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It turns out my sister won’t be joining us after all here at HCW . . . but my friend and fellow Coloradan Amy Simpkins will! She has experience with making homemade backpacking and mountaineering  meals using a home dehydrator, perfecting the recipes of Nigella Lawson and Cooking Light, and has all-round kitchen-fu. Look for her posts coming soon.

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Hi everyone — You may have noticed there have been no new posts for over a month. I have realized it is impossible for me to maintain this blog to the standard I’d like by myself while also keeping up with my other blog — The Artful Amoeba — working my day job, and starting a freelance writing career on the side. As much as I love writing about cooking, I can’t do everything and I’ve got to prioritize. I started this blog as an experiment, and it’s been fun, but it’s not working as is.

I thought about killing the blog, but have instead decided to try bringing on two co-bloggers — my friend and former colleague Jodi Rogstad of Cheyenne, Wyo., and my sister Ashley Frazer of Rockwall, Texas. I greatly trust their cooking instincts. We’re going to aim for one new post a week, give or take, and see how we do. I’ll still be trying to post once a month, so you can still look forward to hearing from me too. If you have any questions or comments, please let m(us) know.

Ashley and Jodi will introduce themselves to you soon. Happy home cooking!

Jennifer

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"It's a living . . . " The author's hard-working brown sugar bear.

"It's a living . . . " The author's hard-working brown sugar bear.

Claire Walter observed in a recent comment:

Keeping brown sugar moist is a challenge for me. I read that slice of bread in the sugar bag or container keeps it moist and usable. I tried that and it helped — a little. Suggestions?

Ahhh . . . brown sugar sedimentary rock prevention — a chore familiar to all of us in the West. Brown Sugar is the culinary bane of dry climates (and forgetful people in humid climates). Though we westerners may be able to make divinity on a whim, and our crackers, cereals, and chips stay fresh until their oils go rancid, brown sugar tends to mineralize no mater what we do.

It is true that a slice of bread will work — for a while (coincidentally, I have also heard that apple slices work). After the bread slice is completely dry the brown sugar will start drying out once again. It seems there are few plastic bags that don’t have microcracks, and the water vapor that keeps brown sugar soft will find these cracks and escape. I’ve tried double bagging my brown sugar — and that also doesn’t work. I’ve even had unopened bags of brown sugar with no visible cracks get hard after they sat around long enough.

In my experience, there are two ways to get around this.

  1. Continually supply moisture. That’s why bread works, but also why you have to keep replacing the bread after a few weeks. There are a few downsides — the brown sugar will adhere to and crystalize on parts of the bread. Plus I like to save those odd bread slices for French toast, bread pudding, etc. in the freezer (although, as my friend Ben P. points out, dried-out bread with some brown sugar adhered is by no means no longer a candidate for bread pudding). A similar method is to buy a terra cotta brown sugar bear (see top of post), or for those more economically inclined, find a piece of a broken terra cotta flower pot and file down the sharp edges. You simply soak them in water for 20 minutes, wipe them off, and toss them in with your sugar. You have the same problem (as with bread) with some of the sugar adhering and crystalizing on the bear, but all in all the method works well for a few weeks or months. But eventually those microcracks will get you and you’ll have to recharge the bear. Still kind of annoying.
  2. Find some sort of NASA-grade hermetically sealed containers. Those glass jars with the rubber-gasketed clamped-on lids seem like they would do the trick. Or some really kick-ass tupperware. In this case, you are preventing any moisture from leaving whatsoever. The down side is that you are limited to storing however much brown sugar will fit in your container. So I’d recommend buying a big one.

Whatever you do, don’t microwave the sugar unless you will be using it right away. Microwaving brown sugar will soften it temporarily, but in the end only removes more water from the sugar, and once it cools it will become even harder than before.

Anyone else care to chime in?

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flickr_blackberries

This is the final part of my sister Ashley’s supper club posts from a group meal she hosted back in April. I meant to post this weeks ago and forgot. Ooops! Now you finally get to find out how her meal finished. As well, it’s been a while since I posted and I apologize for the delay! jf

I received a set of ramekins for Christmas that I had only used once, thus the inspiration for my desert (one of the ways I decide what to make is by finding meals that involve some of my underused kitchen toys).  A recipe for blueberry mousse came on their box.  I made the executive decision at the store to make it a blackberry mousse because blackberries are delicious…and they were cheaper.  Berries are usually pretty interchangeable.

Another reason I chose this recipe was to improve my skills.  Several weeks ago I tried to make a coconut cake with seven minute frosting.  Unfortunately, I obtained firsthand experience in why it’s called seven minute frosting and not three or four and a half minute frosting.  I didn’t get my egg whites beaten long enough and so the foamy base of my icing wasn’t stiff enough.

Upon assembling the cake, the second layer and the icing oozed off very reminiscent of the scene in Better Off Dead where Lane Meyer’s dinner makes its way off the plate…not cool.  So let me impart my new found wisdom to you all.  You can not overbeat egg whites.  And in the words of my grandmother…”beat the hell out of them.”

Fast forward to supper club, I was determined to get it right this time.  I beat and beat those suckers until you could cut yourself on the peaks.  Sadly though, I butchered the boiling of my karo syrup and heated it to hard crack instead of hard ball, which let me assure you makes a difference (think light and fluffy icing vs. soft and daggery).

Upon second attempt, things went well and I was able to bring blackberries, egg whites and syrup together in beautiful harmony.  To finish, I loaded the concoction in ramekins and let them set up in the freezer.

Postmortem:
All in all, I think the girls enjoyed the lesson in artichokes a lot and the gnocchi was definitely a big hit.  I wasn’t too excited about the mousse, but the pasta was pretty heavy, so I needed something light.  I think next time I’d minus the mousse and just serve the berries au naturel.

