Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Feverish over Food Additives

Prescript Note: I wasn't the only one baffled by Google's warnings yesterday. Catch this from the Times:"Google’s Internet search service malfunctioned for nearly 55 minutes Saturday morning, upending users around the world with search results that carried false safety warnings and Web links that did not work.

The company acknowledged Saturday that all searches produced links with the same warning message: “This site may harm your computer.” Clicking on any of the links led to an error message stating that the desired site could not be reached.

“What happened?” Google explained in its blog. “Very simply, human error.”

Google said it periodically updates its list of sites suspected of carrying dangerous software that could harm computers, and that Saturday morning a Google employee mistyped a Web address for one such site, causing all sites to be flagged harmful."

I was correct not to lay conspiracy theories down although it was fun speculating. Read on....

Image from King Corn website
The Hub and I watched the documentary King Corn recently. It tells the tale of two friends from college who had their hair tested, discovered they were "mostly made out of corn" and subsequently decided to raise an acre of corn in Iowa. King Corn then documents what happened when they took their harvested corn and tracked where that corn went in the food chain. The film is extremely informative and pretty entertaining with high production values. A la Amazon, if you enjoyed reading Michael Pollan's books I recommend renting King Corn to you without reservation.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the documentary was how close mouthed the high fructose corn syrup (hfcs) producers were. Of all the companies contacted, only one had a spokesperson willing to even speak on camera, and past making certain reassuring statements about the benefits of hfcs in foods (it does hold certain costs down due to farm subsidy policies currently in play making foods cheaper over all), there was nobody who was willing to discuss how hfcs is produced.

Hub and I wondered. How do they make high fructose corn syrup anyway? Why the insistence on such secrecy?

Turns out the process of taking corn and yielding a sweetening syrup uses some pretty potent chemicals in order to restructure starch molecules so they combine in certain ways that make your foods taste sweet. Chemicals you might not normally associate as food friendly, such as caustic soda (lye).

More troubling then is this article in Gourmet Magazine's Politics of the Plate section, titled "High Mercury Corn Syrup" by Barry Estabrook.
Image from Gourmet Magazine by Stephanie Foley

Hold on to your hot plates people, there is mercury in high fructose corn syrup?

According to reports, depending upon how it is manufactured, yes,  yes there is.

The important question this article does not answer is whether or not the mercury found in hfcs is one of the more toxic forms of mercury (ie methylmercury) or is rather occurring in the elemental form that is not easily absorbed into the body and is reasonably harmless.  

That question - what type of mercury - nobody is specifically answering.  (so far)

The report referenced in the Gourmet article purports that when High Fructose Corn Syrup was tested, "total mercury" was found in 45 percent of the samples.

Bottom line, if you are routinely consuming food products using HFCS sweeteners, you are potentially exposing yourself to some form of mercury slightly less than half the time.

Blithely assuming you are HFCS free? Try reading the list of ingredients in your ketchup or salad dressing or for the most common route of exposure, non-diet soft drinks. HFCS or some form of it are used in nearly everything sold on a large scale in the United States that is sweetened.   Even some foods you might not think of as "sweet".  HFCS is also showing up in products we don't think of as foods that we yet put into our mouths, such as toothpaste, mouthwash, or over the counter syrup-style medications.

Holy Minamata's disease, Batman! Must we all abandon Broadwayand/or be doomed to a life of progressive neurologic deficits from mercury poisoning?Calm yourself, Robin, probably not. The study apparently measured only for "total mercury" and did not break down the mercury into types. No where in the documents I could find online was there anything that specifically stated that all or even part of the mercury levels found in HFCS are occurring as methylmercury, or dimethylmercury, two of the most toxic players in the bunch.

What the study does show is that HFCS is apparently picking up (some form of) mercury from those batches made using caustic soda produced by chlorine plants using older mercury cell methodology. The caustic soda is used in the early stages of syrup production to separate the corn starch from the corn kernel. It also "may be used" throughout the HFCS process to maintain a certain pH balance.

Not incidentally, caustic soda is used to produce citric acid and sodium benzoate. So far as I can tell, no studies are currently available to report on mercury levels (if any) detected in either of these other ubiquitous food additives.

Oddest thing about this? When I went interweb hunting to try and discover more information about followup studies or anybody addressing the actual type of mercury detected in the testing? The only site I could find, aside from the original article in Gourmet Magazine online that was not slapped with a Google malware warning "visiting this site may harm your computer" was the industry-sponsored(Corn Refiner's Association) HFCS site ("You're in for a sweet surprise") touting that "HFCS is safe - mercury study is outdated".  An hour later, all the malware warnings had gone away.  Weird and weirder.  

