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Archive for March, 2011

Raisin Questions

Now, I don’t about where you live, but up here in Exile, Oregon, winter seems to have lost the last of its attitude and most of its punch. Oh, I guess it might still have one or two parting shots left to go, but it’s basically a has-been on the seasonal circuit. By now, winter is all bluff and no content – just one season waiting to surrender its post to the next.

Trouble is, spring is having none of it.

See, unlike the more glorious types of spring you’ll find in other parts of the country, our spring has never been much of a precocious upstart. No, you won’t catch our spring jumping in with the silly exuberance of some springs. Ours is more the edgy, moody type – intense one minute, indifferent the next. It prefers ‘maybe’ to mayhem, and it makes no sudden moves. Yes, it’s a tepid sort who sidles in and out like it can’t quite make up its mind, loitering with a little moue of resentment until summer shows up to take over the shift – all of which contributes to the ambiance of ambivalence that Exile is known for.

And yet for all spring’s lack of enthusiasm, there are tangible signs that it’s lurking in the vicinity. To begin with, there is the ant.

Now, I’m not talking about the thick, black ribbons of armored raiders that come marching in lockstep along the kitchen baseboard. Those will be by later, rest assured.

No, for now, all I’m talking about is the lone opportunist riding in on six legs and a hunch, just to see what’s cookin’ on the range. He may not be the harbinger of spring you were hoping for, but he’s the kind of harbinger you get in Exile. Yep, you know he’s up to something, but with his don’t-mind-me-I’m-just-lost routine, he doesn’t really look like the kind of dangerous outlaw you need to handle right away.

Yes, the ant is really more of a vague disappointment than an out-and-out tragedy – kind of like raisins.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering how we went from ants to raisins in the span of a single sentence. Easy – I just changed the subject. See, I wanted to talk about raisins in the first place, but you got me started on ants. So I just steered us back with the kind of awkward segue that is evidence of a public school education. Now don’t distract me again, or you won’t get your recipe.

So, like I was saying. In my opinion, raisins, like the ant, are really just a mild inconvenience as opposed to an all-out disaster. They’re not inedible, just forgettable.

Oh sure, I’ve been thoroughly disgusted by raisins a time or two. Like when I’ve discovered them masquerading as chocolate chips in cookies, or when they’ve shown up unannounced in cinnamon rolls or carrot cake.

For the most part, though, the raisin is just your average, dependable Mr. Nice Guy: soft, sweet, bland, predictable. Go ahead, admit it: you don’t love him, you just like him as a friend. He’s your mother’s choice – a safe date. I mean, you’re probably vaguely disappointed when he shows up, but he isn’t memorable enough to actually hate.

Well I don’t know about you, but I hate that.

Most people, however, seem to simply accept that raisins are part of the landscape – except in certain cases, of course, where they feel they’re required by constitutional law.

Like in bran muffins, for instance. Now I understand that raisins do serve a purpose here. For one thing, they break up the vast, bland plains of branniness so your saliva glands don’t become convinced that life is all work and no play.

But my question is, why not throw in cranberries, apricots, figs, chopped prunes, apples, or dried sour cherries instead? And what about adding walnuts, almonds, pecans, or heaven forbid, pistachios to the terrain – is that a crime too? Do we really want raisins, or have we just come to expect raisins? Because there’s a big difference. I mean, what good are all these options if we continue to believe that we have no choice? Is the concept of free will just an absurd abstraction under the constraints of breakfast, or something?

I think not. I think it’s high time we pwn our freedom, and we can begin by reclaiming the sorry bran muffin from its drab role as a digestive supplement. Dress it up, trick it out, make it dangerously good. Heck, don’t just sit there letting me and my recipe tell you what to do – throw some chocolate chips into the mix if it satisfies your soul.

Just don’t tell your mother I said you could do that. She’d kill me.

Wilma’s Morning Upstart Apricot-Walnut Bran Muffins

My apricots can take your Mr. Nice Guy raisins any day. So don’t cross them.

