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Cooking After a Blackout I

The blackout was two weeks ago today. It went all night. I remember the thump that happened just before the power went on at 5am on Friday morning, August 3, 2012. So why am I still writing about it? My freezer must have a pretty good seal, but there was as always a lovely, little horde of frozen vegetables in there. There was also an extra pound and a half of nappa cabbage and a whole, huge, can of tomato puree in the pantry cupboard. I thought about midweek supper and decided to make a dish I had not made in a while that would at least take care of the cabbage and the frozen, speckeled butter peas that had refroze.

I decided to make mock turtle soup. Don't worry, I did not harm any turtles in the process. I did not even use meat, except for any fish that is Worsteshire sauce. Now if the name grosses you out, think twice because it was so old fashioned that it hearkened back to a time when people actually craved turtle meat. It also reminded me of the mock turtle, who is a character in Alice in Wonderland. This must have been one popular dish!

All of That fascinated me, and no, I have never tasted terrapin. I've eaten abelone and I've eaten frog's legs. The turtle that once went into mock turtle soup, however, was lean beef, and the soup has a tonato/worsteshire/lemon/sherry broth with the sherry optional. I saw the Vermont Country store selling canned mock turtle soup, and I thought: "This would be great fun to make at home as a vegetarian dish."

Here it comes....

Vegetarian Mock Turtle Soup

You will need...

2 cups of water for cooking.
1/2 a humngeous daikon radish or 1 normal size one.
1 parcel (bunch) of parsley
The business end of a bunch of scallions or one cooking onion. (I always have scallion bottoms leftover from making salad.)
1.5 lb nappa or regular cabbage (You may include carrots as well if you have any leftover. I didn't.)
1 package frozen speckeled lima beans (or cooked pinto beans. Stay away from canned beans. They taste...canned.)
1 large can (23 oz I think) tomato puree.
Several splashes of worsteshire sauce.
Salt to taste
Several splashes of lemon juice.
Smoked paprika to taste

Peel and cut up the daikon. Wash and chop up the parsley. You can even use the stemps. Put all of this in a big bowl. Cut the disgusting, hairy ends off the scallions and cut them up too. Put them with the other vegetables in the big bowl, and no, I have not forgotten about the cabbage.

Put two cups of water in a big stew pot, and cook the daikon, parsley, and scallion bottoms. When the water hits a solid boil, add the frozen beans or pre-cooked beans. When the water boils again, put it down to medium to low.

While the vegetables cook take the leaves off the nappa and tear them up. Put them into the big bowl. If you are using regular cabbage, chop it coarsely with a knife and put it in the big bowl.

When the scallions, daikon, and parsley are cooked, add the tomato puree, and the cabbage. Season with worsteshire sauce, lemon, salt, and smoked paprika. Taste. Adjust seasonings. Cook until the cabbage is done.

Serve over rice or soup pasta (small shapes). Makes about four servings and is pareve.

This didn't take more than half an hour to make once it started cooking. It is flavorful and nonfat. You can substitute other vegetables. This is, as I said above, a great way to use up leftovers and give them one very, exotic name.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 15, 2012

"What do you do with that?"

I'm not sure what this sentence means. It's probably the opposite of "Didn't your mother make you..." Actually, I eat a lot of foods that my mother didn't cook because they were not available. If they had come into the market, my mother would have made new friends of them. I can remember this with anise and escarole as I was growing up. I also remember befriending greengage and shiro plums, something that was my thing. Most recently, my mother befriended some Chinese greens. They tasted good but she found them too sandy. A common question on the phone between us is "Eileen have you ever eaten?" which means my mother has been served or tried some new vegetable. Half the time I can reply: "Mom, I made that for you." I am a very good daughter in a few ways.

One question neither of us ever ask the other is "what do you do with?" We can look that up on the web. There are cookbooks for that. Besides, we want to try whatever it is and neither of us is afraid. This is a difference on a basic level with the rest of the world, or with a lot of is. If you're in the "have you ever eaten?" camp, more power to you.

