “health” food. (Hey, those whole-wheat sourdough pancakes are good for you!) Eeewww!!!

Folks, I swear, it ain’t necessarily so. I’m a vegetarian, but my beloved partner, our friend Ben, is an omnivore. For him to give up meat when he eats at home with me, the food has to be colorful, flavorful, with great texture and aroma and plenty of contrast in the dishes: in other words, good. I refuse to eat colorless, lumpy, leaden brown food in the name of vegetarianism either. So what do we eat around here?

The answer is simple if you love rich, decadent, satisfying food as we do, and that answer isn’t a cheese hoagie from Subway or a baked potato and salad from Wendy’s. Instead, I draw from the world’s cuisines to make delicious, fabulous meals, using the best and freshest ingredients I can find and making sure I balance “diva” ingredients with hearty, satisfying “supporting stars” so the food is filling as well as flavorful. Let’s look at some examples:

Lycopene, found in tomatoes and in greater quantities in tomato products like tomato sauce and tomato paste, has been shown to be a superhero in the war on disease. I make a thick, rich tomato sauce packed with crushed tomatoes and tomato paste but also bringing the cancer-fighting team of garlic and onion, and plenty of them, to lycopene’s aid. Because I want a thick, rich sauce, I add green bell pepper, tons of mushrooms (with their great healing properties), sauteed eggplant, and diced zucchini to the mix along with tons of herbs, extra-virgin olive oil, hot sauce, and red wine. By cooking it over low heat for hours, my sauce becomes rich and chunky, with great body and flavor. Nobody’s going to take a bite and say, “Eeeewww, is that zucchini in there?!”

But the real beauty of this rich, chunky sauce is its versatility. You could serve it on spaghetti one day, fold it into a lasagna the next, and use it as the tomato sauce on a pizza the third day, adding incredible richness and body. No complaints about leftovers here!

On other days, I might make chili, refried beans, or bean burritos with all the toppings: fresh-made guacamole, red and green salsa and pico de gallo, shredded cheese, sour cream, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, sliced green onions (scallions), sliced black olives, sliced jalapenos. I’d add hot taco shells or tortilla chips if I wasn’t making burritos, so everyone could make or dip their own, and provide a pitcher of margaritas, palomas or sangria.

Then again, I could make roasted veggies: slices of sweet potato and quarters of new potatoes or whole fingerling potatoes; mushrooms; quartered sweet onions (such as Vidalia or WallaWalla) or whole cippolini onions; thick asparagus sections or artichoke hearts or green beans or cauliflower florets or Japanese eggplant slices. Roasting brings out the marvelous, caramelized flavor of veggies (and fruits, for that matter); all you need is to drizzle them with premium olive oil like Hojiblanca, sprinkle on some Mediterranean herbs like oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme, add a generous sprinkling of sea salt, Trocamare or RealSalt and fresh-cracked black pepper, and let the heat work its magic. I like to serve roasted veggies over rice and accompany them with a super tossed salad to balance the richness.

Indian food is yet another way to add variety and incomparable flavor to a meal. I love to make dal, a thick, porridgy mixture of lentils, chillies, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, cilantro, and spices that is just perfect served with basmati rice, palaak paneer (a spinach and Indian cheese dish), raita (a yogurt-based condiment that cools the palate), and various chutneys and sauces. If I’m making food for a special occasion, I’ll add a curry, or at least curried carrots, some garlic naan (Indian flatbread, think super-great pita), and some appetizers like pakoras and samosas.

This really just scratches the surface. Stir-fries, Thai curries, and yummy special-occasion takeout (veggie tempura rolls and ma po tofu, anyone?) are always out there. There’s so much more to explore and enjoy.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Have a nice trip: Jen wins. February 25, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. Jennifer Lawrence won a Best Actress Oscar last night for her role in “Silver Linings Playbook,” doubtless taking a number of critics, who’d predicted that the award would go to the great 86-year-old French icon Emmanuelle Riva for her heartrending performance in “Amour,” by surprise. Sentiment would have tipped the hat to Ms. Riva, acknowledging a lifetime of iconic performances, or if not, perhaps to 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis for her role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Why Jen, and why now?