1 ½ cups wheat bran

1 cup buttermilk (or 4 tablespoons dried buttermilk powder plus 1 cup water)

⅔ cup dark brown sugar

⅓ cup vegetable oil (I use light olive oil or sunflower oil)

1 egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup whole wheat flour (or an equal amount of all-purpose flour)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup apricots chopped into raisin-sized pieces (or any dried fruit – even the ubiquitous raisin, if you absolutely must)

½ cup chopped walnuts (or any other kind of nut)

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F and prepare 12-muffin pan by lining with paper muffin cups (preferred) or by greasing.
  2. Stir bran and buttermilk together and set aside for at 10 minutes, or so.
  3. Combine whole wheat flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, chopped apricots, and chopped walnuts.
  4. Add brown sugar, oil, egg, and vanilla to buttermilk-bran mixture, mixing until smooth.
  5. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir until just incorporated.
  6. Divide batter between muffin wells, filling to top or slightly above. HINT: An ice cream scoop is useful for this purpose.
  7. Bake 15-23 minutes, until golden brown on top.

Allow muffins to cool before removing from pan, especially if not using muffing papers. Good served warm with butter, or halved and toasted. These freeze well, so make a bunch.

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So, I was talking to my sister Beulah the other day, and the subject of these kitchen chronicles happened to come up. Well, I found myself trying to explain what was going on here – is it humor, or is it cooking, or just what? Because, according to some people out there who seem to like their rice white and their coffee black, it can’t be both.

Well as you’ve probably guessed by now, I have my own thoughts on that. See, in my opinion, food without any humor never quite hits the spot. I think humor should be considered a culinary mainstay in anybody’s kitchen – not just mine. Sniff around a bit and you’ll find that the best cooks are masters of laughter, and most of them wouldn’t be caught dead without a big pot of humor simmering away on a back burner.

Take, for example, my hero Julia Child. In her esteemed opinion,

The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit.

See what I mean! That sort of irreverence was the secret ingredient in Julia’s success as a writer, as a person, and as a cook. No, The French Chef didn’t shy away from wit one bit, and you can bet that her guests walked away positively tipsy from the handfuls of humor she’d thrown in.*

Yes, cooking is a serious business, and being short on humor is NOT the kind of poverty you can afford. In fact, humor is sometimes the only thing that can salvage a real wreck of a situation.

Take, for example, the day the fudge frosting you’ve been slaving over for the last 20 minutes refuses to set up. Well, ever the impatient optimist, Miss Haste E. May is not about to be deterred by such a minor setback as semi-liquid frosting, and she rashly decides to slather it on anyway.

But as the warm, runny frosting meets room-temperature, freshly-baked cake, said cake begins to crack, eventually splitting clean down the middle like a calving iceberg with one half heeling over to starboard like a sinking ship. Finding itself freed from the horizontal aspect, the aforementioned frosting naturally takes this opportunity to slide slyly over the edge of the plate onto the counter where it forms an oozing rivulet heading straight for the nearest edge. Over it goes, like a thick, molten tongue of chocolate lava, down the front of the cabinets you just cleaned yesterday, onto the floor that you just mopped last month, where it finally comes to rest – yes, finally decides to set up – in one of those waiting drifts of cat hair that tend to build up at the baseboards. (And don’t pretend that you don’t have those, because I happen to know that you do.)

Now before you ask, the answer is, yes – this actually happened to me. And did I somehow manage to resurrect this unholy mess from its state of utter ruination? Did I recover my wits and my frosting in time for dinner at eight? Did I miraculously succeed in transforming my kitchen catastrophe into an elegant masterpiece that I graciously served to astonished guests after a five-course meal, like some sort of culinary superhero dressed in pearls and an invisible chef’s cape??

HELL no. I threw that sucker in the trash where it belonged. It was good for a laugh, but that’s about it. The point I’m getting at here is that without humor, that cake – along with its evil counterpart, the frosting – would not have been good for anything at all.

Yes, humor may be invisible to see, but you sure can tell when it’s missing. It’s the antidote to dullness and fatigue and bland living – the REAL spice of life. Get some and use it with abandon. You’ll be able to taste the difference.

* Of course, the half-bottle of sherry might have had something to do with it.

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My New Recipe Box

Okay, so here’s the deal. About 25 percent of you seem to want me to provide recipes without so much as a peep. You think I talk too damn much – which I do, I’ll admit. Some of you have even expressed the opinion that I complain more than I should, which is a point of view that I don’t happen to share. See, I think having things to complain about is one of the big perks of aging. The way I see it, there’s just more to bitch about every blessed year. And really, without my complaints and opinions, these chronicles would be just a bare-bones collection of recipes without a hint of personality.

