Taste Makers coverTaste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America
Mayukh Sen
W. W. Norton & Company (November 16, 2021), 283 pages
Kindle edition $9.32, Amazon hardcover $18.99

In a food culture that in the past has tended to focus on men and on American women, Mayukh Sen highlights the culinary work of seven immigrant women.

Sen’s subjects are diverse. Chao Yang Buwei introduced many Americans to Chinese cooking. Although she never mastered English her husband helped her to produce cookbooks that were popular in the fifties. Elena Zelayeta overcame blindness as an adult to teach Americans about Mexican cooking. Madeleine Kamman taught French cooking and was jealous of Julia Child’s success. She became so irksome that Child automatically forwarded any correspondence from her to her attorneys. Marcella Hazan published Italian cookbooks in the sixties, again with the English-language assistance of her husband. Julie Sahni started out as a dancer, but soon turned to food. She published Classic Indian Cooking in 1980. Najmieh Batmanglij typed out Iranian recipes on an Apple IIe (I once owned one of those) and eventually self-published Food for Life as American publishers in the eighties didn’t want to be associated with an Iranian. Norma Shirley prepared Jamaican food for wealthy Americans in New York, but eventually returned to Jamacia where she opened restaurants for the locals.

Sen has one chapter on a famous American-born chef: Julia Child. He believed that her influence in cooking in the United States was so great that she deserved her own interlude (as Sen calls it) chapter. Indeed, Sahni studied Child’s work and Kamman considered her a usurper: an American who dared teach Americans about French cooking.

The women Sen profiles were not the first to publish cookbooks on their respective cuisines. Most of them had predecessors. Madhur Jaffrey, for example, was known for her Indian cookbooks before Sahni. Sen also does not hesitate to criticize the “food establishment” who in his mind made success for these women more difficult than it might otherwise have been. He gives credit where credit is due however, particularly to Craig Claiborne, who was consistently open to new voices, and who was happy to pay attention to newcomers in the cooking world, even those who were not male and not American.

If you consider yourself a foodie (as I do myself) Taste Makers may introduce you to some chefs whom you may not have previously encountered. It did that for me.

an expensive product fail

Terry and I wanted to do something memorable for Christmas dinner, since Terry’s sister Julie and Julie’s adopted mother-in-law, Laura, would be joining us. Terry ordered prime rib from a specialty meat shop in a town about half an hour to the southwest. It was pricey. At about six pounds, it cost over a hundred dollars, but we thought it would be worth it.

prime ribI seasoned it with Jeff Mauro’s marvelous Dino Rib Rub and we put it in the oven using the roast setting. We said grace, sat down to eat, and… It was tough. Tough! I said nothing until Terry and I were cleaning up and I whispered my thoughts. Terry agreed. Julie and Laura were polite and gracious, not saying anything. Julie even took some of the prime rib home with her. We still had plenty left over, which Terry sealed up with our FoodSaver and put in the freezer.

We’ll use the leftovers for beef stew, tacos, and such. But prime rib for stew and tacos? Prime rib for which we paid three figures? Really?

There’s something very wrong here.

a new FoodSaver

I have written here many times about our FoodSaver, which we use to vacuum seal leftovers to store in the freezer. The earliest blog entry that I can find dates to September 2011, and that was just a mention in passing. I have had it longer than that. The user guide has a copyright date of 2008, so if I bought it in 2009, which is entirely possible, that is twelve years. That’s a long life for an electronic appliance, and the FoodSaver has a lot of electronics.

I have kept it going by buying replacement parts such as the bag detection tray and the gaskets. I sourced wherever I could, including Jarden, the company that makes the FoodSaver, Amazon, and eBay. But this year the replacement parts simply weren’t there. And in recent weeks my FoodSaver became more recalcitrant and unwilling to seal up bags. At the height of its efficiency you had to hold your mouth just right as you slipped the open end of the bag into the narrow slot, coaxing the FoodSaver to seal the bag. However, it then reached the point of being downright obstinate, and Terry would hear cursing and swearing coming from the kitchen.

