Category Archives: Food

Strange serendipity

Back when computers began replacing card catalogs in libraries, people complained. One entire genre of complaints I remember was that there would be no more serendipitous discoveries, the ones that come from flipping through a card catalog just to see what comes up, and maybe finding a fantastic book that way. After all, with computers, you just put in your keywords, hit ENTER, and if the search is successful, you’re taken straight to the entry you were looking for. If it doesn’t work, you usually get an error message, not a fun alternative. Even when you browse a library catalog on a computer, you’re still scrolling through entries page by page, which just isn’t the same thing as skipping through a drawer chunk by chunk of cards.

Perhaps the fears were unfounded. I have had a serendipitous discovery this evening using Amazon.com’s search engine. Amazon is no library—wait, they’re lending e-books…no, let’s not get into that right now—but searching involves keywords, just like with library catalogs.

Here’s what happened. I like Bigelow’s White Chocolate Obsession tea. I must not be the only person who likes it, because Bigelow hasn’t discontinued it, but I’m not sure that many people who live near me like it, because I haven’t found it in my local stores for quite a while. So I’ve taken to ordering a case (6 boxes) of it every now and then from Amazon. I’m down to my last box, so I went to their website and started my search. Ever-helpful, Amazon tried to guess what I wanted:Amazon.com search suggestionsI stared at it blankly for several seconds, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. It was the second suggestion (“white chocolate obsession barbie in Grocery”) that really threw me, because the tea should be in Grocery. Had the Amazon search engine seriously glitched or was this some odd promotion by Bigelow? I finally followed one of the Barbie links through:

Amazon.com listing for White Chocolate Obsession Barbie
Not tea. Most definitely not tea. And it’s in Toys & Games, not Grocery. (Like you’re going to play with an $899 Barbie doll? Yeah, right.) But to everyone who fretted that computers meant that there would never be unplanned fortuitous discoveries ever again: that search provided me with amusement far out of proportion to the effort I put into it!

I’m going to go order the tea now.

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That’s not a great picture of the doll. If you’re curious, a much better photograph and a description may be found at the Barbie Collector website. Apparently it even smells like chocolate.

Cereal for the end of the world

Living near a Whole Foods Market has many advantages, but it must be admitted that they don’t carry certain necessities of life. Like, say, breakfast cereal. (Okay, they do carry cereal, but theirs is healthier than I’m used to and I don’t care for most of it.) So every now and then, I drag myself out to a major “normal” grocery store and buy a few months’ worth of the foods I can’t get closer to home. I chose yesterday morning for one of these trips, figuring that the day after Thanksgiving has to be one of the calmest days at grocery stores. (It is.)

As I’m waiting in line to check out—my cart loaded with frozen juice concentrate, salad dressing, eggnog, dark brown sugar, molasses that isn’t strong enough to knock you unconscious, and seven boxes of cereal—an older woman comes up to me. In an accent that hails from Germany or points east of there, she observes that I’m buying a lot of breakfast cereal.

I agree.

She asks how many people are in my family.

Oh, all this cereal is just for me.

She thinks this is a good idea. It’s wise to have food on hand, in case there is trouble.

I draw breath to explain why I have so much cereal. I want to say that I know that one should stock up on better food than this in case of emergency. Before I can say this, however, she adds that she has heard that there may be difficulties next month.

This throws me. This isn’t the season for crop failures in the Midwest (that would’ve been this past summer, what with the drought and all), and I can’t think what else—

The Mayan calendar is ending next month. She isn’t sure what this will mean, but if food runs out, and people are rioting in the streets, it will be good to have food stored at home. She herself has been stocking up on a protein called WOW. It’s sold on the Internet and it’s much better than the protein you can buy locally. Oh, her children think she’s crazy when she talks like this, but it’s best to be prepared.

I am saved from having to respond to this when the woman behind us greets her and they start talking. I move ahead to check out. I don’t offer my opinion on the wisdom of worrying about the Mayan calendar. I don’t lecture her that protein alone probably isn’t much better as an emergency supply than breakfast cereal, nor do I tell her that the CDC has suggestions on their website for how to prepare for emergencies. (I find their website overwhelming. What would she have thought of it?) And I’m not laughing at her, because it occurs to me that a 70-something woman who speaks in an accent that comes from Germany or somewhere east of there may very well have personal knowledge of food shortages and the wisdom of having food squirreled away.

Cute cookware

There is a market out there for really big cookware. I’ve seen a paella pan available for rent from one of the local cooking stores that could double as an adult-sized snow disc. Le Creuset sells a 13¼-quart Dutch oven that I’d like to see someday. I can’t imagine ever having a use for it and I wouldn’t want to spend over $400 for a pot, but it sounds like it’s a mighty impressive piece of cookware and worth a look. Even if I could think of something to cook in it, it weighs 22 pounds, empty. Filled, I’d never be able to lift it. Perhaps the 13¼-quart behemoth is a rare purchase for anyone, but Le Creuset also sells a 9-quart model, coming in at a mere 18 pounds. Someone must be buying these things, right?

