A perfect sea urchin

The Pantry Corner

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Beer Rack

I am sitting in a warm apartment, a shopping trip sort of on hold depending on how I feel after I eat and whether the sky opens up. I have taken it as a foregone conclusion and therefore self-fulfilling prophesy that I will get soaked in the rain. It is a kind of Murphy's Law thing.

This blog entry started yesterday when I mentioned to a Rebbitzen that I wanted to make turnip greens and turnip pieces, since I had eaten these as a frozen vegetable and never fresh. I got a blank look. I told her that supermarkets routinely sold this product. Apprently she never eats greens. Most people eat the same eight to ten vegetables year around

lettuce (iceberg or romaine or premade salad mix)
sweet corn
bell peppers

and less commonly.... carrots
string beans

Perhaps green peas should be on the list, but this is a Toco Hills based list. String beans probably also rank higher among nonJews. The eggplant and olives show a decidedly Mediterranean/Israeli influence, but again my sample is Toco Hills.

This leaves out a whole world of vegetables. Winter squash and zucchini barely make it to the table and for some reason green peas are missing from this list. Spahgetti squash is nonexistent. There is usually neither parsley nor radishes except at Passover, and there are no kohlrabi, rutabega, turnips, beets, or jicama, Brussel sprouts, chayotes and moqua squash, all Atlanta delicacies, are also just not there. Cabbage occasionally make an appearance as pre-shredded cole slaw, but never in any other way, and there is no nappa or bok-choi. And there are no cooking greens whatsover: no chard, escarole, collards, kale, turnip greens etc...

In the fruit department it is a year round parade of cut up melon, pineapple, and grapes. Occasionally one sees bing cherries or there are apples in a basket. Orange or grapefruit slices are an afterthought at best. This leaves out really good apples (I know apples are hard to serve to guests but there is a way to cover the slices with sweetened lemon juice or Sprite), all the pears, most citrus (except for a few occasions), and all stone and tropical fruits. There is no mango, papaya, peaches, apricots, or plums.

How do people not notice what is in season or not try new fruits and vegetables especially when their choices of meat and cheese are so limited? I surprised the Rebbitzen when I told her that my mother wants me to make her something she has not eaten before when she visits. My mom is just like that.I'm not sure about nonKosher people and what they eat or serve, but I bet the picture would not be all that different.

Anyway, I mentioned that the turnip greens with chopped turnips were in Publix. Then I went to check if they actually had them in Toco Hills. Turns out they're at Kroger's Publix just has frozen turnip greens, but one thing I did get to notice when I reached the display case, was that Publix is again selling its frozen vegetables in sixteen ounce bags. Did someone catch on and complain? Kroger's has gone down to twelve ounce bags which vexes me no end. It's a rip off, and I am used to using either half a sixteen ounce bag or a whole one.

Also in the last few weeks, Kroger's vegetable oil lost its hecscher or kosher symbol which puts it off limits. Oil is a processed food so needs a hecscher, and Veg-All Homestyle also lost its hecscher. This like any little, beer rack, type change has big repercussions. Unless I need frozen artichoke hearts, or soup pasta, I'm shopping at Publix where they have kosher peanut oil. Peanut oil is mild tasting and has the highest scorch temperature which means it is the easiest oil with which to fry. With the exceptio of Fiesta Blend (which only Kroger's has), Publix fancy, frozen vegetable mixes are also excellent, and if I want frozen turnips with greens, I can always go to Kroger's.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 5/30/10

Embarassment of Riches Part II

There were no morels in the Farmer's Market, and if the supply is not steady, there is no point in planning any sort of a dish with them. Some delicacies just don't make it. Others, like apriums, are here. It is exciting to think that this is most likely the first year this fruit has been around in Atlanta. There is still an excitement to approach the bin and see the sign with the explanation posted. For about ten years, apriums have existed only on NPR and in the Dining and Wine section of the New York Times, and I've also seen the trees advertised in seed catalogs. Pluots arrived in about 2002. It's been a long eight year wait.

