Monday, February 28, 2011

One thing leads to another

The cafe at the V & A, home of the best scones anywhere.
I have some scones baking in the oven. Why? Because I made marmalade over the weekend, and you have to have some scones to eat it on. It's just how it is.

For some time, I have been on a quest for the perfect scone recipe. I got on a kick with this last winter and tried a couple of different things; all of them were edible, but none of them was perfect. For me, the ne plus ultra of scones are the ones I had in the cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Now I know this sounds incredibly smug and name-dropperish, but it's the absolute truth.  Those scones were amazing:  crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, flaky, buttery, and delicious.  No other scones I have ever eaten--including those I've made myself--have approached them.  (Side note:  most British people I know pronounce "scones" to rhyme with "bronze," but the OED says that it can also rhyme with "bones" and prefers that pronunciation.  I don't care how you say it, so long as they taste good.)  I wrote to people in England asking for recipes and got several; I even wrote to the V & A cafe asking if they would share their recipe, but they never answered.  I don't blame them.  If you have the Rosetta Stone of scones, why would you give it away?

I'm trying something new today.  Should these scones turn out decent, I will offer the recipe.  I'll also let you know how I made the marmalade, but here I have a word of caution.  I made marmalade as a way of using some excess citrus fruit.  (We grow some superb oranges and grapefruit here in Arizona, and my mom has both in abundance from trees in her backyard.)  The marmalade is delicious, but it consumes more time than fruit.  I have 25 8-oz. jars of marmalade.  They took me two days to make.  I used 8 oranges, 2 grapefruits, and 1 lemon.  I still have fruit coming out my ears, but now I also have jars of marmalade coming out my ears, I used an appalling quantity of sugar, and I spent hours on the project.  So make marmalade, by all means, but only if you love it.  Don't do it as a way to use up fruit.  You're better off juicing the fruit and freezing the juice.

The timer just went off.  Time for a hot scone.  They look promising, at least...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Colors of a Commute in Phoenix

The blog has been quiet lately because Sue and I were in a show; the performances were last Thursday and Friday.  Her high school drama department was doing Footloose, and the director, Susan St. John--a pretty deft hand on the stage herself, as we saw when she appeared in a play called Devil Boys (or something to that effect)--wanted to have adults play the parts for adults.  What a concept!  That way, the kids could be kids.  Not everyone was happy:  there were a few students' parents who thought that the kids should do everything.  I understand their thinking, but I also understand Susan's.  There was a gaggle of kids in this production; I doubt that anyone who deserved to be in it got left out.  And as Susan pointed out, the adult roles are kind of stuffy.  The kids get to have all the fun in this thing.  So Sue and I got parts.  I played the preacher, Shaw Moore--a stick-in-the-mud who has convinced the town to pass a law against dancing after his son dies on the way home from a dance.  Sue played Vi Moore, the preacher's wife.  The most interesting bits were the places where their lives overlapped ours.  We spent a lot of time on the stage arguing, and while we don't argue all that much in real life, we've still managed to do plenty of it in a 35-year relationship.  We've got that down pretty well.  There's a rather touching reconciliation at the end, and everyone thought we got that part just about right.  I opined that it's because Shaw apologizes to Vi in that scene, and any husband has plenty to apologize for after 35 years. I wasn't acting.

But I digress.  (Really?  I hear you say, David digressing?  Is it possible?  Your sense of irony is delicious.)  Because we were in a show together, it made sense (at least to me) for me to take Sue to school in the morning, then come back for rehearsal in the afternoon and ride home together.  This didn't actually save any gas, but it did mean that we got to spend a total of an hour together in the car--an hour we otherwise would have spent on our own.  I liked this.

And there was an unlooked-for bonus:  because I was driving both at sunrise and sunset, I got to see the amazing colors of the Arizona sky twice a day.  They really are remarkable, and trying to describe them in words is nearly impossible.  It's not just the sky:  there's the added advantage that you can see two mountain ranges as you drive along Baseline Road, and they show off to best effect when the sun is low in the sky.  Nearly every day, the sight was breathtaking.

This is all the more remarkable because I would have told you (had you asked) that Arizona is basically beige.  In fact, I have the start of a pretty good essay on the topic that I've called "The Color Beige."  It's too long for here, but I may give you some bits of it from time to time.

