Pigeony Goodness

Monday, November 30, 2009

-Pigeons: carrying your messages and your meal all in one feathered package.-

Pigeons aren't exactly what we would call haute cuisine in the United States. For the most part they're seen as dirty animals. Rats with wings. They carry disease and spread plague. Which is odd because I can't say I can name a single disease carried by pigeons (maybe bird flu, but that we can't place that burden solely on the shoulders of pigeons). I can't recall any great health disaster that was due to pigeons, unlike say the fleas and rats who were the initial carriers of the Black Death or mosquitoes and their ubiquitous association with malaria.

It seems then that pigeons have gotten a bad rap in the food world amongst Anglo America. They're a pariah. A guest most unwelcome to dinner either as a guest or the main course.

Yet for the most part, many of us have happily eaten it anyways. Ah, the power of nomenclature. It's far easier to sell Patagonian Toothfish as Chilean Sea Bass as it doesn't have that barbaric image recalling ideas of gnarly fishes with awful spines and slimy flesh. A bottom feeder of the like that would butcher you in the water given a aluminum bat and half the chance. Chinese gooseberries sound foreign and odd, like that aunt no one ever wants to talk about. Repackage those bastards as kiwis - much cuter! Far more profitable as well!

I speak, of course, of squab, the more pleasant name for pigeon.

Then there is the case of doves. Doves, hierarchically and scientifically categorically speaking, are only a stones throw away from pigeons. They're in the same family, Columbidae. If you're talking about one then you're most certainly talking about the other.

If pigeons are dirty it's more likely due to the gross amount of human food and refuse they ingest than anything else. Who would want to eat anything raised on tossed bits of cheese puffs, Wonder bread, and strewn bits of Cheerios that failed to make it into a toddler's mouth?

Assuming we look at wild pigeons and doves then we can see their main diet consists of a variety of seeds and fruits. The perfect diet of a creature whom you would like to eat. This equals dark and tasty meat that, when stuffed with citrus and grapes and tossed over a grill (see, Hank, I pay attention) can equal some of the most delightful tasting bird you've ever tasted. Gamey, sprightly, and a bit woodsy in flavor.

Furthermore, it's more and more common for people to begin keeping them in roosts for food even within major cities. Uncommon are the days where city chickens, ducks, and geese were a novelty. Urban farming and bird raising for the purpose of eggs and meat has become a regular scene. It only makes sense that pigeons be as well.

And why not? Rock Pigeons, Wood Pigeons, turtledoves, and white doves are all now commonly kept in roosts by all sorts of families within the United States, though mostly by immigrant groups. In fact, the Passenger Pigeon is extinct in North America due to it's being hunted out for its tasty breasts by white settlers, so Anglo Americans have a history of eating pigeon meat.

Aside from these reasons there are plenty of religious ones to feast on these tasty turtledoves. According to the Tanakh, doves and pigeons are totally kosher (and perfect when rubbed with kosher salt, seared, and tossed into the oven). Second, within the Jewish faith they're the only birds that can be used for a korban (a type of sacrificial offering described in the Torah).

I recently was able to talk to my friend Sheng, the author of the only Hmong cookbook ever published, about the subject. Her family keeps a pigeon roost in their backyard for food. They're sustained on a seed mixture and a variety of healthy breads and bits of leftover fruit and vegetables. This, plus a large roost that gives them plenty of space to exercise makes for huge, hearty birds with lots of fat and meat to them.

The only thing dirty about them was their cage, which was totally, completely covered in bird shit. I mean were talking about a good multicolored crust of bird shit on the ground. But that's what kept birds do. They shit on stuff. If you want to call that dirty, then you're being cynical as all pets do this and as their owners we pick up after them. True, you might not eat Sparky so doesn't that make pigeons different? Not really, you have to pluck and clean the birds as it is, therefore cleaning any outside filth off. The birds are perfectly clean.

Tasty too.

Overall, I'm not sure how much of an authority I can really be on the subject. You should read Hank's blog for all things animal as he can better communicate the awesomeness of pigeon raising, hunting, cooking, and eating. I just know that if offered I'll never turn down pigeon.

-I shall name you Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack, and Extra Meal in the Day When I Get Bored and Begin to Eat Out of Habit.-

The Bushy Tail Mafia

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Finals time at school right now. Enjoy a little piece about the Bushy Tail Mafia.

Have you ever met the squirrels over at Sacramento State or the ones at the state capitol (referred to as capitol squirrels)? They aren't so much tame as they are ballsy. I mean these guys got no fear of people when it comes to food. Undaunted by our size, they rely on their adorable outfits, rambunctious play, and adorably chittery sounds to lure us in and feed them.

And they know we will. It's a sweet racket they have going here. Absent are the Forest Rangers and signs reminding us the lesson we all know well: DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS. I do feed them happily... everyone does. Feeding the squirrels is the adorable bridge we're all jumping off.