I feel one has to support new fruit or the stores will not sell it. I make it a point to buy apriums for this reason besides the fact that they are quite decent tasting when ripe. Like pluots, there are supposed to be multiple kinds of apriums. There are even supposed to apriums with deep purple, nearly black skins. Those of course only exist in food writers' imaginations. The apriums here in Atlanta look like smaller, more golden apricots, with a more extreme blush. They are sweeter than apricots when ripe. Apricots are something for which one either has a taste or not. Fresh apricots mark the beginning of summer. Peaches are not raelly here yet and pluots which come out much later are months away. Needless to say, I don't understand people who do not mark their calendars by what is in and out of season at the market. I just don't.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 5/30/10

Embarassment of Riches

I spent too much money on fruits and vegetables at the Farmer's Market yesterday. I went with a simple list, but when I walked through the door, there with the first, anemic specimens of local "tree ripe" peaches were not only apricots, but apriums. I have waited years for apriums to make their appearance. I did buy the discount bags which was 20% off of $2.99/lb. I bought every discount bag they had because I needed a dozen pieces of fruit. I buy fruit in industrial quantities. An empty fruit bowl drives me to the market. It's "I better have fruit" or there's nothing for lunch."

Apriums have existed only in food columns and on NPR. They are a cross between an apricot and a plum. Pluots, the other apricot-plum cross, made their debut in Columbus, Georgia where I lived at the time, in July of 2002. They too were a fruit fabled in print and on the radio, but nonexistent in real life, until the first specimens arrived in Publix on Macon Road on a hot night in July. They were the Dinosaur Egg variety (Pluots come in various named varieties), blushing crimson with a netting of pink on their smooth skin. They were the size of small to medium peaches, with a perfectly round plum shape. Most pluots are perfectly round. I looked at the bin of these new fruits and gasped. Such things did not come to Columbus often.

I did not care what they cost. I got out a plastic bag and started filling it. They cost two dollars and change a pound, which was exhorbitant, even by Columbus standards, but prices of new fruits are high. They come down as they find their way into the market. Standing next to me at the bin were a pair of native Columbusites. They looked disparagingly at the new fruit. They said "What are these?" I told them about pluots. They were unimpressed and said they looked like tomatoes. "More for me," I thought.

One of my pluots was ripe. The sun was setting through the air pollution and after I trekked across the steep lot that led to the steep part of Morris Street, I sat down on the cement step of what was the bornagain, antiSemitic, insurance agency that had gone out of business. The sun was setting over the soon-to-be-demolished Columbus Square Mall on Macon Road. There is a lovely and huge public library there now. I took out a ripe pluot and ate it after making the blessing for eating a new fruit. I will always remember trying my first pluot.

None of the new apriums are ripe by the way. They share the ripening bowl on my kitchen table with a handful of apricots which also came in a discount bag. I'm pretty much an expert on stone fruits and apples, having grown up eating them, and the discount specimens looked fine. Even with the discount I was paying two dollars plus per pound for a fair amount of fruit. I have some Orange Cox Pippin apples from New Zealand (which were reasonably priced for storage apples) to tide me over until the stone fruits start to ripen. Cox Pippins are supposed to be a herative variety. They looked like Spitzenbergs which are a first class delicacy. I'll let all of you know about how Orange Cox Pippins taste.

In other market news, there was no rhubarb at all. I suspect that wherever rhubarb is commercially grown and then sold for an exhorbitant sum either the season ended early or the crop largely failed.

I did see morel mushrooms. They were laid out like royalty on wax paper and they were only $24.99 a pound. Whole Foods has been selling them for $40.00/pound, so this is actually a good price. Now the question you want to ask is did I buy them? The answer is no. I had not planned to make a mushroom dish for Shabbos. I am going to make the Peruvian noodle bake I wanted to make this week, but just had too many leftovers from Shavuous. The Shabbos of June 5, however, if morels are still around (and this was their first week.) I will schedule a morel pinto bean egg noodle casserole. That means I have to cruise by the market on Wednesday or Thursday night because mushrooms have no shelf life. I also have to have a backup plan because for all I know I have missed a one week morel season.

