Category Archives: The Pantry

In Which I Repeatedly Declare My Love For MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher at her typewriter.

I have what I optimistically (and, I suspect, irritatingly) refer to as an Artistic Temperament (my apologies for sounding like a pretentious ass). Quite frequently I am a jumble of emotions, flitting from one to another. My self medication comes in the form of hot tea, striding walks, good solid food (cold beets work wonders, as do digestive biscuits), and my favorite writers. When it comes to the latter I usually turn to my beloved Virginia Woolf. The passion, the momentum that her writing contains propels me forward, keeps me going. When my nerves are completely rattled and I can not sleep few things beat MFK Fisher. For this Christmas I received The Art of Eating, the gargantuan omnibus that contains five of her books (Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Woolf, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets), a book that I now keep on my bedside.

Fisher’s writing is (Is it tacky to refer to it as a cool, refreshing glass of water? Ah well…) a cool, refreshing glass of water. No, no, I take that back. Let us scrap the water metaphor and instead replace it with tea. Take this: Agatha Christie is a cup of milky tea with sugar, Virginia Woolf is a mug of the blackest of black teas (Russian Caravan*, perhaps?) brewed to its most bitter and powerful best, and MFK Fisher is a cup of Earl Grey (Caffeinated please, I am not a child**.) that clears away the mind’s fog and refreshes the soul.

There is something so honest in her writing. You, or at least I, believe that Fisher is earnest in her statements, earnest in her love for food. Her language is casual without being sloppy, intimate without being gossipy, informed without being pretentious. When you read it you can see Fisher at her desk dashing out a sentence, pausing it to reread it, and passing down her judgement if it is good or bad. If it is the former she carries on but if it is the latter she, with a faint smile on her face, shakes her head and then scratches it out. In this edition of How to Cook a Wolf Fisher returned to her 1942 work almost ten years later (The book was written to provide advice to those dealing with the rationing of WWII and her updates carry this book into the realm of general home economics.)  to update the text with “copious marginal notes and footnotes and a special section of additional recipes” (p. 187). These notes highlight the honesty that I find  in her work. Several of these notes update her information but I would say that the bulk of these notes are her commentaries on her younger self’s writing. She, without any sense of forced good-will, chastises her younger self, argues with herself, rolls her eyes at the ideas she once held. Take these snippets:

Let the whole thing rest for a few hours… a day is better [… not better, best] (p. 266)

It is usually expensive, in a mild way. [How can extravagance be mild? And what is mild about a minimal $1.25 bird? But I still say it is worth it, now and then.] (p. 277)

Besides being honest Fisher’s writing is also refreshing. She is direct and does not mess around with unnecessary embellishments, but this directness does not mean that her writing is bland. No, nothing could be farther from the truth. Let us return to the Fisher-Earl Grey tea comparison. Earl Grey does not have the medley of exotic flavors of its sister Lady Grey. Instead of coming across as flat or dull Earl Grey is a complex tea that refreshes and delights. Her directness allows her messages to come across clearly.

I am also completely in love with the stories that Fisher tells. Fisher uses one of the most memory laden aspects of our culture (food, of course) to wander about in her past. Yes, several writers attempt this and end up sounding like the most boring people in the world and you just want to shoot them; however, Fisher has three things going for her:

  1. Her writing (see above) would make even the most boring story fascinating.
  2. She stays on topic. I feel like one of the biggest mistakes that food writers make when combining food and memories is to completely forget about the food aspect. They write a paragraph about turkey, relate the way turkeys look to the way that their father’s face looked, write six pages about their father, write a paragraph about turkey, call it done. Fisher never forgets the food. She doesn’t use food as an excuse to write about her life but rather writes about her life experiences with food.
  3. Her life was fucking fascinating. Private schools, the early 1900s, trips across the Atlantic ocean, unwise marriages, Switzerland, and more.
Even when Fisher is offering suggestions for the cook facing rationing she weaves in the most brilliant stories. Who else has lived a life that enables them to write :
I have eaten a great many pigeons here and there, and I know that the best one was one I cooked in a cheap Dutch oven on a one-burner gas-plate in a miserable lodging. (p. 278)
Her life has stories of wolves at doors, generous bank accounts, and everything in between.

—–

*I would like to refer you to something I once had an older British woman say to me when she described Russian Caravan: “It’s a beefy tea. English Breakfast Tea with hairy legs we like to call it.”

**This is no disrepect towards those who drink decaffeinated teas. I personally associate the stuff with being a child and being forbidden caffeinated teas. To this day I insist that I can tell a difference between what I call “proper Earl Grey” and “that flavored water”.

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For the Vegetarian On the Go

A frozen, boxed Tofurky roast

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Between not finishing my novels, being a lawyer on a Star Trek simulation, not doing homework and kvetching about the treatment Helen Thomas received (yes, I am still angry about it and no, I will not let it go) I don’t always have time to cook up carrot ginger soup or some other wonderful vegetarian meal so I like to turn to some quick and easy and still delicious vegetarian pre-cooked meals. Here are some of my favorite:

  • Tofurky Vegan Loaf: A lovely tofurky loaf stuffed with fantastic stuffing and with its own mushroom gravy this is the complete package for a not just vegetarian but also vegan dinner. From Pangea Vegan Products.
  • Annie’s Certified Organic All Stars: Delicious stars of David in red sauce, Annie’s has once again produced a delicious lunch product.
  • Annie’s P’sghetti Loops with Soy Meatballs: If you’ve got a slightly bigger appetite then just the “All Stars” I’d recommend these. The soy “meat”balls are really delicious and even my anti-soy friends are big fans of these.
  • Quorn Chik’n Nuggets: I’ve written about these before and my loving words still stand today. A lunch standard for the past few years (I think that I’ve eaten at least one box every school week for the past year and a half) this is one of my favorite microwavable foods ever. I love Quorn!
  • Amy’s Vegetable Pot Pie: Sometimes it’s nice to be able to unwrap a block of ice, toss it into a preheated oven (we’re living in the 1940s and still don’t have a microwave) and pull out a piping hot, delicious vegetarian pot pie. Amy’s is a bit pricey (as most delicious things are) but well worth it.
  • Amy’s Rice Mac & Cheese: When I’m feeling classy but not too classy there’s nothing I like better then orange cheese on macaroni noodles. And once again Amy’s satisfies. Yum.

And of course, if you’re feeling a bit ambitious but still crunched for time make some English muffin pizzas and put some sliced tofurky on it (I’d recommend putting it between the sauce and cheese to stop it from crisping). Tasty, low maintenance and you’re still getting your protein.

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Thar She (the Gnocci) Blows!

boiling water

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I’m hunting. Whaling actually. And it’s thrilling. I have my harpoon in my hand as I stare down into the clouded ocean, trying to spot that one last whale. The knife of hunger is giving my senses a keen edge and… and there she is. The white whale! She surfaces but my attacks force her back into the opaque waves. Another stab and I’ve hooked her. Fat. White. Glistening. Delicious.

On my cracked wooden spoon rests that final pearl of gnocci. Beneath it the boiling water, cloudy from the starches, begins to come to rest and I realize how hungry I truly was. Hungry Lady Jane is Dramatic Lady Jane.

And so with a resolve to go back and finish Moby Dick I drain the gnocci and drop it into the empty bowl. A few final stirs of the boiling sauce (from a jar but still delicious) before it’s dumped from the orange pot and my main course is complete. It’s gorgeous, the white of the gnocci peaking through the earthy red sauce (I’m suddenly reminded of the tiles in my grandparents’ old house) surrounded by the porcelain with blue bowl. Next to it on an old tiny plate rest two slices of super-quick improv garlic bread.

Sometimes you need to cook a meal for one to be reminded why you fell in love with cooking in the first place.

Super-quick Improv Garlic Bread

You’ve probably made this yourself but just in case you haven’t here it is. Give it a try when you want something garlicy, bready and easy.

Preheat your oven to around 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Take a clove of garlic (this is assuming you’re making two slices of bread and have a strong enjoyment of garlic) and cut it in half. Now dice it up and set it aside. Toast two slices of bread (I used a very thick version of a baguette) before lathering butter on them. Take half of the diced garlic and push the pieces into the butter and then repeat with the other. Place the two pieces of bread (butter side up!) on a tray and then put it in the oven for just a few minutes (maybe two or three). Take out when the butter has melted in and the bread it really crusty on the outside. Eat it.

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I’m High!

A Bronze tom

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Well I’m just as high as Lenin right now. (I meant to write John Lennon but with my brain in revolutionary Russia Lenin just flowed out and I’m keeping it.)

No, not marijuana, cocaine, or heroin but turkey. Specifically turkey soup. More specifically turkey noodle and rice soup.

In her fantastic cook book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, Judith Jones writes about the next lives a meal takes on from the left overs. My parents and I are big believers in this and this turkey soup is the third life of a multi-pound turkey. It started as a roast turkey served for our thirty guests gathered for my birthday five days ago. The next few days it was sandwiches consumed by me (wheat bread, turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing) and then yesterday I spent the day inhaling the scent of the turkey carcass boiling in the large black pot. Today my father used the remaining turkey meat and this fresh broth to make a fantastic soup that I’ve had for two meals today.

A homemade turkey broth, slivers of turkey, rice and egg noodles. Perfect.

The dinner served up by my father tonight was simple, hearty and utterly satisfying. Besides a massive bowl of this lovely soup there were slices of a soft long bread with sesame seeds along the crust. And butter, so much butter. One of the greatest joys in my life comes from slathering salted butter onto a thick slice of bread and soaking it in the broth. Then I pop it into my mouth and lick the juices off my fingers.

And now I have a mug of Earl Grey tea, Selected Shorts (with Leonard Nimoy currently reading) on the radio and Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classics coming up.

I’m just high.

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Coincidence?

Has anyone else noticed that Jane and Michael Stern have the same names as Jane and Michael Banks? Coincidence?

Yeah, probably.

