09 January 2007

McCormick Spice Flavor Forecast 2007

Grandma Annie always had a filled candy jar, especially this time of year, when Christmas leftovers were plentiful. More often than not, her jar was packed with little red-and-white striped pillows stuffed with peppermint creme.

What I very soon discovered was that more goodies were tucked away behind the centerpiece on her dining room buffet: Salted peanuts.

At about age 6, I tried the two together — mint and nut — and a lifelong craving for salt and sugar combinations was born.

I still cannot resist an unusual combination. It need not be sweet and salty. Mustard is one of my favorites: When honey-mustard flavors became widely available in everything from pretzels to potato chips, I was ecstatic.

A recipe that features unconventional pairings is irresistible to me. Fortunately, they are all over the blogosphere.

In January, when McCormick Spices sends out its annual flavor forecast to food writers I am always intrigued.

This year the top 10 pairings are, according to McCormick:

• Clove and green apple
• Thyme and tangerine
• Tellicherry black pepper and berry
• Sea salt and smoked lavender
• Lavendar and honey
• Crystallized ginger and salted pistachio
• Cumin and apricot
• Toasted mustard and fennel seeds
• Wasabi and Maple
• Carmelized garlic and Riesling vinegar

Lavender and honey, of course, are old friends.

Clove and green apple I can imagine: A burst of fresh tempered by a bite. I dipped a dried apricot into cumin and was instantly transported to a Middle East bazaar.

Thyme and tangerine: A heady night in the Mediterranean. Mustard seed and fennel? Provence, sunny and sweet. Sea salt and smoked tea: Imagine this rubbed into a steak, grilled to perfection.

You can try these and the others in recipes offered by McCormick. (No, I am not paid by McCormick. But I do get a a lot of interesting food mail at my day job. The annual flavor forecast is my favorite.)

What's your favorite taste combination? Be bold — and unconventional. (I like apple jelly on soda crackers, another throwback to childhood.)

08 January 2007

Old Kitchen Stuff is Hot, Says Saveur Magazine

Finally. I'm in. Rather, my kitchen is.

According to the most recent issue of Saveur Magazine, used kitchen utensils are hot right now. They made Saveur's Top 100 list for 2007. People like to use the same spoons or bowls Mom or Grandma used, say the foodies at Saveur.

I knew that. Chances are, so did you. We like the cracks and the scratches and the mars and the imperfections. We can relate to them.

I have always wanted old stuff in my kitchen. Since I was a teenager, I've collected odds and ends from my grandmothers' kitchens. Grandma Annie's mixing bowls. Grandma Laura's big bread bowl. Old flour sifters and egg beaters. I went through a stage when I loved all that old red-and-green handled stuff. More recently, I've collected old crocks. They serve a purpose in my kitchen as cache pots for nuts or garlic or tea bags.

I think we find comfort and continuity in old things. Maybe a bit of luck, too. If I were making Laura's famous raisin-graham bread or Annie's Lady Baltimore cake, you can bet I'd do it in those old vessels. Just in case.

Besides, old things give a kitchen character. Believe me, my kitchen has plenty of character. Clutter, too.

What's old in your kitchen?

06 January 2007

The Sounds of Sunday

For two relatively short periods — once when I was a baby and again a few years later when money was tight — my parents lived with Grandma Annie and Memére in the old cedar-shingled house at the corner of Bellevue and Dunlap in the heart of Frenchtown.

We slept in the flat upstairs when I was a newborn but later moved to the rear wing of the long, narrow house.

I still dream of those back rooms. Along with the old kitchen, which I described in a previous post, there was a large bedroom and a much smaller one.

The room I slept in was close to the kitchen. Usually the smell of eggs or bacon frying woke me in the mornings.

Sometimes on rainy days, Annie would make pancakes or waffles with a fruity syrup. I will always associate the sweet tart aroma of associate blueberry syrup with the sound of rain beating relentlessly on windowpanes.

But it is Sunday mornings I recall the most clearly. Annie and her mother rose early for mass, and the sounds of their voices — arguing, as mothers and daughters do — woke me and kept me from falling back asleep.

Alone together, they spoke only French. I don’t recall their conversations. Perhaps Memére had misplaced her gloves. Maybe Annie was missing a hat pin.

I waited for them to leave, for the front door to slam so I could burrow back down under the covers for more sleep.

When they returned home, Annie would start breakfast. The sounds changed, coffee percolating, eggs breaking, juice pouring, toast popping.

When breakfast was finished, she would begin preparations for Sunday dinner. Pans rattled as she removed them from cupboards, the refrigerator door opened and closed.

Over dinner, there was much conversation, and everyone lingered long over dessert.

Sometimes in the afternoon, relatives from “up north” would visit and the living room would be noisy with the swooping cadences of French Canada.

Other times, the afternoons would be long and somnolent, with the only sounds — save for the turning of newspaper pages — coming from the mid-afternoon mail plane.

The rhythm of my life has changed considerably over the years. But the sound of two women arguing in French, the clatter of pans in the kitchen and the drone of a single-engine plane on a summer afternoon can instantly transport me to that other time.

And the smells, too, but that is another post.

05 January 2007

Kindness: The Essential Ingredient

Every once in a while you run across someone who restores your faith in humanity.

Chef James Haller is one of those people.

A few years back, I read his book, “Vie de France,” which chronicles a month he and a group of friends spent in the Loire Valley. Haller did the cooking, of course, and it struck me that he prepared food by instinct. No surprise, he’d been cooking professionally for a couple of decades, and is founder of the Blue Strawbery in Portsmouth, N.H.