Still, I try to be better about it than most. I avoid handing them cookies or bits of bleached white bread, rather I raid a few kumquats from the campus tree and give those to them. Some accept and curiously nibble them. Others toss them aside and go in hunt of an undergrad with a supply double stuff oreos (but for those, hell, I'll chitter on my hind legs for ya').

*insert dirty joke*

Anyways, I am finding that they're becomming aggressive in their begging. Bold. Intelligent. I think they are actually planning.

Take my last encounter with them as an example; after getting to the campus far too early, I decided to kill some time by laying on the grass and throwing a few kumquats to the furry fiends. I made a few chittering sounds, the speaking squirrel equivalent to adding "o" at the end of English words in an attempt to "speak" Spanish. It seemed to work though as one squirrel perked up and then came over me in gleeful bounds and hops. All very adorable. Cooing at them ensued.

I tossed him a kumquat to which he analyzed, turned over a few times, and began to eat in a furious nibble. Once finished he looked at me, "Have any more?" he seemd to say. I held one out to him. He cautiously looked at me. Looked at the kumquat. Looked at me. Then again at the kumquat. Carefully he moved, a pace at a time, then reached out and snatched it from my fingers.

A proud look on his face, he made a triumphant squeak.

I watched him complacently and then took notice of his friend bounding up to my left. I thought I'd give him one too. I turned to the small pile of kumquats on my right and then stopped. Three more squirrels sat staring at the small kumquat pile. I reached out for the kumquats and they all began to squeak at me.

Nervousness set in. Looking back to my left, the squirrel now had a friend. I turned my head. Another behind me.


The first squirrel was a decoy. He'd sent out the call. I'd been set up. I was surrounded.

I turned back to the pile of kumquats which the squirrels were already running from, each with a little orange globe in their mouths. They had planned this little raid and were successfully pulling it off. It was like the velocoraptor scene in the first Jurassic Park movie. But cuter.

I got up and abandoned the fruit. I figured they might call others, and I couldn’t recall when I last had a rabies shot. I was totally outnumbered and they were smarter than me when it came to getting snackies.

It's only a matter of time. Screw the computers taking over. It's gonna be squirrels.

Image from Threadless.com.

Eat Beast Update #10: And So It Gets Worse

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"I think your cat is bleeding?"

"What?!" Even in a feverish haze those words are enough to spring me into an adrenaline rush. My mind and body and now synched up along a perfect axis and I am now in concerned pet-parent mode. Regardless of the fact I've been unable to even crawl out of bed without becoming exhausted I have now thrown off the blankets, jumped over the couch and run up the stairs at blinding speed. Whereas three seconds ago my brain was mushy lump it now buzzes with the energy of a Tesla coil focused in on a single point.

As I reach the top of the stairs I look down to see small drops and pools of red liquid across the carpet. "Which cat?" I ask.

"Mace," the roommate points him out in my room. Inside Mace, aka Eat Beast, is sitting on the floor his back turned to me.

"Mace? Mace Face? You okay?" As I reach out to pet him he quickly turns away. I instinctively grab him and pull him close. Normally, Mace is about as relaxed as hell. He'll let me rub his tummy, use him as a bench press weight, or throw him over my shoulders like he were a feather boa. Physical inspections have never been a problem. For him to want to get away he has obviously done something wrong.

My tone changes. "Maaaace, what did yo-" A small cranberry falls out of his mouth. "The heck?" I look at Eat Beast as he licks his lips his eyes begin to stare into the corner. There, behind a broken, old television I've been meaning to toss out I see the hidden bag of cranberries.

Apparently he had stolen the entire bag from off the counter, dragged it upstairs, and had begun to eat them. After eating too many he had then thrown them up so he could make room for more cranberries. The spots all over the floor weren't blood, but bits of cranberry stained red blobs of saliva and cat vomit.

He wasn't bleeding, he was just binge eating. And binge purging.

My cat now has two eating disorders.


Clove a Cold, Feed a Fever

Saturday, November 21, 2009

(I'm writing this in bed with a cold. I'm awake and needed to do something productive. If it gets a bit incoherent, well, you know why. I'm doing my best just to stay conscious as I read over this.)

I didn't quite expect that sucking on cloves would make my mouth go a bit numb but there it is. Still, my cough was gone and my nose wasn't flushing like the storm drains outside.

After attempting to push through the day at work I was sent home after having sweat right through a t-shirt and sweater due to fever. Over the past few days when I was coming down with it I had become a bit of a pariah as people began to shoo me away from their desks and paint lamb's blood over their office doors in an attempt to ward away my sickness. Taking the hint I packed myself up and took off much to the relief of everyone else.

In order to help speed up my recovery I decided to swing by the market for a bit of food. A firm believer in "Feed a cold, feed a fever" (I find no reason to starve either, unless you're throwing up) I decided a bit of nourishment might be in order.

