Thursday, February 27, 2014

Concerning Oyster Mushrooms

Time was when every penny counted in the grocery store, when coupons were carefully hoarded. I fondly remember the period of my life when Andrew and I went out on Tuesday evening and bought the grocery items for a week. There was not a penny left in our bank account, but in those pre-digital days I could write a check, knowing that money would be deposited from our paychecks first thing Wednesday morning before the checks made it to the bank. I just looked that transaction up and check kiting, or in our case playing the float seems to be illegal, so please don't tell the IRS. There were a few food items I coveted, but would never dream of buying. Raspberries, mushrooms, avocados were worth their weight in gold and never made it on my list, let alone in my shopping cart.

I should be equally careful today, because who knows what the future has in store or what will happen with our pensions, but now I only have two mouths to feed instead of seven, I buy an occasional luxury. This week I checked out mushrooms. I love the occasional mushroom omelet and it brings back such happy memories of my friend Sylvia. I wanted just plain old button mushrooms and as I looked over the various sorts of mushrooms, I noticed the sign WIC in front of every shelf. In case you don't know, WIC indicates that the foodstuff has been approved for the Women, Infants and Children program, which enables families who are low income and who satisfy other requirements to obtain nutritious food free of charge. I am a great believer in making nutritious food available to children and am certainly not about to query this program, but shitake mushrooms? Oyster mushrooms? Organic portobello mushrooms?

I wondered if the decision to include these items was made by the store manager, but a little research led me to the State of Michigan WIC approved foods website. It is fascinating reading and I applaud the authors for making clear in words and photos exactly what cereal for example has been approved. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, I found that every fruit, with the exception of pre-prepared fruits, has been approved and all vegetables, except while potatoes. Shitake mushrooms, but not white potatoes? I supposed the authorities are afraid that mothers will fill up their children with mashed potatoes and omit other more nutritious dishes. like beef tenderloin in a port shitake reduction or spinach and mushroom quiche with shitake mushrooms.

You see my problem here, don't you, and it is one that occupied my thoughts as I made my way home with my small punnet of button mushrooms, made infinitely more attractive by being offered as a "Manager's Special."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bookstore Memories

When I was at university ( or, as they say now in various places, at uni or at college) there was no such thing as a college bookstore where a student could retreat, reading list in hand, and pick up all the texts required for upcoming courses. We sat down, fountain pens in hand, and wrote to our bookstore of choice (Foyles on Charing Cross Road, Blackwells in Oxford come to mind) to request the texts we needed for the upcoming term—or was it semester, I don't remember. We politely asked for second hand texts in good shape and we trusted them not to send, and demand payment for, new ones.

Helene Hanff's apartment is on the left, the bookstore of Marks and Co. on the right.
So much of this came to mind last Fall when my son-in-law directed a production of 84, Charing Cross Road. The above photo includes some of the tech people: the cast is very small. It is a tour de force for the actress playing Helene Hanff and the actor playing Frank Doel of Marks and Co. Helene and Frank forge a delightful long distance relationship as she writes to him requesting books and she does her best to make up for the deficiencies in British post-war diet by sending a box of nutritious foodstuffs at regular intervals. I know that 84 no longer exists, but of course Foyles does.

My husband bought books across the Atlantic from Heffers in Cambridge and Blackwells in Oxford. Sorting through one of his many piles of papers the other day he came across this letter:

Imagine Amazon being half this polite.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Brussel Sprouts

Like most of us who grew up in England after the Second World War, I have a vivid memory of stewed cruciferous vegetables. Boiled cabbage made an appearance at almost every meal, unseasoned and boiled until it was pale green and mushy. I didn't actually mind it too much, but I was relieved on those rare occasions when we had brussel sprouts (always referred to in our family as "Brussel Sprouts" or "Brussels"). In our house they made an appearance at Christmas as a rather neglected companion to turkey.

When I was in a position to cook meals I renewed my acquaintance with brussels, rather intrigued when I discovered that they grew on long stalks. (Maybe that's the way we got them in England, but I didn't put in much of an appearance in the kitchen at home: indeed there was not room for two cooks in our tiny kitchen.) I found them much more appetising when cooked a little more al dente. But then, miracle of miracles—my avant garde son-in-law read somewhere that they were delicious roasted. Tossed with olive oil and spices and roasted in a hot oven they were a food for the Gods.

So was happy when the Wall Street Journal called my name last weekend with an article entitled Brussels Sprouts Break Out. Maybe I could be the first at family dinners to serve an enticing vegetable dish. Doesn't "Fried Brussels Sprouts with Savory Onion Caramel, Garlic Confit, Lime. Mint and Aleppo Pepper" sound great? But Fish sauce? Aleppo pepper, Onion juice? All those steps? A glob of olive oil does it for me. Then we have a dish involving Marcona Almonds, Whole Coriander and Pecorino cheese. Darn, I keep meaning to buy a mandoline, but the dish does look nicely crunchy.

