The truffle crisis


As you may or may not know, there is a truffle crisis in Europe.



The European black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, is cherished by gastronomes everywhere. It has an indescribable flavor and aroma. It is rare and cannot be cultivated easily. It is hunted by dogs and pigs, which dig them up, but which are not allowed to eat them. (Apollonia tells me that the pigs are given acorns as a reward. Do you call that justice?) It grows symbiotically with the roots of certain trees, usually the oak.



(There are also white truffles (Tuber magnatum), and pecan truffles, and Oregon truffles. Go read about them on Wikipedia.)



The European truffle crop has been much smaller lately, partly due to climate change. Given how much demand there is for them, this is a problem.



There are also Chinese truffles (Tuber himalayensis / Tuber indicus). They grow much more easily than their European cousins. They have little or no flavor. They are being brought to Europe, and mixed in with European truffles, the way cocaine dealers mix flour or sugar in with their product.



Also: the spores of the Chinese truffle are beginning to escape into the local environment, and Chinese truffles are now growing in Europe. It is feared that, like kudzu, the Chinese truffle will crowd out the aristrocratic European varieties.



(I have never knowingly tasted a truffle. I think I’ve had things with truffles in them, but I have no clear recollection. Apollonia tells me that her Italian relatives have whole rooms full of them, and eat them like apples, but I am never sure how much faith to put in her little stories.)



I have given before the recipe for salade Rossini.  I have never made it. Perhaps I never will. But I like reading (and thinking about) the recipe:



·       Potatoes cooked in chicken stock;

·       Mussels (a third less than the potatoes);

·       “As many truffles as the budget will allow, sliced and cooked in champagne”;

·       A nice fruity vinegar and olive oil and salt and pepper and some tarragon over all. 



It sounds delicious.



Children: don’t allow the Chinese truffle to ruin our imaginary salade Rossini. Insist on the black European truffle.



Western culture depends upon it.



Add one bay leaf


My current student assistant, Jake, is thinking about moving out on his own, and is very excited about it. He is hunting for the ideal first-kitchen setup: he already has a microwave, so he’s going to get a toaster oven, and probably a hot plate, and a slow cooker.



Well, my god! What can’t you do with a slow cooker?



I lent him my slow-cooker cookbook, the #1 New York Times best-seller “Fix It And Forget It” (what a terrible name for a book!), just to give him some ideas. He’s pretty excited about the idea of pot roasts, and chicken, and stew, and chili, that pretty much make themselves (which is the whole charm of the slow cooker, of course).



I was describing my various pot-roast attempts to him, then said: “Do you have any bay leaves in the house?”



“Any what?” he said uncertainly.



Well, to be fair, neither did I until I was at least in my thirties. I considered that they were a kind of joke, or hoax. “Add one bay leaf.” Really? One little frail-looking bay leaf? And it’s gonna do something magical to the pot roast, or the stew, or the whatever?



But it does. There’s a fragrance, or an earthiness, to it. Bay, after all, is laurel. The Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece used to breathe the smoke of burning laurel to put herself into a trance. Most of the Mediterranean cultures cook with it (cautiously, one bay leaf at a time). There’s gotta be something in there.



The only way to find out, really, is to make a pot roast without adding a bay leaf.



And I am reluctant to do that.



It’s the one thing necessary, to quote Jesus. It’s the magical ingredient. It’s the lucky charm that makes your pot roast tender and succulent and fragrantly delicious.



Who are you to doubt three thousand years of culinary tradition?



Add one bay leaf.


How to thicken your blueberry pie


Boy, I bet that title got your attention, didn’t it?






You know I’ve been baking blueberry pies lately. Partner and all his family members love them, and I enjoy making them.  I have mostly perfected the process.



Except that I have always struggled with the juiciness issue.



Berries are naturally very juicy.  In extreme cases (as when I use frozen berries), this results in a crust filled with sweet blue soup. More often, it’s just an issue of messiness. Also, it’s hard to sop up all that good blueberry flavor when it’s running around liquefied in your pie plate.



So we use a thickening agent. And, mama, I have tried them all. Cornstarch is moderately effective. Flour has seemingly no effect at all (though my friend Cathleen swears by it). Tapioca creates a nightmarish blue/white solid mass inside your pie that looks like Styrofoam; it tastes okay, but it looks horrible.



(Yes, I know this is not the most pressing problem in the world, and not in the league of – say – world hunger, or a cure for cancer. But I set myself small problems to solve, and I generally achieve my goals.)



I was browsing the King Arthur catalog a few weeks ago when I noticed a product called “Instant Clearjel,” which promised to make runny / juicy pies a thing of the past.



For $4.95 plus shipping, it was worth the gamble.



Ladies and gentlemen, hats off to this product. It is the greatest invention of our time.