The obvious answer would be that Jennifer Lawrence is a great natural actor who has never taken a single acting lesson and who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar last year for her first starring role, in “Winter’s Bone,” filmed when she was just 19. That her role as a young, troubled widow in “Silver Linings Playbook” blew critics away and had already garnered her Best Actress honors at the Golden Globes and Free Spirit Awards.

All of this is true. But it ignores the elephant in the room: “The Hunger Games.” Like any television show, be it “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars” or the Super Bowl or the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, the Oscars depend on ratings. Ratings are based on how many people are watching, and determine the amount and quality of advertizing dollars. And advertizers keep a close eye on not just the number of people watching, but on how old those people are. Do they fall in the admen’s golden demographic of 18 to 30, or are they post-30 fogies who tend to use their paychecks to pay for their mortgages and their kids’ college rather than on designer fragrances and million-dollar watches? Oh, dear.

Even if you’re the Oscars, if you don’t have the admen, you don’t have a show, as Dire Straits’ great founder Mark Knopfler points out in his song “Stand Up Guy.” Call me a cynic, but I’d say the Academy Awards were pretty desperate to grab more viewers in that golden 18-to-30 range and avoid being pinpointed as a tiny clique of irrelevant, elitist insiders pleasing themselves at their would-be core audience’s expense. And they knew the crowd favorite was Jen Lawrence, not for “Silver Linings Playbook” but for “The Hunger Games.”

True, they couldn’t bring themselves to nominate the mega-blockbuster “Hunger Games” for a single award, or acknowledge Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing star turn in it as Katniss Everdeen, or the fantastic supporting roles of Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, or Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne. Shame on them! Every one of them deserves an award.

By giving Jennifer Lawrence the nod for “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Hunger Games” wins by default. Not that Jen didn’t deserve the win for both and for “Winter’s Bone” as well. But Jen, here’s a tip: When you’re wearing an amazing but voluminous dress to receive your award, think of Vivienne Leigh and Olivia De Havilland in “Gone with the Wind” and lift up the front of that skirt as you ascend the steps so you’re not in danger of tripping. I for one think you made a fabulous dress choice for your Oscar win.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Cleaning up coleslaw. February 20, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I love coleslaw. And it should be one of the healthiest foods you can eat. The problem is, it’s usually served in a creamy, sugary dressing that counteracts any health benefits and packs in the calories as well. Sure, it tastes great. But couldn’t slaw still taste great minus the creamy dressing?

I was determined to find ways to make a great-tasting slaw without the typical dressing and boost the nutritional value while I was at it. I knew it was possible! Slaw just needed the Silence treatment.

Here’s what I did. First, I replaced the usual green cabbage-carrot-red cabbage mix with broccoli slaw, which combines shredded broccoli stems with shredded carrots and red cabbage. The usual slaw mix is plenty healthy, but broccoli slaw (readily available packaged in the produce section) kicks the nutritional value up a notch by adding broccoli’s potent anticarcinogenic value.

Next, I mixed in plenty of minced red (Spanish) onion and chopped scallions (green onions), since members of the onion family are famous for fighting inflammation, which is now thought to be the root cause of diseases as disparate as heart disease and cancer. They also give coleslaw a flavor kick!

I added plenty of fresh-ground black pepper (also anticarcinogenic) and some RealSalt (unadulterated and mineral-rich). And I added crumbled gorgonzola cheese for a flavor and protein kick. (This is optional, if you want vegan coleslaw; otherwise, you could use crumbled feta or blue cheese instead of the gorgonzola, if you prefer them.)

Then I added extra-virgin olive oil and tossed everything well to combine flavors and coat the slaw with oil. Oil helps the body digest and utilize the nutrients in raw greens and veggies, and olive oil is heart-healthy. After chilling the slaw for a couple of hours to let the flavors blend, I topped it with mineral-rich pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) before serving for a delicious crunch.

Yum! My coleslaw was a success. But that’s just the beginning of the ways you can add healthy oomph to your coleslaw. Here are other suggestions:

* Use your coleslaw as a salad topper. It’s delicious over mixed greens and enables you to put a salad together in seconds: the packaged salad mix of your choice topped with a scoop of slaw. (I like to add balsamic vinegar and olive oil to the greens before topping it with the slaw, to make sure the greens are dressed, but this is optional.)