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Me: 0 Sugar: 1

Yesterday morning I posted a nice little piece about me and sugar. Specifically how I wanted to begin cutting back on sugar.

Well… yeah…

Yesterday I was doing really well. Sure, I had two pieces of gingerbread (the first one was during my midnight hunger pangs and the second to give  me a boost so I could figure out what I was going to have for lunch). And to be honest I felt like that was good. I could have held off on the second piece until after my yogurt lunch but still, I’ve done worse.

But then came Starbucks. We don’t have a Starbucks within, oh, 1 hr and 30 minutes but we do have those little glass bottles of Starbucks drinks in the general store. I picked up a Starbucks Mocha thingy and after two sips I felt like throwing up. Being the frugal New Englander that I am I kept drinking it but finally admitted defeat and put it aside. The rest of the afternoon was one long period of depressive funk with a massive sugar crash.

Then I had dessert. When my father asked me if I wanted ice cream I said (quite proud in myself), “Nope!” And I could say this confidently because I had a lovely plan. I had purchased a 3 Musketeers bar (my first in at least a year) earlier that day and was going to have myself a little treat.

The instant I took my first bite I knew I’d messed up. See my body started screaming “TOO MUCH SUGAR! TOO MUCH SUGAR! AWOOGA! RED ALERT! ALL HANDS TO BATTLE STATIONS! PREPARE TO FEEL SICK!” But again my frugal instincts kicked in and I ate the whole thing (with the aid of a cup of milk.)

Now today I need to look in the mirror and say: You better watch out, son, because if you eat any sugar today I’m going to smack you.

And trust me, I will.

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Me and Sugars

Raw (unrefined, unbleached) sugar, bought at t...

This counts as a first course for me. --Image via Wikipedia

I have low blood sugar. Alright, I’ve never been technically diagnosed with Hypoglycemia but thanks to my mother, biological grandmother and legal grandmother I need to eat hourly or I start getting shakes, headaches, cramps, coldness and really really bitchy.

Recently my therapist and I have been discussing the idea that perhaps my depression isn’t some chronic biological hormonal imbalance thingy but is linked to my food and sleep patterns (mixed in with my artistic temperament, translation: Emotional whacko) . Huh. Well, seeing as how I re-doing my sleep schedule would involve me turning off the internet before ten and closing my book before eleven I decided to think about my whole relationship with food.

To be honest I didn’t have any profound insights other than: Lady Jane, your eating habits are fucked up.

I always knew that I wasn’t the healthiest eater but my body seems to burn fuel faster than Keith Richards going through a pound of coke so sugary, junk food stuff never seemed to be a problem for me. But what I came to realize is that what I was eating only contributed to my extreme food related mood swings.

Let’s start at the morning (assuming this is a day where I am home from school). After not eating for ten hours or so (also a period known as post-diner and sleep) I’m starved in the morning. But when I’m starved I can’t make a single decision and so it ends up with me storming around the kitchen screaming about how there is nothing for breakfast. If I end up eating something it is usually Cheerios with at least (and this is me being literal) six tablespoons of sugar. The sugar high keeps me going for a few hours but by noon I’ve crashed and being to stamp around the kitchen screaming about how we have nothing for lunch. If there are cookies, donuts or similar baked goods I eat those until I feel sick and then go have a stomach ache. By 1.30 I’m craving food. This is the part where I eat a few spoonfuls of sugar to keep me going until my 3.30-4.00 meal. This meal is the point where I eat crackers or chocolate chips (lately Baker’s Chocolate if I’m really jonesing) or a few more spoonfuls of sugar. Dinner, if I’m eating alone which I do about once or twice a week, is something heated from a can or Ramen. Then I crash and crawl into bed after two hours on the computer.

(I left that as one long paragraph to give you sense of how I feel at the end of the day.)

Something’s got to give and it’s got to be sugar.

The truth is that I use granulated sugar as a homemade insulin but unfortunately it only makes things worse. When I feel myself crashing I pump some of that lovely white powder into my stomach which only serves to delay my unavoidable crash and then makes said unavoidable crash all the much worse when it finally occurs. And the more times I delay it with sugar helpings I only crash that many times harder.

So my New Year’s resolution? Begin cutting back on the sugars. Something that I recently was telling myself was going to be no problem because I had a magic bullet. Citrus. More precisely: grapefruits and clementines. I was telling this to my friend today (who is also cutting back on sugars for the new year) when she crushed my magic bullet. According to the Baroness citruses tend to be full of sugars. (That could explain why I was finding them such a useful substitute.)

Well I guess I have to regroup and get a new plan of action.

New Plan of Action: Moderation! I need to be mindful of my intake. No more handfuls of chocolate chips (though one or two chips are allowed.) No more sugary Cheerios (I’m cutting myself off here, it’s one of my addictions and needs to be killed cold turkey.) And for heaven’s sake, THE SUGAR BOWL IS NOT A SERVING DISH. I need to surround myself with whole grains (home made bread anyone?) and if I really need something sugar then I’d better bake up something yummy and make myself earn it.

Now let’s see how long this lasts…

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