The package said to add anywhere from two to five tablespoons, with berry pies getting more. I decided to be cautious in my first attempt, and added two.



The result was spectacular. The pie, when I cut into it, was glorious: a few berries crumbled away, but the filling held its shape. The individual berries glistened like dewdrops in the morning sunlight.  It made me feel like Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray all in one. Partner pronounced it one of my best pies ever.



I have no idea what’s in this stuff; the package says only “modified food starch.” Modified how? Shot out of a cannon? Exposed to gamma rays? Combined with something that came out of a meteor?



I don’t care.



All you pie bakers out there: save your nickels and dimes and buy some of this stuff.



It’s wonderful.


By request: my piecrust recipe (by way of the King Arthur Cookbook)


Since writing my blueberry pie blog the other day, I’ve gotten innumerable (read: two) requests for my crust recipe.



I’m flattered.  But I need to tell you that this is the classic piecrust recipe from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook (with very tiny modifications). It got me over my fear of making piecrust. It’s easy, and fairly quick, and very reliable, and everyone seems to like it (I haven’t gotten any complaints yet). As with any piecrust recipe, you will end up covered with flour. I was wearing sweatpants while making my most recent batch, and wore the same sweatpants to the health club the next night, and realized belatedly that I looked like I’d been sprayed with ranch dressing. Or something.



Herewith the recipe:



        3 cups all-purpose flour.

        1 teaspoon salt.

        1 teaspoon sugar (if you’re making a fruit pie; omit for a quiche / chicken pot pie crust).

        Approximately ¾ cup vegetable shortening, or other fat (some use half butter, half shortening; I get better results with shortening. I know it’s a trans-fat. So what? How often do you make a pie?).

        Very cold water (as in refrigerated; we use a Brita pitcher, so there’s never any problem finding good ice-cold water).



Measure the flour, salt, and sugar into a large bowl, and stir together lightly to mix. Add the shortening and methodically work it into the flour/salt/sugar mixture with a fork or pastry blender. (I prefer a fork.)  You want a sort of grainy / pebbly look when you’re completed this step: no big chunks of shortening left, and the flour should have darkened very slightly.



Stir in a few tablespoons of very cold water. (Don’t stir too hard – just try to blend them in.)  Then a few more. Then a few more. You’ll see the flour/shortening mixture turn gradually to piecrust consistency. If you overshoot the mark and add too much water, try adding a little more flour to even out the batch.



When you have a satisfactorily doughy mass in your bowl, turn it out onto your (floured) rolling surface.  (Partner’s sister gave me a big wooden plank, which works very nicely.) Work it with your hands a bit to make sure it’s thoroughly mixed, but not too much; if you work it too heavily, it’ll turn tough.



When it’s nice and uniform, split it into two equal masses, and plop one of them back into the original bowl, and put it in the refrigerator to wait its turn.



Roll out the first mass of dough, using flour liberally to keep everything non-sticky. (This is how flour gets everywhere.). Roll it to your desired thickness (I like it a little thicker than most people; with a juicy pie, it’s nice – the thick crust will absorb a lot of juice and be very flavorful).  Pick it up (carefully) and put it in your pie plate. (This is a terrifying moment. Be brave.)



Fill your piecrust with the filling of your choice.



Take crust #2 out of the fridge, roll it out, and do what you will with it.  (I used to do latticed crusts, which are very attractive, but Partner let me know that he doesn’t care so much about latticed crusts.  This is flattering, actually, because it tells me he actually likes the way the crust tastes, and doesn’t mind having a little more of it in the pie. In any case, do as you wish.)



Finish the edge of pie in your preferred manner.  (I pinch mine; it’s simple and very Early American.  My mother used to do an elaborate thing like a ribbon around the outer edge of the pie; it was beautiful, but I (frankly) can’t be bothered.)



There will almost certainly be lots of extra crust hanging around the pieplate.  Trim it off with a knife. 



(This recipe creates a lot of extra crust, if you do it the way I do.  I take the remaining crust (after trimming), roll it out in sugar, cut it in strips, put some honey and cinnamon and extra sugar on top, and bake the strips for about 20 minutes in the same oven with the pie; they’re a nice little snack while you’re waiting for the pie to cool.)



See how easy?


The first blueberry pie of 2012


I am an American, and I like apple pie. And I can make a damned good apple pie, too.



Somehow, however, I ended up with Partner, and he (and all of the members of his family) prefer blueberry pie.



I have adapted to this. I have made blueberry pies for years now. I have it down to a science.



Well, it’s June, and Stop & Shop just put blueberries on sale (two for one!), so it was time to bake my first pie of the season.