Back to the corn industry folk.  Past a statement released where they challenged the methodology of the mercury level determinations used for the report, the CRA additionally hired a firm, Chem-Risk, to look at the study. You may not be surprised that Chem-Risk reported findings that supported the premise of the folks who hired them.  Checkbook science?  Hard to say. 

So what are we to think?

I doubt this is either entirely junk science or a reason to stop buying foods containing hfcs altogether. Quite honestly, avoiding all hfcs is tricky to do shopping in a standard grocery store on a typical household food budget.Without knowing what form the mercury found in hfcs takes there is certainly no reason to panic. Elemental mercury from a broken thermometer (for instance) is not a problem when handled within guidelines. Mercury is found in eggs, steaks and broccolli as well as fish and other "natural healthy foods" we routinely eat without question. The only way to completely avoid exposure to any toxins is to not eat or drink anything at all.

There is widespread use of hfcs, sodium benzoate and citric acid in foods we all regularly consume, especially soft drinks.  It might behoove us as consumers to demand a non-industry sponsored closer look at the potential for cumulative high or unsafe exposures. We need unbiased research to try and assess the cumulative risks posed by the combination of exposure risks posed by the three additives taken together over time.

For me, no matter what the eventual outcome of the mercury in hfcs debate, this is all simply one more reason to keep highly processed foods out of my diet as much as possible in order to reduce even accidental exposure to additives that while potentially safe in singular exposure, might yet pose an unforeseen risk when taken in combination with the many other additives commonly used.

Michael Pollan and others advise an approach that works well for our household. Shop the exterior of your grocery store, where the fresh items are sold. Dairy, produce and proteins in raw form typically do not expose you to food additives or preservatives. Stay away from those center aisles as much as you can, where you run into the processed and more convenient food items with ingredient labels that read more like a chemisty kit.

What's your take on this? Is this simply scare-em grandstanding? Do you trust anything published and labeled as a "study"? Do you trust the corn refiners themselves to be honest about your risks?  Feel free to sound off in the comments section.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Atticus Circle Savory Spoon Biscuits

I happened across a recipe last June for sweet potato biscuits that looked pretty good. It was an adaptation I'd spotted on Serious Eats from the book Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook, by Martha Hall Foose, and it called for one cup of mashed baked sweet potato as the first ingredient.Trouble was, I didn't have sweet potatoes in the house. Even in last June's heat I had been on a vegetable roasting spree however, so I did have a batch of oven roasted carrots sitting in my refrigerator. At some point I decided to throw some carrots in the food processor, serendipitously came up with a cup, and proceeded.

It turned out the seasoned roasted carrots made for a flavor combination that hit my daughter's taste buds smack between the eyes (or in the place that would be between their eyes if taste buds had eyes...oh, never mind!).

The first batch I made ended up kind of shapeless and amorphous - looking a bit more like, well, little piles than biscuits. This wasn't too bad but it made spreading butter in the middle tricky. That was clearly unacceptable. So the next batch I tried baking them in a greased muffin tin, the way we do beer biscuits. This time the results were much more aesthetically pleasing. (previously posted here - without the recipe -check towards the end)

Over the following weeks I guess I made a couple more batches of these for my daughter. She took some to work one day (this was pre law school), she ended up sharing one with her boss Anne S. Wynne, who is the founder of her then employer Atticus Circle. (Atticus Circle educates and mobilizes fair-minded straight people to advance equal rights for LGBT partners, parents, and their children.) Anne loved them, and asked for the recipe. LawSchoolGirl passed the request along, and I promised I would get the recipe to both of them. I meant it, too.. However.

I had really just haphazardly thrown together carrots and stuff the first couple of go-rounds. In order to have reproducible results, I knew I would have to make a batch (or two if luck wasn't with me) and more carefully record ingredients, quantities and amounts, so LawSchoolGirl who now lives way waaaaaay north of here, and her boss, who is still in Central Texas, could both bake these and be confident about the results.

Time passed and I never quite got around to making more of the biscuits, much less recording the quantities and ingredients used. But this is January, the month of renewed resolve and fresh starts, so....better late than never.

Today I set about to honor my promise at long last. To both codify and record the process for making LawSchoolGirl's favorite spoon biscuits. I decided to call them Atticus Circle Savory Spoon Biscuits in honor of the great LGBT rights organization where my daughter was working at the time I developed the recipe. Here is what I came up with.

For the Roasted Carrot and Onion Pureé
1 pound bag whole carrots, scrubbed (no need to peel) and rough chopped into 1 inch pieces
1/2 cup onion, large dice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
1-2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary (more or less to taste)
kosher salt, ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss carrots, onions, oil and herbs in a medium bowl to coat. Spread out on a foil lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for about 30-45 minutes, until the carrots are quite soft and the onions are caramelized, like so:Cool 15 minutes. Place carrots and onions in a food processor or blender and pulse/process, scraping down sides frequently, until it becomes a reasonably smooth paste or pureé.This should measure out close enough to one cup.