Apriums and fancy apples are similar. By the way, the Cox Orange Pippins were terrific. They were dry and tart like the Cortlands I'd been eating, but they were also a lot fresher and had an interesting wine-like flavor. In short, they were very good apples. I remember eating apples that tasted something like them in Europe in late May of 2000. The Cox Orange Pippins brought back fond memories.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 5/24/10

Down and Dirty with String Beans

Snap beans (and also pole beans and wax beans) are a popular vegetable. They are popular everywhere except Toco Hills where I have eaten them either as gourmet French beans or as steamed whole things that tasted good with salt. The gourmet French beans were good too. The beans were excellent, but for some reason they are as scarce on Shabbos tables as hens' teeth. I'm not sure why. I grew up eating string bean salad. Yes, we made it from canned string beans, and then there was string bean and cabbage stir fry and there were raw string beans with low calorie dressing for dip.

At the Farmer's Market, there is often a crowd gathered around the snap bean bin. Wax beans are less popular and more expensive though they often taste better. Waxers are a Yankee thing. Purple string beans or spotted ones don't exist except in private gardens. Pole beans are also nonexistent though when they are available, they too generate a crowd. Debates about which kind of string bean are better break out. I'm a pole bean enthusiast. By the way, you always have to nibble one bean before you buy. String beans can sometimes be tasteless. They can also be pricey, though this winter they went up to three dollars a pound, and I avoided them like the plague. There was a crop failure due to storms in Florida.

Now the beans are back, and I am happy to have them. I am still puzzled though at their lack of popularity among the religious crowd. It can't due to the bug taboo. Some Orthodox Jews, though not many in my community, avoid green leafy vegetables for fear of bugs. It could be because they would cook to death in cholent, and for some reason string bean salad has not made it into the recipe repetoire which kashrus has narrowed.

I think there is a third reason. There is a word in Yiddish called feh, which means disgustingly tasteless. Not all mild flavored foods are feh. Cucumbers, spahgetti squash, carrots, jicama, chayotes etc... are all mild but not feh! Stringbeans are mild and tastey. You can roast them or blanch them and turn them into salad, and it takes work.

This is the scarey part. To fix string beans you have to get ready to get down and dirty, though not in the way of getting down and dirty for beets which leave you stained purple. The purple comes off with soap and water so no big deal. And you don't have to get down and dirty wtih string beans they way you do with chayotes or zucchini which are sticky. I never noticed the sticky, but it bothers some people. Instead, you throw the string beans in the sink, hose them down or rinse them off, and then pick them over. This takes time. It takes an hour to pick over five pounds of string beans, breaking off the brown parts and then breaking them in halves or thirds and putting the broken pieces in a big bowl. I keep the bowl on a stool by the sink and the garbage pail next to the bowl. Waste goes in the pail. Beans go in the bowl. Blanching goes fast. Roasting goes slow, but it takes care of itself, and yes carrots and string beans go together as do mint (which also needs a pickover) and scallion bottoms. I use the green parts of scallions in salad. I don't want to taste onion for days or smell of dragon's breath.

This labor is worth the results. String beans are a very tastey vegetable. They also are somewhat kid friendly, if I remember my childhood correctly. Still they take work even if it is work well worthy of its reward.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 5/18/10

Chayotes and Jicamas

Last night I cooked off some lima beans for a casserole for Shabbos and made polenta. This is going to be polenta pie. It's not that complicated. It just takes planning. I also made chayote, jicama, and pineapple salad with mint and scallions. I hadn't peeled a jicama root in ages. Get a bad one that is all brown inside and you want no part of that vegetable. I haven't made chayote salad in ages. I have made chayote bake. Chayotes are green cucurbits shaped like apples. They taste like a good cross between zucchini and cucumber and never go sour or bitter, though their skin can be a bit tough. The seed in the center is soft and edible. I do not have to avoid it with my diverticulosis. Contrary to what the articles at Foodsubs says, you can eat chayotes raw, and the skin is perfectly edible, though it is a bit tough occasionally. At one time chayote must have been field cured. The ones I buy have fairly soft skins and cutting them in small pieces takes care of any skin problems.