Well, I don’t know about rest of you people, but I guess that would suit at least one of you to a perfect T. So to satisfy any “just the facts, ma’am” types out there (you know who you are), I’ve created Wilma’s Recipe Box. At that location, you can print out, send, or just read the recipes without all my commentary.

To get to my Recipe Box, just visit the Recipe Box index page right here on the chronicles. There, you’ll find every recipe published so far (all two of them, as of today) listed in alphabetical order. Pick your poison and click. That’ll take you right to the recipe you’re looking for over at Wilma’s Recipe Box. To get back here to the chronicles, just look for links on the sidebar – you’ll see ’em.

Anyhow, I hope you all like this idea. But no matter what, I know that at least 25 percent of you will be be over the moon about it. Matter of fact, I just hope I see him around the chronicles once in a while after today, because I’m not through with him. I mean, aside from the fact that I need every visitor I can get, I have a lot more complaints that Mr. Ants N. Yourpants hasn’t even heard yet. Wouldn’t want him to feel left out, or anything.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m on my way to go find out what my three feline destructions are tearing apart in the other room. Something’s got them all fired up, so it must be valuable. Just thought I’d let the four of you know what I’ve been cookin’ up.

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Well, up here in Exile, Oregon, we’ve got ourselves a little problem. And it just so happens that this particular problem is so common that no one even bothers to mention it anymore, even though it’s on just about everybody’s mind. And it’s the same sort of trouble that manages to show up at about this time every year, just like clockwork. I’ll give you two hints: it’s green, and it’s thought by some to grow on trees. Anybody?

Nice try, Mr. Heckle N. Jeckle, but you’re wrong. See, everybody’s got problems with money these days,* not just people living up here in Exile, and not just during tax season, either. Go ahead, guess again – I’ll wait. That’s right: what I’m talking about here is MOSS.

Now, I realize that most of you people might not put moss high on your list of things to be concerned about. In fact, you probably don’t think about moss much at all where you live, all warm and sunny and dry. You might even think that a lush green layer of moss is something to be admired, or maybe even cultivated, like a weedless expanse of lawn or a plush head of hair. Well, I guess I’d better clue you in on the bitter truth, then. Here goes: Moss Is Not Your Friend.

Oh sure, moss may look perfectly sweet and innocuous when it first parks itself on your rooftop. It’s so puny and primitive and meek – I mean, is it really even a plant, or just tall algae? Before you know it, though, the tables have turned and you’re cryin’ like a baby for some mossy mercy.

See, moss has leveraged its way into every nook and cranny of your house, and your yard, and your life. It’s wreaking havoc in your downspouts, prying up your shingles, sliding under your siding, and hatching plans to take over the lawn. Yes, day by day, inch by inch, moss encroaches on your territory, tinting everything in its path until you find yourself awash in a cruel green sea.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against green. Green is one of my favorite colors. Green doesn’t go around broadcasting dire warnings like orange, or blocking your way like red, or shouting mindless incendiary slogans like yellow. It’s very cool, green is. Very soothing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that green is why they call this area of the country the Pacific Northwest. It’s so peaceful up here in this green corner of the country that it’s positively soporific.

No, the problem with moss isn’t the color – it’s what it represents. Moss is an ally of damp and cold, a messenger of mortality, and a dank agent of decay. It’s mute evidence of the passage of time, the onset of inertia, the slow decline into decrepitude, and the inevitable return to dust – or to mud, anyway, if you live up here.

Yes, moss is a smirking green reminder that you’re not as young as you used to be, and to you, the roof might as well be the surface of the moon. That’s right: moss is throwing a party upstairs, and no, you’re not invited. There isn’t a ladder tall enough to bring you up to the level of that half-inch high rootless invader. Moss may be low, but you’re even lower. Although at least you’re higher than algae. But man, that is still just so low.

So, how are you supposed to cope with this green fiend’s seasonal assault on your psyche? Well, it’s my belief that you can combat winter’s weak light, damp chill, short days, and mossy afflictions by cooking up something hot and spicy and delicious.

So to that end, I’m going to prescribe brewing up a big batch of my Alarmingly Red-Hot Chili con Carne. It’s a sure-fire way to beat back the creeping-green blues, and at the same time, end up with leftovers that get better with age – just like we do.  I mean, so what if we have to hire someone else to pry the moss off our backs these days? We just happen to be working smarter instead of harder is all, and unless you have moss for brains, that’s called improvement.

