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Slimey Black-Eyed Peas and Boniato Like a Rock

That is what I am facing when I got home. The black-eyed peas entranced me last Sunday. They sell them shucked for close to four dollars a pound, and people buy them. I don't. I went to looked for some still in their shucks. I had never seen black eyed peas like that. They were nut brown with small black eyes. There was a reason I had never seen such field peas. They came from California. Our weather has been wrecking havoc with the food supply. A drought in the South has destroyed the string beans. Celery roots have disappeared. You get the idea. Peppers are often too expensive.

Field peas have held their own, but these came all the way from California, and they showed it. The pods had issues. They were slimey. That was Sunday. I swore I would shuck them Sunday night. Well I need to cook them tonight so.... God help me in dealing with those slimey shucks. I'm glad I'm shucking beans at home. The last time I shucked beans was at the Spin Cycle Laundromat on Sunday. I brought a big bucket, a garbage bag, and my zipper peas. Zipper peas shuck easily and these weren't that bad even if they were a bit old. They will be a picnic compared to tonight's slime ball specials.

Also, back on Sunday I craved boniato. It's a white sweet potato that tastes like a cross between a white and a sweet potato. Think roasted chestnut if you have ever eaten it, and you'll have a good idea of the taste. You can make boniatos either sweet or savory. There is just one problem. They are a bear to peel and turn brownish once exposed to the light. They also usually need surgery to remove knicks and folds. Sometimes knife work is cathartic. Sometimes I dread it. I hope I switch back to the former sentiment some time tonight.

The last of tonight's major tasks is making polenta. This is easy even if you spill a bit of the cornmeal. The ingredients are cornmeal, water, salt, and sometimes spices. You boil the water and put in the corn meal a little at a time while stirring. This is where it gets messy. It always gets a few lumps, but it cooks up as fine corn meal mush. You then pour it into a container to cool and then cut it in pieces to use in casseroles. It's the top layer of polenta pie that I'd like to make for Shabbos.

Sauteed kale with peppers and olives and those amazing, California black-eyed peas is the bottom layer. The side dish is a low calorie boniato bake. I'm on a diet if the computer web site that is part of the weight loss program ever cooperates. There is nothing more demotivating than dealing with two beaurocracies and getting them to work together.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 31, 2011

Calabaza and Papaya

Both of these are on top of my fridge. One is going to burn my hands. One is going to give me a sore wrist. There is something very intimidating about very large and/or very hard fruits and vegetables. Neither of these is particularly large but they are larger than what most consumers buy.

The papaya weighs in at about three to four pounds. I prefer them a bit larger. The reason is that an increase in size means more fruit (You just don't ever have enough papaya as far as I'm concerned.) and just a bit more work. Papaya is a bear to process. The peel is slimey. The papain makes my hands sting and hurt if my eczema is out. It also sets off the eczema. Everything in the world sets off my eczema. You need a torn open garbage bag to receive the peels and seeds, but there is lots of really tastey fruit afterwards, shorter, spicier, and more aromatic than muskmelon. Muskmelon on steroids, if you want to think of it that way.

The calabaza is whole. Whole winter squash are fresher. Actually, I don't think a calabazza is really a winter squash. When I have bought canned pumpkin, it says "calabaza" on the can for those who speak Spanish. Mexicans enjoy their winter squashes and pumpkins. I would have made a very good Mexican. I can eat orange fleshed squash year around.

Wikipedia has calabaza's taxonomy in a muddle. One article lists it as cucurbita pepo (pumpkin) and another as either cucurbita moschata or cucurbita maxima (the last one is traditional winter squash.) Most winter squash I buy is maxima. Calabaza tastes to me like rather good cooked pumpkin. It is more watery than real winter squash and can be grated for a fairly tastey raw salad.

The calabaza I bought looks and will taste like what we used to call milk pumpkin, this is a tan skinned pumpkin grown for cooking rather than carving. My calabaza is tauni with lighter tan stripes. It is perfectly round and weighs about three pounds. For a calabaza this is fun size. Fun size calabaza are a new innovation. Usually one buys calabaza in chunks cut from a larger (how about ten pounds) of fruit.