I'm not sure that fear is exactly what keeps people from happily trying unfamiliar vegetables and to a lesser extent fruits. There are some people who find produce scarey especially the way it normally arrives in the kitchen. Face it, produce is mostly water so it is bulky. Also it shrinks when cooked or it just vanishes pretty fast. This means it is BIG. I have the measurements down to a science. A salad that lasts most of the week starts with two to three pounds of main ingredient. Salad for a crowd starts with five. Two pounds of carrots is a good size bag. Two pounds of moqua squash is two of them or one and a half. Two pounds of beets is four big topless ones. Two pounds of cabbage is a whole head. That is what the writer in the New York Times finds scarey.

There may also be something just plain intimidating about raw, minimally processed, vegetables. Most roots are prewashed. The carrots in that bag or bunch or the beets from the topless bin, did NOT come out of the ground that clean. Hard core produce does arrive dirty. Regardless, most produce needs peeling, some washing, and then cutting or breaking up. Roots are big, hard balls. That waxed rutabeta, those purple and white turnips come cased in armor. The celery root and jicama have tough skins. Winter squash is a huge, heavy ball, with a rind that may or may not be edible after cooking, and yes, you need to seed it and cut through the rind. Oh a paring knife and peeler are your best friend, but if you are not used to processing vegetables, I can see how they might intimidate.

Back when I lived in Utica, neighbor children would visit the crazy lady in her purple house. I used to make a lot of pasta e fagioli (pasta fazool) and I'd have a pile of carrots and a big daikon all peeled and ready to be cut up for soup. I'd lay the peeled roots on my table. Inevitably some kid would come inside and ask what they were. They were utterly big and impressive, and yes, probably just a bit intimidating even when shorn of their scuzzy peels.

Then there are the folks who fear being poisoned. I don't know if they exactly fear being poisoned. I know they talk about insecticide on apples, even after a long haitus from this lovely, crunchy fruit, that is nearly a universal taste. They talk about insecticides rather than making sure there are enough apples on hand. They also are the people who ask "Can you eat that raw?" Most vegetables are not rhubarb leaves or potatoes, and some people eat the latter ones raw. There are even recipes for raw rutabega salad though I prefer to blanch my rutabega before marinating it.

And as for fruits, there are people for whom new fruits have no appeal. I don't understand these folks. Maybe they, like my exboyfriend are used to baked goods, which are sweeter though they lack all the flavor of good fruit. Maybe they have mouthfeel issues. I'm not sure, but I remember a bunch of them on a hot August night in 2002 in Columbus Georgia. I was grocery shopping in the local "holy temple of the produce" where I made obesience in the Publix on Macon Road. Yes, I used to say that. I still remember it. It was a joke wtih a bitter grain of truth.

There in the Publix was a huge bin of Dinosaur Egg pluots the color of Revlon's Persian Melon nail polish, a lovely rosey red. Several locals glanced at the bin while I got out a plastic bag to fill with this delicacy which had appeared for the First Time Ever! in Columbus, Georgia. I wanted the store to keep stocking the pluots so I was going to buy a lot of them.

"What's that?" one of the locals asked.

"Pluots," I replied. "They're a cross between an apricot and a plum."

"Look like tomatoes," the local told me disdainfully. A few minutes later, I ate my first pluot. I sat at the office complex on Morris Road which overlooks Macon Road and was just a bit disappointed, but not awfully so. I had yet to learn that different varieties of pluot taste different. Better ones arrived even that season, and no I was not poisoned. And yes, the pluots were pretty good, just pricey. I did buy them again. There is a large bowl of them in my refridgerator now.

So how do I get you, or any one who has asked "What do you do with it?" to "Have you ever eaten?" I can start by trying to convince you rationally. Generations of farmers and plant breeders have selectively bred vegetables and fruits to appeal to a primate palette. They are mostly sweet, mild, and even those that are bitter or firey are only so bitte and firey. Chiles, onions, garlic, and bitter melon come to mind. Most other produce has been designed to taste good. Most of it is fine eaten raw. A lot of it is taxonomically related. If you like bell peppers, you'll like cubanelle peppers. If you like on shape of eggplant, you will like another. If you like cole slaw, you can make nap slaw (from nappa cabbage). If you like cucumbers and zucchini, moqua squash and chayotes (also cucurbits) are fine. If you like zucchini, patty pan squash is a summer squash. If you like acorn squash, butternut or kobacha are delicious and so too is calabazza.