* Add diced red, yellow, orange, and/or green bell peppers to the slaw. Vitamin C and gorgeous color and flavor!

* Add healing spices like cumin seeds, black mustardseeds, caraway seeds, fennel seeds, and/or ground turneric to your slaw. (Turmeric will turn it yellow to orange, so be forewarned, but it has fantastic anti-inflammatory properties.)

* Crank up the healing heat with minced jalapeno or serrano peppers or Szechuan peppers, cayenne, or a splash of the hot sauce of your choice. This will spice up your coleslaw and give it a hint of Korean kimchee, the super-health food made from fermented cabbage.

* Add additional healing veggies like matchstick radishes, tiny blanched broccoli or broccoflower florets, sugar snap peas, and mung bean sprouts. Diced fennel bulbs also taste great in slaw. So does celery and, surprisingly, cucumber, all with proven health benefits.

* Mix in minced cilantro, parsley, dill, or fennel tops just before serving (and before topping with the pepitas). You’ll add a whole layer of flavor on top of whatever you’ve already put in, as well as lots of vitamins, making your slaw even more complex and delicious.

* Add fruit, like diced apple or pear, mandarin oranges, golden raisins, dried cranberries (“craisins”), or even diced pineapple to the slaw before serving.

That’s what I’ve thought of so far. How do you make your slaw healthy?

—‘Til next time,

Silence

The trouble with stir-fries. February 19, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I love stir-fries. But until recently, I’ve never been able to make them. Despite my best efforts, the vegetables inevitably overcooked. Yuck! A good stir-fry depends on vegetables cooked until hot through but crisp-tender, retaining their color and a little crunch. Those grey-green sugar snaps just weren’t making the cut.

All this changed when I “earned” a free pot or pan of my choice at my local grocery by racking up buying points. I immediately gravitated to the wok. It was large, like traditional woks, but was stainless steel—I can’t face the effort it takes to maintain carbon steel to keep it from rusting—and had a long handle for easy manuevering on the stove, plus a clear glass lid so you could steam the veggies that needed longer cooking, watch the stir-fry’s progress, and keep it hot once you’d turned off the heat. Perfect!

Not. Once I got the wok home and out of its packaging, I discovered to my horror that the inside had a nonstick coating. As I hope everyone knows, nonstick coatings are carcinogenic if they’re scratched, and God knows what they are even if they’re not scratched. I was crushed.

“Ben, look! A nonstick coating! What should I do with this, give it to the Goodwill? I can’t believe I chose this when I could have gotten a nice stainless pot instead!”

Our friend Ben looked at the wok. Then he looked at me. “Silence, why don’t you just use it? You know you’ll use bamboo spoons so you won’t scratch the surface. And if it does get scratched, you can recycle it. You might as well give it a try.”

I wasn’t too thrilled with this suggestion, but I couldn’t bear to throw my new wok out. And sure enough, a few weeks later, I came upon a tray of flame-seared Korean tofu at Wegman’s, a grocery that’s far from me but a real occasional treat because of its wonderful offerings. The tofu looked fabulous and was just screaming stir-fry. I brought some home and got to work with the new wok.

I stir-fried diced sweet onion (I used Vidalia), sliced shiitake mushrooms, minced fresh ginger, and the white part of scallions (green onions). At the same time, I was cooking basmati rice. When the onion had clarified, I added broccoli florets and a touch of veggie broth, then put on the glass lid to allow the broccoli to steam-cook.

Meanwhile, I diced red and yellow bell peppers, cut the sugar snaps in pieces, and diced the seared tofu. The second the broccoli looked hot, I removed the lid, added the tofu, peppers, sugar snaps, and shredded carrots, stirred well, and minced the green tops of the scallions and a bunch of cilantro leaves. I added a generous splash of shoyu (fresh soy sauce) to the stir-fry, and some sweet heat in the form of Frank’s Hot Sweet Chili Sauce. (You could use sriracha or chili oil instead if you wish.)

Taking the stir-fry off the heat, I sprinkled on some gomasio (a mix of sea salt, sesame seeds and seaweed). Then I served it up over the rice, topped with the green onions, cilantro, and mung bean sprouts. Ahhhh!!! It was SO good, every vegetable cooked exactly to perfection.