Now what does one do with even a fun size calabaza? First one has to cut it open and seed it out. Pretend it's an acorn or butternut squash. Still that thing looks scarey. Sharpen your knife well. How hard the calabaza will be to open depends on whether it was field cured before it was shipped. Home gardeners field cure their winter squash. Commercial farms often don't. Poorly cured squash has a thin rind. Well cured squash...Oh well the squash inside is fresher and keeps better. Winter squash and calabaza are all storage vegetables.

Once the squash is cut in half, you cut around the seeds and scrape them out with a knife and a fork. Putting the squash halves in your lap and sitting with the garbage pail between your knees is fine. Then unless you plan to stuff the squash which I won't be doing this week, you cut it in smaller pieces. You can remove the stem. You don't want to eat it anyway. Then you toss it with oil and roast it or put a bit of water in the roaster and roast it, or you put a small amount of water in a pan and steam it in a big kettle or stew pot on the stove. None of this last part is hard at all. I usually use the cooked squash the next day for twice baked squash and fruit which is just like it sounds, cooked squash layered with fresh or dried fruit. No more nasty rind to deal with, and lots of good, orange, winter squash taste. Are you hungry yet?

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 23, 2011


It's late summer, and that means pear season. It maens bartletts and starksimons. Starksimons are notable because they taste decent and are red. For some reason I consider red pears a supreme delicacy. Bartletts are the undisputed queen of summer pears. They are sweeter than Starksimmons and taste.. like pears with the stone cell texture. Both varieties are good firm ripe. Neither is crisp at this stage, but neither is mushy. Neither win any beauty contest. The skin is full of knicks and bungs. These are only skin deep. You don't have to do surgery on a pear to eat it.

Now, before we get going further, buying and eating pears takes sone knowledge. You have to know that beauty is only skin deep. Bungs aren't bruises and pears ship green and ripen in a ripening bowl. After that they keep in the refridgerator fruit bowl. This is hard to do if you're a restaurant. For a home cook, it's more or less second nature, if you know about pears.

The good thing about pears is they are sweet, somewhat perfumey, not very sour, and full of stone cells which give them a mouth feel that is just about a little rough. I'm a grownup who likes interestingly textured food, but I ate and enjoyed pears as a kid so the texture is a good one. Pears have been a snack food for more than a millenium. Pears were grown for out of hand eating since way back, so they are one of the original sweet foods people created. That means we are wired to enjoy them, since we were wired to create them.

If you want to break your junk food habit, buying and keeping a bowl full of pears and taking them to work with you, is a good way to start.

Now, if a space alien or someone from say Zola's Paris were to land in downtown Decatur, a nice middle class spot (I am not going to pick on the poor and their so-called fast food addiction) one of the things that would astound them would not just be food stores selling ready made stuff which they apparently had but all the restaurants. It's wall to wall restaurants. Such a person might ask: "Do we need so many restaurants?" A new one, often from a chain, opens up every week, or so it seems. Do we need three different frozen yogurt places, a smoothy place and an Asian dessert place within a block fo eachother, three pizzarias in two blocks, a dinner, pizzaria, sandwich store, Mexican place, and half a dozen others in four blocks? Eating out is entertainment as much as food, and temptation screams at the casual passer by. He or she sees the diners eating inside the big plate glass window and can feast his/her eyes on the menu posted on the door. At Leon's the diners play bocce while they drink from the bar. At the Decatur diner, the portions are huge neough to require doggie bags and the diners can hear old time radio. At Java Monkey there is live entertainment. At the Yogurt Tap the flavors change daily. At Johnny's which used to be one of my favorites, you can watch Ms. Snood toss your pizza or put your slice in the oven and look at old movie posters or watch TV, or sit at an outdoor table and watch pedestrians pass by on the sidewalk. What could be better, right?

All this is ore than enough to tempt and snare a sane, rational adult, and I haven't even gotten to the practice of all you can drink soda and recession busters in thirty-two ounce cups. That's there too. So what can you do? Do you want to interfere with the free market? How does a person arm themselves against such temptation. Well, bag lunching is one solution. A recession is another. Money in the pocket is always nice. Having things one likes to eat in the house for a bag lunch is important. Leftovers don't cut it. It means washing dishes at work. You want to do that? A favorite spread, cheese, or coldcut works better. Fruit is easy to throw in the lunch bag. Sound good yet? Well at least this works part of the time. Making dinner also helps. I can get food at home that restaurants don't serve. Is that a good reason to cook? Cannned fish, many types of vegetables, and a much wider assortment of fruit go on a home menu. If restaurant food is what you are used to, this won't be much of a temptation, but it works for me.

There must be other ways people avoid eating in restaurants, but I can think of only one more. This is called the Kramer Kiss of Death. I grew up a serious fruit lover as is my Dad. Everyone understood, that orange juice wasn't the only or best breakfast fruit or juice. I loved fruit compote on pancakes, often ordered my cereal with fruit, or asked for fruit and juice in hotels. Oh hotels sometimes offered the best and most unusual breakfast fruits. I remember stewed rhubarb and/or stewed prunes at Whisperwood, a fishing resort in Belgrade Lakes, Maine where my parents liked to vacation, and I remember they had kadota figs on the menu at the Doral in Miami Beach in Florida. Everyone kind of understood I really liked fruit at breakfast. There is a restaurant called J. Christophers that specializes in breakfast and brunch dishes, but their juice and fruit offering consists of only orange juice. I thought: "If my family saw this menu, they would not atke me there for breakfast due to the paucity of fruit." My Dad and Mom understood, and my Dad shared my fruit love at least when I was little, but the point is if a restaurant doesn't serve what interests you, cross it off the list.

Before I kept kosher, when I used to eat out a lot more, I had a mental map of where to get good bean dishes and pasta dishes in Atlanta. I had favorite restaurants, and those whose door I would never darken, based on menus. Olive pizza was another delicacy, especially Sicilian olive pizza, that was mapped out in this way. Maybe this was a way of dealing with the temptation. I don't know if it would work for everybody, but perhaps it is a place to start.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 12, 2011

You Can't Fix a Problem if You Can't Talk About It

I want to start with a bizarre story. Sunday in the middle of a hot afternoon, I bought a Cherry Pepsi from a store on East College Avenue which runs parallel to East Ponce. I was on my way to the Farmer's Market. I saved my soda and was still drinking it by the time I got inside the Farmer's Market. It was my once daily treat, part of a Sunday morning or late Saturday night errand running ritual.

I drank my soda very slowly. I still had it with me when I went to pick out my fruits. There I stood, soda in hand, eying the pluots, which are a cross between an apricot and a plum when a lady asked me about them. She asked me! She asked a soda drinker! Now you nutrition fiends out there, who in their right minds would ask a soda swigger, an obvious miscreant, about fruit? What should I know?

I did know what pluots were. I pointed out that there were at least two varieties and we were missing a couple of good ones. Pluots are a cross between an apricot and a plum. There are a lot of apricot breeds, and there are a lot of plum breeds, so when you mix them together, you get a lot of pluots. I love pluots, and know about them. The woman who accosted me, picked the right person, but according to nutrition fiends I should have been the least likely person to know this stuff? What is going on?

My guess, is that my soda drinking was an obvious clue that I might know about the fruit. Also the fact that I was eying the fruit knowledgeably helped. Why did my soda-swigging help? Cherry Pepsi is a brown fruit soda. Coke is also a brown/dark fruit soda. The taste substitute for colas is black cherry or Dr. Pepper (particularly cherry Dr. Pepper) or even concord grape. I would guess that most people who love soda and drink it without shame, love a variety of fruity flavors. The sin of soda consumption and the virtue of fruit eating go together as natural allies.

On one level this is counterintuitive, but my favorite snack is an apple and a Coke (perferably a Cherry Coke or Pepsi). I've seen this alliance of tastes in my family as well. My father's favorite ice cream flavor was peach brandy. He also loved peaches and apples and still does. He really prefers the sweeter fruits, though bananas are insipid. He'd understand that pears Helene should have lots of pears, preferably good, ripe, fresh bartletts. They'd have as much attraction for him as chocolate.

Furit attraction is primal, and there are fruit lovers, though plying them with crappy, generic fruit as in the new McDonald's Happy Meal, is not going to excite them unless they are desperate for that "universal taste" of apples. Craisins would be a better choice since they are fresh year around and satisfy the fruit love and they are a great color, but don't expect the kids most enthusiastic for fruit to give up their twelve ounce kid sodas. That's not how it works.

The truth is, we really don't know how taste preferences for food or eating habits work. We think we know. We know some people buy and consume heavily advertised prepared foods of dubious quality in too much quantity. We know people can be easily convinced to eat all that's in front of them. We're opportunistic eaters. Some people are more this way than others. I will finish a whole soda but it takes me an hour. Some people will demolish a twenty ounce soda in ten minutes. Another colleague drinks half of hers in the morning, rejuvenates the rest, and drinks it later in the day. Some people only drink it until it is not icey cold and pitch the rest even though there is a freezer in the break room to rejuvenate the drink. We don't know what makes some people more or less opportunistic around a big bottle of soda.

We fall back on the drug addiction model which is really dumb, because this doesn't work for drinking any more than it does for eating. Yes, some people are susceptible to alcoholism, but for most drinking is a complex act, dependent on set and setting and riddled with taboos. One should never consume alcohol alone. It is a social drug. One (especially females) does not drink straight shots. Hard liquor needs to be mixed with something else. That is called a cocktail. One does not drink early in the day because alcohol makes you sleepy. One drinks slowly. One paces oneself. One does not want to make a fool of oneself. One learns to drink properly from one's peers. This is why prohibition was and is such a disaster because it destroys the culture of moderation and control that makes drinking a safe and pleasant diversion for most people.

We also don't really know what makes food taste good. We talk about fats, starches, and cheap calories being addictive, but is that really what our tongues and brains experience. I have reason to doubt this. First cost outs show that supermarket food which is fairly wholesome is much cheaper than fast food, so the temptation is not completely economically rational. Second, humans have been developing tastely and palateable things to eat for centuries through selective breeding. The sweet, orange carrot is only four hundred years old. The wrinkle seeded pea has also been around for less than a millenium. Many apple varieities are less than three centuries old. There is plenty of competition for fast food, and sometimes this competition wins. Not everyone is obese.

We really don't know how to establish good eating habits. WE try to impose them through school lunch programs on kids. I remember a few foods I liked and learned to eat in my school cafeteria, but school cafeteria food is not an advertisement for much of anything. You can prove me wrong here. I feel very differently about the institutional food I ate in college, but changing what you eat involves more than just not having junk food at hand. It involves new supply chains. You need a good green grocer or produce department and some basic knowledge to buy large quantities of fresh fruit. Many of the stronger tasting canned fishes which let you fix a fast meal are delicious if you were raised eating them.

The nutrition fanatic crowd also doesn't realize that many fast food places and cheap restaurants don't just provide food. They provide a change of scene, sociability, etc... Eating at home is lonely even if the food is healthier, cheaper, and tastes better. Teaching adolescents and parents how to get that sociability of eating out without stuffing onself might be a worthwhile lesson. Perhaps the old trick of ordering, just a soda (and encouraging fast food places to have twelve ounce cups at their fountains) or a lemonade, would work. It can cut four to five hundred calories and preserve the benefits and enjoyment of eating out.

That "just a soda" has a place in the ecology of eating is an anathma to nutrition fiends, but hey, do we really know how people eat? Do we really know how the two thirds to one half of the adult population AVOID obesity (This number may be even higher if we throw in ordinarly overweight folks.)? It's probably not just will power. It's probably using a lot of positive incentives to make eating a happy experience. It is easier to swim with the current if you find the right current.

If drinking (not alcoholism) is a good model for eating, then it is a good guess, that the nonobese (and/or nonoverweight) population is practicing some form of harm control. Harm control with alcohol is stunningly effective. I know because I grew up in a culture that practiced it. Drinking occurs in open, sanctioned settings, a semi-official party with teachers mingling in the crowd and parents supervising upstairs was not uncommon after drama club productions. This is a place to try alcoholic drinks but not to get drunk and stupid. The message is clear.

Drinking is a permitted activity for teenagers, but getting behind the wheel or getting in a car with another drunk teen is not. Kids can call for their parents to pick them up froma party. Parents will drive their drunken teen home no questions asked. If a small group of young men wants to get smashed, a parent opens up his/her home as the drinking spot. Kids walk to the gathering, and can sleep it off at the house where they drink. Cars stay in driveways.