If you don't know how to use something look it up on the web or in a cookbook. Publix in Columbus had a plastic book in the Holy Temple of Produce where you could look up anything unfamiliar. That is how I learned to handle chayotes. Keep your paring knives sharp. Buy a peeler. Get a big, fiber glass cutting board, and some large soup pots, bowls, and plastic containers. Roasting pans are good too. Now you are set to deal with vegetables on a regular basis, and remember this is a low risk, high benefit adventure.

Now that's not quite how I do it. I'm disorganized in many parts of my life, but not when it comes to shopping. I learned to cook and started shopping on my own at more or less the same time. As a result, I've always planned menus and grocery lists simultaneously. That way, I know where every vegetable I buy is going. Fruit is just a numbers game. Multiple lunch, snack, and supper by either six or seven and you need eighteen to twenty-one pieces per week. A family could easily end up with case or half bushes quantities. The cabbage, nappa, or bok-choi is heading for slaw. The beets are for borsht en casserole. The calabazza is going to be twice baked wtih fruits. I lay out my grocery list out meal by meal with the vegetables and fruits I'll need underneath it. Part of this is because I shop at Your Dekalb Farmer's Market for most of my produce needs. This not having an all purpose supermarket is an Atlata-ism, but still every meal has its produce so it comes home for only a short stay in the fridge before it's off to the processing board.

Then, I am not afraid of salt or salad dressing. I don't need cheese or butter, though a pat of butter or butter for sauteeing is nice enough. These days I use a lot of home made low calorie Italian. No, you don't need olive oil. Yes, Mrs. Dash is your best friend, but that is for another blog entry. If you are the kind who likes it plain, go for it. I keep a pantry full of flavorful, salty and sweet adjuncts for salads, and not nuts or croutons though I could make the latter.

As for fruits, an empty fruit bowl is a cause for panic. I don't buy orange juice regularly. I don't buy snack foods. If I wanted cookies I would bake them, but who needs cookies. Fruits are desserts and snacks. If I was eating something solid for breakfast (I have a shamless mocha addiction.) I would undoubtedly eat fresh fruit. This means fruit simply vanishes. I do keep ripening bowls on my kitchen table in the summer. Most fruit ships green. Some gets damaged. All of it disappears.

I'm not sure the fruit I like (and I don't eat the cheapest kind.) is expensive. I'd love to do a cost out. I think compared to other snack foods, fruit is reasonably priced. I also think we were meant to eat fruit. It tastes good. I can't do much about biting through a peel, feeling something stringy in the mouth, or a good, sharp, sour tang. Fruit is supposed to be like that. The mouth feel is part of the charm. The tang comes with the sweetness and the skin, is part of the fun too. You can bite fruit. You don't have to bake it. You don't have to heat it. It even tastes good right out of the fridge. I'm not sure how to convince people to enjoy it. I simply always have, and so have my parents, but that is another story. There is always more to come.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 11, 2012

A Bunch of Memories in Every Bunch

I almost did not wind up with bunch beets. Even in Atlanta, bunch beets, the kind sold with their tops are hit or miss. Some people, who are going to waste the tops, mangle them. Also, the tops just plain break as folks rummage around in the bin. Here in Atlanta, unlike any where else I've lived except Ithaca (and that changed when I complained!) beets come without tops. The bunch beets sell at a premium, and have all the problems that bunch beets have in the South.

Sunday, I grabbed the last decent bunch of beets. What makes a decent bunch of beets? There are reasonably size beets on the bottom. I like my veggies big, and beets without tops can be as large or a bit larger than softballs (more beet and less skin!). Beets in bunch beets don't get that large, but you don't want teeny-tiny half developed roots. Second, you want the tops to be green, fresh, lush, and not torn. These beets had short stems, large roots, and a full bunch of leaves.

Now, you are wondering why I care about the leaves? Because the leaves, better called the greens, are delicious. What do you do with them? Cook them. They can go in soups (Think borscht), casseroles, or they can become a side dish called beets and greens. This last is a Passover delicacy. There is just not that much that is kosher for Passover, but fresh bunch beets and butter are. A squirt of lemon and some grated lemon zest adds to the dish.