I meandered around the market trying to get in and out as fast as possible. A fresh chicken to roast and then later break down into stock for chicken soup and, more importantly, curry - curry being my go-to sicky food. A bag of tangerines (water and vitamin C), some hummus and pita bread (something to nibble while watching bad movies in bed), and some decaf chai tea (to keep me hydrated and focused).

Now of course, this doesn't explain why I was anesthetizing my lower jaw. I've always been willing to try more natural means of healing myself; I'm a preacher of honey for chapped lips and believe gargling salt water is the cure all for sore throats. Now the other day I had been informed that cloves had incredible antifungal, antiviral, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. Doing a bit of research I found that indeed clove oil was a main ingredient in most dental anesthetics and sinus related medications. Often home remedies argue for making tea with cloves, roasting them and then chewing them, or sucking on them in order to help with coughs, runny noses, or even toothaches.

Since I was already going a bit out of my way in order to feed my fever, I figured that I might as well try to feed my cough as well. Digging through my spice drawer I pulled out an ancient jar of cloves and plucked one out. I opened my mouth and snugly placed it between my gum and cheek and anxiously awaited for results.

About seven minutes later my nose had stopped running and my cough was gone. I was dizzy with amazement, or fever, but either way I was impressed and a little off balance.

Ten minutes later I lost feeling in my lower right jaw. Those anesthetic properties of cloves? Yeah, you'd be surprised how effective they over over prolonged exposure. The inside of my right cheek and gums were now completely numb, feeling cottony to touch and lazy to respond. But at least my breath was aromatic and spicy. I was a germ packed aromatic welcome wagon of the holidays - like a spice scented candle in a public bathroom.

This is not to say I wasn't still pleased with the results. For the first time in two days I could breath through my nose without sounding like a truck downshifting on a highway. Furthermore, this anesthetic side effect could prove useful someday.

I went and grabbed one of the tangerines from the bag and plopped myself on the couch like a sack of old laundry. Burying myself in blankets and two cats eager for attention I turned on a rerun of Kill Bill and began the healing process. As I bit into my tangerine, I tasted bright citrusy flavors. And cloves.


Later my roast chicken also tasted like cloves. My hummus? Delightfully spicy with a slight hint of cloves. Pita bread? Cloves. Chai tea? Oh, you bet it tasted like cloves. My breath smelled like so much cloves you'd think I was at a goth club all night smoking them while wearing too much black eyeliner.

So, cloves for sickness. My final word? Go for it. It works. Just learn to deal with the side effects in stride.

Crapload of Cranberries

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

-Cranberries, ginger, orange, and shortbread. It's normal for you to be a little aroused by that.-

"I'm sorry, how many cranberries do you have?" I asked having been caught off guard and needing to make sure.

"A crapload," Kristy, my classmate, responded flatly.

"You have a crapload of cranberries?" I was amused at the meter and alliteration of her statement, and yet disgusted by the mental image in my head. "That's... lovely."

"So what can I do with them?"

"Uhh..." she had caught me in the middle of an argument between my various inner voices as we/I debated our/my schedule and how all final papers and assignments would be time budgeted. I silenced them all down as quickly as I could and began to stumble out what seemed to be a cohesive response. "Uh, well... let's see. Um, what kind of recipe are you looking for? I guess, I have a great one for cranberry sorbet."

She gave a frustrated sigh. "I don't have an ice cream maker. Not all of us cook like you do. I need something quick and easy - preferably dessert - that I can slap together a few times over the next few months. My dad brought me like three bags of the things and I dunno what to do with them." As she said all this her hands gesticulated so erratically I wondered if she might accidentally slap some poor passerby unconscious.

"Hmm, well it is a bit early for cranberry sauce I assume?"

"Yeah, and honestly I'm not a huge fan as the canned stuff turned me off as a child," she said, her face contorting into a sneer as her tongue slithered out in an show of disgust.

"Let me get back to you on that, I'll see I can figure out something easy." She thanked me and as she went to her desk and I went back all the different aspects of brain voiced their opinions in heated debate once more.

You could have given her the cranberry cake recipe! Who uses the word crapload? Why would someone not have an ice cream maker? That's a stupid question! I want to do something new! Who has the time? I wonder what would happen if she actually had slapped someone?

And so on. Eventually we/I came to the decision to make some cranberry shortbread bars.

I had tried one or two recipes in the past and found them to be somewhat disappointing as most tasted like soggy pie dough with overly sweetened cranberry sauce sloped over it. Joy of Baking's recipe, whose shortbread base I found inspiring due to the dumplette-like use of it on top of the cranberries adorable and for it's tender texture and old-fashioned flavor, was where I decided to start in developing a new cranberry bar. I took the basic cranberry filling recipe, the same for most any cranberry bar, and then decided to perk it up a bunch.

This filling is a small dose of brown sugar to make the flavor a little darker. An insane amount of grated ginger and the zest of an orange are added to add personality. The result is a cranberry bar that's enticing; one that wears a slinky red dress and beguiles your senses in spicy, citrusy smells.

The next day I brought over the cranberry bars to her desk.

"OMG!" because she doesn't say "Oh, my God," "These are so good! Is there ginger in this?"

"Yeps. I also threw in some orange a pinch of cinnamon and some vanilla too because, you know, why the hell not, right?" I shrugged and smiled. "So these work? Supe easy to throw together and it'll use up your cranberries. Though you will need to pick up some fresh ginger and oranges."

"I'll just throw in some ground ginger and toss in spoonful or orange juice. I have the rest I think."

My brain sighed just a little and I almost said something about her suggested substitutions but decided to leave it alone. More than likely I would choose to do the same if it came to it.

"So when can I get the recipe?"

"Just check my blog in a few days."

And so, here it is.

-All the voices in your head will agree that this cranberry bar is awesome. However, the cranberry bar is unable to make them shut up about it.-

Ginger Cranberry Bars
Makes one 8X8 pan - adapted from Joy of Baking

Cranberry Filling
2 1/2 cups of cranberries
1/3 cup + 3 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon of orange zest
3 tablespoons of water
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Shortbread Mixture
2 cups of flour
2 tablespoons of cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 cup of butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1/3 cup of brown sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly grease an 8X8 (or 9x9) inch pan with butter or cooking spray.

2. Place cranberries, sugar, brown sugar, ginger, orange zest, water, and vanilla extract in a 2 quart saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes until it becomes reduced and syrupy. Be sure to give the mixture a stir once in a while to ensure the mixture does not burn; be gentle though as you don't want to break the berries but keep them whole. Take off heat and allow to cool.

3. Sift together in a separate bowl the flour, cornstarch, salt, and ginger.

4. In an electric mixer cream the butter with the brown sugar and vanilla. Slowly add in the flour mixture until just incorporated.

5. Press two-thirds of the dough into the prepared pan. Then evenly spread the cranberry filling, leaving 1/4 inch of space on the sides. Crumble the remaining dough over the top. Bake for 30 minutes or until top begins to brown around the edges. Cool on a wire rack, then cut and serve.

-This is what a crapload of cranberries looks like in bar cookie form.-

Tastes Like Way Back When

Saturday, November 14, 2009

-This is a ride on the way-back machine for me.-

"I really, really, really need a slice of that right now! Ok, who am I kidding? I could eat half at this very moment!"

This was the response that the recipe you see above elicited from my blogging buddy, Matt, after he had edited the image for me. It is a common and expected response when it comes to Oreo cream pie. One taste is all it takes before you become willing to submit yourself to the weeks it will take to jog a slice of this off year after year.

My mom clipped this recipe from the back of a box of Oreo cookies back in 1970. The retro tablecloth peeking out above, the positioning of the pie, its perfect rim of crust and piped whipped cream just jive right with me. It's a pie that tastes like listening to The Kinks belt out "Lola" over the radio. It tastes like watching the flow and ebb of neon orange blobs in a lava lamp. It tastes like nights up late lying on the floor gossiping with friends. It tastes like laughing till you cry at a dirty joke with your family around the dinner table.

-A more updated photo of this groovy pie.-

For me this pie is about as seasonal as you can get. It can only be served during the coldest days with coffee strong enough to strip your floors. If you happen to have a tree twinkling with tinsel and an aluminum star in the background too, even better. This pie is more than just tradition for me - it's memory suspended in thick cream and marshmallow. Nostalgia in an Oreo cookie crust.

I recently called and asked my mom if she would send me a copy of the recipe. She scanned it in and E-mailed it over to me within the hour, along with a reminder not to add the whipped cream and cookies to the top until moments before I serve it. After getting over how trippy it was that she scanned me an image of a recipe clipping from nearly 40 years ago I went to the store to get the supplies.

This pie is about as simple as it comes: butter, milk, cream, Oreo cookies and marshmallows. A dessert with enough fat and sugar that a diabetic will explode upon contact with it. I switched out the margarine for butter and added a smidge of vanilla to update it a bit (remember that in the 70's America thought margarine was going to save us all?). Overall though it's the same pie as ever. Simple and delicious; and one that mom, Matt, and I'm sure Lola, would approve of.

Oreo Cream Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie

41 Oreo cookie
1/4 cup of butter, melted
24 marshmallows
1/2 cup of milk
1 1/2 cups of heavy cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1. Roughly chop 10 of the Oreos and set them aside. In a food processor or using a rolling pin finely grind the remaining Oreo cookies into a sandy consistency. Mix ground Oreos with the butter and press into the bottom and sides of a 9 inch pie plate. Place in the fridge to chill.

2. In a 2 quart sauce pan place the marshmallows and milk. Place over medium heat and mix with a spatula until melted and smooth. Do not leave unattended as mixture can easily scorch. Take off heat.

3. Whisk the heavy whipping cream and vanilla together until it forms stiff peaks. Fold 2 cups of the whipped cream into the marshmallow mixture. Fold in the chopped Oreos. Spoon into the chilled pie crust. Chill for 4 hours. Pipe on remaining whipped cream and add extra Oreos for garnish if desired before serving.

-It's a pie that walks like a woman and talks like a man.-

Racial Slurs and Citrus

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In North America it's generally considered ignorant, offensive, and inappropriate (hell, downright racist) to call Brazil nuts by their colloquial nickname, "nigger toes." The first time someone brought it up to me I was shocked and appalled. Who on earth would say such a thing?! Indeed, I believe the first time I ever heard this word pronounced out loud was in pejorative slang for these otherwise tasty nuts.

The term is - for the most part - all but forgotten. A closed chapter in North American foodie history; one relegated to be forgotten in the assumption that racism is extinct. (How sadly untrue it is).

Still, for this reason I am surprised to find that we still refer to a certain ingredient so nonchalantly. We mention it over the table and in the store without care or reference. I and many others have said the word boldly without any any sort of retribution or consideration.

I speak of Kaffir limes.

First, you have to understand that in many countries, the term kaffir is equivalent to the word "nigger." They are, on an international translational and dialectical level, interchangeable. Indeed, within parts of African and Asia, the limes are called "K-limes." Even the Oxford Companion to Food suggests that it should be referred to as the makruk (or makrud) lime.

So what does Kaffir mean exactly?

Kaffir was, and in some places still is, used in reference to native southern Africans and utilized by Indians and ex-Pat whites living in parts of India, Africa, and Southern Asia. The term originated from the Arabic word kafir which means "ingrate" or "infidel" or "unbeliever" and was used to refer to people who did not believe in God or Muhammad as the prophet. It was a derogatory term that eventually moved across cultures and gained new meaning.

The term was eventually used within apartheid Africa and India where it referred to the native black population or those who had been displaced by the slave trade. Called kaffirs, they were considered dirty, uneducated, and ugly; people to be considered less than human compared to other classes and races.

Much like the Brazil nuts, racially nicknamed "nigger toes" due to their dark color and their - to some - unappealing appearance when in the shell, the kaffir lime is similarly named to reflect attitudes towards a certain group of people. Kaffir limes are bulgy, mottled, and supposedly not as pretty as the smooth and glossy skins of other varieties of lime such as the silver or Persian lime. From this was born the reference to the less aesthetically appearing lime as the "Kaffir lime."

Ironically, the makrut lime (as we shall refer it for the rest of this post) is a surprisingly diverse and multi-purposed fruit. The fruit is often used for its medicinal qualities in stopping infection and cleaning wounds. The oil from its skin acts as a natural insecticide. The double leaves are used as a spice in African, Indonesian, Thai, and Malaysian cooking. It is, needless to say, a diverse and talented plant that produces makrut limes and leaves. In fact in Indonesia the fruit is referred to as the jeruk obat or "medicine citrus."

So we are left with a decision to make, both as individuals and as a food community as a whole. How do we refer to this fruit, leaf, and flavor? Given, most people in North America (and maybe Europe? I don't know...) have no idea about the history of the word kaffir. However, I doubt anyone will know what I'm talking about if I go to Whole Foods and ask for some makrut lime leaves. Is it my place to preach, or should I just simply lay back and accept it? From Brazil nuts to now makrut limes, where do we draw lines from acceptance to education, from offensive to absent mindedness and lack of information? Now that the word and leaf itself are such a part of food dialogue, can it ever be changed?

Honestly, I feel that at this point in time, trying to shift everything over to calling it a makrud lime is impossible. However, relaying the information and history of the fruit's nomenclature is not. Indeed the education should be encouraged.

I would love to hear comments and further dialogue from readers about this topic so please feel free to leave your opinion in the comments or shoot me an e-mail.

A Note: I am using the "N-word" in whole to simply make my point. By refering to the word as "N-word" the impact of the offense of the word Kaffir in comparison would be lessened and, therefore, use of the word "nigger" gives more meaning to the argument. Furthermore, fear and societal repudiation of a word in itself only gives the word more power over our linguistic freedom and empowers the word's meaning. I mean no disrespect or harm in any way.

Photo Copyright © 2005 David Monniaux

This post was originally posted back in 2007.

Crusty Bastard, Perfect Pie

Monday, November 9, 2009

-Pear, maple, ginger pie in a buttery, flaky, pie crust. Totally swoon inducing.-

Pie crusts are bastards.

They're persnickety. Wishy-washy. Temperamental. Most of all pie crusts are a natural curiosity. How can something as simple as butter, flour, a sprinkle of sugar and salt, and some cold water go so incredibly wrong?

My history with pie crust is a tumultuous one, a long haul over unfriendly terrain where many times I've left stranded in the middle of nowhere, arms raised to the heavens and screaming to the gods in frustration about how once again perfect pie crust had eluded me.

My first ever pie crust was mush. It lay apathetically under rhubarb and berries and when moved became like a petulant child going limp when you tried to pick it up. Once it was in your mouth it aggressively stuck to the roof of your mouth in protest. Warm hands, hot water, and no chilling in the fridge had ensured it would be crust most contentious.

My second, third, fourth, and even fifth weren't soggy but rather sheetrock-like. I can't really say that one was actually worse than the other but only because no matter how you slice it the three others were identical to it. Though I do believe that at one point when I tried to cut thought the crust of the third, a cherry pie if I recall, that when my fork finally punched through it it sent one piece flying across the room splattering red juices across my white wall and couch. This was fighting crust. A bastard of a crust.

However - unlike with violin lessons I took as a child - I did not give up. This last weekend I decided I would make pie crust. Again. I had watched Elise make it plenty of times before. I didn't have a fancy-shmancy food processor to do the work for me, but I had gusto and a pastry cutter. Bring it.

During the process the dough had issues. The butter stayed clumpy, it wouldn't form into a ball, I was adding way too much water. It seemed that my crust was bust. In fact, I almost took the whole thing and threw it in the trash, but as my crumbly dough filled hands hovered over the trash can though I decided that, heck, maybe I'll get lucky and it would turn out. I mushed it into a disk as well as I could, then wrapped it up in plastic wrap and popped it in the fridge to chill.

-Sure, it may not be fluted or anything, but I'll take tasty over pretty.-

The next day I rolled it out. I half expected it to suddenly crumble to dust but nothing happened. It... it just rolled out. Like nothing was wrong with it. I curled it over the rolling pin, flopped and shaped it into the pie plate, and I placed it in the freezer to set.

I was... confused. All was going too well. Still, I had little faith. The other doughs had been just as malleable, but this one felt different. The thickness, the texture, its heft of flour and dotted blobs of butter all seemed to be aligned in some cosmic baking way as if the spirit of Saint Betty Crocker was somehow guiding my hands.

I prepared a quick maple pear filling one similar to the pie recipe I did at Simply Recipes (where Elise made the crust and I made the filling) and spread it into the prepared crust. Into the oven it went.

Forty-five minutes later I had a finished pie. But was it a good pie? Was this another failed crust? I held the Pyrex dish to the light inspecting the bottom and sides to look for signs of seepage or breaking as if somewhere I would find the key clue to solving a horrific crime scene. There was none.

Sixty minute later it had cooled. I cut out a piece, plopped it on a plate, and let my fork dive in. There was a bit of resistance and then the sound of aluminum tines striking ceramic. *tink* Not mush, not sheetrock.

I took a bite. It was flaky. Sweet. Buttery. It was perfect pie crust. Holy shit. I finally fucking made perfect pie crust. I. MADE. PIE CRUST! That didn't suck!

Sure it might not have been the prettiest thing (we'll call it rustic), but the texture and flavor were dead on what it was supposed to be. Oh lord, it's true what they say, I can't go back to store bought. This pie crust wasn't a bastard but a sweet, darling, buttery pastry angel.

I'm still not sure if the whole thing was a fluke or not. It very well could have been. Still, I've had success now. I'm more than willing to try again and again until I can do this with my eyes closed. After all, homemade pie dough may be a crusty bastard, but when right it makes for perfect pie.

-What kind of angle does a pie crust have? Don't be obtuse, it's a delicious angle.-


The recipe I used for this pie was this one I did at Simply Recipes. I didn't have a deep dish pie plate so I cut the filling ingredients by a third. Elise's pate brisee recipe is fabulous. I know I'll be using it again.

-Booty shot.-

Snack Habit

Thursday, November 5, 2009

-Two seconds before I inhaled this lonely persimmon chip.-

-half a package of mint M&M's
-a few spoonfuls of pomegranate seeds
-a quarter of an onion bagel
-a pear
-far too many Cheeze-its (aka: the snack that proves God loves me)

I ate all of this between the oatmeal I had for breakfast and my late lunch of a simple salad of bok choi salad with croutons, oil, and vinegar.

Snacking has become my new bad habit. No longer a conscious act, it's become totally reflexive. Simple potato chip syndrome: my hand mechanically moving in a perpetual cycle between snack and mouth. Half the time I don't even realize I'm eating.

Worse is the control issue; like a salt hungry zombie I'll shuffle over to the kitchen in a daze and bust our a bag of kettle corn and bring it back to the couch where I'm working. Five minutes later, it'll dawn on me that, holy crap, I'm eating popcorn! Again! Ten minutes after I just put it away!

What's scary is the speed and quantity I shovel it into my face. Like a disciple of Eat Beast I just shove it into my maw in such quantities, my God, it's surprising my jaw doesn't just unhinge like an anaconda. Certainly, I was hoovering it in so fast enough that somewhere starving orphans spontaneously broke out into tears without understanding why.

In a huff of frustration I gathered up all the evil snacks in my house and put them on the community table in the kitchen at work (I'll be damned before I throw out go food, so instead I'll just take everyone down on the train to Chubbyville with me). No more chips and sweets for Garrett.

Still, let's be honest, stopping a bad habit cold turkey isn't that simple. Smokers use patches to ween themselves away from their sweet siren nicotine. I had to do the same.

Fruit, usually, are the snacks that our mothers gave us. A big bowl of pomegranate seeds is always swell, but quite a bit of work and not the stuff of a simple snack. Pears are great, and to help ease the pain I put a huge bowl of them at my desk. Sadly, it's not uncommon for one or two to go missing thus leaving me hungry. (Note to coworkers: I WILL find out who keeps purloining my pears.)

I have plenty of persimmons though, a fruit that I have an awkward relationship with. For me, persimmons are like someone you always go on bad dates with but always have great sex with afterwards. I hate persimmons cut up and served straight; they're far too sweet, like biting into floral, saccharic flesh. However, when cooked, dried out, baked, or candied they're awesome. In other words I only enjoy them in certain instances for specific reasons.

I decided then that I needed to make a sweet and easy snack using these persimmons. Something I could prepare ahead of time then whisk to my desk or to work to nibble away at uncontrollably sans guilt.

Recalling a simple recipe for persimmon chips I went to work while restraining myself from sneaking a piece of cranberry cake as I prepped. A quick bath in some simple syrup and then baked on low heat for a few hours (not all of us have dehydrators) and the persimmons would become a crunchy sweet snack that would keep my mouth and hands occupied.

If you're planning to be around your home doing house work or writing a blog post or something these are the perfect background recipe for you. Very little work with tasty payoff. A novel solution for any other snackers out there.

-I believe that snacks are tastier when they're nice to look at.-

Persimmon Chips
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
2 persimmons
1 lime
kosher salt (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 200 and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a silpats.

2. Using a sharp knife or a mandolin set to 2.0, make thin slices of persimmon. Place in a bowl and toss with the lime juice.

3. Bring the sugar an water to a boil and then bring down to a simmer over low heat. Place in the persimmon slices and let cook for two minutes.

4. Using a slotted spoon or a fork transfer the slices to the prepared baking sheets. If you want give them a tiny dash of kosher salt, being careful as too much will cover up the delicate taste of the persimmon (personally, I prefer them with no salt).

5. Bake for 2 hours then flip the slices over and bake for another 30 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

-Not quite a cheeze-it. But they're both orange so close enough, right?-

Know Your Vanilla - A Guide to Vanilla Varieties

Monday, November 2, 2009

I recently decided it was about time to update the vanilla variety guide which I originally wrote back in 2006. You'll find that I've now added Indian and Indonesian vanilla to the list and added to each a few recipe ideas that would best utilize the vanillas. Furthermore, I've noted a good base recipe with which to better identify the subtleties of flavors between them. Enjoy.

-Unbeknownst to most, happiness can be measured by the amount of vanilla beans you have.-

"Package came for you," I looked up to see my co-worker Shanette holding a box for me. "Now will you stop hovering and looking for the mail guy?"

"YES! Thank you!" I snatched the box from her hands with gusto. I had been waiting eagerly over the past week for this to arrive - a box with what I assumed to be a small sample of sweet vanilla.

About a week before I had received a letter from Beanilla where a guy named Rob had inquired if I would like to try a some of their vanilla beans, and if I enjoyed them if I might write about them and if I didn't then no worries. I told him I would love to and that since this was the first offer of anything due to the blog I couldn't have been more ecstatic.

That is until I opened the box. The second the box opener sliced through the tape a gust of vanilla surrounded me. Rushing out of the box like Pandora's demons they quickly engulfed my office and everything was redolent with sweet, creamy, and spicy vanilla aromas.

Rob had sent me well over 200 vanilla beans of varying varieties. So many that I even called over all of my blogging and cooking friends and offered them free vanilla beans. Even after all the gifting, giving, and mailing I still had more than enough to last me years. In fact I still have a jar full of beans from that original shipment and since each bean can be used so many times I doubt I'll run out any time soon.

-Oh yeah, that's the good stuff. Right. There.-

Since that post went up I ran across Indian vanilla beans - India now becoming a major exporter of beans that possess a dark rummy scent that hints of cherries like the Bourbon variety. In addition, Rob recently wrote me and asked if I would be down with trying some new beans imported from Indonesia. I agreed and he once again sent me a large package of beans, along with a few samples of vanilla paste and extract (the paste now becoming my choice of vanilla for blondies, bread, and other rich baked goods). The beans themselves were strong, the scent reminiscent of sweet prunes and cinnamon. One of the most unique vanillas I've ever encountered.