But why? Why had this stir-fry turned out perfectly when all previous attempts had failed? Giving it some thought, I realized that I’d been attempting to make stir-fry in the heavy enamelled cast-iron LeCreuset pans in which I so successfully cook everything else, and that the pans must hold so much heat that a stir-fry is doomed. The much lighter steel wok carried exactly enough heat to heat the veggies through without overcooking them.

Since that moment of revelation, I’ve cooked several more stir-fries in the wok with equal success. At last, the secret to a perfect stir-fry is mine! Now if only the wok hadn’t been lined with no-stick coating…

‘Til next time,

Silence

Addictive bean salad. February 18, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I was reading the January/February 2013 issue of Vegetarian Times and came upon a recipe for Black-Eyed Pea and Stewed Tomato Salad. (Check it out for yourself at http://www.vegetariantimes.com.) It looked incredible, and I’m sure it’s amazing. But I’m texture-sensitive, and have never been able to warm up to the mealy texture of black-eyed peas (even fresh) or to stewed tomatoes.

Fortunately, the recipe inspired me to remember one of my own that I haven’t made in ages:

Lovely Lunch Salad

1 can cannellini (“white kidney”) beans, 15.5-16 ounces

1 red onion, peeled and diced

2 large garlic cloves, smashed and minced

4 ripe paste tomatoes, chopped

juice from 1 lemon or generous splash lemon juice

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

generous shakes of dried basil, thyme, and oregano

kalamata olives, seeded and sliced

artichoke hearts, minced

Oil from kalamata olives and artichoke hearts

1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola, blue, or feta cheese

salt (we like Trocomare or RealSalt) and pepper (I suggest lemon pepper) to taste

salad greens, such as a mix of arugula, watercress, romaine, radicchio, curly endive (frisee), kale, spinach, and mustard greens

Drain and rinse beans. Add all other ingredients except greens, stir well, cover, and allow to rest for 1/2 hour to several hours to let flavors marry. Serve on a generous bed of mixed greens as a stand-alone lunch. Savor the delicious taste and enjoy the thought that you’re doing something good for yourself. You can mix and refrigerate the bean-tomato marinade and take it to work, with greens packed separately, several days a week. (You can also save any leftover dressing and use it as stand-alone salad dressing or pour it over the next batch of bean-tomato salad.) Serves 2 for lunch, or 4 if served as the salad course before dinner.

Now I can’t wait to make this and enjoy it with our friend Ben! It seems like a perfect transitional salad as February and winter move toward March and spring.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Choose your President. February 17, 2013

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Our friend Ben was extremely interested to see a post in today’s local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, that summarized readers’ responses to the question, “Which President would you bring back to solve today’s problems?”

Reader responses ranged from George Washington, John Admas, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison through Abraham Lincoln to Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

I myself would love to see a coalition, a “greatest hits” lineup of those who actually were President and those who should have been. My group would include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Colin Powell. Like the Supreme Court, this group would combine extreme intelligence, individuality, and opposing views under the overarching tent of love of country and love of honor. I’d love to see the solution they proposed for our country’s current woes.

Who would you choose?

A flower for Valentine’s Day. February 15, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. On Valentine’s Day, I was walking our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh in the backyard for a much-needed bathroom break when I saw a flash of yellow. OMG! It was a winter aconite bloom. Winter aconites grow low to the ground, where their golden, buttercup-yellow flowers bloom amid palmlike foliage. But why was it blooming in February?

Winter aconites, with snowdrops and hellebores, are the first flowers of spring here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But as with flowers enthusiastically described as blue or black that are actually purple, winter aconites are early spring, not winter, bloomers misnamed by overeager gardeners or marketers. However, this is February. We still have snow on the ground. And here was this bright gold aconite flower, truly living up to its name!

Much as I fear the effects of global warming, my own heart was warmed by this one. It seemed like a Valentine’s Day present to me, to OFB, to Shiloh, and to our home. I hope all of you had surprising and wonderful Valentine’s gifts as well!

