Archive for the ‘Thinking About Food’ Category

How It All Began, and How It’s All Changed

In Making Food, Thinking About Food on November 24, 2014 at 5:35 pm

New name! New concept! In marketing-speak, I guess you’d call it a rebranding. Or a relaunch. Or a repositioning. Whatever you want to call it, it’s truer and better.

The whole thing started years ago when I made a New Year’s Resolution — the only one that ever stuck, incidentally — to try a new food every week. Whether it was eating or drinking something foreign or unfamiliar, working with a new ingredient, or attempting a preparation I’d never tried before, it just had to be new, and it had to be weekly.

And it worked, mostly, for a while. I tried all kinds of new junk. I cooked goat and mutton. I made mayonnaise and Caesar dressing. I baked pitas and English muffins. I called the cops and ate creamed herring. (These two events were entirely unrelated to each other.)

But then I had a kid, and everything changed. I no longer had entire days, empty, free to fill with yeasted bread and elaborate, multi-step preparations. My ability to concentrate on complicated recipes evaporated. Frankly, my ability to remember that I’d put something — anything — on the stove completely disappeared. I can’t even tell you how many times I put water on to boil or shoved something in the oven, walked away to check on The Burger, then jumped in terror an hour later when the smoke detector went off, bolted into the kitchen, and stared at the smoking pan thinking what the hell was I doing in here, anyway?

People, I cannot stress to you enough the importance of batteries in a working fire detector.

Trying to pick out a new food every week — trying to do anything every week — became an unwelcome burden, something I resented rather than enjoyed. Even the few-and-far-between times I did manage to bang out a blog entry after The Burger came on the scene bothered me, since I’d strayed so far from the blog’s original conceit. I’d think: This isn’t new. This isn’t weekly. This is dumb.

But I continued to cook, and eventually The Burger joined me.

Now we make stuff that isn’t necessarily new to me, but is new to her, and exciting and joyful and sometimes terrifying to both of us. (You really haven’t lived until you’ve taught a three-year-old how to toss pizza dough.) We sit on the kitchen floor together. She wears her apron and an enormous, ridiculous, glittery, sequined tutu. Sometimes she eats the finished product, sometimes she doesn’t; she almost always tastes the raw ingredients, down to the flour. We both always get messy. And while sweeping up after our breaded chicken cutlet adventure last week (details coming soon!), I looked down at the dustpan and saw that it was full of breadcrumbs and glitter.

And there it was: the essence of cooking with my daughter. And the blog was reborn. As we say in Wisconsin: Forward.


Just Shut Up and Cook. And Then Write About It Already. Sheesh.

In Thinking About Food on November 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm

I’m not sure why it’s been so hard to just sit down and write a blog post. I mean, yeah, there’s the usual there’s-no-time stuff: working full-time, parenting a preschooler, doing all that boring, soul-sucking grown-up shit (laundry, dishes, flossing, getting gas, vacuuming, etc etc ad nauseum), being down-to-the-bone-tired all the damn time. But there’s something bigger, more paralytic, going on here.

This is something I ostensibly want to do, right? No one’s making me write a blog. This isn’t a job (because believe me, I am definitely not getting paid for this), an obligation. So why all the dread/doubt/inertia?

Well, for starters: I’m out of practice. For the past few years, we’ve been in culinary survival mode. We joked that the theme of The Burger’s first birthday party should’ve been Frozen Pizza and Espresso, since those were the two things that essentially underwrote our first twelve months of parenthood. Then for the next two years, we either ordered takeout, went out to eat, or, on our more ambitious nights, went into dump-and-stir mode: sprint home from work, open the jar of Creole/Asian/Indian/Italian/American sauce, add protein, simmer, eat, bath-book-blah-blah-blah, collapse into bed.

But a few months back, things suddenly, magically, unexpectedly got easier. This coincided with our exit from what a friend of mine calls The Gear Phase. No more strollers, diapers, diaper bags, playpens. Free and easy. Easy enough to spend more than 15 minutes on making dinner. Easy enough that we actually had a couple of dinner parties with actual grown-ups, where I planned a menu! came home from work early! made several courses! felt like my old self (albeit not the old self who spent two full days making bao for a Chinese New Year dinner party) for an evening!

But really: who are we kidding. Fifteen minutes is still about all we’ve got some nights, and we still rely on dump-and-stir way more than I’d like to admit, especially for someone who writes a freaking food blog. And here’s the thing: sometimes I don’t even dump and stir. The other night Lulu and I ate Applegate chicken tenders and sweet potato puffs and drank apple cider on the couch while watching Charlie Brown movies because I was too tired to move (and to be perfectly honest, the tenders looked awesome when I pulled them out of the oven, way better than the salad I was pretending I was going to eat instead, so I put the salad back in the fridge and then dumped a bunch of rum into my apple cider to prove that I’m actually still a grownup). So really: who (besides my parents) wants to read a food blog written by a fraud who doesn’t even cook from scratch all the time?

AND, the whole premise of the blog was to try a new food every week. And even though we’re making dinner at home nightly now (I honestly can’t even remember the last time we went out to dinner or got takeout), even when I’m cooking from scratch, I’m not really trying anything new. At this point, it’s easier to pull out a bunch of dishes I know in my bones that I don’t need recipes for than to pull together a complex shopping list, go get all the ingredients, prep a bunch of mis-en-place, and have to consult a recipe every three minutes while simultaneously trying to make sure whatever’s on the stove doesn’t burn and that my kid doesn’t liberally salt the entire couch, living room carpet and foyer (which only happened once, but once was enough). Stuff with inside-joke names like Chicken Pile, Pasta Bake, Six-Hour Nachos, That Bean Thing. Nothing fancy or elegant or even anything you’d make if anyone other than your family was coming for dinner.

(Also also, which doesn’t really stop me from writing but does keep me wondering: isn’t this kind of a dumb name for a blog? I mean, really. Who even cares about Mark Twain any more? I don’t even care about Mark Twain any more.)

So here’s what: I’m just going to write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, and it doesn’t matter if you’re reading it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s new either to me or to my family (though The Burger’s young enough that almost everything is still technically new to her) or to you.

Because here’s the thing: pretty much anything is new if you’re making it with an almost-four-year-old helping you. It’s either going to take ten thousand times longer to prepare than you’d anticipated it would, or you’re going to forget (or add) an ingredient that is (or isn’t) supposed to be in the recipe so it’ll taste different than the last time you made it, or you’re going to realize anew how much fun it actually is to make the damn thing. Or, most likely and ideally, all three of the above.

So maybe Smart Cabbage’ll be taking a different tack in the coming weeks/months/years. Maybe it’ll be more narrative driven than instructionally focused, and a better tool for people who want to cook dinner for themselves and their families but don’t have a ton of time, energy or ambition — at least at this point in their lives — to experiment than it will be for the bold culinary adventurer. Maybe you’ll get stories about how The Burger and I made a bunch of theoretically boring junk like applesauce, or mashed potatoes, or meatballs — but see how those old warhorse dishes can be shockingly, incredibly fun when made with a tiny sous chef experiencing them for the first time.

Searching for the Right Words

In Thinking About Food on March 5, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Even when I wasn’t writing during my winter hiatus, I’d check in with the site periodically to see if my blog was still getting much traffic (it was not) and if the search terms leading people to it were still hilarious (they were).

It still amazes me that, aside from the term ‘Smart Cabbage,’ the two queries that most often lead Googlers to my site are: are pork belly and side pork the same thing? (yes), and can I eat a Cuban sandwich if I’m pregnant? (yes, yes, a thousand times yes). I was wildly excited to see that someone searched for ‘def leppard hysteria listeria’ — word of my awesome anti-anti-raw-milk-cheese-paranoia song must’ve spread — and pleased that so many of the ingredients that puzzled me are stumpers for other people, too. The number of hits I get for ways to deal with pork belly, black currants, guanabana, palm sugar and salt roasting are encouraging — could Smart Cabbage actually be helpful? Because that would be rad.

I have to say, some of these search terms would make much, much better blog names than Smart Cabbage, like:

  • Teaching Cabbages to Talk
  • A Girl Who Hates Canning
  • Haters Town
  • How to Make Alien Clothes for Kids
  • A Meat Sliced Like Bacon
  • Tamarillo is Not Tomato
  • I Put Some Chili Powder On My Bum; It Was a Bad Idea

Some queries, as ever, fall into the terrifying/perplexing/bewildering category:

  • scaring pregnant women
  • stew maker Mexico acid
  • eating pregnant smart babies
  • girl funnel up ass with sugar
  • which compound can disintegrate bones: lye or lime

A couple speak eloquently and clearly for themselves:

  • anchovies are gross
  • my husband’s canning my ass

Don’t believe me about the pregnant food confusion thing?