Time for a new FoodSaver.

FoodSaverI did some research on Amazon and settled on the FoodSaver model FM2100-000. So far I’m happy. It is a more compact design, and when you seal the bottom of the bag (when making a bag from a roll of plastic) it wastes less space beneath the seal than did my previous FoodSaver. It has a lid that opens so there’s no more coaxing the top of the bag into that thin slit. It’s easy to put the top of the bag in the proper spot and close the lid.

The first couple of times we tried to seal something our new FoodSaver did not cooperate. It didn’t create a vacuum and it didn’t seal. So we went back and read the instructions more carefully. Reading the instructions is always a good idea. It turns out that you need to put the open end of the bag inside the drip tray. This was a new concept for me, as on my old model the only function of the drip tray was to catch overflow liquids that the FoodSaver vacuumed out before sealing the bag. Once we made that correction it worked beautifully.

Sealing up leftovers in the FoodSaver is an essential part of our cooking routine, and we would be lost without it. I’m delighted to have a new one that is much easier to use, and I hope it lasts another twelve years. However long it lasts there will be a lot less cursing and swearing coming out of the kitchen.

cooking with plant-based meat substitutes

It’s been a while since I have written about plant-based meat substitutes, but Terry and I still use them regularly.

Cookout Classic packageThe one product we particularly like is the Beyond Meat Cookout Classic burger. I often fix them when I have just made a fresh loaf of bread. The Cookout Classics are frozen and come ten to a box, so it’s easy to pull them out of the freezer when we want that for dinner. Terry says she prefers them to beef burgers now. Unfortunately, that product seems to be currently unavailable. So the last time we had burgers I bought the standard two-pack Beyond Burger. The standard burger was good, but it is slightly larger than the Cookout version, and we both prefer the smaller size.

Beyond Meat Burger packageI also regularly use the Beyond Beef Ground product in chili. The dish comes out just as good as when using beef.

Given the fragile condition of our planet, and the huge carbon footprint that the consumption of beef creates I’m all for greater use of plant-based meat substitutes.

our full freezer

freezer contentsIt’s been quite a while since I’ve written about cooking here, but Terry and I continue to cook dinner at home several nights a week. We watch our favorite cooking shows on television and we subscribe to three cooking magazines: Food & Wine, Food Network Magazine, and Bon Appétit.

The problem we face is that it’s hard to cook for just two people. Or maybe it’s easy to cook for two and I just don’t know how. In either case we have lots of leftovers and quantities of meat that we bought but didn’t use in the original dish. Both get vacuum sealed using our trusty FoodSaver and put in the freezer.

freezer listLast week we were having new counters installed in the master bathroom and the installer’s truck and trailer were blocking our driveway. So instead of going to the grocery store I ordered delivery from Instacart. For Saturday dinner we had planned a surf and turf evening. That means halibut for me and steak for Terry. I asked Terry what she wanted, and she selected a London Broil.

It turned out that the London Broil was more than two-and-a-half pounds, a lot heavier than Terry expected. She cut it up into five pieces, one for Saturday and four for the freezer. Now the freezer was already full, and I needed to do some serious rearranging. Besides leftovers and cuts of meat our freezer contains frozen lunches, frozen fruit for breakfast, vegetables, and ice cubes made from water out of our reverse osmosis filter (which gives us beautiful, clear cubes in which we can see the crystals).

I took the opportunity to do an inventory of what we had in the way of leftovers and saved cuts of meat. You can see that we have built up quite a stash. We obviously need to go through our inventory for a while and make use of those ingredients and leftovers rather than buying new ingredients and cooking from scratch.