Ashley
“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” – Catherine Aird

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burrito 003

A few weeks ago I linked to an article that discussed the food-borne illnesses that seem to have cropped up from eating frozen pot pies. Today I want to talk about my philosophy on frozen dinners and the place they can have in your home meal repertoire.

I can understand the urge to buy a frozen pot pie. I just made a pot pie myself a few weeks ago, and it’s not 30-minute dinner. It’s about a three-hour process, all told, although one of those hours is baking and cooling. Nor am I immune to buying frozen dinners. Actually, I think frozen dinners can be a healthy part of an overall home-cooking strategy that keeps you out of more-expensive sit-down restaurants. I do, however restrict myself to one brand: Amy’s.

In the article on frozen food safety, Amy’s was the only company that took pains to guarantee its ingredients’ safety and go on the record as doing so. And all of their products I have tried have been, in my opinion, uniformly healthy and delicious. They use high fiber and whole wheat ingredients when possible, and make sure to include plenty of protein and veggies. I’ve tried two paneer-based (homemade cheese) indian curries, an indian samosa, a frozen pizza, and am about to try the afore-pictured burrito. They’ve all been excellent — even better than average restaurant quality.

Now I know what you’re thinking: why should I pay extra for organic frozen dinners? Let me turn that question around on you. Is $2 really too much to pay for an occasional frozen burrito? $4 for a nice Indian meal? Think about how much they’d cost in a restaurant and probably not be nearly as good for you.

Besides, we’ve already established that frozen dinners should be an exceptional indulgence, not the rule (which, coincidentally, is how I also view meat . . . ). I eat a frozen dinner a few times a month, at most. There are fast ways to get fresh food on the table, and we’ll be talking about that here. But for nights or days when there is just no other way (you can’t cook (Plan A), and you’ve run out of leftovers and your own frozen provender (Plan B)), wait till you find Amy’s on sale at the store and stash some in your freezer (Plan C). You’ll be glad you did.

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When you’re cheap like me, it’s easy to have your honey go to sugar during the winter because your place gets too cold (I’ll go as low as 65F, and my sister has a friend who keeps her house at a spartan 60F).

Honey never spoils, so that’s easy (if a bit time-consuming) to correct: just put the honey in a hot water bath and heat and stir until it becomes clear.

However, there’s an even better solution. Keep your honey in clear or opaque containers, and set it in a south or west facing windowsill that gets plenty of sun. The beautiful amber color will warm your home, while the sun warms your honey every day and keeps it liquid as long as possible.

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Julia Child’s kitchen, now enshrined in the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC http://www.flickr.com/photos/krossbow/ / CC BY 2.0

The man who brought us The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food has tackled the next logical step in the chain:  the loss of home cooking among Americans, and its effect on us. This article in the New York Times Magazine is long, but well worth your time. For those of you without time or who would like a preview, I sum up:

Nowadays, Pollan says, Americans would rather watch people cook on television than cook for themselves. It wasn’t always this way. Pollan begins with his memories of Julia Child, a woman who specialized in making cooking fun, tactile, and accessible:

“When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions,” she declares, clearly a tad nervous at the prospect, and then gives the big pancake a flip. On the way down, half of it catches the lip of the pan and splats onto the stovetop. Undaunted, Julia scoops the thing up and roughly patches the pancake back together, explaining: “When I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have. You can always pick it up.” And then, looking right through the camera as if taking us into her confidence, she utters the line that did so much to lift the fear of failure from my mother and her contemporaries: “If you’re alone in the kitchen, WHOOOO” — the pronoun is sung — “is going to see?” For a generation of women eager to transcend their mothers’ recipe box (and perhaps, too, their mothers’ social standing), Julia’s little kitchen catastrophe was a liberation and a lesson: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!”

He goes on to chronicle the loss of home cooking through the marketing efforts of Big Food and the loss of time at home brought on by Americans working ever more hours. At the same time, the roster of celebrity chefs on Food Network has exploded. Would we really rather sit in front of the TV for 30 minutes or an hour watching someone cook while eating processed food than actually stand in a kitchen for the exact same time actually cooking a delicious, fresh meal?

Now, he says, we’ve been so trained on boxed cake mixes and instant rice packets that we’ve all but forgotten how to cook from scratch. And our health has thereby suffered, he says. When we don’t have to bake chips, cakes, cookies, and fried foods from scratch, foods that were formerly for special occasions, we eat more of them. LOTS more of them.

If you believe in the principles of community supported agriculture, gardening, organic food, and reforming the industrial agricultural system that is sickening both our planet and us, then cooking at home is an essential part of the game plan, he says.

The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.

But if this is a dream you find appealing, you might not want to call Harry Balzer right away to discuss it.

“Not going to happen,” he told me. “Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.

Well, me, for one. I’m not going to take this sitting down. I’m only a tiny part of the solution, though. If you are a cook, keep your eyes open for people you know who might be interested in learning to cook. Invite them over for dinner one night, and offer to let them help you (and let you teach them) in return for the meal. Help rebuild the culture of cooking and the community of shared meals around you.

Once people taste the products of home cooking — freshly baked biscuits, homemade cake, simply but deliciously seasoned vegetables (you’d be amazed what a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil can do for steamed veggies) — they may finally realize what they’ve been missing in flavor and taste. People who grew up in homes without cooking may have no idea that a homemade cookie  or loaf of bread tastes radically better than one from a box or a bag. I even have a friend who had no idea that bread could be made at home, at was utterly amazed to see me doing it! And once they see that you can do it and they can do it, they may gain both the desire and motivation to enter the brave new world at home.

America is a can-do nation. That shouldn’t stop at the kitchen door. So get out there, team, and cook!

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