Thsee bunch beets were heading for borsht en casserole. I am too tired to reproduce the recipe. Also this dish should have included onions or scallion bottoms. I had used up all my scallion bottoms on the virtuous cowboy cornbread I made on Sunday night to eat during the week. When I have enough of the right ingredients, I'll make this dish again and give all of you a recipe. It also has a close cousin that I make with Swiss chard, which is in the same family as beets and which tastes like beet greens.

And you ask me what you can do with the roots. Well, beet roots function as round, red or gold, carrots. They do taste different. They are sweeter, and yes, they have an earthy rather then a peppery kick. They tend to be juicier. I won't buy them if they are not hard as rocks, and more water means more juice, and more crunch. This means you can grate up raw beets for a salad. You can peel and cut up raw beet root and then sautee it or blanch it. You can also use it in borsht. Yes, I'm old school enough to like borsht.

I'm also old school enough to have no fear of a big, wild looking (or even not so big and wild looking) bunch of beets. My mother did not teach me a lot of cooking. She taught me how to bake. She taught me how to purchase food and plan meals and follow a recipe. She also made me utterly fearless around produce. Now I was a kid who all ready liked my vegetables, but I was also a bored kid, and a curious one. I could enjoy myself "playing in the wter table" by washing off the Saturday luncheon/supper, fresh vegetable. I washed mushrooms. I washed asparagus which was le plus ultra delicacy. I washed beet tops. My mother handled the bottoms. Beets and greens was also a highly esteemed delicacy. My mother did not make pareve or fleshig borsht and preferred schav for the cold, dairy soup. We sometimes had borsht but usually bought the premade variety and added yogurt or buttermilk.

So how does one tackle a bunch of beets. First, pretend you are six if that helps, but your mother lets you use a sharp knife. Put the bunch of beets in the sink. Cut the beets from the tops and set them aside. Undo the twisty tie on the tops. Many vegetables come with a free cat toy. This makes them better than a Happy Meal. Otherwise, you can find a use for the extra twisty tie. Twist your kitchen sink drain shut. Add water. Stir the greens around. See if any dirt settles. Beets are now main stream enough that they no longer arrive full of dirt. Truely hard core vegetables like dandelion greens come filthy. Escarole also comes filthy. If you're hard core enough to enjoy it, you are also fearless, and won't be afraid to wash it.

Now make sure you have a bowl on a stool or counter at sink side. Rinse and inspect each leaf. These are big leaves on red stems. There are supposed to be golden bunch beets, but I've only seen them once. Then tear up each leafinto the bowl. Also tear up the stems. They are completely edible, and taste good. You can even nibble on the raw greens. They are not as bitter as kale or collards (They are way less bitter than dandelion greens). In fact, they are not bitter at all. They still have a strong bite from oxalic acid that can coat your teeth. This is a pleasant taste, especially in the cooked product. Tear up all your breens and stems. Only throw away those that are damaged.

Now you still have those roots. Turn back into your adult self. Get out a peeler and peel them. Don't worry about getting dirty. You will see red juice all over your hands and allover your cutting board. A big fiber glass cutting board is a godsend for this kind of cooking. Then cut off the tails and the stemmy end of each beet. You can then cut them into small pieces or slices or put them on the grater.

The beet juice comes off with soap and water. If a beet peeling lands on the floor, wipe the spot with a soapy sponge. Give yourself a pat on the back, even though (as I said above) there are many more difficult vegetables than a good, friendly, bunch of bunch beets. True, your mother might not have fed these to you. I would always ask that of the cashier in the Price Chopper on Mohawk Street in Utica when he or she did not recognize the bunch beets I habitually bought there. Now, though you can make bunch beets a habit, if you are lucky enough to have them readily available. I am not, but I still get my beets regularly.

And there are other beet loves out there. I mentioned above that I almost did not get my bunch beets. Well, I had the last bunch, and a lady approached my cart and asked me where the beets were. I asked if she wanted those with or without tops. She wanted the ones with the tops. I told her that I had the last good bunch of beets. I then offered them to her. If she had said "yes," I would have made escarole, lima bean, and rice casserole instead. This has been a tough summer for escarole, and there was actually good escarole available last Sunday.

