Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Latkes Controversy

I have a list of other things/recipes I want to blog about, but I wanted to write quickly about a post that turned up in yesterday's Well health blog at the NY Times written by Tara Parker-Pope. Her post was called "Rethinking the Latke," and she offers up some alternatives to the traditional latkes--using zucchini, baking them in the oven and that sort of thing. I'm not opposed at all to trying to make things healthier, esp. things I make and eat often, but man, this column bugged me. It didn't start well, given that her second sentence is, "But for people who are health-conscious year round, it’s hard to imagine ingesting fried potatoes, no matter what the occasion." Um, no, that's not actually true. It's not hard for me to imagine ingesting fried potatoes. It's not even hard for me to actually ingest fried potatoes. From reading the (many) comments, this isn't true for many of her other readers either.

Parker-Pope responded to many of the comments, gamely initially, then seemingly more defensively, then resignedly. She argued that eating fried food bothers her stomach, so she wants a lighter version, which is fine, but she also tried to say that eating even one meal like latkes A YEAR could harm you. (Apparently, she's going to blog more about this.) I'm sorry, but I find this ridiculous, even if there is a scientific study to back it up.

Just last week, I was having a long conversation with my friend Andy (with whom I am going to India in exactly a week!), and we were talking about all the Indian snacks we're going to eat when we're there. He was talking about chaat (a delicious mixture of potatoes, chickpeas, little fried things, tamarind, yogurt sauce and other tasty morsels), and I was talking about chole bhatura, which is a plate of spicy chick peas with fried bread. I told him how whenever I'm in Delhi, I make a special trip to the Bengali Sweet House in Bengali Market to eat their chole bhatura, washed down by a large glass of freshly made pineapple-pomegranite juice. (I've been doing this now for 14 years.) And how whenever I tell this to my friends in Delhi who I stay with--2 thin, yoga-doing fellows--they both start to moan. "Oh, it's so heavy," one of them will groan. "It gives me the burn," the other will chime in. And I will have to point out that it is a meal I eat once a year, at most, and I haven't suffered from it yet. And if I'm feeling mean, I will remind Sunil of how he came with me to the Bengali Sweet House a few years back and attempted to order only juice. He lasted until my plate of chole bhatura arrived, and then his resolve weakened, and he took a bite, and then he gave in entirely and ordered his own. It may have given him "the burn," but he certainly seemed to enjoy it. (Last time I was there, I realized a side benefit of a large chole bhatura lunch, in addition to its deliciousness--I decided to walk off my fullness, so I walked from Bengali Market up to the New Delhi Railway Station, where I had to buy a ticket, and back to, and then around, Connaught Place. I felt quite energetic, and I didn't need a snack (a rare occurrence). Sometimes the fact that Indians often don't eat dinner til 10 p.m. (or later) leaves me feeling like I might have to gnaw my arm off, but that day, I was just fine. Chole Bhatura as energy food! There's a new angle.)

Back to Tara Parker-Pope. I think she was surprised by how strongly her commenters felt. She thought she was offering up healthy alternatives, while many readers took it as sacrilege. (Given that the point of Chanukah is to celebrate the miracle of the oil, it seems ironic to try to take the oil away from latkes.) I cut the amounts of butter and oil down in nearly everything I make with no problem, so that's not really the issue, but I guess her tone is what bothered me. I've had too many experiences with self-righteous eaters over the years, and my patience for it is minimal at this point.

My favorite comment came almost at the very end of the long list of comments: "I am kind of thinking people didn’t want to rethink the latke." Nicely stated.

Meanwhile, in happier news, Deb at Smitten Kitchen has updated her post on latkes here. There is no mention of lighter latkes or using less oil for health reasons, though she does point out that using cast iron meant that she could, in fact, use less oil. She also writes a sentence that might make Tara Parker-Pope have to lie down with a cold compress on her forehead: "Finally, if you think that latkes are just for Hanukkah, with all due respect, you’re totally missing out. I have yet to see a better “bed” to rest your poached or fried egg upon; home fries, latkes distant, black sheep of a cousin, just weep with jealousy in their presence."

I made Deb's latkes over Thanksgiving, and we ate them with Melissa Clark's fish cakes for some all around fried goodness. Her new post makes me want to make them again. I even bought some cheesecloth yesterday in preparation.