The big problem with blueberry pies is juiciness: if you’re not careful, you get a pieplate full of blueberry soup. I’ve tried all kinds of thickeners: regular flour (no effect at all), tapioca (which creates a creepy gelatinous Blueberry Tapioca Pudding filling), and cornstarch (which is best of all).



(I’ve ordered something from King Arthur called ClearJel which promises to solve all these problems. We’ll see.)



The other problems are sweetness and flavor. Blueberries really aren’t very flavorful, and need some help: sugar, spices (I take my lead from the King Arthur cookbook and add a little cinnamon and nutmeg to my blueberries). Too sweet? Not sweet enough? Hard to tell. If the berries look nice and mature and ripe, I trust them a little more, and add less sugar. If they’re small and nondescript – or if (horrors!) I’m using frozen berries – I add a lot more sugar.



So, on Sunday night, I baked the first official blueberry pie of 2012. The berries were nice and big and fat, so I wasn’t too worried about flavor; I added less cornstarch, and less sugar.



The final result was (I will say) a success. It was sweet without being overpowering, and the spices assisted, but didn’t intrude. (The topic of piecrust deserves a blog of its own someday. But this was a very nice piecrust, savory and soft and agreeable.) The berries stayed whole, but popped pleasantly when you bit into them.



All in all, a good attempt.



(But I would rather have had an apple pie.)


Dried plums (AKA prunes)


I’ve seen TV commercials for a product called “Sunsweet Plum Amazins.”  They are dried plums which are being marketed as dried plums.



(I’d always thought that, in the English language, dried plums were called “prunes,” in the same way that dried grapes are called “raisins.”  Evidently I am wrong about this.  Dried plums, in the Sunsweet universe, are their own thing.)



My late great-aunt Estelle always said that the trees in her yard were “Italian prune trees.” I always wanted to tell her that they were plum trees, but I didn’t want to correct her, as I loved her dearly, and also she was much bigger than me.



I’m sure that some plums make better prunes than others.  But still!



On the same topic, more or less: my friend Apollonia has a thing for sour cherries.  I watch for them on her behalf, and I noted them the other evening in the King Arthur catalog. 



A jar of sour cherries to make one pie costs $14.95 (plus shipping)! 



Apollonia can go without those cherries, thank you very much.  At that price, anyway.



Maybe I’ll get her some dried plum/prunes instead, whatever you want to call them.



She can use the fiber.






Food has gotten very fancy



My mother never in her life used pure vanilla extract; imitation vanilla extract was good enough for her.  But nowadays?  If you’re not using pure vanilla extract – and Madagascar vanilla at that – you’d better just slit your throat.



(Unless, of course, you purchase fresh vanilla beans and scrape the seeds into your project.  In this case, we will grudgingly allow you to continue.)



Remember when Apollonia and I were arguing over oils, and vinegars?  Olive oil, vegetable oil, sesame oil, walnut oil, almond oil.  Balsamic vinegar, white vinegar, cider vinegar –



And now: salt.



Salt is interesting.  Mom used Morton’s exclusively: “When it rains, it pours.”  Nowadays, of course, we know that there are so many interesting Salts of the World: the grey salt they harvest on the Ile de Re in France, the pink salt from the Himalayas.



I have purchased both of these.



They both taste – mneh – like salt. 



It would be lovely to pretend that they are Ubersalzen, that they have magical flavors not possessed by other salts. 



It wouldn’t be true.  They are – um – salty.



But the Ile de Re salt is grey, and is raked up from the sand, from the ocean, by people in France!



And the Himalayan salt is up in the mountains, from an ocean that dried up over 200 million years ago! 



And it’s pink!



(Well, it might be from Pakistan.  Not really from the Himalayas.)



(And I paid $1.99 – plus tax – for two ounces of the Himalayan salt.  That’s roughly $16/pound.  Mighty steep!)



It’s not the (salty) taste nor the packaging: it’s the mental imagery.  It’s the lovely image of those people on l’Ile de Re in their funny hats, raking salt on the seashore, and the quiet chilly bed of pink! salt lying so high up in the Himalayas.



I had some pink Himalayan salt on my mashed potatoes this evening.  It was spectacular.  It was completely different from any other condiment I might have used.



Who are you to deny it?


Recipes I will never make (although, on the other hand, you never know)



 I like reading cookbooks, for the following reasons:



        Sometimes I get good ideas from them.

        Sometimes, believe it or not, they’re well-written. From the dry beautiful prose of Elizabeth David to the wisecracks of Peg Bracken, you can lose yourself as easily in a good cookbook as you can in any novel.

        Now and then you read something really eye-crossingly strange.



Albert Einstein performed “thought-experiments,” in which you didn’t really perform any physical experimentation; you just thought it through. 



These recipes, for me, are “thought-recipes.”