He sounded like a good person. A nice person. Someone I’d want for a friend. He's won kudos for his inventive appraoch to cooking, too, and I borrowed from his approach and his book as I prepared food during a vacation in the Lot Valley two years ago.

Haller has also written a book called, “What to Eat When You Don’t Feel Like Eating,” which targets a neglected eating constituency: People with life threatening or even terminal illnesses.

So when a friend and co-worker was diagnosed with cancer, I thought of James Haller. I e-mailed him and we arranged a telephone interview.

Turns out he’d written another book, this one aimed at men with prostate cancer. It’s called “Simply Wonderful Food.”

It also turns out that he’s every bit as nice as he sounds in print. He's been volunteering his services to the hospice movement, cooking for sick people for years.

For seriously ill people, Haller recommends comforting foods that are packed with Vitamins A and C. Leafy greens and just about anything orange.

He pays attention to color, texture, taste and nutritional value. He often adds mint to counteract the metallic taste chemotherapy patients experience.

Haller suggests prostate cancer patients eat foods that are easy to digest. Treatment wreaks havoc with the digestive system, he notes.

We can prepare all the time-consuming fancy food we want, French or otherwise, but, as they say, it might not amount to a hill of beans if we forget the most important ingredient: Kindness.

It seems to me that James Haller figured that out long ago. Read more about him here.

03 January 2007

Tomato Soup with Lemon and Herbes de Provence

One cold winter day in 2007 I came home from work late morning, displaying all the symptoms of approaching upper respiratory ailment. I intended to make chicken soup and take a nap.

I didn't make chicken soup at all. Instead I made a very tomato-y soup with a dash of orange rind and lots of thyme. It was inspired by a similar recipe at Epicurious, adapted to my taste buds and to the ingredients I had on hand.

Tomato Soup 
  • 4 cups chicken, turkey or vegetable stock
  • 1 can Italian-style diced tomatoes
  • 1 large celery rib, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 strips of fresh orange zest, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
  • dash red pepper flakes
  • one bay leaf
  • 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • additional water as needed
  • 1 tablespoon parsley
  • dash or two herbes de Provence to taste

Options: Rice, chicken, a dash of fennel seeds. The original recipe calls for saffron, but I had none.

Cook onions, celery, garlic, orange zest and pepper flakes in olive oil for about five minutes in a stock pot. Add soup stock, tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaf. Bring to a low boil, then simmer uncovered. Taste frequently and add water as needed. You may need to add some sugar at this point. After about a 40 minutes, remove bay leaf and add parsley and herbes de Provence.

I also tossed in some leftover cherry tomatoes, chopping them to a paste first.

This soup tastes as though it would cure a cold. Really.

01 January 2007

Grandma Annie's Back Kitchen

Setting my cranberry upside-down cake on the cupboard in the “back room” to cool the other day, I was reminded of Grandma Annie’s back room.

It had been a kitchen once, in one of the mid-19th century structure’s many incarnations. But when I was a child, it was used mostly for storage.

When I was a child, it contained a massive red cupboard, filled with kitchen items Annie used only once or twice a year. Old bean crocks sat cheek by jowl with glass jars of beans or rice. An old tin colander, ancient wooden spoons, a bowl of cookie cutters and other kitchen miscellany filled the shelves.

The back room also held an enamel-topped table piled with boxes of canning jars and bins of apples or baskets of potatoes.

Annie used this room as a second pantry, a sort of keeping room. She dried herbs in that room, something that intrigued me when I was a child, and because it was unheated in winter and cool in summer, she also set baked goods there when they needed to cool.

The room was connected to the kitchen by a hallway, and the hallway ran along the side of the house. It was part of the house, and yet not part of the house.

The keeping room led directly to Annie’s vast backyard. In summer, she’d open the back door and the hall door and the cross-ventilation kept her old house cool on the hottest July days.

Usually by August, the old treadle sewing machine Annie kept in the room would be pressed into service, as she altered our clothing for the school year or sewed aprons and tablecloths from brightly-colored cotton.

My own back room serves a similar purpose. Here is a collection of mismatched cupboards and bins and shelves that hold gardening supplies, bird feed, canned goods and cookbooks.

It was once part of the kitchen, but the people who “remodeled” our 1896-home in the 1970s, split the room into two.

I spend more time in my back room than Annie did in hers. It’s a cozy place, with a patterned rug and a comfortable chair. In summer, when the crickets sing, it is my favorite room in the house.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

I’ve made it a New Year’s resolution to explore at least one new blog a week. I fell behind on this during the fall, and only recently began to catch up.
It is such fun to explore different approaches, different eating habits and different philosophies. Different is the operative word here. I have never understood why there is so little tolerance for differences in this world.
Back to the topic at hand: Exploring other blogs. One I stumbled upon a few weeks ago was Kitchenography, out of Baltimore, a city where my husband once lived (and still loves). The day I visited, the site's owner, Julie, who also loves Baltimore, had made a cranberry upside-down cake, which she found in a book called "The Best American Recipes of 2001-2002."
I couldn't get that cake out of my head, the jewel tones of the cranberries, the hint of tart and sweet and rich layers of flavor. I wanted to make it for Christmas. I got too busy. Perhaps for our anniversary? Forget it, still occupied. So finally, I made it for our New Year's Eve feed.
The verdict: It has an old-fashioned taste. It's something you might find in a magazine like "Early American Life." It paired well with the bubbly. And it's perfect for the holidays: The cake is rich and moist, the cranberries are tart and the cinnamon imparts a mysterious, spicy taste. I should mention that I used fructose, brown sugar Splenda and low-fat sour cream.
So thank you, Julie, for introducing me to this delight. I look forward to reading more on Kitchenography in 2007.