‘Til next time,

Silence

When is a scallop not a scallop? February 13, 2013

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When it’s a scalloped potato. Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were enjoying scalloped potatoes last night, a cherished comfort food, with its creamy, potato-y interior and crispy exterior (think mac’n’cheese done right, but with more body and less assertive cheese flavor, assuming you even add cheese). As I served up our plates, I began to wonder why the dish was called “scalloped” potatoes, since it doesn’t include scallops and the potato slices don’t have scalloped edges (think madeleines). I was determined to get to the bottom of this!

My own theories were: A) that the dish was named for a popular technique of cooking scallops at the time, transferred to the potato dish; B) that the original dish had thicker slices of white, peeled potatoes that reminded its creator of scallops; or C) that the creator of the dish was a marketing genius who managed to give the humble potato the cachet of expensive seafood by giving the dish a clever name. (Much as in the case of Waldorf Salad, which sounds a lot more highfalutin than apple salad, or Caesar salad, which sounds a lot more appetizing than a bowl of romaine lettuce, or, say, Buffalo wings, which transformed the cheapest, most unwanted piece of the chicken into a prized appetizer.)

Much as I was drawn to theory C), I felt it was the least likely of the three to be true. In fact, I actually think that it’s a combination of A) and B): that the potatoes in cream sauce reminded the creator of the dish of scallops prepared the same way. I hoped that my good friend Google could resolve the issue, but for once, it failed me. (And to think, just yesterday it had helped me identify some mystery seedpods I’d found on a recent trip to Penn State as coming from the Kentucky coffeetree. You’d think this would be easy by comparison.)

Theories abounded about the origins of the name, scattered with expressions of loathing for the dish and even assertions that it was made with breadcrumbs. (Shudder!!! These people must also bread their mac’n’cheese, for shame.) The responses were all over the map, and I could find nothing definitive. Some responses said the potatoes in the dish resembled scallops, and some said they were prepared the same way as a scallop dish. Others claimed the word came from escalloped, a technique for cutting thin, small rounds from meat. One source cited the earliest known reference to the dish, British circa 1883, where a diner was complaining that he’d ordered scalloped (presumably creamed) potatoes but was served potatoes in a tomato sauce instead.

Yeesh. What’s a scalloped potato lover to do? Ignore the origins and just eat your scalloped potatoes, say I. But please, don’t put breadcrumbs on them. And if anyone reading this has a definitive answer, I’d love to hear it.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Don’t give up on pasta salad. February 11, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I can’t bear the thought of cold pasta, or of pasta salad, so often loaded with congealed mayonnaise and other fat-filled, nutrient-free gunk, apparently approved for pigging out on because of the word “salad” in its name. Just seeing it on a salad bar makes my stomach turn.

But I love hot pasta. I could probably eat it every night, if I didn’t love so many other foods, too. And, perhaps inevitably, one night, my love of hot pasta and pasta salad converged. It happened this way:

Our friend Ben and I got a late start on our grocery shopping (and every other sort of rushing-around errand). We’d been on our feet, rushing up and down various aisles for hours, by the time we hit the grocery around 8 p.m. And of course I still had to make supper for us when we got home, circa 9 p.m. Much as I love to cook, I really wasn’t up for it, or for standing on my feet a second longer than necessary.

So once we hit the produce section, I turned to the deli counter and the prepared foods. And behold, there was “Greek pasta salad,” with basil, thyme, oregano, onion, feta cheese, diced tomatoes, and olive oil (not a blob of mayo in sight). As a cold dish, it still struck me as gross. As a hot supper, it sounded delicious. So I bought a container, took it home, heated it up, made a big, crunchy salad, and fed it all to OFB after our usual post-shopping division of labor. (He hauls all the bags inside and takes our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, outside for a bathroom break, while I put all the stuff away and make him a post-shopping cocktail and pour myself a much-needed glass of wine before starting on making supper.)

Sure enough, once it was heated, the former pasta salad made a fine pasta dish. I have borne this lesson in mind since then. When I’ve been working late and don’t have time for from-scratch cooking, or OFB and I are out shopping late but don’t want to spend even more time or money eating out, or some other reason keeps me from the kitchen, I know I can turn to the deli counter and see if there’s a cold pasta salad that would taste good hot. See for yourself, you might be pleasantly surprised! But please, keep away from those mayo-laden atrocities; don’t try to heat them up, and don’t eat them cold, either. Eeeeewwww!!!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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