All these dishes look delicious but involve so many steps. In a restaurant I would make a bee-line towards them, but at home? Boiled cabbage anyone?

Friday, February 14, 2014

When I'm worried and I can't sleep . . .

I count my blessings instead of sheep

And I fall asleep

Counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small

I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep

Counting my blessings
I think about a nursery and I picture curly heads

And one by one I count them as they slumber in their beds
If you're worried and you can't sleep

Just count your blessings instead of sheep

And you'll fall asleep

Counting your blessings.
What made me think of this? Well, remember I said my friend Rosemary would be appearing in this post. Literally. I sent these photos via e-mail to my college class and said I couldn't remember where they were taken.

One of my classmates suggested they were taken at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park when we went for a weekend seminar on Utopias. Could have fooled me. Anyway, I am on the right and that's Rosemary on the left. Of all the people I know, she is the most likely to be counting her blessings, but what struck me was the comment she made, "I can remember that coat." I can remember mine too. I got it at the only place we bought coats—a dutch company with a name including a lot of initials. They had a big store on Oxford Street. So what is my point? When I can't fall asleep, or when I wake up in the middle of the night, I try to list all the shoes I have ever had, all the sweaters, all the jackets etc. During the period of my life in England, Austerity Britain, the list was very short, but at the same time the objects were carefully chosen. Just how many colors did Marks and Spencers have the sweater in? My three years in Los Angeles were supported by a Teaching Assistantship and a small stipend. My first years in Detroit were a whirl of small children and panic set in when there was a University function, "I don't have anything to wear!" My working years required more clothes, but at the same time I was working to help support children who needed their own clothes and to pay university tuition.

And now I am not very interested in what I wear. Soon I will start on woolly sheep.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Dumbing Down of America

My college friend Rosemary, who will, I hope, appear again in my next post, lived for a while in Cincinnati in the 80's.  Amazing how sometimes a comment can stick with you for so long: she could not get over the way Americans made cakes—with a package and an egg, which she claimed was no easier than mixing up the five or so ingredients needed to make a cake from scratch. I just hated to tell her it was a lot easier for me, since I had not learned to make a cake at my mother's knee. I don't want to insult my mom, she did make cakes and a few months ago I had the biggest urge for a great big slice of Victoria sponge, but the 250g/9oz measurements that appeared on line were a little taxing for someone who has got used to measuring in cups. So Duncan Hines it was. And Duncan has not heard of Victoria sponge.

Lately I have noticed an annoying and growing trend on-line. When I look at some sites, they give a link to an article I am interested in reading. But when I click on the site, lo and behold there is that triangle which takes me to a video. I don't want to watch a video, I want to read an article. Apart from the unexpected noise that fills the house, the video contains sparse news and there is no background information or attempt to quote sources. Can't people read any more? No, I am not knocking America: the BBC news is one of the biggest culprits.

I am an avid reader of those sections of the newspaper which used to be called "The Woman's Section" and now tend to be called "Life." So it always astonishes me when I come across a previously completely unheard of person or trend. Often one which has slithered from "Life" to "Business." Such is Jenny Doan. I read about her in The Wall Street Journal. They gave the lucrative background to her YouTube tutorials in which she gives all kinds of short cuts to making quilts. Me being me, I went straight to them and yes, her short cuts are a dumbing down of of a wonderful artisinal skill, but boy are they useful. I am working my way through her videos—next I will start on the quilts.

Last Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday. The less said about the game the better, but earlier that week I asked the primo football fan in the house what he wanted for dinner Sunday night. "Tacos." I had most of the ingredients to hand, but I did need to pick up taco shells. I approached the shelves where taco shells are usually found, raised my hand to grab a couple of packets and what did I find? Taco dinner kits, and not only taco dinner kits, there were fajita kits and enchilada kits. What on earth would I have found in a taco dinner kit? Dehydrated onions and tomatoes and cheese and lettuce? I'll never know. I thought that was sinking as low as commerce could sink, but there was worse to come.

One of the quilt squares I found attractive was called the "snowball square." I had enjoyed Jenny's quick method of making one and joining it to other squares. Anxious to check out a few other quilt patterns using the snowball square, I googled "easy+snowball." Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you an easy snowball maker. Get your small children dressed up in coats and boots and scarves and mittens—and remind them to take this travesty outside with them, because after all, using their hands to make a snowball is way too onerous.

I'm not telling Rosemary about this one.