My mother and I discovered chayotes independently around the time they entered supermarkets in the late 1990's. I prepared them cooked in tomato sauce in a rice casserole the first time I ever ate them. I also tasted them raw and realized they were fine that way too. My mom started out with them raw. Zucchini salad and cheese and zucchini sandwiches are stapes at Mommy's Bar and Grill. Cooking chayotes for us is strictly sui generis. I've often recommended chayotes to my friends and to the ladies at various synaoguges. I always get a blank stare. Even among cooks who have to keep kosher, a new vegetable that is an absolute free pass (no hechsher required!) is a tough sell.

And so chayotes, became a cucumber/zucchini substitute or improved version in my diet and I'm a fan. I figured there were other chayote enthusiasts out there besides my mom and me. I just haven't bumped into them. I still haven't bumped into them. A couple of years ago, I was buying chayotes in the Farmer's Market and they had a new kind with dark green skins. They were handsome things and the same price as the regular ones. I started filling my bag with them when a Latina lady said to me with a look of horror: "Do you know what those things are?" I replied that they were chayotes and made a great substitute for zucchini. Apparently, wherever they're grown, the poor chayote is a low class vegetable. Go figure.

Jicamas are also a legacy of my life in Columbus. I think I bought one out of boredom. Peeling them is the problem. If I were Mexican or came from one of those cultures that throws safety to the winds in the kitchen and doesn't demand percision tools to do all my work, I'd scrape my jicamas smooth as a baby's buttocks with a paring knife. Instead, I struggle with a peeler and then use the knife to remove anything weird and as much of the fiber the peeler leaves behind as possible. This makes jicamas difficult to peel.

Worse yet, I can't pick out a good one. Jicamas are another vegetable I learned to eat as an adult. I look for firm, smooth, specimens, but every so often I just get burned and find the jicama brown and disgusting inside. The jicama I peeled last night though was good all the way through. I julienned it to help it absorb dressing and made sure to use lots of salt and lime juice in the dressing. Jicama is not a carrot sobustitute.

It is a good substitute for radishes, which is why I am surprised never to see it on tables in Toco Hills. Actually, I am not surprised. What makes sense to a kitchen geek like me, doesn't make sense to other people, but still there are many families with small children. Many children dislike radishes, and there are adults who loathe them as well. Jicama are clearly what to serve instead. And no, I haven't made any converts either. I'm not sure why.At least I'm staying out of my cooking rut, but even I am getting sick of cooking.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 5/13/10

Of Beets and Papaya

I still wonder what I am thinking. I want to make beet bread tonight for Shavuous which meant I grated up two pounds of beets last night. One of the beets was larger than a softball. Its mate was about the size of a hard ball. When I bought the beets, I chatted with a guy who loved their reddish-purple color. I have a friend who finds the color frightening. I think the reddish purple color is beautiful. Of course a lot of people are afraid of beets. They stain your hands. They stain the cutting board. I think the staining is half the fun, and all the beet juice comes off with soap and water. There is now a fetish for eating raw beets. I've tasted them. They're not bad, but they are better cooked, or at least I think so.

After all the whinging, it did not take long to grate the beets, pack them away, and clean up. Of course, now I fear I have too much grated raw beet, but maybe not. A pint is a pound the world around and I weighed them out. Carrot bread which can also be beet bread takes a pound of graded root per loaf or per batch of rolls. I think pink, or crimson spotted rolls are just the thing for Shavous. I wish I were a maiden auntee and had kids to share them with. Fancy rolls and peanut butter make a great hot weather luncheon during a two day holiday.