  • pregnant cuban sandwich
  • can I eat a cuban sandwich while pregnant
  • can you eat a cuban sandwich while pregnant
  • can pregnant women eat cuban sandwiches
  • pregnant women cannot eat cuban sandwiches
  • can pregnant women eat deer summer sausage
  • garlic shoots for pregnant women
  • can pregnant women eat tamarillo
  • why are radishes bad when you’re pregnant
  • gruyere and pregnancy and listeria
  • can you eat cold leftovers the next day when pregnant
  • hosting out of town guests while pregnant
  • can pregnant women eat cabbage
  • where do pregnant women put cabbage

Some of these, I have no idea what the searcher was searching for, or how, exactly, they were directed to my site:

  • white jersey taste taste
  • gastronomic pedernales
  • headache from one nostril
  • cartoon kids sitting in diner cakes
  • fed ladybug black currant jam
  • smart and final avocado sauce
  • guanabana shirt
  • spoon stupid prop skin
  • sentence that smarts use nosebleed

Some people have questions I cannot answer:

  • how does butter with weed smell like
  • what is the nutritional value of corn nuts
  • how to cabbage with pork hogs
  • what does the hiatus from Japan eat
  • why is cabbage goopy
  • is canning procrastination
  • where to buy a police grade bullhorn

Here’s hoping 2011 Smart Cabbage is as entertaining for you as it’s always been — in front of and behind the scenes — for me.

Long Time, No See

In Thinking About Food on March 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Or, What I Did On My Winter Hiatus

I made this:

and these:

and a bunch of these:

and this:

(Before anyone asks, no, I didn’t make the crib. I made the sheet. And the third picture’s of burp cloths made from old t-shirts, which came from cleaning out our drawers to make room for baby stuff.)

The Burger (so named because she’d kick like crazy in utero whenever I ate The Husband’s secret-recipe hamburgers) was born in early January, and I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch, nursing and reading food magazines and cookbooks. The single best thing I’ve read about child nutrition came not from a website or a medical journal or a parenting guide, but from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat:

Good eating starts in the cradle. … The moment baby is put to the breast, he or she learns that eating is one of the foremost pleasures of life; seeking that pleasure is also how he or she stays alive and keeps growing. … [An obstetrician] told me that one of the reasons breast milk was better than formula was that its taste changed all the time. Whatever a woman’s been eating informs the flavor of her milk, and so a breast-fed child has a varied diet from the very beginning. That’s to say, the baby learns that unpredictability is in the very nature of food, of life — that change and difference, within a secure context, are not frightening but desirable and to be savored.

Now that The Burger’s almost two months old [cripes!], and I’m finding time to shower and eat lunch and even sometimes cook a little bit, I think it’s time to return to Smart Cabbage and its purpose: to eat, or cook, a new food every week. I imagine the recipes and preparation will be markedly simpler than before — I don’t exactly foresee having the time to make a two-day pork bun, or to spend a whole day making a batch of tamales — but the goal of expanding my (and now my daughter’s) culinary horizons is an important one. I may not get to it every single week, particularly since not working outside of the house has me totally clueless as to the day and date, but hey: getting out of pajamas is a major coup these days, so blogging practically deserves a Medal of Honor.

Since I haven’t been working [hooray for maternity leave! boo for no second income!], we’ve been making a concerted effort to be better with our food dollars: cooking at home every night, packing lunch for The Husband every day, eating leftovers, planning menus and writing detailed grocery lists. The underlying theme to all of this is being organized — I take time to plan, keep the fridge (relatively) clean, find coupons online (I saved $28 at Whole Foods, suckas!). And (perhaps most importantly) I did a thorough inventory of our freezers and our pantry, making a list of contents of each and taping it to the outside so I can see at a glance what I’ve got. The challenge is to find ways to use up all of the ingredients we’ve (okay, I’ve) amassed over the past while. Tons of meat from our amazing meat CSA. Bulk grains and legumes that I’m sure I had a plan for when I bought them, but instead wound up languishing in pretty glass jars in the cupboard.

So what’s on tap in the near future? Fideos! Celeriac! Curry leaves! Ethiopian red pepper simmer sauce! Rack of lamb! Stay tuned!

Winter Hiatus

In Thinking About Food on November 12, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I guess it’s time to admit — formally, and in writing; to myself as well as to my readers — that the truth is: I’m on hiatus.

No secret, really. It’s been five weeks since my last post, so those of you who like to take things (like my tagline, “a new food every week”) literally have  probably figured it out. I’ve been, well, busy: working, commuting on the CTA (what is the deal with the transition between the Red and Purple lines at Howard? I mean, seriously.), teaching cooking classes (four in the next nine days!), writing for Gapers Block, hosting out-of-town guests, and — oh yeah — being eight months pregnant. That kind of stuff takes up time. And being busy makes me fall back on my arsenal of well-rehearsed recipes and familiar ingredients — you know, the non-glamorous, easy-going, comfortable things you’ve made so many times before that you’ve got them on auto-pilot. Not exactly the kind of stuff of which this blog is made.

Really, I’m not sure what’s harder: not being able to do everything, or admitting that I’m not able to do everything. Which I guess is why I haven’t written this, the obvious, sooner.

I’ll still post once in a while, and will still teach classes around the city, but I’m going to back off on the “every week” thing. I’ll post when I’ve got the energy to experiment with a new ingredient and the time to write about it, and eventually, I hope, to get back onto a regular weekly schedule of cooking and writing. But don’t hold your breath. I hear newborns tend to throw wrenches into the works (also, up).


In Thinking About Food on September 30, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Week 29
Ghee: a prelude

Lots of things transpired to make this week a long one. And by “week” I mean “seventeen day-gap between posts.” First, I’ve been working a lot of scattered shifts in long stretches — eight days in a row, nine days in a row. Which I can’t really complain about, because it’s allowed me to take three- and four-day weekends for special occasions and out-of-town visitors, and also because I write the schedule. But the irregularity of the schedule and the action-packed-ness of the days I’m not working have made it difficult to post.

Secondly, in the little free time I do have, I’ve been writing for Gapers Block, a Chicago-centric website about news, events, culture, city life and more. (Database searchable by author coming soon!) Which is a lot of fun, in an unpaid way. But even those short little posts take a lot more time and research than you’d think. So if you want to read more of my stuff more often, check DriveThru, the GB food section, or Merge, the main news page.

But I think the biggest reason I’ve had problems getting this post up is that what I made — an Indian lamb stew — didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped/expected. I read this recipe, thought it looked weird, considered doing things differently, then didn’t. And it turns out I was right — I didn’t like how it turned out, and I should’ve listened to my instincts. My hesitation to post about the less-than-stellar final product, though, doesn’t stem from crippling perfectionism (at least, not this time). It’s more that I’m not exactly sure how to write about what happened. Should I give you the recipe I followed, then tell you what turned out to be flawed about it, then state what I would’ve done differently, and how I think that would’ve made the recipe turn out better? Or should I pretend everything went perfectly and give you a (secretly modified) recipe that I’m pretty sure will be better than the recipe I used? I’m sure this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s enough to make something that should take seven days take seventeen.

Anyway, stay tuned. I’ve resolved to post about this ghee thing, in one form or another, soon. Like, really soon. Thanks for being patient.

C’mon, People: This Poetry Isn’t Going to Appreciate Itself.

In Thinking About Food on August 23, 2010 at 10:15 am

I’m setting my line-up for fall/winter Smart Cabbage cooking classes. Anything you’d like to see? Menu planning? Slow cooker-y? Budget tips? Regional recipes? Specific ingredients? Easy appetizers? Decadent desserts?

Hit me up with comments and suggestions. And remember, I can (and will) do private in-home classes, at my place or yours.

This Search Engine Needs a Tune-Up

In Thinking About Food on August 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm

or, Who is Googling This Stuff?

It’s only been a month since my last post on this subject, but so many side-splitters have been rolling in, I couldn’t hold off any longer.

Searches for “smart cabbage” are still going strong, and as many readers as ever have questions about dealing with pork belly and fatback. Tamarillo and guanabana remain perpetual topics of medical interest; pregnant women are still scared of deli items; no one knows how to make bao; and black currants puzzle everyone.

  • bao making
  • making bao
  • bao buns
  • bao balls
  • parmigiano reggiano and pregnancy and death
  • can you eat cuban sandwiches pregnant
  • why are radishes bad when you’re pregnant
  • garlic shoots for pregnant women
  • garlic scamps
  • frozen guanabana fruit and cancer causes
  • cancer fighting properties of guanabana
  • does the guanabana fruit kill cancer
  • guanabana pulp used on skin for cancer treatment
  • how to eat guanabana
  • guanabana like
  • black currants taste like meat
  • black currants make me feel ill
  • black currants good and bad
  • when to eat tamarillo
  • how to eat tamarillo
  • how to know when to eat tamarillo
  • what does tamarillo taste like
  • is creamed herring raw?
  • is pork belly supposed to smell?
  • canning
  • serious ass canning
  • cabbage shaped erasers
  • scandanavian commuter facts
  • how to steal union terrace chairs
  • fatty boombalatty etymology
  • lye carcass deer

Reflections on Creamed Herring

In Thinking About Food on July 27, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Week 23, part ii
Creamed Herring-Induced Nostalgia

When I told my parents that The Husband and I had recently ordered a Scandanavian-themed appetizer platter that included creamed herring, their reactions were nearly identical. Both shuddered; both curled their lips. My mom, who’s Austrian and German, swallowed hard and put her hand to the base of her throat — the universal symbol for “I almost just threw up in my mouth” — then darkly muttered something about her childhood. My Swedish dad put his hands on his hips and asked two shockingly good questions, the first of which was: “Now why would anyone pay to eat creamed herring?”

The second — and the one that really got me thinking — was this: “How can a Scandanavian seafood platter not include lutefisk?”

Lutefisk, as best as I can tell, is both a serious tradition and a running joke. It’s a dish that you hear a lot about — at least in the Upper Midwest — but don’t actually see all that often. Maybe that’s because it’s dried whitefish that’s been reconstituted in lye.

Yeah, you heard me.

To be fair, the lye gets rinsed out of the whitefish before it’s cooked, but still: it’s lye, people.

Here’s a Swedish lutefisk joke for you: “We had a family of raccoons living under our porch. We put some lutefisk under there and the raccoons went away. But now we’ve got a family of Norwegians living there!”

There were two fiercely Swedish teachers at my high school: Mr. Erikson and Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson, whom everyone just called “Swede,” was probably best known for his reaction when a fellow science teacher hit a deer on the way to school. Upon hearing the news, Swede bolted out of the science office, to return thirty minutes later with the deer attached to the grill of his truck. He strung the carcass up on a tree that was right outside my physics classroom’s window. And later that afternoon, students in his Environmental Awareness class, in a consummate example of experiential education, learned how to skin, gut and butcher a deer.

Mr. Erikson, who taught history, was no less hands-on. He was fond of his garden; even more accurately, he was fond of bringing in vegetables from his garden that looked like past presidents and displaying them in the history hallway. He also liked teaching etymology, especially the etymology of words that were carved into or inked onto desktops. You’d be walking by his empty classroom and see him, hands on hips, shaking his head at a desk. If he saw you, he’d grab your elbow, haul you into the classroom, point to the graffito and say, “Look at this! Look at this! Do you know what this word actually means?” (Usually, you’d choose to treat this question as a rhetorical one and let it slide by unanswered.) He’d haul out a dictionary and look up the word, then point to it with a mixture of indignation and excitement. “Look! Look at this. This word is derived from the German ‘fokken: to breed, especially cattle.’ Do you think this is what the author meant to say? Do you think we have legions of young bovine genetics enthusiasts roaming our halls?”

Aside from their respective venison and linguistic obsessions, Swede and Mr. Erikson also loved Swedish food. Once or twice a year, they’d put together a smorgasbord in the history office, annouced both by its odor and the presence of a Swedish flag hanging in the doorway. It always included lingonberry jam, creamed herring, limpa, lutefisk, and a bumper sticker centerpiece that claimed, “When lutefisk is outlawed, only outlaws will have lutefisk.”

Lutefisk’s presence was enough to drive me far, far from the madding crowd around the banquet table; Garrison Keillor once described it as a “dread delicacy,” and said that “eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.”

Some fun facts about lutefisk:

When properly prepared, its texture should be like jelly.

If left in the lye too long, it’ll turn into what the Finnish call saippuakala, or soap fish.

When serving lutefisk, one should allow at least a pound per person.

Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver.

Left overnight, lutefisk becomes virtually impossible to remove from dishes.

Lutefisk season starts in early November and runs through Christmas.

In the 1980s, the Wisconsin legislature voted to exempt lutefisk from toxic substance disclosure laws.

Though aquavit and beer are traditional accompanying beverages, lutefisk can also be enjoyed with a glass of cold milk.

Looking for help with your lutefisk recipe or smorgasbord? The Olsen Fish Company, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has a Lutefisk Hotline. You can call them at 800-822-0212.


In Thinking About Food on July 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Suggested presentation for deviled eggs, from the “Meals with a Foreign Flair” cookbook, published in 1963. Found in a used bookstore in Lakeview.