One reason it's beige is that people paint their houses beige.  They would probably be more imaginative if the homeowner's associations didn't restrict their palettes to various tints of brown, tan, sand, buff, cream, ivory, biscuit, camel, oatmeal, and ecru.  But homeowner's associations make Shaw Moore look positively amenable:  they love conformity, uniformity, and consistency, and they love to scold you about it.  So everything here is beige, one way and another.  I guess it's supposed to blend in better with the landscape.  But one problem is that everything looks exactly alike.  I routinely drove past the first house we lived in here:  it looked like all the others.  When we bought a house, we got one at the end of a street.  That way, I can find it.

But thanks to being up literally at the crack of dawn, I got to see that, once in a while, for a brief, shining moment, the sky is radiant.  It has the soft glow of the inside of an oyster shell, and the colors range from red-purple near the horizon, through an orange pink as you go higher, to a soft golden light at the dome of the sky.  And the mountains, half in shadow, reflect those colors so that they, too, look beautiful.  It's a transformation:  the rest of the time, as Sue aptly says, the mountains here look pretty much like piles of gravel you might find at a construction site.

So the reward for leaving the house at 7 a.m. every day for nearly a month (apart from getting to spend that extra time with Sue) was to watch the sky slowly brighten with those roseate colors.  The transformation was gradual, and it was easy to miss.  In fact, I wonder how many people out at that hour even noticed it.  Most of us are so eager to reach our destinations (especially during rush hour in a hopelessly disorganized city like Phoenix, where no road is adequate to the traffic) that we look at little but the road ahead of us, thinking terrible thoughts about the idiot in front of us who is making us late.  Or we're on the phone, or we're texting, or we're sipping a hot latte and trying not to spill it in our laps, or we're putting the finishing touches on our eye makeup (my personal favorite--although the other morning I saw a lady taking the curlers out of her hair while she was driving, and I thought that was pretty cool).
These colors are not dramatic, which is part of their appeal.  (Sometimes the sky here is dramatic, like the photo at the top, but not all that often, actually, and it's not the most interesting thing that happens.  There are no photos of the sky I'm describing now because, well, I was driving.  Besides, I'm not sure it would actually register with all its nuances in a photograph.)  It's the softness of it that's so surprising, especially in this harsh climate with its hard, edgy landscape.  For just a moment, both at sunrise and sunset, everything goes soft and warm.  It's quite wonderful.  You get a little of the idea from Sargent's "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," which I've copied for you to the right.  It's in the Tate Museum in London, and it took Sargent two autumns to paint it, because there were only a few minutes each afternoon when the light was exactly right.  That's the light and color I'm talking about.

It's a pretty good compensation for the pervasive beigeness, and it's even partial compensation for having to get up early.  I remember once being in a hearing to oppose the construction of a cell phone tower in our lush neighborhood in North Carolina, where there was nothing taller than a tree.  One of the members of the zoning board asked me if I really looked up often enough to be bothered by it.  Yes, I replied, I do.  I'm glad to say that I still do.  Keep looking up.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

They Can't All Be Winners, or the soup that failed

It's a chilly night here in Arizona.  Now depending on where you're reading this, you'll either agree with that or find it outrageous, because the temperature was in the fifties (it should be in the seventies).  Also it was raining.  So it seemed like a good night for soup.

The other night, we stopped for supper between rehearsals at a place called Souper Salad where they serve--guess what?--soup and salad.  They had a really tasty soup that they called Butter Bean Soup.  I figured I could duplicate it pretty well once I was sure what butter beans were.  When I looked on the internet, I saw two possibilities:  lima beans or fava beans.  I am not too familiar with fava beans, beyond that arch reference to them in "Silence of the Lambs," but these beans were big, so I figured that's what they were.

We stopped at Whole Foods and got some dried fava beans, gave them a quick soak, and put together a soup in much the way I do split pea soup.  After a while, I gave it a taste, and I could see a bit of a problem already:  the beans had these thick husks on them that weren't getting any softer.  After two hours of cooking, the insides were soft, but the outsides were like leather.  I puzzled for a little while and then had an inspiration:  put it through a food mill.  So I did.  Well, now I had a decent pureed soup, but it had almost no taste!  None!  Adding some salt and pepper didn't help much, so I began tossing things into the pot.  (By now, I knew it was a lost cause.  Any time you start rooting through the spice cabinet in the hopes of finding the magic elixir that will salvage a dish, you know you're pretty much doomed.)  I found some curry spices--cumin, coriander, and a bit of curry powder--and tossed those in.  So now, I've got a brownish-green, baby-food-like puree with bland undertones and glaring curry notes.  Blech.

It's simmering now.  I have some popovers in the oven.  We'll eat some of the soup, which looks, um, pre-digested, but I doubt we'll keep the leftovers.  At least the popovers will be good.

I was going to write tonight about a wonderful French cherry concoction called clafoutis.  I made one today as a riff on the cherry theme that dominates Washington's Birthday.  (How did we end up with a tradition of making things from cherries in February?  It's about as far from cherry season as you can get .)  I promise, I'll share that recipe eventually--maybe in the summer when there are oodles of good cherries in the markets.

Instead, I thought in the interests of full disclosure, I'd let you know that not every night around here is a feast.  Sometimes you end up with a real flop.  But at least it makes a good story.

I hope your dinner turned out better!

(Note to self:  next time, use lima beans.  I bet they'll make a decent soup.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Recipe: Braised Pork Chops

A plateful of braised pork chops.
There's a little market down the street from us called Fresh and Easy.  I think it's run by the British grocery chain Tesco; the store sells healthy convenience food.  They have vegetables already washed and cut up in little bags that you can toss into the microwave, some decent pre-made things that you can heat up, like macaroni and cheese, and you can also get good bread and nice meat and cheese.

When stuff is approaching its sell-by date, they mark it way down, which is a big bonus.  We have a freezer full of bread (too much, actually--we have to eat some before we buy any more) that we bought on sale.  Last night, we were dashing in there to pick up some broccoli to have with the chicken dish I had defrosted, and there were pork chops in the discount bin for 40 cents a pound.  Yup.  Forty cents!  So we bought a three-pound package (the smallest they had).  Now comes the fun part:  what do you do with three pounds of thin pork chops?  I figured that even if I didn't solve it, I could afford to throw away $1.20.

I figured that they would need to be braised.  They're so thin that trying to fry them would surely overcook them and make them tough--a problem I've mentioned before in regard to pork.  Here's what I did:

The potful of chops just before I added the mushrooms.
BRAISED PORK CHOPS  (Serves 4 - 6, or 2 who like leftovers...)

  • 8 thinly-sliced, bone-in loin pork chops, about 3 lbs.
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • a couple of handfuls of fresh rosemary (we have some growing outside the kitchen door), roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup dry red wine (I used cabernet sauvignon)
  • 1 26-oz. package of chopped Italian tomatoes with their juice (I like Pomi, which comes in a 750-gram box--that's the right amount)
  • 1 - 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 lb. small brown mushrooms, like Baby Bella, halved or thickly sliced
  • juice of a medium lemon

1.  Preheat the oven to 350* F.

2.  Salt and pepper the chops on both sides.  Brown them briefly in  a little olive oil over high heat--just enough to sear the outside--a couple at a time in a large skillet.  As each chop finishes browning, transfer it to a Dutch oven.

3.  Once all the chops are browned, turn down the heat under the skillet, add a little more olive oil, and saute the onion and about half the rosemary until the onions are slightly browned.  Add the garlic and saute a minute or so more.  Turn up the heat, and add the wine to the pan to deglaze it.  After it bubbles a minute or two, dump everything from the skillet over the chops in the Dutch oven.

4.  Add the tomatoes to the pot, and pour in enough broth to make a good sauce that covers everything.  Give everything a good stir--more like a scramble, really--to be sure that all the chops are coated with sauce.  Set the pot on top of the stove on medium-high heat and bring it to a low boil.  Add the chopped mushrooms and the rest of the rosemary. (I didn't saute the mushrooms first, but you could if you wanted to.  In that case, I'd add them at the end.)  

5.  Bake in the oven 30 - 45 minutes until the chops are tender (I think it would be hard to overcook this; just let the chops get nice and soft--almost falling apart).  Remove the chops to a platter, place the pot over high heat, and let the sauce reduce for 5 -10 minutes on top of the stove, until it is nicely thickened.  Add the fresh lemon juice, and give it a stir.  Spoon the sauce over the chops in the platter, and garnish with some fresh rosemary sprigs if you'd like to dress it up a bit.

6.  Enjoy!  You could have this with some pasta, rice, or polenta if you want.  Orzo or couscous would also be good (I like couscous because it's so fast). We're going low carb these days, so we just had a little bread (some discounted rosemary focaccia rolls from Fresh and Easy) and some sauteed chard on the side.

Some thoughts for when I make this again (and I will make it again--it was yummy):  pitted kalamata olives would be a nice addition.  It would be possible to dredge the chops in flour before browning them:  this would make a thicker sauce.  I baked these for about half an hour, and they were certainly done, but they could as easily have gone longer. I think you could use a similar process with a sturdy cut of beef, like round steak.

I don't really think of myself as the kind of cook who invents dishes; most of my cooking is just following recipes. But with something as inexpensive as those chops, it seemed OK to take a risk: the stakes were so low (get it?). And it turned out rather well. Good enough, in fact, that I'd even make it with full-priced chops, and that's saying something.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Budget Debate: America at a Crossroads

I think we may be witnessing an important turning point in American politics.  With the 2010 election, we installed many people in the US Congress who promised to slash spending to address our growing deficits.  Fair enough.  The deficit is huge; the debt is huge; both are scary.

The problem is that there are only two ways to get a budget--any budget--in balance:  you can either bring in more money, or you can spend less.  You can choose to do one or the other, you can choose a balance between the two, but there's no third option.  It's true that the federal government has a few tricks up its sleeve for bringing in more money:  for example, they can just print more.  Printing more money willy-nilly creates problems that are just as serious and scary as big deficits.  I'm old enough to remember when inflation was routinely in the double digits.  The interest rate on the mortgage for our first house was 11.5%.  I'm not too interested in going back to that.  Whether you raise taxes or print more currency, it's still bringing in more money, or to put it more properly, it's raising revenue. 

Only we can't raise revenue in the United States these days, because as a society we're allergic to taxes.  We constantly think they're too high.  George H. W. Bush (Bush I) rather famously promised "no new taxes."  Backing down on that pledge was at least part of the reason he lost his bid for re-election in 1992.  Current Republicans go even further:  not only can't we raise taxes, we've got to cut the ones we have, for everyone.  So forget bringing in more money.

That leaves spending less--cutting the budget.  The problem here is that there are so many sacred cows that it's impossible to cut enough out of the budget to bring it into balance.  Even the Republicans' much-vaunted $74 billion in immediate cuts eliminates only half the deficit--and there's a little smoke-and-mirrors there.  The "cuts" are not on the actual current spending, because Congress hasn't actually approved a FY2011 budget (FY=fiscal year; FY2011 began on October 1, 2010, and goes to September 30, 2011).  These are cuts to what the White House proposed for FY2011; we're actually spending somewhat less because we're still using FY2010 figures for the most part.

So they're not cutting as much as they say they are.  Still, it's painful, yet it doesn't actually solve the problem.  And you don't have to look very far down the list of cuts to find items that are more ideological than fiscal.  It's no secret that the Republicans generally don't like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, so of course their proposal cuts those completely.  Some in Congress think climate change is a big hoax that greenies created just to make life difficult for those oh-so-scrupulous corporations out there that really have your best interests at heart  (did you catch the irony there?).  So of course you cut funding for programs to prevent pollution and climate change.  You also cut foreign aid:  people in foreign countries don't vote in US elections.  It's also relatively easy to cut programs for poor people, because they tend not to vote in large numbers either.  (Whether it's moral or not is a separate question.)  President Obama's budget proposal makes smaller cuts overall, but even he describes them as "painful." Looking grave, he regretfully sacrifices a few fatted calves on the altar of fiscal responsibility, just to show that he heard the message of the 2010 election.  Still, all this is nibbling around the edges, because no matter what party you're in, you can't touch the biggies:  Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and defense.  This is where most of the money goes, so if you're doing this rationally, this is where you have to make the biggest cuts.  If you take them off the table, the whole thing becomes impossible.

So why are we at a crossroads?  Because if we're serious about the deficits, we're going to have to be willing to do some things that have become poisonous in American political discourse.  We have to raise taxes, and we certainly have to stop cutting them.  We have to be willing to look at the whole budget and see where we can eliminate waste.  We have to make cuts that share the pain, that don't cripple our ability to function, and that don't unfairly burden one segment of the population or one interest.

In my view, the problem comes down to this:  it's easy to say we want smaller government; it's another thing altogether when we start thinking about what that would actually look like.  Fundamentally, we want small government until we need government.  When there's a big hurricane or a big flood or an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we expect the federal government to be there to fix it.  But you can't wave a wand and produce big government only for emergencies.  So really, we want more government than we're willing to pay for.  We want Wal-Mart government:  the same goods at a cheaper price, and we don't want to give up anything.   Right now, our basic stand as a nation is "Cut the budget, but you can't cut me.  Cut somebody else."  That obviously doesn't work.

I agree that we don't want to pass huge deficits and enormous debts on to future generations.  But I don't think we want to hand them an impoverished society, either--one where even fewer poor and mentally ill people are taken care of than now (and it's not great now); one where you can't rely on the federal government to help with a disaster; one where the air and water are poisonous from pollution and crops fail because the climate's out of whack; and one where there's no communal value put on the arts and culture.

If we mean what we say about the deficits and the national debt--and it remains to be seen whether we really do; it might just be political rhetoric designed to rouse the rabble--then we have to get serious about all the possibilities for addressing them.  We have to have a rational discussion about fair ways to increase revenues and to reduce spending.  I'm willing to pay higher taxes, and I'm willing to let the rules change on Social Security to keep it solvent.  Those would be a start.  Without such discussion, we're in a traffic jam, not a crossroads; nothing can be solved.  The various competing interests here can't all survive.  You either have to accept big deficits or raising taxes or cutting the budget.  Anything else is wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.

I really do think push is coming to shove here.  The coming months and years should be interesting as we discover what we really believe, based on what we're willing to do as opposed to what we say we're willing to do.  Maybe we prefer big deficits to the alternatives, in which case, we should stop baiting each other with slogans about deficits.  Talk, I believe the phrase goes, is cheap.  Maybe we should slap a steep tax on empty political rhetoric.  That might balance the budget in no time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Musings on Valentine's Day

Sue and I agreed in the car this morning that neither of us is all that keen on Valentine's Day.  Of course it's nice to have a day for remembering to tell someone that you love them, but honestly, shouldn't that happen more than a few times a year?  (I imagine it's obligatory on birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas--or Hanukah.)  And Sue and I are always skeptical about obligatory expressions of gratitude, affection, etc.  We always wonder about their sincerity.

Evidently the big (and I do mean big) thing at Sue's school this year was enormous stuffed animals:  four-foot high teddy bears and the like.  All the boys showed up in the morning with these behemoths; by midday, all the girls were carrying them.  If it wasn't a teddy bear or the like, it was a large array of balloons.  It's kind of cute, when you think about it.   Sue ended up storing a lot of them in the office during class, and then the kids had to get them home somehow.  All a big project--and those kids probably won't even remember one another's names in a few years!

You're supposed to get someone chocolate for Valentine's Day, but this too is fraught.  I heard a piece on NPR the other day about Ivory Coast, where a lot of the world's chocolate originates.  As you probably know, things are a political mess there (Gbagbo apparently lost the election but won't leave office), so all of a sudden eating chocolate ends up being a political issue (actually, it probably already was:  the places where chocolate is grown tend to be poor and exploited).  And that's saying nothing of the fact that it might be a diet issue--as it is in my house.  We've got one dancer and one diabetic; chocolate doesn't mix well with either.  We went out for dinner on Saturday to celebrate Valentine's Day, ate ourselves silly at a really good restaurant, and both weighed like four pounds more the next morning.  Not cool.  (I'm not even mentioning those ridiculous chalky hearts that feel horrible in your mouth and taste worse--the ones printed with gooey sentimental messages on them...)

Then there's the commercial aspect of the whole thing:   florists and chocolatiers make a huge percentage of their income on this one day, Hallmark and the post office make a mint on the cards that go flying all round, and the internet prospers from the e-cards...  (Sue was reminiscing--not fondly--about the duty of preparing a valentine for each kid in our daughters' elementary school classes.  It was usually an ordeal.  Just signing their name 25 or 30 times was torture enough for those kids--and then my kids, who are thoughtful, always wanted to give just the right valentine.  We just wanted to get it over with...)  I will also pass on mentioning the superabundance of frilliness--to an almost nauseating extent--that seems to accompany this holiday--a day when otherwise sensible people who usually have much better taste give in to the most saccharine expressions of sentimentality and the most appallingly over-decorated items in red or, Saint Valentine preserve us, some shade of Pepto-Bismol pink.

And of course there are all the unattached people who somehow feel left out and unhappy at Valentine's Day.  I have a number of very worthwhile friends who have to face this every year.  All of these folks are fascinating, delightful people who for one reason or another are, shall we say, between relationships?  Who needs a holiday that makes half the population feel bad about themselves?  Yikes!

We had a nice little celebration:  there was the aforementioned eat-yourself-silly dinner; cards and foodstuffs were exchanged; and we generally acted a little giggly.  But we could have done that without a prod from the calendar (and often, I'm pleased to say, do--when the spirit moves).  I mean, heck, even the Catholics aren't sure exactly who they're remembering on St. Valentine's Day.  If they don't know, what are the rest of us supposed to do?

So on the whole, I have to agree with Sue that Valentine's Day is a bit overrated.  I hope you had a good day.  If you did, and you love Valentine's Day, go for it.  But I also hope that today is just as nice.  If you can eat chocolate, hit the stores:  you can get it for a discount today, and it'll taste just as good.  (But remember that you're probably helping to keep Gbagbo in power.  Now how does it taste?  Hm?)

Any day is a good day to do something nice for those you love.  Pick some random day and do it.  In the end, the object of your affection will be much more pleased and delighted, because you didn't need Hallmark or Teleflora to remind you to do it.

ADDENDUM:  I just saw this on  I guess it could always be worse.  I'll take sicky-sweet hearts over whipping women with the hides of newly killed goats and dogs any day.  But maybe that's just me.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Joy of Yogurt

Sometime last year, I got on a yogurt kick. Now, for the better part of a year, I've eaten yogurt for breakfast nearly every day. While yogurt is a little challenging (it's tangy and nothing really covers that taste), there is something comforting about it anyway.

At some point, I realized that I was 1) spending a ton of money on yogurt and 2) recycling a whole lot of plastic because of the containers. (Quart containers are a possible solution, but even so you end up with a lot of them. And then there's the problem that you're not sure how much you're getting on any given day. I'm compulsive enough to want to eat about the same amount each morning, but not compulsive enough to measure it.) That was when I decided that it would be a good idea to make my own. Sue and I had done that back in the 70s and 80s but had somehow gotten out of the habit. We had even gotten rid of the Salton yogurt maker we had: we probably thought it wasn't worth moving at some point.

So I bought a new yogurt maker last summer, and ever since, I've been eating yogurt I make myself. There's a lot to like about this. First, I'm not using nearly as much plastic, and second it's cheaper. But that's not the real fun. I think what I like best about it is the sort of "science experiment" aspect of it. In fact, I think this is one of the things that appeals to me about cooking in general: there is a certain alchemy involved in putting a bunch of stuff together, heating it, and watching the magic happen. Bread and yogurt, which involve getting living organisms to do the work, are especially gratifying from this point of view. They also have an element of uncertainty that other cooking doesn't have. I mean, this time the little yogis (as I like to think of the bacteria that change milk into yogurt) might just choose to do something different. They are, after all, alive and therefore a little unpredictable.

That said, my yogurt and bread come out just fine, time after time. That's because, as you might imagine, I've paid attention to what happens and have been careful about the process--so I know what to do. In fact, yogurt making is fairly simple and forgiving. You just have to combine some live yogurt cultures with milk and keep it warm (about 110* F) for a while until it turns into yogurt and has the tang you want. The easiest and most reliable way to do this is with a yogurt maker, but setting a jar in the oven with a pilot light (if you still have such a thing) will work. I've even heard that you can put the warmed milk and culture into a thermos, close it, and leave it overnight--you'll have yogurt in the morning.

Even though it's simple, there are some things that help, so I'll share them. First, pick a commercial yogurt you like and use that as your benchmark. This will be your standard, your measure for success. It makes sense to use this as the starter, because yogurt tastes different and has a different texture depending on the yogis that were involved in making it. For your starter, it's important for the package to say "live yogurt cultures," because that's what you need to get things going. Also, use plain yogurt. Flavors can be added later. I like Stonyfield Farm yogurt, but I've also had success using Fage as a starter. In the old days, we used plain old Dannon and it worked just fine.

I have found that organic milk makes a better product (firmer and creamier) than non-organic. I don't know why. I just know that once the market was out of organic milk, so I bought the other kind (inorganic? surely not) and the yogurt didn't turn out as well: it was a bit runny. Heating the milk to nearly boiling used to be called for to ensure that you had killed off any stray stuff that might attack the yogis or interfere with their operation. Modern processing methods make that less necessary, but it turns out that heating the milk makes the yogurt firmer and creamier, so I recommend doing it. We used to add dry milk to the yogurt (the non-instant kind is best), but we've found that we like the yogurt just as well without it.

So here's my process:

2 quarts of organic 2% milk (though skim, 1%, or whole will work just fine: it's a matter of how much fat you want)
12 oz plain yogurt with active cultures (I use 2 small packages of Stonyfield)

In a large saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat until it reaches 180* F. (I use a digital probe thermometer affixed to the side of the pot for this. Very exact, very reliable.) This will take about 15 minutes. Resist the temptation to use higher heat: you'll just burn the milk on the bottom of the saucepan. Stir occasionally if you want, but it isn't crucial. Larger surface area makes this go faster, so I usually use a dutch oven.

When the milk has reached 180* F (it will be foamy and on the verge of boiling), remove it from the heat and set it in the refrigerator. Allow it to chill to 110* F. (Again, the probe thermometer is helpful here. Mine has an alarm you can set when whatever you're measuring hits a particular temperature.) This will probably take about 45 minutes. It is important that you allow the milk to cool: if it is too hot, you'll kill the starter. If it gets too cool, it will still make perfectly good yogurt; it'll just take longer. And how much longer? Who knows. So being precise here will give you more consistent results, if that's important to you. (It is to me.)

When the milk is cool, skim off and discard any skin that may have formed on the top of the milk. Whisk the 12 oz. of yogurt in a bowl or large measuring cup--I use a 1 quart measure. This smooths out the yogurt and makes it easier to mix. Pour some of the warm milk over the yogurt and whisk it to combine. Then add that back to the pot of milk and whisk thoroughly. (Mixing the starter with some milk first ensures that the starter will blend with the yogurt more thoroughly and more easily.) If you have any worries that you might have burnt the milk a little, just be careful not to scrape the bottom of the pot with the whisk when you stir. (And use lower heat next time.)

Pour the milk and starter into yogurt glasses. I pour it from the pot, which I used as the mixing vessel, back into the 1-quart measuring cup and use that to fill the yogurt glasses. This quantity of milk and starter will make 12 6-oz. glasses of yogurt. Put the glasses in a yogurt maker and follow the manufacturer's directions. I incubate mine for 8 hours, but you might like more or less depending on how tangy you want the yogurt.

When it is done, remove the yogurt from the machine, cap the jars, and refrigerate overnight before eating.

And that's all there is to it! This will make great yogurt that you can use for cooking or eating. If you like it thicker, you can strain this overnight for wonderful Greek-style yogurt or yogurt cheese. You could probably also just put the mixture into a big jar or two and set it in an oven with a pilot light--or even put the oven at 110* F if it will let you do that (only that probably uses more electricity than you want). I know people who've been successful rigging up something with a heating pad. After all, people were making yogurt centuries before electrical appliances were invented.

Once your yogurt is ready, you can eat it as is or garnish it. I like a little fruit in mine--some blueberries, melon, or apple is nice--whatever's in season. If I want something really nifty, I'll take apart a pomegranate and put the seeds (more properly, "arils") into the yogurt. I also put wheat germ or something else with fiber in it. (I have some wonderful granola that Noa's mom in Venezuela made me--delicious!) Lately I've also been using ground flax seed. If you like it sweet, try a drizzle of honey. You could also stir some good jam or jelly into the yogurt if you like.

There is something incredibly gratifying about starting your day with something you made yourself--even if it is simple. It somehow makes me feel a little virtuous, like I had to do a little something to earn my breakfast. Of course, there are all the health benefits of yogurt, and making it yourself means that nothing got in there that you didn't want. But that's not really why I do it. I make yogurt because I'm fascinated--every time--that it worked. I guess I'm just easy to please.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

How to Follow the Blog

Dear Readers:

If you're like me, you'd like some hint when there's new material on the blog, especially since I post sporadically.  (You don't want to be checking every day.)  I try to be conscientious about putting a notice on Facebook and Twitter, but even that's not too reliable unless you're diligently looking at one of those.

I added two new items in the boxes to the left:  the top one (just below the Tenniel illustration from "Alice") is an icon that will let you get a notification through your blog reader.  In case (like me) you don't really know what that is, I also added the possibility of subscribing by email:  when I post, you're supposed to get an email letting you know.  That's the second box under the Tenniel picture.  Note that making yourself a "follower" of the blog only allows you to access the blog through your Blogger Dashboard--it's not a notification system.

I do not receive any notification that you have subscribed, and other subscribers can't see you.  You do this confidentially (which is a good thing).  It's just between you and the little elves who send you stuff through your email.

So try it out, if you like.  Let me know how it works for you.  (I tried some other doo-dad, but it didn't work.  So I took it down.  This looks a lot more legitimate to me.)

Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Bagel Purist Speaks Out

OK, I admit it.  I'm both a snob and a purist when it comes to bagels.  There is a very good reason for this, so I feel justified in my rectitude.  See, I was raised on bagels.  I was eating them when only Jewish people (and a few enlightened New Yorkers) had them.  Bagels are Jewish food, and they're serious stuff.  They're a treat, actually, not everyday fare.