Me, I hang out at the other end of the cookware size continuum. If you’re just cooking for one, you can use cookware that’s verges on cute.

cute pots

The cast iron skillet (6½” diameter) was my grandmother’s. My mother never used it, something I chalk up to being sold on the wonders of Teflon. She left it and its larger companions in a cabinet, where every now and then I’d find them and pull out the smallest one to look at. Even when it hasn’t been made into a humongous Dutch oven, cast iron is heavy; this skillet was the only one I could lift without a struggle. Decades later, when I inherited the cookware, I finally got to use the little skillet for real. It’s the perfect size to fry a single egg, and after almost a century, the iron is so well-seasoned that the egg slides over it as if it were nonstick. Except that this is nonstick you can use metal utensils with.

The technical name for the little saucepan is “butter warmer.” I do melt butter in it a lot. But with its 2-cup capacity, it’s also a fine pan for heating a bit of spaghetti sauce in. There are saucepans smaller than this, but I’ve learned to avoid them. A saucepan so small that it isn’t stable on a stove burner is more dangerous than cute. Sometimes the handle weighs more than the bowl part, causing the saucepan to tip over; sometimes the bottom is so small that it can’t balance on the burner. Sometimes both. (Be reassured that I learned all this without enduring an actual injury or fire.) This ½-quart saucepan, though, is heavy for its size and large enough to rest firmly on a burner. Now if only I could find a lid for it.

The same company that makes giant Dutch ovens makes smaller ones as well. This little red pot is their ¾-quart Dutch oven. I admit I don’t use it as much as its larger siblings, but it’s perfect for a single serving of nabemono, a Japanese one-pot dish that makes dreadful leftovers (which is why I’d go to all the trouble of cooking just one serving of it). The even tinier (2-cup) yellow pot can be used to bake a single beet. Yes, I do things like that.

Of course most of my cookware and bakeware is “normal” size, with pots in the 2- to 4-quart range, and most of the time I make a full recipe’s worth of food and dine on the leftovers for days afterwards. But for those times when preparing just one serving of something makes the most sense, I’ve ended up with a good selection of equipment to handle that.

Vanilla

You want something to taste of vanilla? Use vanilla extract. You want something to taste of vanilla and you’d like to be all pure about it, use a vanilla bean.

I have long plotted to make a vanilla cake that would hit the eater with vanilla the way a good chocolate cake just says chocolate. Not being much of a baking improviser, though, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Maybe we should be just a tad concerned that two popular kinds of cake are called “white” and “yellow.” These are not flavors unless you have synesthesia. And I wasn’t sure how to turn either of them into a vanilla cake. Apparently vanilla is hitting new levels of popularity, however, because eventually I ran across a French vanilla cake mix.

I confess, I didn’t have much confidence in the vanillaness of the cake mix. This is when things started getting complicated. I wasn’t sure how well vanilla extract would hold up in baking conditions–the stuff has a high alcohol content after all, and doesn’t alcohol evaporate?–so I thought I’d go all foodie and add a vanilla bean. Acquiring a bean wasn’t difficult, as I’m in walking distance of a gourmet spice store (three beans, sold in a glass test tube that just cries out to be repurposed for something, only I can’t think of what). Using the bean, on the other hand, was a bit of a struggle.

Meet your basic vanilla bean. Yes, there are pictures of them on vanilla extract containers, but the bean itself is maybe not quite what you expect. It’s longer than I thought it would be, coming in at about 7″ long. We’re talking the seed pod of the vanilla orchid here–and by the way, how did anyone ever think, “Hey, what would happen if I slit open this pod and scraped the innards into my food?”–so what you’ve got is something that looks like a long dark brown (almost black) string bean, dried enough to get all wrinkly and look like leather. Optimally, your vanilla bean hasn’t dried out, though. So when you get it open, you’ve got this moist black paste sticking to your knife, your fingers, your cutting board: everything, in fact, except the bowl you’re trying to get it into. And those seeds are tiny: maybe about half the size of a grain of sand. The seeds all clump together and you wonder how you’re ever going to get them evenly distributed through the rest of the ingredients. It’s also a source of wonder: how can something that tiny, even if there are lots of them, flavor your dish?

You’re also not supposed to toss the pod. For what you’ve paid for it, you probably will want to find a use for it. Rumor has it that companies grind the pods up and add them to their “vanilla bean” flavored products, even though the pod has only a fraction of the flavor of the seeds (like you’re going to know the difference between a near-microscopic vanilla seed and a near-microscopic bit of ground-up vanilla bean pod?). The home cook, will probably take a simpler approach. I keep being told to put the pods in a jar and bury them in sugar to make vanilla sugar. Fine idea. Now if only I could think of something to do with all that vanilla sugar. Eating it by the spoonful seems a mite decadent.

And by the way, without long explanation (bad egg), the cake with the vanilla bean in it never made it to the oven. A later experiment with the French vanilla cake mix however, showed that it had little discernable vanilla flavor. I’m getting a tiny ego-boost from having guessed right, but must now try from-scratch recipes. Probably lots of them. Tons of vanilla cake. Oh, the horror…