Also, you may wonder how I introduced beet greens to Ithaca. At the Green Star Co-op (not sure if it even exists. I should look it up) they were selling beets without tops. The beets came in as bunches, and the other volunteers were cutting the tops off and throwing them in the compost pile. I reacued out the tops and told them that these were called beet greens and were a great delicacy. After that, we stopped cutting the tops off the beets. I don't know if the beets are sold in bunches today or topless. I only saw topless beets when I arrived in Atlanta. They are a recession buster (.49 a pound), but they are not bunch beets. Due to topless beets, beets are on my menu every two or three weeks. Maybe that puts me in the minority of beet lovers, but hey we're out there, and if beets are just unfamiliar to you, maybe it's time to create a bunch of memories for yourself.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 9, 2012

The World's Most Virtuous Casserole

And the good news is that it is both cowboy cornbread (sort of) and a member of the Weird Food Hall of Fame. Most of the ingredients are not exotic in Atlanta. The most exotic is a spice mix called Bragg Sprinkle, available in health food stores. You can substitute your favorite mixture of garlic and dried green herbs if Bragg Sprinkle is unavailable. Mine always disappears rather quickly.

This casserole came up because I like zucchini and rutabega, and because I can't resist a bargain. Chayotes are a zucchini analog only better. They are apple shaped not-quite-squash and usually very reasonable in pirce. I paid .49 a pound for mine, and I paid .49 a pound for the rutabega which may be the first of the season out of Canada. Well, let's get started.

Virtuous Cowboy Cornbread

You will need...
1/2 lb dried black beans.
Water for soaking and cooking.
1 goodly size rutabega or two smaller ones.
2-3lb chayotes (about three of them).
The business end of two bunches of scallions (These can be the raunchy ones in the back of the veggie drawer. The green part goes into salads a lot faster.)
1 good size pablono (or other mild) chili
2 Tlbsp of oil
Salt to taste
Bragg Sprinkle to taste
1/2 your favorite corn bread recipe (Don't use a mix because you are making only half the recipe.)

Two days before you want to make this recipe, soak the beans. Leave them overnight or for twelve to twenty-four hours. The only thing you have to do is put them in the soaker. If you cook enough beans, this step will become second nature.

The day before you make this recipe, cook the beans. They take from forty to ninty minutes, not several hours. That gives you time enough to get some other things accomplished.

If you dread this next part of this recipe, please don't. Working with peelers and sharp knives is fun. Peel the rutabega. It peels just like a carrot, except the peel is waxy. Cut off the gross ends. Cut off big pieces and cut them into smaller pieces. Put the cut up pieces in a large container. Wash and cut up the chayotes. You can eat the whole thing, skin, seed, and flesh. Cut them into small pieces, and add them to the container. You can also cut up the scallion bottoms (Yes you can use a plain onion instead. I just happen to always have extra scallion bottoms.) and chili.

Cut the chili on a separate plate and wash everything, including your hands when you are done. Capsicum burns are not fun! Hot chilis though add a really good taste to dishes, so they are worth the extra trouble.

The day you prepare the casserole heat two Tblsp of oil in a big pan with high sides. This recipe requires your biggest soup kettle or sauce pan. When the oil is hot enough that a piece of veggie inserted sizzles, add all the vegetables. Cover and let cook about twenty minutes or so. Add the beans. Let cool a bit. Taste. Season with salt and Bragg Sprinkle. Taste. Adjust seasonings and let sit.

Make the corn bread batter. You just need to use half the recipe, especially if you are watching your calories and fat. Be glad you get to have corn bread at all. That is why you make cowboy cornbread in the first place, though the bottom of this one is a surprise.

Oil a roasting pan. I use these for all my casserole needs. Spoon or pur in the veggie and bean mixture. Then put the corn bread batter on top. Cook in a 400 to 425F degree oven for thirty to forty-five minutes or until the corn bread is done.

Because corn bread dries out easily, the veggies underneath keep the crust fresh. This casserole always tastes better the next day. In fact, I think it tastes like baked beans though I'm not sure why. The rutabega and chayotes are that good, and yes you can add other vegetables or substitute them. No matter what you do, you have plenty of good casserole to enjoy.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 8, 2012