Since everyone knows kids drink, adults can talk about alcohol taboos and model correct behavior since they will be serving the kids. This last enforces all sorts of mores and these become established. Abstinence is NOT part of this picture at all. No one in my parents' circle or my friends' parents' circles suggested it as an option. Adults drank beeer and had wine on the dinner table. There were cordials in the bar. You were going to be around alcohol. You had to know how to handle it.

Just as with drinking, we need to discuss how to eat in a way that maximizes pleasure and reduces harm, but we need to know more about what makes people enjoy their food and then what else they enjoy about eating. Right now we are guessing at addiction instead of looking at social customs. The woman who asked me as about pluots as I swigged a Cherry Pepsi was on the right track. The nutrition fiend who would like to double the price of my Pepsi understands a lot less about me.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 5, 2011

Hard Core Vegetable in the Sink

I bought dandelion greens this Sunday and expected that they would bust my budget. Stone fruits do that regularly, but I'm a corner sewer when it comes to those babies. Papaya fries my hands. I am a masochist. I am a spend thrift. The dandelion greens cost only $1.49 instead of $2.99 and there seemed to be twice as many, even after I threw the raunchy ones in the garbage.

I gave them the big wash. They were not as dirty as I thought. They now sit cleaned and broken up in a container in my fridge. I gave some of them to Joie, my turtle, and she refused to eat them. She prefers quartered brussel sprouts. I cook them for her. I don't cook them very much, but they come frozen. My turtle won't eat peaches, but she does eat brussel sprouts.

Tonight, I cook the dandelion greens. I'll sautee them with carrots and leftover scallion bottoms. I'll salt them and add some sort of mild seasoning. They have a lot of good taste so do not need a heavy seasoning. One thing they won't get is soy sauce. I want them as dry as I can make them.

They are going to be filling for dandelion green stromboli. Move over fancy chefs. I think I can do it better. This time I am making half size loaves. I want to give one of them to my shrink who is celebrating Ramadan. I want to use one of them for Shabbos and another to bust the fast after Tish b'Av and also for a preFast meal. Bread and salad makes a good cold supper in the hottest months in Hot 'Lanta.

I fried my hands last week processing both green and ripe papayas. One was for dessert and one was for salad. I have a papaya ripening on top of my fridge, so I guess I never learn. Actually, green papaya salad is excellent. I made it like a health salad with dried tomato and shredded carrot and radishes.

The only problem was that I used the food processor which was a give-away item. Now I know why its previous owner tried to get rid of it. It grates carrots and slices radishes terribly. It mushes them. The hand grater shreds to the right consistency, and my knife juliennes or slices just about anything. I did not let my precious, hand-frying, green papaya anywhere near that food processor.

Cleaning the food processor was no fun either. Carrots and radishes got stuck in a little crevice near the chute, and I needed to pick them out with a knife. No, I need a real blender, but don't want an Oster. My old blender died suddenly and violently leaving escarole bisque all over the table and cutting board. I scooped up and saved most of the soup, but let's just say it made one hell of a mess. I saved its cracked plastic collar as a souvenir and chucked the rest.

There is now another papaya ripening on top of the fridge. It will tear when I peel it. I will burn my hands on it. I don't ever learn. I like papaya way to much. No pain, I tell myself. No gain.

And for Shabbos dinner last week, I made pasta salad with peanut butter dressing. This used to be hardluck food, but since my friend who moved to Israel blessed me with a jar of JIF peanut butter, I did some research, and now this is a mainstream menu item. Of course I really prefer the honey peanut spread for sandwiches. OK, I admit, I have a sweet tooth. I eat sandwiches far more often than I cook with peanut butter.

Still my dish with turnip greens and peanut sauce emboldened me. I made the dressing using a bit of extra soy sauce. It was sweet. That was fine. It was peanutty. That was better. I used plenty of ginger. That helped as did Mrs. Dash. Mrs. Dash is my best friend in the kitchen sometimes. The salad had eight ounces of crowder peas in it too. I'll shuck peas any day of the week. I shredded my own carrots. I did not let them near the food processor after what happened with the green papaya salad.

I can still walk by the 400,000 dollar (oh they're flying off the shelf) town homes and know I eat better than the occupants of those places. It's there if you believe it can be done and if you buy the right stuff.

Eileen H. Kramer -- August 1, 2011