The payapa is another matter. The last batch of citrus I had was vile. Half the tangerines were dry and tasteless. They did peel easily. They were not moulding, but other than that, there was not much good I could say about them. The apples are also starting to taste old. Still, it's a jolt to switch over partially to tropical fruits, mangos and papayas. The last mangos I bought were a disappointment. The season hadn't really started. I have five mangos ripening or ready to go in the bowl now. Papaya also have been around, but it just felt like too soon.

I was not really afraid to peel and seed out a papaya. I've gotten it down to a science. Peel and seed the thing on torn plastic bags, and you eliminate most of the mess. Papayas also have improved since 2008. They now come from either Belize or Mexico and they are sweet! They taste like canteloupe on steroids. In fact, they leave poor old muskmelons in the dust. I'll be processing at least one papaya a week until peaches and stone fruits really come into their own, probably some time in July. Papayas are a sign it is late spring, and summer is on the way.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 5/11/10


Calabazza are big, buff colored, Mexican winter squashes. Mexicans are great devotees of winter squash. Winter squash, after all, is a Western Hemisphere vegetable. It is also a vegetable I have always loved to eat year around. Usually this meant buying a brick of frozen squash puree. You can still get this in most decent supermarkets, but here in Atlanta, I'm spoiled. Squash harvests in Mexico and California make fresh winter squash nearly a year around quantity.

For those of you who don't know winter squash, its flesh is orange, sweet, and has a definitely squashy taste. The taste is mild, pleasant and addictive. Some winter squashes are distinctly dry and nearly as sweet as sweet potatoes. Those are usually kabocha or sweet dumplings or buttercup. Hubbards are less sweet but have a special character, and are only available in the fall.

Lately the Mexican kabocha have dried up. The calabazza sit across the aisle. The cut up portions are in their own refridgerated case. The whole ones have a bin. There are now "family size" calabazza, so I can buy a whole three pound squash. Two to six pounds is fine for most winter squashes. The bigger ones use a bigger pan. They're all hollow, so their bigger than they look anyway.

Preparation is basic. Cut the squash in half after giving it a quick wash. Seed it out using a sharp knife and a fork. Hold the halves in your lap. Some people roast the seeds. I discard them since I have diverticulosis and can't eat large nuts or seeds. Cut the seeded out halves into halves or quarters or even sixths.

Next toss in a bowl with a splash of oil and roast in a covered roasting pan. You can also put them with no oil in the roasting pan and add one knuckle's depth of water to oven steam them. You can of course steam them on the stove. Some people make winter squash in a microwave, but I don't own one. I can't see the point.

To make twice baked squash or other fancier dishes (I don't like the idea of people wrestling with rinds at the Shabbos table.) , let the cooked squash cool over night. Scoop it out of its rind, and sweeten it if necessary with syrup from fruit, honey, or even sugar. Moisten it with the squash tea from the pan if you steamed it. Squash tea is a great drink for invalids. It is better than chicken soup. Mix with raisins or layer with your favorite fresh or dried fruit in a buttered or otherwise greased casserole. Dot with butter if you are preparing this for a dairy meal and bake for about fifteen minutes (or a bit less) beyond preheating.

This dish tastes better as it stands and reheats well and you can even eat it cold. This makes twice baked winter squash ideal Shabbos fare.

Now here is the really good news, calabazza are only .49 a pound at the DeKalb Farmer's Market. They are probably similarly cheap other places. They must have a bumper crop of them in Mexico and if you like pumpkin pie, I suspect calabazza is ac tually pumpkin (cucurbita pepo) rather than "real" winter squash (cucurbita maxima.) Squash botany and taxonomy gets relevant if you eat a lot of interesting and exotic cucurbits. For reasons I can't figure out cucurbits (Squash, cucumbers, and melons) are spread across several genuses, though you can't tell by taste. Calabazza if it is a pumpkin is what people in New Jersey and probably other places in the Northeastern United States call milk pumpkin, pumpkin grown for tastey flesh rather than stock pumpkin which is what people use to carve Jack-o-Lanterns. Stock pumpkin is edible if you add a fair amount of sweetener. Milk pumpkin is a lot closer in character to winter squash but with a slightly different flavor.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 5/3/10