I know, for example, where to find a recipe for Roast Hump of Gazelle.  (I think camel hump can be substituted, if you’re out of gazelle.) 



My old copy of The Joy of Cooking includes a series of diagrams showing how to skin a squirrel. It involves putting the squirrel under your boot and pulling the tail upward.



I have read many times Alice Toklas’s recipe for Oeufs Francis Picabia (basically a big bowl of undercooked raw egg with lots of melted butter mixed into it), and for Truffled Sweetbreads (to be served on lettuce leaves).  Elizabeth David recounts a three-page all-day process for cooking a rabbit, which I think begins by analyzing the mental health of the bunny before you cook it.  It ends with people lining up outside your house, mesmerized by the delicious smell of the dish you’re cooking.



Then there is salade Rossini, which is (take this down):



·       Potatoes cooked in chicken stock;

·       Mussels (a third less than the potatoes);

·       “As many truffles as the budget will allow, sliced and cooked in champagne”;

·       A nice fruity vinegar and olive oil and salt and pepper and some tarragon over all. 



It actually sounds delicious, but my budget does not allow for any truffles at all, so I will not be sampling M. Rossini’s salad anytime soon.



I also have a recipe for stewed dog, to be served at weddings.  I can send it to you if you don’t believe me.



And here’s one I’ve read, but can’t find (Apollonia has seen it too, and we continually reassure one another that we’re not crazy, we’ve both seen this recipe): a big hunk of Bologna sausage, roasted and basted with grape jelly.



My mouth waters whenever I think of it. 



Produce in season


Walking through the produce department in Eastside Marketplace the other evening was a delight.



It smelled like a country garden at dawn. Strawberries. Cherries. The warm musty smell of ripe tomatoes-on-the-vine.



These are the pleasures of “produce in season.”



I remember the Marche Central in Tunis, where we only got stuff in season. Of course, when you’re in North Africa, seasons are longer, but you learn to appreciate what you’ve got, while you have it. Bananas we had maybe three days a year, when a shipment arrived from the Ivory Coast, and they were precious. (I remember walking down the street in Tunis after living there for a couple of years, and seeing a banana peel! And suddenly breaking into a sprint, running to the market, to see if there were any bananas left!)



And delicate morels, and sweet fresh reddish figs, and little soft pears that tasted like candy . . .






I saw a woman the other evening at Eastside Marketplace pick up a honeydew melon in one meaty claw and holler at a produce guy: “How can you tell if this thing is any good?”



I wanted to say: Smell it, you idiot!




You see how disconnected people have become with nature? She thought a melon was like a box of cereal, and had a “best by” date printed on it.



It never occurred to her that she was holding a big greenish seed-pod in her hand, bred to be big and juicy and fragrant . . .






Coming soon: canteloupe!



Putting parsnips in the snickerdoodles


I was shopping for eatables in BJ’s Wholesale Gigantatorium a few weeks ago, and I came across a product called the Smart Cookie. It came in two flavors: Choco Loco and Yellow Mellow.



Choco Loco cookies, in addition to the usual ingredients like flour and eggs and sodium hypochlorite and yaks’ horns, contain apricots, apples, zucchini, spinach, peas, and broccoli.



Yellow Mellow cookies (that’s a terrible name, Smart Cookie Company!) contain corn, yellow squash, cauliflower, and apples.



Sneaky, eh? But don’t be deceived. Only ten percent of each cookie is made of this stuff. Still, that’s pretty impressive.



I bought them and served them at an office meeting, and everyone was very impressed. (No transfats, by the way, and only about thirty calories per (small) cookie, so they’re almost completely guilt-free.  They have only a gram of fiber per cookie; I would have thought more, considering that they have so much produce in them, but you cawn’t have everything.)



This is the whole hidden-vegetable thing that Jerry Seinfeld’s wife Jessica got into trouble with a while back, remember? She came out with a cookbook of recipes like this, with things like pureed cauliflower in the macaroni and cheese; then it turned out she’d ripped off most of the recipes from another cookbook, written by someone who wasn’t lucky enough to marry Jerry Seinfeld.



Betty MacDonald, in “The Egg and I,” remembered that her grandmother would save everything – one green bean, a potato, two spoonfuls of corn – on little saucers in the icebox. Then, once a week, she’d bake horrible shapeless pale cookies into which she’d throw these bits and pieces of vegetables. Betty and her siblings refused to eat these horror-movie cookies. Then some people moved in next door, a couple with a bunch of children. Betty and her family noted that the neighbor kids, while playing, were snacking on a big bag of something on their front porch. They investigated, and found that the kids were eating dog biscuits.



Well, if they liked dog biscuits –



And Gammy’s cookies were presented to the neighbor kids, who thought they were delicious.



Gammy invented the Smart Cookie.



And good for her!


%d bloggers like this: