Monday, March 31, 2008

Oatmeal Raisin* Browned-Butter Muffins

The Grand Dame of Southern Cooking was a Communist. Her name is Edna Lewis, and I was thrilled to stumble across her cookbook, In Pursuit of Flavor, at Goodwill today. She writes, "In those days, we lived by the seasons, and I quickly discovered that food tastes best when it is naturally ripe and ready to eat." And unlike Alice Waters, she started cooking professionally all the way back in 1949. She makes her own baking powder, and braises meat in a clay pot, and advocated seasonal food long before the West Coast jumped on the slow food bandwagon. She fed William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. And, yes, worked for The Daily Worker.

Here's the thing, though. I'm not really pitting one culinary genius against another. Unlike other caustic celebrities, the heroes of cookery play a good game of wholesome charm. Think of a kitchen full of the likes of M.F.K. Fisher, Alice B. Toklas, James Beard, Julia Child...? My heart just melts like butter on an oatmeal muffin. Which reminds me to tell you that oatmeal muffins are improved twelvefold by the addition of half a cup of browned butter -- but that does NOT mean you should refrain from topping them with extra butter when you split them open all steamy from the oven.

Browned-Butter Muffins

Melt 1/2 c. butter over low heat. While it slowly gilds to a honey-wheat color, whisk together 2 cups white flour, 1.5 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. baking soda, 1 T. cinnamon, 3 c. rolled oats, and 1 cup of raisins*.

In another bowl, whisk 3 eggs, 1/2 c. honey, and 2.5 c. kefir or yogurt (some part of which may be old sour milk, water, or other bilge).

Pour the browned butter into the oat mixture and toss it about till evenly coated. Stir in the liquids and let the batter sit and thicken up for an afternoon or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour 18 muffin holes. Bake till golden brown on top, some 25 minutes or so.

*In retrospect, the raisins effectively sucked up the moisture like sponges. I much prefer a muffin riddled with caverns of tart berry juice. Add frozen or seasonal berries instead -- just before filling the muffin pan if you don't want grey batter.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Of Dearth and Home

Ring in that recession! Nothing fuels the home cooking fires like the bellows of inflation. No, seriously -- every generation defines its comfort food as whatever grandma cooked up when things were tough. The corn pone crumbled in bean soup. The ham bone that lent the beans their meaty savor. Mashed potatoes all winter long. Oatmeal for breakfast. Coffee brewed with burnt toast -- though that's venturing into the territory of full-on Depression. When things really get wild, when threadbare and barefoot take the runways by storm, when the Dust Bowl supersedes the Super Bowl, and dole means government handouts, not bananas. Thing of it is, I think it's fair to say that most of us picky-palated impecunious youngsters would take a handout over Dole bananas 'most any day of the year....

In the meantime, let's celebrate the fruits of economic hardship by reminding ourselves that a backyard garden is like backing up our dollars with gold: potatoes are immune to inflation. And what is more, the distinctive creativity of every ethnic cuisine derives not just from the cleverness of the people who've cooked it every day for a thousand years, but also from a dearth of culinary options. In other words, this next generation of poor kids is on the verge of inventing the new American cuisine. Haute dumpster. And perhaps this new cuisine will be defined by a dearth of bananas, or electric ovens, or beer.

In fact, I love the word "dearth". Dear-th, dear-ness. It's not the absence of everything wonderful, but the preciousness of the little we've got. It's the perfect antidote to the mesmerizing superfluity of food on grocery store shelves (and, in fact, the perfect antidote to the perplexing plethora of lifestyles, roles, and visions I could choose). When 26 enticing varieties of olive oil gang up and fix me to the floor with indecision and panic, it occurs to me that freedom isn't a linear function of the number of choices we've got. Maybe those dear deep-rooted folks, the ones who don't pretend to be self-made, but build themselves up on the foundation of a community and its traditions, who take hand-me-downs and make quilts or whatever tired metaphors they can mine from deep in their dearth -- maybe the deep-rooted ones are happier for it.

In other words, I went to church on Sunday. Sometimes a wayward Mennonite girl could use a dose of community -- some sermonizing, a hymn or two, maybe even a wee nibble of communion loaf and a long, thirsty swig of wine. In San Francisco, Mennonites are allowed to be gay and drink wine and the communion loaf might even be challah. Go back East and the church has its panty-hose in a wad trying to figure out just how much of the loaf it's allowed to dole out to so-called sinners. But there it is: I was born into a tightly-knit Mennonite world, and it's my particular "dearth", whether or not I view it as stricture or scripture, or just one useful structure among many.

And soon, we'll all have dearth a-plenty: recession! Bring it on, I say. Let's drink to our dearth, toast our burnt toast, and hunker down with what we've got. To that end, a recipe for coffee from Grandma's taped-together copy of The Mennonite Community Cookbook:


This coffee recipe accompanies a "birthday cake" made from alternating strata of bread and cottage cheese, topped with a whipped oatmeal-thickened skimmed-milk frosting. TMCC notes, "This is an original recipe from our Russian Mennonite refugees of World War II."

Toast slices of rye bread until they are quite black.
Pulverize these slices of bread to form fine crumbs.
Use the crumbs to make coffee.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Paprikahead's Henna Hair Dye Recipe

In honor of all the charming redheaded Irish boys named Patrick, and old boyfriends who always wanted me to quit the henna habit and revert to dirty blond, here's my latest recipe for red hair. It's easy, slimy-fun, and very effective. So effective, in fact, that just yesterday I had to listen to somebody extol at great length the beauty and rarity of my natural red hair. He even explained how redheadedness was a recessive gene, which meant that both my mother and father must have redheads in their family. How embarrassing! My red hair is a white lie, and inspires patronizing lectures! I panicked this morning when I found myself in the middle of the St. Patrick's Day parade.

Assessment: Look at your hair. Is it lightish-colored and porous? Very strong, smooth hair will not absorb the henna as well as weak wavy hair. And of course, dark hair won't show the effects much at all, while blond hair will turn orange. Unlike gnarly ammonia-based hair dye, henna does not bleach your hair, and can only add color -- which it does by bonding with the weak spots in your hair. Regardless of color and texture, henna will strengthen and condition your hair.

Selection: Procure the finest, freshest henna you can find. I do not recommend the expensive brands in health food stores. Instead, pick up a box for $2.50 at the local "India Bazar" or one of those markets where you can also stock up on Turkish delight, fresh dates, and halvah. Choose 100% pure henna -- sometimes chemicals, indigo, or ayurvedic herbs are added. It should be very finely powdered and smell faintly grassy.

Preparation: Empty two cups henna powder into a ceramic bowl. Add a tablespoon each of paprika, cinnamon, and other interesting spices. Bring 3 or more cups water to a boil and add two bags of black tea and two tablespoons of hibiscus flowers. Allow it to steep for a good twenty minutes. Return to a boil, strain, and stir into the henna a bit at a time. Add enough to achieve a smooth, almost soupy texture. It will thicken as it cools. Cover the henna pot and let it macerate for several hours. Take care to keep it off your skin.

Application: Wear a minimal amount of clothing, or lots of clothing you don't care about. Take a large kitchen bag, rip a small hole in the end, and stretch it over your head and down around your neck. Rub good oil or lotion onto your neck, shoulders, hairline, and ears, to repel any stray drips of henna. Henna will make you orange. Put a small plastic bag or rubber glove over your left hand, and put a plastic comb in your right hand. With your left hand, pull up your hair. Comb a part in your hair and shovel up a glob of henna on the comb. Smeer it around with your gloved hand. Get it right down in the roots, and along hairlines, especially. Continue parting and glopping your hair down the sides and around the back. Having a friend do it for you is very pleasant, but you can definitely do a perfect job yourself with a little care and dexterity. Don't let the henna dry on your hair. It can only work its magic when wet. When all the roots are slimed, smoosh more henna down to the ends of your hair section by section and pile your hair on top of your head,

Curing: remove your glove, and carefully pull the plastic bag up on your head. It should fit perfectly around your hairline. Gather the top of it together around your hair, tuck, and tie an old towel or scarf around it to keep everything in place. Heat and moisture are key for the next two hours. Clean up all henna spatters, do laundry, read, or watch a movie. You'll probably look funny, especially if the henna was too liquid and seeps out from under your turban like gangrenous algal ooze. Let it cure for two hours or more.

Removal: You don't want all that grime going down the drain. I've stood in a dank basement with moldy old henna dripping all round me, sawing into old lead pipes and scraping out the slime with my fingernails. Instead, hose your hair outside, or rinse it into a bucket or garbage bag and empty it down the toilet. It's a matter of debate whether shampooing your hair immediately after a henna job will lighten the colors. I like the grassy smell, frankly. It's like the hay mow.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Taste Buds

Now I know why I crave gravelly salt and blackstrap molasses and gnarly zinfandel and the most csípős of paprika. And why Mama doesn't.

My taste buds are underpopulated. They're scattered about in farflung outposts, pioneers who must be subjected to the most cataclysmic of flavor disasters before they can look up from their stony furrows to take note. Mama's taste buds, on the other hand, live in dense, tightly-knit communities among alabaster aqueducts and operas. They soliloquize on the flavors of 4 p.m. westerlies and the delights of bare, sunwarmed silverware. She is -- I'm sure of it -- what wine expert Tim Hanni calls a "supertaster": someone with more than her fair share of the tastebuds. His theory: the more taste buds you have, the more sensitive your palate, and the subtler the flavors you will like (be they tannins in wine or cacao in a chocolate bar).

Let me feign outrage. Doesn't this smack of that well-debunked tongue-phrenology that assigns various regions of the tongue to corresponding flavor-receptors? (In fact, we can taste all flavors anywhere on the tongue). And isn't it a simplistic model -- a neat linear correlation between taste-bud count and preferences? Perception is such a tangle of sensory devices and memories and expectation! Perhaps Hanni's theory would work if we also counted dollars spent on packaging, to accomodate for wine experts who get all befuddled when faced with white wine dyed red and cheap wine in fancy bottles. But first, let's wheel in the budometer, a contraption that analyzed my food preferences and correlated them with taste-bud count, which it correlated with my food preferences. It called me a "tolerant" taster. A possessor of sparse & plebian tastebuds.

Actually, I love multiple-choice contraptions that tell me who I am. Really. And Hanni's theories were mostly confirmed at a recent wine-tasting, and I'm all in favor of anything that finishes by saying, "Drink the wine you like, because even the experts don't have equal numbers of tastebuds."

Which means, of course, that Mama and I can both be taste experts -- though I think smell is the critical difference between my mother's taste and mine. Her nose can detect vices up to 24 hours after their execution -- 96 hours in the case of my suitors' sins. Little wonder she likes her stews less salty.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Black Cherry Oat Muffins

Aw, muffins. "Aw," like your mother saying, "But she's such a good-hearted girl, so what if she wears jeans with elastic at the waist AND at the cuffs?" Note: your mother was not referring to me. I refused to wear denim altogether in favor of bright monotone sweat pants with preemptive patches sewn in the knees.

Black cherry oat muffins are bumbling and nubbly, attempting to hide their dark hearty wholegraininess under the guise of black cherries and molasses. Like when elastic-jean wearers grow up to be adolescent Mennonite girls hiding their pimples and purity under white powders and black lipstick.

Whisk together 2 cups whole-wheat flour, 1.5 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. baking soda, 2 cups rolled oats, and 1 cup quick oats. Or whatever combination you prefer.

In another bowl, whisk 2 eggs, 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/4 c. molasses, 2.5 c. buttermilk, whey, or yogurt, 1 tsp. vanilla, and 1/4 tsp. almond extract. Let the batter sit and thicken up -- all afternoon, or overnight, or till next Sunday -- while you preheat the oven to 350 and butter and flour 18 muffin holes.

Just before you put them in the oven, add 2 cups halved frozen cherries. The cherries melt and form warm dark caves. Bake till they have risen and a knife inserted in the middle doesn't come out gluey -- 20-25 minutes or so. Actually, the cherries are entirely arbitrary. I just happened to have them on hand from Valentine's Day, and frankly think blackberries would work much better.

This recipe (my bran-less adaptation of a bran muffin recipe) turns out to be very similar to an old one my mother just sent me; which, when my kitchen is back up to muffin-production standards, I'll try for comparison. Wish I had such a muffin now. The tea at the tea house where I have come to fetch the Internet is very fine indeed, but the scone tastes like baking powder. Hmph. 

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Of Green Eggplant and Mustard Carp

The first morning I woke in this house, I found a large bowl of chicken marinating in yogurt. Oh, yummy, tandoori chicken! But what have we here? A huge platter of carp, marinating in a thick mustard rub. And yet more? Okra and young eggplant curries, cauliflower, prawns, cabbage in a creamy anise dressing, chapati everywhere and tamarind sauce on top and I'm hamfisted and butterfingered when it comes to eating without utensils but everything's forgiven by the time we pass the creamy caramelly candies -- demure little allusions to sweetness that they are. Unfortunately, A. M. prepares all this food in a great hurry and runs off without explaining a bit, as he is fantastically busy cheffing it for the first-class passengers of your favorite major airline in an enormous hangar of a kitchen. He said as a small boy in his village he never wanted the adventure or excitement of leaving home, but only to eat well. His wife has been in India for the nine years he's been off landing cutthroat-competitive contracts with his gracious shrug, fourth-grade education, and food that speaks for itself, thank you.

In other words, this little household hanger-on is left gasping in wonder with a plateful of curry three times a day. And butterfingered and hamfisted as I am, all I can do is take a knifeless, forkless stab at naming the turmeric and anise and cumin and ghee, yes, I've met you... but I'm struggling to transcribe this symphony on my tongue.

Shortly, my stay in South Indian ananda will close. Shortly I shall chortle apron-clad in my own new kitchen, flicking on&off the blue flames in my gas stove and flinging wide the funny little half-doors to the pantry (I have a pantry!) -- which shall all be bare and dry with one doleful moth fluttering out. For now, I'm told the whole refrigerator is my demesne, and damned but if I'm not going to make the rounds. The dal looks like it wants some reconnoitering.

Monday, March 03, 2008


While I have my camera and shoes, my USB cord seems to be in the same buried box as my clean socks. No pictures, then of my U-Haul manna. My traveling companion brought the finest food in the cab: a perfect persimmon and a brined beef tongue. I brought the random things I hoped my housemates wouldn't miss (yes, I'm the scape- goat cheese, my dears). Altogether, then, I made the journey from Portland to San Francisco with half a persimmon, all 7 ounces of cheese, a square of Theo's Ghana chocolate, 3 bosc pears (one brown and mealy), two slices beef tongue, half an orange, and one baby banana. I consumed approximately 300% of my recommended daily saturated fat, while my fifth of the shared U-Haul guzzled a billion percent of its recommended daily non-renewable oil. The cats refused all apologies, palliatives, and palatables.