I decided to run a new test to try out some of these vanillas. Looking at my old notes I decided to make a few batches of sugar cookies and whipped cream, two nicely blank slates which would best be able to show off the flavor of the vanillas. While at first I was curious if each would be just the same old vanilla once baked, each demonstrated a prideful arrogance in its individual flavor profile. One cookie had a a slight creamy flavor to it, while when sniffing the other I caught a slight boozy scent. One whipped cream was classic vanilla, and the other a smokey hint of tobacco seemed to linger in the background.

Once again, varieties of vanilla had proved themselves to possess particular flavor qualities that should be taken into consideration when purchasing vanilla.

-Knowing the differences in the various varieties of vanilla beans may make you a vanilla snob. You'll learn to be okay with that.-

Madagascar - Dark, full bodied, and rummy with a hint of tobacco, just like Rob told me it would be. Perfect for recipes that might be flambeed or if you need a vanilla to stand up to powerful flavors that might overshadow it.

Bourbon - Bourbon is defined by its fruity profile. Your nose may detect scents of figs, papaya, persimmon and cherries. Its diverse qualities make it good all around variety, but I personally prefer it with cookies and cakes where I want the vanilla to add dimension and complexity.

Mexico - This vanilla is sweet, smooth, and creamy; designed for infusions in milk, pastry cream, whipped cream, and all manner of ice creams. My personal favorite.

Tonga - This variety reminds me of cherries and of autumn, very brisk and felicitous. More of a delicate flavor. I've dedicated this one to using in developing fruit sauces for adorning meats as it seems to compliment the savory tastes of chicken and pork and at the same time enhance the fruit.

Papua New Guinea - Subtle notes of chocolate and red wine define this vanilla. Not a favorite as often it seems to disappear in the background of other more prominent ingredients, and when I want vanilla to stand front and center I usually want something a bit bolder. Still, for delicate tea cakes and that ilk of pastry this is a choice vanilla.

Tahiti - Generally floral, with hints of licorice and fig. I found that I prefer this vanilla in jams and preserves as it adds a floral bouquet to the overall taste. In addition, that slight licorice taste makes it choice for developing your own chai mix or spice rubs where you wish to include vanilla. Some Tahitian species are grown in other places that actual Tahiti. Tahitian strains actually grown in Tahiti have a darker, chocolate-like flavor.

India - The beans are huge and very oily, with a very muted, woodsy quality. A good vanilla that would stand up well to spices with a more heady comportment in a dish where the presence of cloves, rosemary, cinnamon, or thyme (and other such flavors with a dominating flavor) may threaten to eclipse other vanilla varieties.

Indonesia - These beans are thick, oily, and pliable. One of the mightiest of beans in physical presence. Also, it's one of the oddest. The scent of vanilla is somewhat fermented and the overall scent profile is one you would associate with prunes. In fact, I would say they smell more like prunes than vanilla. However, when cooked the vanilla flavor becomes more pronounced. Perfect for stewing fruit, or in pies and compotes.

Tahitensis & Planifolia Blend - The most typical and assuring of the vanillas - a genetic Wunderkind. This is what you might assume "typical" vanilla to smell like. A bit of a one note wonder, but because it possesses such a strong and reliable vanilla flavor that doesn't change with cooking it's my regular go-to vanilla variety. Probably the one I use more than any other - particularly for making vanilla extract or vanilla sugar. It's also one of the cheapest varieties.

So which one to pick? I suggest going with one or two that intrigue you the most and starting with that. As I noted earlier in the post sugar cookies are a great way to test the flavor profiles of vanilla. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream are other good options. Whatever you do decide to use be sure that vanilla is the only and predominant flavor.

-Sugar cookies are one of the best ways to try out vanilla beans.-

Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Anita Chu's Field Guide to Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen

3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup of butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1 vanilla bean
2 eggs

1. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside.

2. Cream the butter and sugars together at high speed for about 3 minutes.

3. Cup open and scrape out the contents of the vanilla bean. Add to the butter-sugar mixture and mix in for 30 seconds.

4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 30 seconds between each. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix a bit more.

5. With the mixer on a low speed slowly add the flour mixture. Mix until just incorporated.

6. Cover dough and refrigerate for 45 minutes. While it chills, preheat the oven to 325F and line some baking sheets with parchment paper.

7. Roll the dough into balls about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. Place them on the baking sheets and give them a small press to flatten them.

8. Bake for 9-10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Allow to cool on the sheets for a minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

-Picking the right variety will help you enhance your cooking and your cookies.-

Thanks again to Rob at Beanilla. You've given me a chance to explore one of my favorite flavors and share that knowledge.

-This is about as artsy-craftsy as we get here at Vanilla Garlic before I get frustrated and throw things. This knot took me, like, ten damn minutes.-

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