Turn oven up to 450 degrees. Spray muffin tin with baking oil and set aside. Assemble the following ingredients:

For the Biscuits
1 cup roasted onion and carrot pureé
2/3 cup milk (I use 2% but you can use whole if you don't mind the extra calories)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix the carrot and onion pureé, milk, and butter in a medium bowl.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add to the wet ingredients.Gently mix to form a very soft dough. Drop the dough into a greased muffin tin until each depression is evenly full (usually mounds up over the top quite a bit). I use a baking oil sprayed ice cream scoop which makes this very easy.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until biscuits are a deep golden orange tinged with brown. Serve warm or let cool on a wire rack. Keeps at room temperature for a day or so or longer covered, in the refrigerator. Makes a dozen.

Notes: Don't let the appearance of the roasted vegetable mixture or dough deter you. Once baked the browning of the biscuits takes care of any little specks of caramelized onion that might otherwise be unappealing.

As always, your oven's temperament and heating patterns will vary from mine. Keep a close eye on these and experiment with the baking times as needed to get the results you desire.   I always eat my biscuits with butter so I like to finish them on the dry side.  If you are wanting to skip the buttering step, the biscuits do tend to come out of the oven very moist.  

You can roast your carrot and onions together and/or blend them ahead of time and hold that mixture in the refrigerator, covered for a few days. I like to let it come up to room temperature before using, but not sure that is necessary.

If you aren't picky about the shape, you can go ahead and drop them out, spoon style, onto a greased baking sheet by generous tablespoonfuls and bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Then your yield goes up to 18 or so.

Finally, I like my biscuits a little crisper on the outside than these typically turn out. They are, as most spoon biscuit recipes all are, fairly crumbly. I ameliorate that by taking mine out of the muffin pan when finished baking, placing them on a cookie sheet, and putting them back into the oven with the heat turned off and the door open for a few minutes. It is a totally unnecessary step - that is simply the way I like them.And speaking of how we like them - these little biscuits make a mean ham sandwich. The combination of savory sweet and salty flavors are juuuuuust right.

There you go - beautiful Savory Spoon Biscuits. You could certainly play around with the herbs and components in the carrot roast if you wish. I will try using chopped red bell pepper rather than onion this summer when they are back in season. If you try these, and especially if you work out a variation of your own, I hope you'll drop a line in the comments section and let me know how they turn out. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Home Groan

Recently the folks at the Central Texas Gardener (a local PBS gardening show) interviewed and took a garden tour with one of the Austin American Statesman's (our local newspaper) popular garden columnist/bloggers.What struck me in this Television looks at Print looks back at Television gardeners love fest, was a statement made by Renee Studebaker of Renee's Roots (The Garden of an Urban Farm Girl), when she recalled seeing a photo of herself sitting in her grandmother's garden, in her diapers, "helping".

I hear this time and time again, that folks just have gardening, especially growing food for the table, "in their blood". They learned at a mother or grandmother or grandfather's knee, getting first hand tutelage in the art of coaxing food out of soil.

And every single time I hear or read of this, I experience pangs of grand/parent garden envy.

I never knew any of my grandparents. Long stories there, but bottom line is both my parents were older than average to begin with, one was estranged from their extended family, and I simply never had any of those doted upon moments where I was shown how to grow anything in a grandparent's garden.

My Dad enjoyed growing tomatoes. But he wasn't an experienced gardener. He grew tomatoes for love all right, but not love of tomatoes.

My father actually couldn't stand eating tomatoes. He developed an aversion to them (or so he said) while serving in the military in the Canal Zone during WWII. To hear him tell it, they all but force fed the troops tomatoes to prevent scurvy and he had to eat so many tomatoes during the war that he lost his appreciation for their flavor forever.

My Mom on the other hand, love love loved eating home grown tomatoes. She enjoyed them sliced with salt and pepper, no further embellishment required.

As much as she liked to eat them however, my Mother would not be cajoled, convinced or coerced into helping work the dirt to produce any. My Mom simply refused to get soil under her fingernails. Period.It was as if she somehow internalized the scene from her favorite movie "Gone With The Wind" where Scarlett, after scrabbling in the dirt for a turnip, was it? states "As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.".

Only with my Mom you would sub in the words "and when it's all over," (it being the Depression), "I'll never work in a garden again. No, nor any of my folk.".

Although that is taking it a bit far. My Mom was OK with my Dad growing her tomatoes.She was just not one of those Earth Mommies out teaching my brother and I about the Great Circle of Life by growing carrots or beans or whatever.