Of course, this means that I will be eating latkes more than once a year. But I have to say that latkes followed by chole bhatura seems like some pretty good winter eating to me. I'll report back on how my arteries feel about it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Those skinny peanut wafers . . .

aren't half bad either. Just ask a certain unnamed boyfriend who managed to consume approximately (okay, exactly) 7 of them last night, both as a pre-dinner snack and as dessert. They didn't spread out as much as I expected them too, but their flavor is definitely reminiscent of peanut brittle (which I love and which I eat a lot of when I'm in India). I'd recommend putting as many nuts as will fit on top of the cookies. (I was too delicate with my peanut sprinkling, which is why I suggest this.) Maida Heatter recommended honey-roasted, but I wasn't crazy about the flavor of the ones I bought, and I like the extra bit of saltiness that the roasted peanuts add.

These were very easy to make and relatively speedy, especially compared to biscotti. (2 batches down and 1 to go for this week's biscotti needs. I have to blanch more almonds before I can make the next batch of biscotti, though, and I'm not looking forward to it. Would I rather blanch almonds or work on my quarterly proofing project? That's a good question. I think I need a cookie while I ponder. )

Skinny Peanut Wafers
from Maida Heatter's Brand New Book of Great Cookies

4 ounces (1 cup) salted peanuts
plus optional additional peanuts to use as topping
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sifted unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg graded "large"
2 tablespoons milk

Adjust an oven rack to the center of the oven (these will be baked only one sheet at a time). Preheat oven to 400 degrees. If you have cookie sheets with only one raised rim, these are best for this recipe; otherwise, use any cookie sheet turned upside down. Line cookie sheets with aluminum foil, shiny side up. (Do not use heavy-weight foil-the cookies won't bake well.) Set aside.

Place the 1 cup of peanuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade. Add a few tablespoons of the sugar (reserve remaining sugar). Briefly pulse the machine 10 times to chop the nuts into coarse pieces; some will be powdery, some coarse, some still whole-OK. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a small pan over moderate heat; set aside.

Sift together the flour and soda; set aside.

Place the egg, milk, melted butter, and the reserved sugar in the small bowl of an electric mixer and beat until mixed. Add the sifted dry ingredients and the chopped peanuts and beat again until mixed. Transfer to a shallow bowl for ease in handling.

Spray a foil-lined sheet with Pam or some other non-stick spray. (I used easy release tin foil, and it worked just fine.)

Place the dough by slightly rounded tablespoonfuls (not heaping) on the prepared sheet, placing the mounds 3 inches apart (I place 6 on a 12 by 15-1/2 inch sheet). Try to keep the shapes neat. Top each cookie with a few of the optional peanuts, or with as many as you can fit on the top of each cookie.

Bake one sheet at a time. After 5 minutes, reverse the sheet front to back. The cookies will rise up, spread out, and then flatten into very thin wafers with bumpy tops; they will spread out to 3-1/2 to -4-1/2 inches in diameter. Total baking time is about 8 minutes. The cookies should bake until they are golden brown.

Remove from the oven. If the cookies have run into each other cut them apart immediately, while very hot. Cool on the sheet for a minute or two. Then slide the foil off the sheet. Let the cookies stand until they are firm enough to be removed. Then it will be easy to peel the foil away from the backs.

As soon as they are cool store in an airtight container.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Annual Biscotti Gesture

The first biscotti were an accident of timing.

It was December, 1995, and Maida Heatter's Brand New Book of Great Cookies had just been published. The NY Times had published a recipe from it, and then it made the annual round up of the year's best cookbooks. (You can read the rave here.) That summer, I had moved to Northampton, after a year and a half in India, and at the time of my move, I had no job, no money, no place to live and a broken heart. By December, I had a place to live, at least, and sort of a job, but still not much money and my heart had not mended. But even though I was feeling generally glum, I wanted to be able to do something for the holidays, and so I decided to give Maida Heatter's biscotti a try.

Little did I know then that it would become an annual event. But here it is, 13 years later, and I'm still making the biscotti. And all these years later, I'm still making the same recipes. I've branched out over the years--sometimes I make lemon cranberry, for example, and this year, I'm pondering the possibility of maple biscotti (I can't decide whether that's a good idea or not). But I always make Maida Heatter's chocolate chip almond biscotti, her bittersweet chocolate biscotti and her gingerful biscotti. In recent years, I've added chocolate to the ginger biscotti, and while they were delicous before, they are even more delicious now. If I ever get ambitious enough, I may figure out how to dip the ginger biscotti in chocolate, but for now, I'm content to throw a ground up chocolate bar in the batter and enjoy.

