Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I had a hunch this was true

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

There’s a great piece on Slate today by Jennifer Reese, exploring whether it really costs less to cook several frequently purchased grocery items from scratch. Not everything on her list turns out to be a cost savings, but she finds it surprisingly easy and inexpensive to make a number of things herself, and the homemade versions are better as well.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. A lot of convenience foods are more valuable for their convenience than their quality as food, as anyone who’s made the mistake of reheating a frozen pizza can tell you. To be sure, Reese doesn’t calculate the value of the time spent, and people who have more money than time may find it more helpful to buy bagels and jam than to make them from scratch.

But the processed food companies have worked hard to make us lose sight of the tradeoff and accustom us to the compromise of taste involved. They’ve also worked very hard to convince us that making these things ourselves is just too darn hard, and that we shouldn’t waste our time because of the great difficulty involved.  Reese shows that this is not really true. She notes that the cracker dough “took about three minutes to mix,” and notes that even the bagels can be made without much strain in the course of a leisurely morning. You don’t need industrial machinery, culinary-school training or infinite patience to do a decent job at most kinds of cooking.

It’s one thing to consciously choose a tradeoff between taste and convenience because your schedule is just too tight, or because you’ve decided you really want to spend your time differently. But nobody should be scared away from learning to cook because they think it’s too difficult to learn to do it yourself.

Happy Easter, unless you’re a Peep

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Before I came down with an absolutely flattening cold, I was planning to do a big Easter special post about Marshmallow Peeps, which I find really weird and disturbing. Before I lost all my energy and the power of taste and smell for several days at a stretch, I was going to buy some Peeps and do some taste-testing and experimentation. Not that the taste-testing would have been so exciting. I can’t say I dislike the taste of Peeps; they don’t taste like much of anything, really, which is part of what I find disturbing about them. I’m really more bothered by the way they’ve spread beyond Easter.

Marshmallow Peeps for Easter make sense to me. The original bunnies and chicks belong in the Easter basket, and there’s something special about their seasonality. But the pressures of commerce have led the company to make Peeps “always in season,” and so now there are not only Easter Peeps but Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween Peeps. The Halloween category used to include black bats, which were extremely creepy-looking, but apparently I wasn’t the only consumer to think so; I don’t see the bats on the current site listing for Halloween.

I understand that contemporary capitalism cannot accept the idea that some products are seasonal and have predictable peaks and valleys, that to survive today a business must be pushing all-out, all the time, and be constantly focused on selling more, always. But I think that’s one of the things that’s wrong with today’s society, one of the things that bring us styrofoam-textured tomatoes in January. Nature has seasons. Nature has periods of higher and lower energy. Life has cycles. There are times that we rest and times that we work hard. Disrupt these patterns, and long-term problems result. I would like to see an economy that recognizes and echoes natural patterns rather than penalizing workers and consumers for being human.

Just saying.

You may be wondering just what Peeps are made of and what they can withstand. Lucky you: Peep Research has delved into the response of Marshmallow Peeps to cold, heat, smoking and other environmental conditions. Enjoy.

Happy Easter.

Chipshop, or How Many Things Can One Restaurant Deep-Fry?

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

This is not an April Fool’s post, despite how closely it follows yesterday’s post. I really did go to Chipshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, today to sample the deep-fried offerings.

My original plan was to go to A Salt & Battery in the West Village, but when I mentioned this plan to a friend she strongly recommended Chipshop instead. Aha, I thought, the plot thickens, or perhaps that’s just my arteries? After some consultation with my husband we decided to venture to Brooklyn first, and then if I felt up to it I would head for the Village. Of course when we came up with that plan I didn’t think we’d have the full lunch menu, but by the time we arrived we were too hungry not to go for a meal.

I also meant to try the deep-fried Mars bar, since that’s what I’d heard of some time ago. But Chipshop has far more to offer than that. And luckily for us, it’s Restaurant Week in Brooklyn, which means we were able to take advantage of a discounted special menu.

For starters we had a green salad—proof that not everything available at the place is deep-fried—and the deep-fried macaroni and cheese.

The macaroni and cheese was really tasty. The outside was crunchy, and the inside oozed with cheese sauce. The batter went well with the cheesy taste. I was very glad we got that as an appetizer and not a main course. The salad was good too, but it could not save us.

For the main course we opted for fish and chips.

If your doctor has been after you to eat more fish, this is not what she has in mind. The crispy batter surrounded flaky, moist fish. We liberally applied malt vinegar and squirts of fresh lemon. The chips were good too; I’m a crispy-french-fry gal, and these were a bit softer, but they tasted well of potato and were a good complement to the fish. I didn’t make much of a dent in my serving, though.

And for dessert, the Restaurant Week special menu options included deep-fried Twinkie and deep-fried Snickers bar. I decided that a Snickers bar was similar enough to a Mars bar for my investigative purposes. We also got a deep-fried Cadbury Crème Egg, which turned out to be the best of the lot.

The Twinkie:

The Snickers bar:

The Cadbury Crème Egg:

All three together:

The Twinkie was a bit disappointing; the batter was competing with the sponge cake rather than complementing it. This is no slam on the batter; the Twinkie’s own taste is just not interesting enough to live up to its part of the bargain. The creamy filling was a bit better, but only a bit. It’s served with a berry sauce, but that didn’t offset the essential blandness of the cake.

The Snickers bar was wonderful. The frying set off the chocolate and the nuts beautifully.

Scott shot video of me trying the Cadbury Crème Egg.

Tasting the Cadbury Creme Egg

It was really too good. I did not need to know about that.

We could not finish our portions. I thought about finishing the Snickers bar, and then realized that it would be a v.v. bad idea.

The other fun surprise for me was the availability of fizzy lemonade that tasted just like the kind I used to drink when I was in London in 1987. The less fun surprise (after I’d drunk quite a bit) was that it contains saccharine. Though I suppose it was a little late for me to start worrying about the virtue of the ingredients in my meal.

Chipshop also stocks a number of British canned goods and candy.

The shop is pleasant and our server could not have been nicer or more friendly. She was really amused at the camera and delighted that we were taking pictures.

Hermione Granger also recommends the fish and chips.

It was a tasty meal, but heavy. I can’t do that again any time soon; I think I may need to eat nothing but broccoli and Tabasco sauce for a few days. I told Scott that A Salt & Battery will have to wait for another day; he said, “I think I’ve already been assaulted and battered.”

No, Mark and Ruth, I’m the last person to see it

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Mark Bittman (@bittman) posted a link on Twitter to “This is why you’re fat,” and Ruth Reichl (@ruthreichl) commented on it. Both were wondering if they were the last ones to see it. Nope; that would be me. I had been unaware of such marvels as Deep Fried Cheesesteak, Tempura Fried Cheesecake with Whipped Creme, and the Meatlog. I have a sort of fascinated and revolted admiration for Bacon Wrapped Twinkie Stonehenge, though mostly I’m grateful not to have to be involved in any way with the cleanup.

Oh, and keep paging through; it gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective). McSurf ‘n’ Turf (a strong candidate for most revolting thing on the site, and that’s some tough competition). Deep Fried Guacamole. Scotch Egg on a Stick. The Porkgasm. Our old friend Meat Cake. The Sandwich of Knowledge. (As in, when you have the knowledge that there’s black pudding in it, you’ll be wise enough not to eat it.) Crazy stuff. There’s a lot of frying and saucing and meat and cheese in there, so that the primarily sweet things (Behomoth Donut, Candy Pizza) come almost as a surprise.

By the way, just for clarification, none of that is why I’m fat. I’m fat because I don’t get enough exercise and I’m too fond of ice cream, but I don’t think I’ve ever eaten any of the things shown on the site.

Look for me on Twitter: @amydstephenson

Jif To Go

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

I started off my day thinking about peanut butter. A friend has a birthday tomorrow, and while she does not want presents, she did accept my offer of her favorite cake, chocolate with peanut butter frosting. So I was running through the ingredients and concluding that the only thing I needed to pick up was creamy peanut butter, and then I riffled quickly through the coupon section of the Times. (When you get the Weekender subscription you get some Sunday pieces on Saturday. Because New Yorkers are impatient, that’s why.) And I was struck by two facing Jif ads in the coupon circular, one for Jif To Go and one for Jif Natural.

Jif To Go is a small plastic packet containing 2.25 ounces of reduced-fat Jif peanut butter. The individual sealed tubs are presented as handy for the lunchbox.


The serving, which appears to be double the standard of 2 tablespoons, has 390 calories, 270 mg of sodium and 4g of dietary fiber. I’ll talk about the nutrition information in a moment, but my real concern here is the packaging. The individual plastic tubs, their seals, and the paperboard packaging that encloses the retail set all add up to a fair bit of waste. It’s probably not reasonable to expect a schoolchild to keep a jar of peanut butter in his locker (though an adult could certainly keep one at his desk at work — I’ve done it before myself), but there must be a less wasteful way to enable kids to carry a modest amount of peanut butter for lunch. Say, for example, simply scoop a couple of tablespoons into a sealable, reusable plastic container into which you also put carrot and celery sticks. It’s not like peanut butter is going to melt and drip — if it does, stop storing your lunchbox on top of the radiator.

In comparison with the wasteful packaging of Jif To Go, Jif Natural seems innocuous. What could be wrong with natural peanut butter? The packaging and advertising are dominated with brown to show the “natural” cred, and the ad boasts that this version has “5 simple ingredients.” Wow, only five? Great, I thought. And those would be peanuts, salt… Um… Did I already say salt? How do you get to five?

A quick check of the Jif Natural Web site finds the five ingredients listed: roasted peanuts, sugar, palm oil, salt, and molasses. Palm oil I get: it helps ensure spreadability and stability. Have you tried the natural grind-your-own peanut butters at natural grocery stores and co-ops? If so, you’ve noticed they’re kind of on the stiff side, not very bread-friendly. So a little bit of palm oil for smoother viscosity without separation, that makes sense. But sugar and molasses? Those are for sweetness and preservation. I’m not sure why you get both sugar and molasses; molasses would have a richer flavor, but why do you also need sugar?

Oh, silly me, I forgot. Because we are Americans, and everything we eat must be sweetened to the point that our teeth practically explode upon contact with any processed food. Peanuts are not sweet, but the comfort food peanut butter must be sugared for our tastes. The ad underscores this: it offers a handy recipe, but instead of a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat or ants on a log, it’s a tortilla-wrapped concoction of Jif Natural, Smuckers cherry preserves, granola, and chocolate chips, with powdered sugar optional. (Because you might have some teeth left.)


Jif Natural does have fewer ingredients than regular Jif, which features peanuts, sugar, molasses, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, mono- and diglycerides, and salt. Because everything but the peanuts and sugar adds up to a tiny percentage of the whole product, Jif can claim it has no trans fats despite the presence of hydrogenated oils. Their nutritional profiles are pretty comparable: 190 calories in two tablespoons, 16 grams of fat, 2 grams of fiber. Jif Natural has half the sodium. Jif To Go has half the fat of a similar proportion of either regular Jif or Jif Natural, but since the To Go serving size is doubled the actual fat count is the same.

For today’s cooking I chose Whole Foods’ 365 brand of organic creamy peanut butter. It features three ingredients: organic roasted peanuts, organic palm oil and sea salt. It has a few more calories per serving (200 rather than 190) but lower sodium and a tiny bit more fiber. It also tastes like peanuts rather than like peanuts and sugar. Of course, I then mixed it with butter, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla to make a cake frosting, so it’s not like I was making health food with it, but the frosting has a really rich peanut butter flavor; if I’d used a sweetened peanut butter the frosting would have been too sweet and not peanutty enough.

When I think about peanut butter of course I also think of the salmonella outbreak and the massive recall of products tainted by poor practices in one facility. This is what’s really scary: that our food processing system is so designed that a single supplier’s mismanagement can spread potentially lethal pathogens throughout the entire country, via a vast variety of foods, faster than the authorities can keep up with it. This is hardly a problem unique to peanut butter; many commercially processed products are blended and dispersed, processed and shipped and processed again. It’s standard for beef; hamburger processing frequently combines the meat of numerous cows in a single grinding, so that one tainted cow can spread illness through hundreds of pounds of meat. It’s so bad that investigators trying to track the origin of foods available at retail have found that too often, they can’t do it. Seriously? Deregulation of commercial food production is more important than people’s lives? No wonder smart producers are starting to make those links themselves by helping consumers learn more about where their food originated. And no wonder food safety is going to be a focus of the Obama administration.

The Whole Foods site states that the store’s brands of peanut butter are not part of the recall, and I believe them, because Whole Foods has been serious about traceability for a long time. They’re certainly not alone, but clearly there are too many producers who haven’t seen the value of tracking the journey of food to the table. Here’s hoping more retailers and processors follow Whole Foods’ lead.

Who’s up for a deep-fried Mars Bar?

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I’m planning to go to A Salt and Battery in Greenwich Village the week of March 30 to try the deep-fried Mars Bar. Is anyone interested in joining me? Leave word in the comments, and closer to the right time I’ll post details and a meeting time and place.

Quick bites for today

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

A couple of things I’ve seen online recently:

  • Have you noticed that a lot of improbable foods seem to have added fiber lately (and not just the yogurt that makes you poop)? Jacob Gershman in Slate explains that the newest fiber additive may not be as good as the fiber found in real foods, may have fewer benefits than expected and might even have downsides. The moral here? Keep eating real fruits, vegetables and whole grains rather than looking for your daily fiber in Cocoa Pebbles.
  • FYI, the video clip for the Activia parody starts with a rather weird ad for Lay’s. I think the intended message is that Lay’s potato chips turn you into a happy, lighthearted person, but the impression I got was that Lay’s will turn you into a plastic dummy indistinguishable from those around you. Maybe that’s just me.
  • Tom Shales of the Washington Post doesn’t seem to think much of the new NBC reality show “The Chopping Block,” which seems to be yet another cooks-competing-against-one-another show. I don’t find myself able to watch many of these. I will always love the Japanese version of “Iron Chef,” but I’m not as thrilled with “Iron Chef America” (possibly because Alton Brown, much as I love him, knows too much to achieve the wonderfully goofy wrongness of the Japanese commentators), and I haven’t been able to motivate myself for “Top Chef” or the others. Shales’ review suggests that even if you like some of those you’ll be turned off by “Chopping” chef Marco Pierre White’s screaming and ranting at contestants. Point taken; I don’t think there’s any occupation on earth that’s prestigious, lucrative or fun enough to justify having to take vicious abuse from your manager or mentor.

Pigs in a Twinkie

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

You read that right. Pigs in a Twinkie! It’s what you fear: sausage in a Twinkie. I don’t have a picture to offer; the book this comes from, The Twinkies Cookbook, does not include an image of this particular recipe, and there’s no way I’m going to make it just to find out. That would go against my policy of never buying Twinkies.

Twinkies are such a weird food. They’re perfectly engineered. The marvelous book Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger provides a wonderful ingredient-by-ingredient analysis of the famous snack cake, explaining how just the right flour, carefully calibrated combinations of leavening and fat, and chemical flavorings are brought together to make a perfectly consistent product. No matter where you buy it, from Tallahassee to Tulsa, Twinkies will always be exactly the same. That’s the thing about processed foods that freaks me out. To me every cookie should be individual, every batch of brownies a little different from the last. This robotic sameness is upsetting to me.

But not as upsetting as stuffing a sausage link into a Twinkie.
Twinkies and Meat

Granted, this is sort of a variation of serving pancakes with sausage and syrup. As long as the pancakes are actually sponge-cake consistency and filled with that peculiar cream filling.

The Twinkies Cookbook is pretty entertaining. Most of the offerings are on the sweet side, and less jarring: Fried Twinkies with Chocolate Sauce, Twinkie Peanut Butter Logs, Twinkie Ice Cream Cake, Twinkiehenge. (Sadly, Twinkiehenge is not pictured either; pudding is coated with crushed sandwich cookies, then Twinkies are upended in it in the manner of a giant Druidic sundial.) Even Twinkie Sushi is only sushi in appearance, using fruit leather and candy to mimic the look of nori rolls. There’s even a Twinkie wedding cake that uses fondant and buttercream frosting to create a real memory-maker.

Twinkie Cake

I’d be tempted to make some of these things, but again, that would go against my policy of never buying Twinkies. (No, I’m not going to steal them, either! These grocery store workers are my neighbors! Good heavens.)

Pigs in a Twinkie
6 pork sausage links
6 Twinkies
Maple syrup, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the sausage in a skillet over medium heat and cook, turning to brown evenly, until the meat is no longer pink inside, following any package directions. Remove from the skillet and drain well on paper towels.

Thinly slice one end off each Twinkie. Stuff a cooked sausage into each Twinkie. Place the Twinkies in a shallow baking dish and bake for 10 minutes, or until the Twinkies are warm. Serve warm, with syrup.

The Twinkies Cookbook: An Inventive and Unexpected Recipe Collection from Hostess. Interstate Bakeries Corporation. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 2008. Food photography copyright 2005 by Leo Gong.

I’m of two minds

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

There are two kinds of posts I’ve been doing here: explorations of scary things like Tinglerz, and descriptions of tasty cooking. At some point it became clear to me that there are really two blogs within those, and that to post pictures of the really delicious food I’ve been making under the heading “Recipes of the Damned” is kind of wrong. So I’ve created a sister blog, Recipes of the Yum, which is where I’ll be posting the food I would encourage others to eat; I’ve moved a couple of January cooking posts over there already to keep it from looking so empty, and will be updating with a really delightful stew I made last night. But I might not finish that until tomorrow or Wednesday.

And Recipes of the Damned will continue with  the bad foods that are out there. There are so many.

eGullet Challenge: A Week Without Shopping?

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

On the New York Times Diner’s Journal blog I came across an intriguing challenge from eGullet, “A Week Without Shopping.” Steven Shaw challenges readers who routinely do their grocery shopping once a week to skip the store trip this coming week and cook with whatever they have accumulated in their pantries and freezers. He came up with the idea when he had to miss his weekly Fairway expedition and realized that his shelves were loaded with plenty of good things to cook and eat; by the end of the week he was running a bit light on fresh greens, but overall he was chastened to realize how much he was in the habit of stashing on his shelves. He writes:

Surely I’m not alone in having a freezer and pantry full of food, much of which will get thrown out as it expires over the course of the coming months and years. Indeed, I live in a small apartment. People with houses, basement freezers and walk-in pantries surely have far more of this stuff lying around than I do. Surely I’m not alone in having overbought at the supermarket last week. Surely I’m not alone when I get home from the supermarket and can barely fit the new food in the refrigerator because there’s so much of the old stuff. Surely I’m not alone in being able to skip a week of shopping and still eat well.

The idea intrigues me. But I’m not actually a regular once-a-week shopper. I am a sporadic, sometimes chaotic shopper. Some weeks I plan ahead and make a big list and lug home a week’s worth of fresh provisions from Whole Foods. Some weeks I realize I’m low on staples and haul the wheeled cart over to FoodTown to make sure I have canned beans, a large bag of rice and a big box of cat litter. Quite often I find myself making a quick stop at one of the other neighborhood grocery stores to pick up yogurt, cat food or whatever else I’d discovered I had run out of that morning. I don’t have a weekly list, and I’m extremely inconsistent at planning.

This doesn’t mean I only buy what I need. I’m just as prone to impulse buying as anyone else, both of the good kind (“Ooh, look at those olives!”) and the bad kind (“Chocolate-covered Pop Rocks, are you kidding me?”). I know I have things on the shelf that sounded like a good idea at the time but have now lost their allure. I’d like to think I’m not actually obsessive or a hoarder; my shelves do not look like those of my sister when we helped her family move some years ago, and I found myself pulling can after can after can of soups, vegetables and beans out of her surprisingly deep cupboards. Many soups, it turned out, have expiration dates, and I was able to pull aside at least half a dozen cans that she had moved twice since they had ceased to be good to eat. (She isn’t really a hoarder either, but she had managed a charitable food pantry not far away, and that sort of thing will make you anxious to build up your own emergency stores.) I don’t have anything like as many cans as she had, but I’m not sure I can guarantee there are no expired goods on the shelves.

I’m not going to start this Sunday on the week without shopping, but within the next couple of weeks I am going to have to do a pantry and freezer purge and reorganization, and I’ll bet I find enough pasta, canned beans, grains and spices to form the basis of a lot of meals; maybe my challenge will be to limit the fresh ingredients to $25 for that week. For someone who believes in using fresh ingredients as much as possible, I’m probably going to find it very embarrassing just how many boxes and cans I have available to make use of. So I’ll certainly have to post the results.