So when it comes to growing food now for Hub and myself, I still have many, many lessons to learn.Some things I have learned in the past couple of months include that in a serious drought, if you do not supplementally water your radishes a lot more than I did, they may come out of the ground ropey and tough.
Another lesson learned is that broccolli waits for no woman. When harvesting broccoli, the developed floret you see is essentially the floret you will get.No need putting off harvesting to see if you will get a set of developed side shoots or a large head of florets more similar to the ones in the grocery store produce section.

Nope, waiting to harvest a head of broccoli too long leads to a striking illustration of why they call them "florets" in the first place.  To wit...
After a week of being distracted by other pressing matters, I turned my attention back to the garden beds where I fully intended to stride out and harvest me some broccolli by golly, only to be stopped in my tracks. My vegetables were in full bloom.

I was originally disgusted with myself, feeling that I had somehow failed a test and wasted an opportunity. Then I took a closer look.Those broccolli flowers were absolutely crawling with bees. Happy busy bees, apparently grateful to have something in full bloom in this fairly stark January between spells of cold and of dry.

Bees, as if you didn't already know this, are in a lot of trouble, and scientists still aren't sure what the causes are. Colony collapse disorder, their fancy term for the mysterious die off of thousands of bees, still poses a "why?" that we cannot answer.

In light of that, I feel a lot better about providing our local bees with some winter blooms to visit. Without the bees my chances of growing anything range from slim to none. And, turns out there is plenty of broccolli to go around. So while all my broccolli plants won't be feeding the Hub and me directly, I am happy to donate their pollen to the cause of sustaining my neighborhood bees.

I even figure from now on, to try to remember to put in a couple of extra broccolli plants so my bees can have some bright yellow flowers to visit when everything else has pretty much packed it in for the winter.

Odds are, I am not your Mom or your GrandMom. Nonetheless I am happy to share this lesson, learned at Mother Nature's knee if you will, about how plants do what they do whether you are ready or not, which usually includes feeding somebody, some way.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

All Tea'd Up

Shepard Fairey commemorative poster goes on sale 1/23 here
In his commentary on President Obama's inaugural speech, one BBC pundit observed that Obama had "teed up a lot of balls" referring to goals set for his first term.

I remember thinking that was such a guy thing to say, comparing the goals in a speech to playing golf.  Then I thought about how appropriate the imagery was, really.  You can tee up all the balls you want.  Until you hit one and see where it lands though, you haven't really accomplished much.  Intentions won't count for much months from now.  It will be actions we will react to.  Walking the talk, so to speak.
Getting started - assembling the ingredients for steeping the eggs.

I decided to stop admiring and to try and make Marbled Tea Eggs, a typical Chinese New Year dish on my own.  I wanted to see if I could get results anywhere near as photogenic as the eggs displayed in the post by Jaden Hair of Steamy Asian Kitchen.

Naturally I did not have all the ingredients on hand. Why am I typically drawn to recipes where that is the case? There must be hundreds, no, thousands of recipes out there all calling for stuff I already have in my fairly well stocked kitchen/pantry.  Do I attempt those?  No,  I keep getting drawn away to try out dishes with ingredients I've never used before.  Or tasted yet.
Nobody here but us totally justifiably purchased herbs and spices!
Some people might call that adventurous. Others might call it "the reason why you have a cabinet chock full of jars and bottles of things you have only used once and cannot seem to throw away and why it takes you a full 20 minutes to find your jar of vanilla.".

I think making substitutions can be easier when you have no idea of how a dish is "supposed" to taste. I do know how these eggs are supposed to look. Jaden's photograph makes it very clear how gorgeous these eggs can be.
See why I wanted to try these?  Here is the photo from Jaden's post.  These eggs are amazing looking inside and I weirdly like how you have to destroy them to get inside to the marbling when you are ready to eat the eggs.  

But how they are supposed to taste? I have no idea but will reserve judgement on my own version until I get a finished product. More good news on that later, hopefully.

Apropos of nothing much but how cool is this?  Presidential Teas by jack cheng

Back to our ingredients or lack thereof.  After you soft boil (3 minutes), cool under running water and then  gently crack your eggs according to the recipe, you are to add the following:
3/4 cup soy sauce 
2 star anise 
2 tablespoons black tea (or 2 tea bags) Got the two tea bags, one with flavoring added which I think will be OK
1 cinnamon stick 
1 teaspoon sugar 
1 tablespoon sichuan peppercorn (optional) Don't have these
2 strips dried tangerine or mandarin orange peel (optional) Don't have these either but this is why I think the peach/ginger flavored tea is an OK sub

I checked on the sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan peppercorns are a spice, not really a peppercorn at all. They are not "hot" but will make your mouth/tongue go numb if eaten in sufficient quantity. (is that a good thing?) According to Wiki, they have a slightly lemony taste and are often part of Chinese 5 spice mixtures.

Seeing as I didn't have the peppercorns or the citrus peel and couldn't find my 5 Spice, I decided to throw in a tablespoon of coriander instead. Crazy? Maybe. I'll let you know after the eggs have steeped and are ready to sample.

A couple of comments. Jaden recommends using a teaspoon and a gentle hand to crack the eggs. I found that worked well, but would advise you start your cracking on the midsection (as opposed to either end) of your partially boiled eggs so you can get a feel for how hard to strike the eggs to have them crack but not break apart. There are often air pockets (especially if your eggs are slightly less than fresh from the store as mine were) at one end of the egg and if you go barreling into that more fragile end space you are likely to lose the integrity of your eggshell (I guess, ahem!).

I used brown eggs and that ought not be too big a problem because egg whites are all, well, white on the inside so the results should be close enough.  Time will tell.

One fun note. When I lowered my cracked eggshells into the steeping liquid, they made a great little hissing noise as air escaped from under the shells. That is just one of many reasons this would be a fabulous activity to share with young (or young at heart) folks.The eggs smell pretty fabulous while they steep albeit in a soy saucey way. I find myself craving fried rice or sushi which is not so bad but be forewarned. If you like soy sauce and the foods that soy sauce is served with/on, then perhaps you will need to have something like that to gnosh on while you are steeping your eggs so your stomach doesn't stage a coup on your lunch plans.  

Fast forward four hours of steeping>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Here is an egg at four hours whole and peeled.You can see my eggs have not picked up as much color yet as Jaden's but I simply had to taste one. It is an interesting blend of flavors, very delicate sweetness with a sort of meaty overtone from the soy. It was a little bit like what would happen if beef jerky married a hard boiled egg and they had a baby. (See how old/square I am? My imaginary foodstuff family isn't having a love child, they actually got a license first. )

OK - next day. Here is another egg that steeped overnightand you can see that the marbling inside continued to deepen and intensify.Were Chinese Tea Marbled Eggs all they are cracked up to be? (Sorry - you had that coming).

I'd meant to save this egg for lunch but it smelled so good once I peeled it I had it for breakfast instead.

The brown eggs do not work quite as well as white eggs will naturally.  Even the brown eggs yielded dramatic results overnight however. They are subtly flavored in a smoky slightly sweet way and I am eager to share them with the Hub. Don't wait for a special occasion to try this technique out for yourself. Once you have seen and tasted one, you'll be looking for reasons to make Marbled Tea Eggs time and time again.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To....

I'll admit right now shows luring viewers in with that tag line are a pet peeve of mine. You know which ones I'm talking about.

Most of them are pseudo-news magazines, and they'll snag your TV time with some excessively groomed talking head with a sincerely concerned look peering into the camera/your soul stating, "Just when you thought it was safe to go grocery shopping with your children...shocking new evidence about the link between grocery shopping and toddler deaths!".

In your head you know it can't be anything real, but you love(d) your toddlers by golly, and even if your kids are now well into the double digit age range chronologically, you might watch just to see what dire fate you obviously barely escaped years ago when you hauled them to the grocery store with you every week.

And because the warning is just vague enough all the time until you see the piece you are thinking to yourself, "Great! I take my kids shopping with me. I feed my children food from the grocery store. What kind of careless monster am I?!"

Which has little or nothing to do with the 2008 Food Blog Awards, but really, that was my original point. The stories in those shows had little or nothing to do with whatever it was they were warning against. They just played upon our fears to get us to watch. And if I did watch? Once I heard what the "hazard" was I harbored resentment at being tricked, again.

If I didn't? I still harbored resentment because I don't enjoy the idea that people are being frightened needlessly. Especially parents with young children. With recent news stories of salmonella in peanut butter (Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Eat a PB&J!), the world is plenty frightening enough.So yes, the 2008 Food Blog Awards. No hazards here real or imagined. Now after we have enjoyed (and you did enjoy something about yesterday I hope) the inaguaration of our new President, it is time to step back into the virtual booth and vote again, this time for your favorite Food Blogs, right here at the Well Fed Network.Sidebar:To follow is what I enjoyed the most, aside from watching the First Daughters having fun with their Mom and Dad all day...the Prez and the First Lady dancing with obvious pleasure as thousands (millions?) watched with smiles on their faces... It felt like a wedding, really, and this time we were all invited.

Unlike others who follow dozens of blogs daily, I only have a handful I check in on routinely, but even so I found several of my favorites listed among the categories. [ Best Blog by - Chef, City, Covering Drinks (Alcoholic and Non-Alcoholic), Family/Kids, Group, Humor, Industry, Photography, Post, Rural, Theme, Writing, New Food Blog, Blog of the Year] Even if you are not a regular reader of the blogs nominated, there are links to them all and you may find a new favorite. Certainly being nominated and included in the finalists must mean the blogs featured are doing a lot of something that appeals.

So. Give the television a rest today and go vote. Even if you decide not to vote (what are you, a COMMUNIST!?!?!) you will find well written, well photographed blogs, well worthy of your time on the interweb.

Oh, that "dangers of shopping with toddlers" show I watched and seethed about afterwards? It was making a point, albeit an extremely overblown one, about the potential choking hazards that presented themselves when folks gave toddlers a grape in the produce section while shopping for groceries. Seriously. A grape.A) Who gives their children unwashed produce anyway - especially grapes? and
2) Our store gave kids under a certain age a free cookie. You think red blooded toddlers will happily be heading for the produce section for a pilfered grape when they knew they could get a cookie in the bakery section? Not my kids.

Nonetheless did I peel the grapes I gave my under three year old daughter from that point on? Sigh. Yes. For a while, I actually peeled every single grape that little girl ate because I loved her and didn't want her to either have to give up grapes until she was older or risk choking either one. Stupid show!

I am off to start steeping Marbled Eggs for Chinese New Year. I have no idea what they are supposed to taste like, but I'll let you know what I thought right here, so....stay tuned!

Now it is your turn. Do you have a pet peeve about television show teasers? Did you ever do anything differently just because of one of those warning shows you watched? Feel free to vent/confess in the comment section. We'll all feel better after.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year, Y'all

OK I admit it - I am a week early with my sentiments. But today was one of those days on the interweb when one thing simply led to another.

I was blogging about January being Soup Month yesterday which had me thinking about the delicious WonTon Soup recipe I'd tried out from Jaden Hair over at Steamy Kitchen that was such a big hit around here. I have ingredients on hand to crank out another batch. If all goes well today, I hope to prep the wontons ahead to feature in tonight's dinner.

Jaden's site is one of several I subscribe to. Whenever she has new content posted I get an email alerting me so I never miss a recipe.The most recent email I got involved a recipe she is featuring for Chinese Marbled Tea Eggs (photo from her website), a treat she shares prep information for so we can all get ready for the upcoming Chinese New Year. Gorgeous, aren't they?

That got me wondering about Chinese New Year so I did a little investigating. According to Wikipedia the Chinese New Year will begin in 2009 on January 26th.This is a Year of the Ox, and because Chinese years weren't always numbered but rather follow a more cyclical pattern, different sources begin numbering in different sequences, so depending on who you go by, this will either be Chinese Year 4706, 4707, or 4646.

Sidebar:I hereby declare I will now calculate my own chronological age according to my (loose) interpretation of the Chinese system meaning I may declare myself to be variously 15, 16, or 55 years of age. This will lend a whole host of new meanings to the term "act your age" which I intend to employ to my advantage from this day forward. So let it be written, so let it be done. Back to Chinese New Year.A few other fun facts. The Chinese originally believed a monster, "Nian", would appear at the beginning of each year's cycle to eat livestock and people. This went on for some time and the custom of leaving food outside the door at the beginning of the year ensued with the idea that Nian would eat the food and leave the livestock and townsfolk alone.

At some point Nian was supposedly frightened by a child dressed in red, at which time the color red became "lucky" and was widely used in celebrations. A group of Buddhist monks finally tamed Nian to be their mount (don't mess with Buddhist monks!) and the observations evolved to a tamer family gathering, called a "reunion dinner" supplemented with gestures and ceremonies all meant to bring good fortune to the celebrants.Children who bow and behave appropriately respectful to their elders get "red packets" filled with money in denominations meant to bring luck and good fortune. Various traditional dishes are prepared, fireworks are set off, and some families engage in a search for a perfect plum tree (not all that different from that perfect Christmas tree) that will be planted and decorated as part of getting the year off to a good start.We aren't allowed to set off fireworks but plum trees do pretty well here in Central Texas. According to one site, the varieties Morris, Bruce (shown in photo), and Methley are especially well suited to our area. Plums will bear both blossoms and fruit, so why not get your year of the Ox off to a good start and plant a plum in your garden?

Another way to celebrate locally is to check out the Asia Market. According to many Austin natives, the most authentic Asian restaurant in our area is the Asia Cafe in the Market, located at 8650 Spicewood Springs Road.Whether you go to eat in the Cafe or to shop for ingredients for your own Chinese New Year Reunion Dinner dishes, the Asia Market is an inspiring spot. ChefSon discovered that for himself as documented in this post he wrote about some fabulous prawns he found there.And you are not all on your own past putting together a menu for your Chinese New Year gathering. This China Sprout site is has a wealth of decorations and favors, inexpensively priced, all to help you bring a little China into your home.

If after you consult your Chinese horoscope you decide cooking something along the lines of this recipe for Pork Dumplings for a crowd is not in your stars,you can always make reservations to join the Chinese New Year's Party at Kenobi Sushi Bar and Restaurant.

On Wednesday, Jan 21st, Kenobi [located at 10000 Research Blvd. in North Austin] will hold the "largest and most impressive event of its kind in Austin, to tribute to this tradition, as Chef Valentin unveils his new Japanese-fusion menu for Kenobi guests." To make reservations for the Chinese New Year celebration, call (512) 241-0119, or visit www.KenobiAustin.com.

"Chef Valentin will prepare a special four-course Chinese New Year table-service menu ($40 per person) featuring such tempting dishes as Asian Buckwheat Noodle Salad, a choice of Maguro Crudo or Sakana Cylinders, and a choice of Smoked Chilean Sea Bass or Asian Coffee-Rubbed New York Steak. For the fourth course, Chef Valentin will entice guests with a mini trio tasting. Diners may also opt to pair their feast with a selection from Kenobi’s impressive sake menu, or, for an additional $12, toast the New Year with a variety of premium Japanese sake flights."So there you have it. It has been quite a trip past a simple reminder that January is Soup Month, but it has been fascinating all along the way. Now we can all be prepared with lots of whatever we'll need to get this Year of the Ox off to an auspicious start. Considering a lot of the rest of the news lately, that might not be such a bad idea, either.

Happy [early] Chinese New Year, Y'all! Have a great Year of the Ox, won't you?

Addendum: Keep an eye out this week for more Chinese New Year's Recipes from Jaden's Steamy Asian Kitchen. Today? Hundred Flower Blossoms from her Mom.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Soup - Fast Food in a Bowl

Roasting a chicken ought to be simple and delicious. You can go any number of directions yet you still end up with a great dinner and then some.

It is the "then some" I want to focus on a bit today.

According to some sources, soups using peas, beans and lentils was the original fast/street food sold by Greeks as early as 600 BC. Before there was soup, there was broth (or stock), and placing a piece of bread in a bowl of broth to "sop" it up is where the name for soup comes from.Back to our roasted chicken. One of the things I like best about roasting a whole chicken is making stock from the carcass and then, making soup from that stock.

I should say here that making stock from a carcass is nothing to brag about. The process is just about foolproof. If you don't have a carcass on hand, making stock is still easy-peasy (here is one technique I like).

Taking that one step further, making soup from your stock is essentially non-screw-up-able. Trust me, I've goofed in every imaginable way with soup experiments but short of using an ingredient that nobody likes the taste or texture of, there is just about no real way to totally screw up soup unless you just boil it all out of the pan (don't ask).

Here in Austin we are lucky to have Farmers Markets but I really enjoy shopping at the Wheatsville Food Co-op where they reliably have all sorts of proteins and vegetables season in and season out, and the sourcing work is all done for you. You can buy a whole bird, locally and organically raised, pasture fed (read:more delicious), plus all the vegetables you'll ever need to make your own stock and others to put into your finished soup.

Case in point - I had stock in my refrigerator made from a whole chicken I roasted recently so two days ago when the temperatures were dipping close to the freezing mark, I made a noodle chicken soup. I threw in organic carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and trumpet mushrooms, all from Wheatsville. I also used home grown thyme and some sugar peas from our garden. I call it noodle chicken soup instead of the other way around because right at the end I packed it with the No Yolk egg noodles that we like so much.

Soup always tastes better after it sits a day. But, whether you make it and eat it right away or cook ahead for a day you know will be hectic, do make some soup this month. Once you learn for yourself or perhaps are reminded of how simple and how delicious a hot bowl of homemade soup tastes, soup will rightfully become a regular in your cold weather line up.

Here are some of my favorite "I always read these" blogger recipes to get your imagination going. I either intend to make or have already enjoyed every one of these and I assure you - there's not a clinker in the bunch:
Andrea's Carrot Ginger Soup
Homesick Texan's Good Fortune Soup
Bitchincamero's Black Bean and Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Feelgood Eats Vermont Cheddar Ale Soup
Smitten Kitten's Veselka's Cabbage Soup
Amateur Gourmet's Chicken Soup with Matzah Balls
Gastronome's Spicy Butternut Soup with Crispy Pork

No matter how you like your soup, with or without a sop in the bowl, January is Soup Month, and if you've never tried to make your own from scratch now's the time to give it a try. My favorite homemade soup is usually the one in the bowl in front of me, but I guess it was a Cream of Butternut Squash with Italian Sausage Soup that sold me on making soup at home.