The book, unfortunately, is out of print. Every year, I take it out of the library, and I know that at least some of the stains on the pages are from me. I've photocopied the recipes, of course, and you can find them online, but I always like to have the book on hand, for inspiration. (This year, for example, I'm thinking I might make some skinny peanut wafers in addition to the biscotti, just for the hell of it.) (I'm also thinking I should just buy the damn book already.)

A few words on the process. Biscotti are not hard to make, but they're time consuming. Maida Heatter makes you do lots of steps, and she is a bit bossy, but it's totally worth it. You need to be around to switch the baking sheets in the oven at the appointed times and to slice the loaves while they're still hot. The bittersweet chocolate and ginger biscotti both have very wet dough, and you need to wrap them in plastic and freeze them for at least an hour before you bake them. This actually makes them more convenient to make, since you can, as I just did, do the first steps on one day and bake them another day.

The other thing about these biscotti is that there is no butter in them. The dough is held together with eggs and sometimes some honey or perhaps some liquor. This means that the dough can be harder to work with while you're making them, but the finished biscotti are very hard and crunchy, ideal for dipping. It also means that they last for a really long time, so you can make them pretty far ahead of time if you need to.

If you can find blanched whole almonds in the store, go for it. I found them once, at Trader Joe's, and never since. (You can get blanched almond pieces, but one of the pleasures of the biscotti is the chunks of whole almond, so you need whole ones for the best effect.) Although I hate blanching the almonds--my fingers get all wrinkly, and it's boring, to boot--I consider it part of the gift.

This link to the Fresh Loaf website conveniently has the recipes for both the bittersweet chocolate and chocolate chip almond biscotti right next to each other, saving me a lot of typing.

I am posting my version of the chocolate ginger biscotti, partly because last year, these were more highly praised than anything I'd ever made before. I'd sent some to a friend, and the ginger ones were almost instantly purloined by her husband, who was then in the midst of writing a large book. According to my friend, he not only said, "I am certain that I can write more intelligently while eating these," he seemed to truly believe it.

I can't promise you will write more intelligently, but you never know. And even if you don't, you will at least have some delicious biscotti to eat while you're working on it.

Chocolate Ginger(ful) Biscotti

Adapted from Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies.
  • 4 ounces (1 loosely packed cup) crystallized ginger
  • 7 ounces (1 1/4 cups) blanched (skinned) or unblanched whole almonds
  • 3 cups sifted unbleached flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons finely and freshly ground white pepper (or 3/4 to 1 teaspoon packaged ground white pepper)*
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs graded "large"
  • 1/2 cup mild honey
  • 1 bar good semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate

Cut ginger into thin slivers and then crosswise to make pieces about the size of small green peas; set aside. (I like the little crystallized ginger discs from Trader Joe's--very easy to chop.)

Toast the almonds in a shallow pan in a 350 degree Farhenheit oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly colored, stirring once during toasting. Set aside to cool.

Break chocolate into pieces, then chop in food processor until it's mostly fine, though some small chunks are okay.

Into a large bowl strain or sift together - just to mix - the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, pepper, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard, cloves, and sugar. Stir in the crystallized ginger, then the nuts. Add chocolate. In a small bowl beat the eggs and honey to mix and add to the dry ingredients. Stir until the dry ingredients are completely moistened.

Place two 18 to 20 inch lengths of plastic wrap on a work surface. You will form two strips of dough, one on each piece of plastic wrap. Spoon half of the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls in the middle - down the length - of each piece of plastic wrap, to form strips about 13 inches long. Flatten the tops slightly by dipping a large spoon into water and pressing down on the dough with the wet spoon. Rewet the spoon often.

Lift the two long sides of one piece of plastic wrap, bring the sides together on top of the dough, and, with your hands, press on the plastic wrap to smooth the dough and shape it into an even strip about 13 to 14 inches long, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches wide, and about 3/4 inch thick (no thicker). Shape both strips and place them on a cookie sheet.

Place the cookie sheet with the strips of dough in the freezer for at least an hour or until firm enough to unwrap (or as much longer as you wish).

To bake, adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with baking parchment or aluminum foil, shiny side up. (If you have a Silpat, this is the perfect time to use it.)

