December 2009

Saffron, The Queen of Spices

I was given a tiny bit of saffron as a Christmas present, and I couldn't be more delighted.  Although I have tasted saffron dishes before, I have never had the chance to cook with saffron myself.  I can't wait, but I'm nervous about the possibility of ruining it by accident!

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.  Up until fairly recently in human history, it could fairly have been called the most expensive thing in the world (by weight).  Each thread of saffron is the stigma from a very specific kind of crocus, a domesticated variety which is not found in the wild.  

Easy Beer Bread

Beer bread is one of those

things that are so easy to make that people think that there's got to be a trick. It's the easiest bread you'll ever make, and it's so easy that it's one of the things I suggest people who have never baked anything, bake. Plus, it's really fun, and it makes incredible bread. It's enormously fun to see what a particular brew does to the same recipe for bread. Plus, you can add herbs, or dried fruit, or even chocolate, to make the bread a bit special. There really are endless variations.

New Year's Eve Traditional Foods

It seems like every culture has its own tradition about which foods to eat on New Year's - either New Year's Day or New Year's Eve - in order to ensure luck, prosperity, friendship, and good cheer.  

Black Eyed Peas

One of the most common here in America is the tradition of eating black eyed peas.  Their shape is said to resemble coins, and because dried beans can be stored and then either eaten or replanted, their very nature echoes the idea of plenitude.  

Black eyed peas are often eaten on New Year's in a Southern dish called Hoppin' John.  This is basically a casserole of black eyed peas and rice, along with ham hocks and some seasonings.  Emeril Lagasse has an excellent Hoppin' John recipe here on the Food Network website.

Eddie's Pan Asian Restaurant: One of Seattle's Best

Several months ago I reviewed Thai River, a restaurant that would come to be one of my go-to places places for good Asian food. When some friends and I wandered over there in October and found the doors locked during regular business hours we were a bit concerned. Later the restaurant would sport a "pardon our dust" renovation sign that lingered for well over a month. It looked like one of the best Thai spots in town had come on hard times and closed like so many good neighborhood businesses. Then the location came under new management as Eddie's Pan Asian Restaurant, which also happens to be one of the other best Thai spots in Seattle.

Ronald McDonald is One Bad Clown

McDonald’s has got to stop targeting kids so much. Period.

Ronald McDonald, the infamous “clown” from the McDonald’s gang of misfits, actually visits elementary schools. While I am unclear what exactly he says at the elementary schools, I am quite clear what his purpose is: the “evil” clown wants to start a cycle of dependency and get the next generation addicted to McDonald’s. Gee, I was under the mistaken impression that the clown from Stephen King’s “It” was scary, but he has nothing on old Ronnie. I wonder if he learned his tricks from Joe the Camel.

Happy Meals are also a little creepy. Give your kid some crappy food and win a free prize. Nice strategy there.

Menu Psychology: Getting Us To Eat More

In an odd coincidence, both the New Yorker and the New York Times have run stories this month about the psychology of how restaurant menus are designed.  They cover some of the same ground, although the Times' article is much more in depth, and follows a menu designer through the process of redesigning a menu.

A valid (if sad) point raised by the articles is that restaurants were never terribly profitable, and in the last few years, times have gotten very desperate.  Anything a restaurant can do to increase profits, no matter how slim, is worth their consideration.  

Caramel Popcorn

It's not too late to make

something affordable and tasty as a holiday gift. Caramel popcorn, made from scratch from freshly popped popcorn is pretty fabulous and quite inexpensive. The basic process consists of freshly popping popcorn, then coating it in a caramel coating made with butter, sugar, corn syrup and flavorings. But that's just the basic variety; there are a number of additional ingredients and flavorings. Peanuts, chocolate chips, other nuts, chili, orange peel . . . there's a lot of room for ingenuity and variety.

The recipes all suggest coating the mixing bowl with oil; do not skip this step. It makes coating the popcorn with the caramel syrup easier, and it makes an enormous difference later when you're cleaning up.

Great Yule Recipes

If you want to do something a little different this Christmas season - maybe you're an atheist (like me!) or a pagan, or maybe you just feel quirky - why not celebrate Yule instead?  Yuletide is a traditional winter solstice festival, originally a pagan festival that originated in Germany.  It was later incorporated into the Christmas tradition, when everyone suddenly decided (against all evidence and logic) that Christ should take over the December holidays.

The traditional Yule or Saturnalia was all about fertility, and traditional Yule foods reflect that.  Yule festivities typically consist of a ton of food, a celebration of the harvest of the year, and a demonstration of abundance.  

Yule Log

5 Biggest Food Stories of the Year

2009 was the year of dismaying food safety news, lightened with some truly awful cakes.

1. Bisphenol-A or BPA is turning up everywhere.  Although savvy health conscious foodies have known about BPA for several years now, 2009 is the year when Bisphenol-A's terrible effects first became known to the general public.  Bisphenol-A is the reason why everyone threw away their plastic water bottles in 2009, and invested in sleek aluminum water bottles instead.

(I resisted picking up an aluminum water bottle for most of the year, due mostly to the cost.  I finally bought one a few weeks ago, priced at $2.99 at the discount store in my town.  Not bad!  The only down side to the aluminum bottle is that it seems much more inclined to sweat when I fill it with cold water.)

Popcorn: Edible Holiday Craft

There's a lot you can do with popcorn,

especially during the holiday season. And fun, cheap, edible holiday activities work really well with kids. One of the many fabulous things about popcorn is that it's exceedingly inexpensive if you buy unpopped corn in bulk, rather than the standard microwave-ready-seasoned-popcorn-packets. The first step before doing anything with popcorn is of course to actually pop the pop corn; this is best done either using the easy old-fashioned stove top method, or a hot air popper. Butter, salt and season it to taste if you're planning to eat it as is—a perfectly reasonable thing to do while you watch one of the traditional holiday movies with your kids.

Christmas Party Food: Chex Mix

Chex mix seems like it has been a party food staple forever, but in fact it was only invented in 1952, when the recipe began appearing on the back of the box.  Chex mix was almost a diabolical invention in the way that it requires you to purchase three entire boxes of cereal in order to complete the recipe.  But you know that it isn't going to be as good if you don't!  (I have tried making Chex mix with only one kind of Chex.  It did not turn out well.)

Chex mix also occupies an interesting historical niche as being one of many "TV mixes" which were invented in the 1950s for people to eat while watching that newfangled television.  Most of these snacks were brand oriented, as you might expect from the heyday of brand recognition and faith in the corporatized food supply.  (Kix has nutrients!  Cigarettes relax your lungs!)