How about you? What's your favorite kind of soup? Stick a spoon into the comments section and let us know what you like and if you make it for yourself or get it at a restaurant.

Friday, January 16, 2009

My City

According to a recent study issued by Men's Health, my city (Austin) could potentially kick your city's ass.Not that my city is looking for a fight. Austin is a fairly chill place to live for the most part.

But if we were to take you on, we are fit enough to give you grief, according to the study which takes a look at the general fitness (or fatness) levels in cities. Austin has a good report card based upon variables such as how many fast food places there are or how many trails and parks we have.

Here's our "report card"
Austin Overall Rank: 24th Fittest City
Fitness Centers & Sporting Goods B
Geography B-
Nutrition C
Commute C
Sports Participation F+
Parks & Open Space C
Alcohol Consumption C+
City Rec Facilities C
TV Viewing C+
Access to Healthcare D-
Overweight/Sedentary B
Motivation F
Junk Food D-
Mayor & City Initiatives A
Air Quality B-
State Obesity Initiatives A-
Climate C+

Check the list and see how your city did in terms of Fat or Fit. And yeah, do note while you are there that Austin is the ONLY TEXAS CITY in the Fit Category. Take THAT Arlington, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio!

Actually when it comes to ranking Texas cities over all, we see here living proof that bigger is, well fatter. We have the most fat cities of any other state in the US. Maybe we should amend our state littering campaign from this.... to....
Don't Mess with Texas or We Will Sit on You!

Rest of the country? Here are your top 25 fittest/fattest cities:

Top Fittest Cities
1. Salt Lake City, UT
2. Colorado Springs, CO
3. Minneapolis, MN
4. Denver, CO
5. Albuquerque, NM
6. Portland, OR
7. Honolulu, HI
8. Seattle, WA
9. Omaha, NE
10. Virginia Beach, VA
11. Milwaukee, WI
12. San Francisco, CA
13. Tucson, AZ
14. Boston, MA
15. Cleveland, OH
16. St. Louis, MO
17. Austin, TX!!!
18. Washington, DC
19. Sacramento, CA
20. Oakland, CA
21. Atlanta, GA
22. Fresno, CA
23. Tampa, FL
24. Nashville-Davidson, TN
25. Pittsburgh, PA

Top Fattest Cities
1. Miami, FL
2. Oklahoma City, OK
3. San Antonio, TX
4. Las Vegas, NV
5. New York, NY
6. Houston, TX
7. El Paso, TX
8. Jacksonville, FL
9. Charlotte, NC
10. Louisville-Jefferson, KY
11. Memphis, TN
12. Detroit, MI
13. Chicago, IL
14. Dallas-Fort Worth, TX
15. San Jose, CA
16. Tulsa, OK
17. Baltimore, MD
18. Columbus, OH
19. Raleigh, NC
20. Philadelphia, PA
21. L.A.-Long Beach, CA
22. Phoenix-Mesa, AZ
23. Indianapolis, IN
24. San Diego, CA
25. Kansas City, MO

Obviously we here in Texas, especially everywhere else but Austin, have a lot of work(ing out) to do. Maybe I misunderstood that last line in the Texas state anthem we all learned in elementary school. I obviously misheard. Apparently it goes something more like "God bless you Texas, and keep you brave and strong. That you may grow in power and girth, throughout the ages long!".

Monday, January 12, 2009

Candy for the New Economy

I struggle with a tendency to move from one stress inducing situation to the next without ever taking time to rest on my laurels, to enjoy the lulls in between.

Do you do that?  Get one thing done that you were apprehensive about for whatever reason and then once it is safely past do you dive right in to anxiety over that next thing that you don't look forward to rather than simply relaxing for a bit?

I believe I have made some progress along those lines so today I will allow a bit of a look ahead.  In this case I've found something that is simply too good to wait to share.
For all of us who are more annoyed than delighted by the Foof and Folderol that have become Valentine's Day and who don't have anything else between now and then to feed that sense of creeping dread?  A delightful change of pace from those creative folks at Demotivators:"Bittersweets - Valentine's Candy for the Rest of Us".

[From their site]"Now available in THREE unique collections- "Dejected", "Dysfunctional", and "Dumped"- with each featuring up to 37 unique sayings each!
"Dejected" sayings include:


"Dysfunctional" sayings include:


"Dumped" sayings include:


I especially enjoyed the flavor names: Banana Chalk, Grape Dust, Nappy-Citric, You-Call-This-Lime?, Pink Sand and Fossilized Antacid.

You will want to get your order(s) in early before I snap all these up myself. Think of it as a patriotic gesture to stimulate our flagging post holiday economy. Personal Favorite Bittersweet Heart statement so far? "Aging Poorly".