To transfer the strips of dough to the sheets, open the two long sides of plastic wrap on top of one strip of dough and turn the dough upside down onto the lined cookie sheet, placing it diagonally on the sheet. Slowly peel off the plastic wrap. Repeat with the second strip of dough and the second cookie sheet.

Bake for 50 minutes, reversing the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during the baking to insure even baking. These will turn quite dark during baking.

Then reduce the temperature to 275 degrees and remove the sheets from the oven. Immediately - carefully and gently - peel the parchment or foil away from the backs of the strips and place them on a large cutting board top down. Slice the strips while they are still hot. Use a pot holder or a folded towel to hold a strip in place. Use a serrated French bread knife. Slice on an angle; the sharper the angle, the longer the cookies, and the more difficult it will be to slice them very thin- but you can do it, and they will be gorgeous. Cut them about 1/4 to 1/3 inch wide.

Place the slices on a cut side, touching each other, on the cookie sheets. Bake at 275 degrees for about 25 minutes.

Reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking. Bake just until dry. (You have to cool one to know if it is crisp). Do not overbake.

When done, cool and then store in an airtight container.

*Confession: While Maida Heatter discusses the importance of that white pepper in this recipe . . . I have actually never used it. They're still delicious. So if you don't have any white pepper on hand, don't despair.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

On Audio Books: Part I (Mysteries)

After my post on Corduroy Mansions a few weeks ago, Robin Aronson, over at Local or Express?, said she was interested in hearing more about audio books. (She envisions herself listening while knitting, which seems like a fine plan to me. I do sometimes listen while knitting, though I'm more likely to listen while in the car, at the gym or in the kitchen chopping vegetables.) There are many things I don't know much about or don't spend a lot of time thinking about--(to wit, Alex's question the other day while reading the Sunday NY Times: "If you were Obama, what would you do first?" Me, looking blankly at him, "I have no idea. That's why I don't want to be president.")--but, over the years, I've spent a lot of time thinking about--or at least listening to--audio books. (I realize that may make me sound rather shallow. Oh well.)

I re-discovered the pleasure of being read to in college, when I worked in the White Mountains for the Appalachian Mountain Club. One winter, I hiked up to visit a friend who was the winter caretaker at Carter Notch Hut, and I discovered that he was a regular listener of "The Radio Reader," a program out of Michigan State University. (Amazingly, the Web site says that it's been around in some form or another since 1936. That's longevity.) For the few days I was there, I listened with him to a bio of Katharine Hepburn. And the next year, when I was a hut caretaker myself, I made sure to find the station that carried "The Radio Reader" so I could listen again.

Some years later, in 1994, I was living in New Delhi. That was the year that the Internet really became a part of people's lives in the US, but it wasn't yet part of life in India. During the summer, monsoon season, most of my friends were away, and I spent a lot of time in my very hot apartment. (Why I was too stubborn to get an air conditioner--or even a swamp cooler--I can no longer recall.) I had a little shortwave radio, and I listened to it a lot that summer. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered "Off the Shelf," from the BBC World Service, a program like "The Radio Reader," where someone read a book in 15 or 30 minute installments. I have such a vivid image of myself lying on the floor of my bedroom, directly beneath the fan, wearing the (hussy) shorts and tank top I couldn't wear outside my apartment, listening to Rebecca over the course of many muggy evenings. (That it was an abridged version was the only thing I didn't like. When I started listening to books on tape a few years later, I listened to the unabridged version because it didn't feel like the shorter one counted.)

There's my segue to my list. I only listen to unabridged books, even for things that are really, really long, even if the author approved the cuts. So far, 12 years and counting, there have been no exceptions.

Another thing to pay attention to is the reader. These fall into categories. There are readers who make their livings reading audio books. There are actors (many, but not all, British) who also read audio books. And every once in awhile, a writer reads his or her own book. Generally, the professional readers and the actors do a better job, just because it's more of a performance (which turns out to kind of matter), but one true exception is Charles Frazier reading Cold Mountain. He's not a fancy reader, but listening to it really reminded me of how fundamental it is to have people tell us stories. (It's also a book I'm not sure I would have enjoyed reading, but I liked listening to it a lot.)