So, take it from me: A bowl or two of this stuff, and you’ll be armed and dangerous, and ready to put the kibosh on moss. The dosage is up to you, but I recommend two bowls to start with. If that doesn’t work, call me in the morning. You might need something stronger involving habañeros.

* Except Martha Stewart.

Wilma Jean’s Alarmingly Red-Hot Chili con Carne

Effective Against the Creeping-Green Blues And Other Winter Afflictions

1 large onion, chopped

3 Tbs. olive oil (or lard or bacon grease)

2 lbs. lean ground beef or turkey (3 lbs. if foregoing the beans)

2 16-oz. cans pinto beans (optional), drained

28-oz. can crushed tomatoes

4 cloves crushed garlic

3 bay leaves

1 heaping Tbs. dried oregano (reduce to 1 level Tbs. if using dried Mexican oregano)

2 tsp. cumin seed

4-oz. can chopped jalapeños

2 Tsp. salt

A few grinds of black pepper

2.25-oz. can sliced ripe olives

  1. In a large stockpot, sauté the chopped onion in olive oil (or grease, if preferred) until it starts to brown and glaze the bottom of the pan.
  2. Add the ground beef (or turkey, if preferred) and cook until the meat has lost its pink coloration and some water has evaporated.
  3. Add the ground tomatoes, pinto beans (if using), garlic, bay leaves, oregano, cumin, salt, black pepper, and jalapeños.
  4. Cover and simmer on low heat for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
  5. Remove cover and add sliced black olives. Continue to simmer for 30 minutes more.
  6. Adjust seasonings and serve. Good as is, or spooned over tortilla chips and topped with lettuce, cheese, and avocados.

Special note to Oregonians: Don’t blame me if it’s too hot – I warned you. Just add some more beans and you’ll be fine.

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Now, I know that some of my more peevish, antsy followers are just about to start demanding recipes. I guess they want me to stick to the facts, ma’am, like this is Dragnet, or something.

And just how do you know this? you might be wondering. Because at least one out of the three of you has mentioned it to me, that’s how.

Well, just settle your horses, mister. You can’t hurry a good story along.  And as a matter of fact, I wasn’t through yet. The story of the Great Lemon Hubcap Calamity does NOT, in fact, end in failure like you might think.

 NO. There is a lesson to be learned here, but it is NOT that one screw-up means we’re doomed to total failure and should just go sit in the corner and cry — although, that’s just exactly what I did for about 25 years after the Easy-Bake Oven Incident. But don’t get me started on THAT or we’ll never make any headway.

So back to what I was saying: I think we left off last time by concluding that you can’t always turn your disasters around like Pollyanna Stewart so that you wind up having your cake and eating it too. That’s right, only people with rich friends can do that.

What you can do, however, is square your shoulders, take on the What-the-Hell attitude that Julia Child recommended, and launch straight into plan ‘B’. Of course, that only works if you’ve actually got a plan ‘B’ lined up, otherwise you’re pretty much hosed. Fortunately, I’ve got just the cake for you.

Well, looking back on it, the recipe that I had in mind for plan ‘B’ is probably the cake I should’ve baked in the first place. To begin with, this little cake is chocolate, and what could be better than that? It also happens to be plain looking on the outside with a complex, bittersweet character – kind of like me. Yes, plan ‘A’ would have been more like it, but I guess that’s all water under the floorboards by this time.

Now, before I go on (as I will do, Mr. Ants N. Yourpants, trust me), I want to make one thing clear: this cake is hardly “second-string.” Yes, it’s only slightly more trouble to make than one of Betty Crocker’s, but it tastes a hundred times better. So don’t be fooled into passing it by just because it’s uncomplicated. Simple is just one of its many virtues – albeit the one that makes it a good choice for plan ‘B’.

The way I see it, this cake is the Little Black Dress of the culinary collection. Spare and understated by itself, it can easily be accessorized to suit your tastes. Chocolate buttercream makes it lush and voluptuous. Cabernet chocolate glaze gives it a haughty, sophisticated air. Accompanied by a big pearl of vanilla ice cream, it’s a study in contrasts: chiaroscuro on a plate – and on your palate. It’s your choice.

Whatever you decide to do with it, this versatile, dependable little cake will come through for you. It’s not fussy and fractious like some cakes (ahem), and it doesn’t take a degree in culinary arts to make, either. Plus, it’s a cake that a lot of people can eat – from people trying to keep Kosher, to people with milk or egg allergies, to vegans, to people trying to reduce their cholesterol intake. Heck, if you make it with olive oil like I’ve suggested here, it’s practically good for you!