To me, a bagel means Sunday morning, because that's when we'd have them in my house when I was a kid.  My dad would go to a deli that had good bagels--it was always a quest to find the perfect bagels at the best price.  This was a particular challenge when we moved from Brooklyn to southern New Jersey in 1961.  Dad liked a lot of things about living "in the country," as he thought of it, but one of the sacrifices was giving up first-rate delicatessen.  Every once in a while, he'd sigh:  "What I could really go for right now is a nice hot pastrami sandwich...."  Anyhow, Dad would find a good deli and buy bagels, cream cheese, and various species of smoked fish.  Lox (cured salmon) was standard, and one test of a good deli was that they knew how to slice it:  paper thin, so that you could almost see through it.  He also liked smoked whitefish, carp, and sable.  (I haven't had carp OR sable in years, because, well, you just can't find decent deli anywhere but in New York.)

A fresh bagel--or sometimes a biali--slathered with cream cheese and layered on top with just a little lox or some other fish (not too much:  the fish was expensive) was a rare and idyllic treat.  Of course, you'd be guzzling water for the rest of the day, because the salty fish made you thirsty.

Sometime in the 80s or early 90s, bagels went mainstream.  It always fascinates me to see women in track suits who look very WASP munching on this quintessentially kosher item as though it were diet food.  And the things they put on a bagel!  Sprouts?  American cheese?  Peanut butter, for crying out loud?  I mean, I guess these things might taste OK on a bagel, and if you enjoy them, be my guest.  Who am I to tell you otherwise?  But I hope you'll forgive me for thinking it's just wrong.  Like putting mayonnaise on French fries.  (Somebody probably does that and loves it--peanut butter on French fries?  Grape jelly?  Work with me here.)

Worst of all, though, in my reactionary opinion, are sweet bagels.  Adding fruit-flavored cream cheese only heaps sin on sin.  If you want something round and sweet with a hole in the middle of it, have a doughnut, for heaven's sakes!  I mean, doesn't the chewiness of the bagel kind of contradict the sweet flavor?  It would to me.

The other abomination to me is toasting a bagel.  See, this is only supposed to happen with stale bagels.  Taking a good, fresh bagel and sticking it in the toaster to incinerate it is just disrespectful.

So here are my basic bagel rules:

1.  Bagels should be simple.  Plain is best; poppy seeds or sesame seeds are OK for a change.  Stick to that.  (Salt bagels?  Have a pretzel.  "Everything" bagels?  Sheesh.  A mish-mash!)

2.  Eat bagels when they are fresh, and don't toast them.  Reserve toasting for day-old bagels, if you've been foolish enough to let them sit around that long.

3.  A bagel may be eaten with cream cheese or butter.  There are two options:  slice the bagel crosswise, or (by far the more decadent and delightful choice) break the bagel in half and put some butter or cream cheese on the exposed round bit.  Take a bite, then put on more butter before the next bite, and so on.  This ensures that you get your full daily requirement of butter and/or cream cheese.  If you're feeling especially dissolute, you can even alternate butter and cream cheese with successive bites.

4.  Reserve sandwich fixings for bread.  Keep the topping on the bagel simple.  Cream cheese, a little lox--that's all you need.  (I occasionally make a concession to haute cuisine and have the capers, onions, and tomato with the lox, because I admit they taste good.  But no self-respecting Jew ever adorned lox with those things.  I suspect allowing them to be added to my bagel and lox is a mark of my assimilation.)

5.  Remember:  bagels aren't sweet.  Just as you wouldn't put lox on a doughnut, don't turn bagels into pastries.  They make lousy pastries anyway.  Besides, a plain bagel is better for you--and the fish has Omega-3s in it.  Bagels and lox are the true health food.

Oh, and one more thing.  "Lox" might sound like a plural, but it isn't--just like "fox" and "box" aren't.   Anyhow, "lox" is a category, like "beef" or "chicken."  So go ahead, have some lox on a bagel.  And remember to tell the girl behind the counter (who has never darkened the door of a Jewish deli) to skip toasting the bagel.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Sometime around midnight in the transition from January 31 to February 1, 2011, the blog passed 1000 page views.  I'm astonished, humbled, and pleased.  Thanks for reading.

The stats also tell me that we've had occasional hits in Europe (France, Denmark, England, Spain, Germany, and Austria) as well as more exotic places like India and Malaysia.  There is at least one faithful reader in Tanzania, and there is quite a coterie in Venezuela.  We've also had a couple of hits from Argentina.

The US readership is by far the highest.  The statistics don't tell me what state people are from; I wish it did.

Readers therefore come from 5 continents.  Remarkable.  I estimate an average of roughly 35 hits per post.

Please always feel free to leave a comment or to email me directly at

I'm glad you're finding something worthwhile here.