I've probably listened to hundreds of audio books over the past 12 years, so it would be hard to name them all. I do have some recommendations, though, and I can sort them, generally, by category. I'm going to start with mysteries, just because I listen to a lot of them. I like reading mysteries anyway, but one thing I learned early on is that I really need something with a plot, or at least a strong narrative. (While I might like to read ethereal, beautifully written meditations on love and loss, I do not like to listen to them. Give me a plot line any day.) I also like mysteries because usually they are written in series form, and that means that if you find a series you like, there will be lots of books to listen to.

So, if you're an audio book novice and like mysteries, here are a few to start with:

  • Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries--set in Venice and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, these are thoughtful, literate, well-written books. Brunetti is a wonderful character, as is his English professor/Henry James loving wife Paola. They will also make you hungry, as Brunetti is a serious eater who tries to make it home for lunch every day to eat whatever delights Paola has produced. I'm a fan, usually, of starting at the beginning, so even though the series gets better as it goes along, start with the first one, Death at La Fenice. The earlier books are read by Anna Fields (the stage name of Kate Fleming, who, very sadly, drowned in a freak storm a few years ago), and the later ones by David Colacci.
  • Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series. I didn't follow my own rule with these and ended up listening to one of the later ones first. It's a long series, more than 20 books now, and the earliest ones aren't available on CD (or even tape, in some cases.) Still, listening to book number 17 made me want to go back and find the rest. It's possible to read these not in order (as I discovered), though it makes more sense if you do. Although Grimes is American, Jury is a Scotland Yard inspector, and he is often assisted in his investigations by his aristocratic friend Melrose Plant (officially an Earl til he gave up his title, though he still lives in serious comfort). The books are all named after pubs that play a role in each case. As in any long series, they're not all equally good, but Jury is always compelling, and Grimes is especially good at writing wise-beyond-their-years children (which is probably why they turn up in so many of her books). The earlier books are narrated by Davina Porter and the later ones by John Lee. (Both good readers, with a slight edge to Lee, I think.)
  • I also recently listened to Martha Grimes' standalone mystery Foul Matter, set in the world of NY publishing, and it is very, very funny. Laugh out loud funny, especially if you know anything at all about how publishing works. Highly recommended.
  • Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series. Set in fictional Colleton County, North Carolina and with a feisty judge as the main character. Very occasionally a bit sappy, but the main characters are solid, and the series is topical. CJ Critt narrates the whole series (now up to book 14). Start with the first, Bootlegger's Daughter.
  • Years ago, when I first discovered Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, I was delighted. The author (whose real name is Barbara Mertz) has a degree in Egyptology, so it made sense that her main characters--the know-it-all Amelia Peabody and her dashing archeologist husband Emerson--were Egyptologists as well. The first few books in the series were quite charming, but as the series moved along, and the extended Emerson family grew larger, the series got more and more convoluted, and I had a hard time keeping track of what was going on.
  • Audio books to the rescue. On a whim, I decided to listen to one of the later books, and all of a sudden it made sense. The narrator of all of the books is Barbara Rosenblat, who's a star in the world of audio books. Listen to the early books (the first is Crocodile on the Sandbank, in which the outspoken spinster Amelia annoys Radcliffe Emerson so much that he has no choice but to marry her) because they're fun, and if you listen to them in order, you may even be able to keep track of all of the Peabody-Emerson's many friends and relations.
  • Barbara Rosenblat also narrates Peters' much shorter Vicky Bliss series. (Vicky is an art historian with a notorious art thief for a lover--only in fiction.) After a 14 year hiatus, Peters has just come out with the 6th Vicky Bliss novel called Laughter of the Dead Kings. (I'm waiting for it from the library, so I can't report how the series has weathered after such a long gap.) I listened to the first five in my early days of audio book listening, and I enjoyed all of them, but the fifth in the series, Night Train to Memphis, is particularly a hoot. (Don't expect a lot of realism, but they're fun to listen to.)
I'm going to end this installment here and write about other kinds of audio books another time.

Meanwhile, after listening to the first 60 installments of Corduroy Mansions all in a row, I'm now all caught up and have to listen to one episode at a time, like everyone else. A very different listening experience, but still interesting. But now I have all kinds of unanswered questions. What will Berthea say when she learns that Terence has bought a Porsche? What is Barbara going to do to get her revenge on the odious Oedipus Snark? Why did Freddie de la Hay (former sniffer dog at Heathrow Airport) get so excited about the painting in Eddie's wardrobe? We will all just have to wait to find out.