And, as if all that isn’t enough, the LBD Chocolate Cake has another virtue: It’s a great recipe to have on hand when you’ve run out of eggs because you typically forget to buy half the things you went to the store for. In fact, I’d even be willing to bet that most of you already have the necessary ingredients sitting in your cupboards right this minute. Like to see you beat that, Miss Betty ‘Needs-3-eggs’ Crocker!

And so with that, I’d better give you the recipe. (Yes, I know it’s about damn time, Mr. Hurryup N. Wait. Matter of fact, I’ve made a special index page called The Recipe Box just so you can cut right to the chase like you’re so fond of doing.)

In the immortal words of the French Chef herself,

The only stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a ‘What the hell’ attitude.

~ Julia Child

So be fearless and try it.

LBD Chocolate Cake

An Everyday Cake With Attitude

 ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 heaping Tbs instant espresso powder

1 cup boiling water

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

⅓ cup oil (I prefer light olive oil, but any oil with a light taste will be fine)

1 Tbs vinegar (balsamic preferably, but any will work)

1 tsp vanilla

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Grease an 8 × 8 inch baking pan, or a 9-inch round cake pan.
  3. Combine cocoa and coffee powder in heat-proof bowl. Add 1 cup boiling water and stir.
  4. Cool this mixture to room temperature (HINT: speed this process by placing bowl in refrigerator or freezer).
  5. Combine flour, brown sugar, soda, and salt together, stirring well to thoroughly combine and remove lumps.
  6. When cocoa mixture has cooled to lukewarm, add to dry ingredients and mix until combined.
  7. Combine olive oil, vinegar, and vanilla together and add all at once to batter, stirring to combine.
  8. Working quickly, pour batter into oiled baking pan and place on middle rack of oven.
  9. Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until wooden toothpick comes out clean.
  10. Allow to cool to room temperature before slicing.

Cake can be glazed or iced, decorated with a dusting of powdered sugar or a dollop of whipped cream, or served plain paired with good vanilla ice cream (one of the best choices, if you ask me).

 

 

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When life hands you lemons…

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re expecting to hear some sort of insipid Pollyanna-ish platitude, right?  Like maybe, “…make lemonade!! ;-)”

Well, that’s to be expected, I suppose. That sort of drivel is all over the place these days, and I might even spout some of it from time to time myself by sheer accident. I just want you people to rest assured that you won’t often catch me doing that, and if you do, it was an oversight on my part. I mean, I must have run out of coffee, or some crazy thing. Feel free to nail me for it, though.

Anyhow, this time you would not have been too far off the mark. I was going to give you my recipe for Lemon Olive Oil Cake. The way I figured it, my lemon cake would’ve made the ideal start for this little venture: not too sweet, not too sour, not too heavy – in a nutshell, kinda like me. Yes indeed, it was the perfect choice.

Right up UNTIL I baked my test cake, that is.

I swear to you, it was a nightmare of a cake. I mean, if I’d served you people a slice of that lemon cake you would have needed a week’s worth of saliva just to choke it down it was so dry. It was like eating oily tissue paper baked into an oversized lemon hockey puck. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything so godawful come out of my oven before in my life.

Well, that cake would’ve finished my kitchen chronicles off just like THAT. Pfffffft. Never would’ve seen or heard from you people again. I don’t have a clue what went wrong, either, so I can’t fix it. That’s the way it goes with some recipes some of the time, though – or anyway, it does in my kitchen where I have the three feline distractions milling around my feet at all times like pint-sized sharks on the hunt.

So anyway, I’ll have more to say on this subject after a bit.  For now, though, I’d better finish what I started. Here we go again.

When life hands you lemons…

…sometimes all you end up with is more lemons.

Go figure. I guess you people probably didn’t need me to tell you THAT.

Okay, I’ve gotta go let the feline fighting force outside to see what’s cookin’ so they’ll stop brewing up trouble that involves me. I’ve got more to say on this subject, but it’ll keep.

Like they say on TV, stay tuned for an important message after the break.

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Rachel Laudan

A Historian's Take on Food and Food Politics

in vita esse

To be alive. Dispatches from the surface of the planet.

Kicking and Screaming into the Kitchen

and other thoughts on eating, cooking, living, loving, writing from an ex-circus sideshow performer turned elephant advocate and author