A few years ago we bought a new refrigerator with a larger capacity than our previous refrigerator. I guess it’s a good thing that we did.

our new grilling utensil

Terry and I both enjoy The Kitchen on Food Network and watch it regularly. During the pandemic the hosts initially shot their segments from home, but they eventually returned to the studio. When they did so they maintained social distancing, and Sunny Anderson regularly took up duty outside on the patio. (Apparently Sunny likes it outside. When the hosts were doing the show from home we saw in inside of everyone’s house except for Sunny’s. She was always outside preparing dishes that could be cooked on a grill.)

seafood grill basketOne week (back in the studio) Sunny was preparing a shrimp dish on the grill. She wanted a way to make sure she didn’t lose any shrimp when she turned them over. So she put the shrimp between two wire racks which she secured with thin wire off a roll from the hardware store. That struck me as rather kludgy and Terry asked why she didn’t just use a grill basket. And what was odd was that we never did see her turn the contraption over on camera, even after all the trouble she took to put the thing together. I suspect that an attempt to flip the homemade basket may have gone awry and been cut from the broadcast version.

That got me thinking, however, that we ought to have a basket for grilling seafood. I found exactly what we were looking for on Amazon. Our plan for its first use to be with shrimp didn’t work out, but I tried it out on the grill with some cod and it worked great. I learned that the inside needs to be sprayed with some non-stick spray or the safflower oil we keep in a spray bottle, but I consider the first use a success.

Terry then used the basket for shrimp. I have to say I’m a bit disappointed with the quality of manufacturing in the basket. After simply putting it in the drawer and storing it between uses, Terry had problems moving the bracket into place to lock the basket closed. I gave the top portion a twist to the right to enable the bracket to slip into place. That was annoying.

Still. it’s a useful addition to our set of grilling tools.

Cook, Eat, Repeat

Cook, Eat, Repeat coverCook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories
Nigella Lawson
Read by the author
HarperAudio, April 20, 2021
$26.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I have long been familiar with Nigella Lawson. Her cooking shows from the BBC have been rebroadcast on American television for many years. Although there is no disputing her culinary skills, her credibility with me has been less than a hundred percent. One time she said that corn and flour tortillas were interchangeable. Um, really Nigella? No.

Then there was the time she introduced an episode on entertaining after a long day at work from the back seat of a town car. Yes, entertaining after work is much less stressful if your commute is via a chauffeured town car. Few of us had that luxury when we were commuting.

Nonetheless, I enjoy watching her various cooking series when they’re available, and so I paid attention when The New York Times Book Review New and Noteworthy column listed her new book. The writer specifically mentioned how enjoyable the audiobook version was, so I decided to make Cook, Eat, Repeat my next monthly Audible selection.

It was indeed a pleasure to listen to Nigella enthuse about food with her pleasing British accent. Unlike a traditional cookbook, she has an introductory section before each recipe in which she extolls the virtues of the dish and sometimes comments on how easy or difficult the recipe is. In the actual instructions, she elaborates on the process, rather than giving the pared-down steps. She will use phrases like, “as best you can,” or “if you like,” or “I must insist that you not substitute here.”

Many of the dishes are things I would never consider. She includes beef cheeks, oxtail, and rhubarb, none of which I would ever think of cooking. On the other hand, some of her chicken recipes look quite appealing, and she offers several desserts for the holidays.

While Nigella gives all the measurements in metric form in the audio, they are converted to cups and ounces in the accompanying PDF. (Oddly, she says things like “I use an American half cup measure for this.” Odd because cups and ounces are formally referred to as the English measurement system.)

As enjoyable as Cook, Eat, Repeat was to listen to, however, I wouldn’t recommend it as a definitive, must-have cookbook.

a nutty situation

I have been very fond of our kitchen since we had a new sink and countertops installed last November. It’s a really nice place to cook and bake. It’s unsettling then when something isn’t working right.

That was the case recently when the garbage disposal started making a grating metal-on-metal clanging sound like a fork or spoon had fallen into it. But there was no fork or spoon down there. I put my hand down there several times hoping I could locate what was causing the problem, but I came up with nothing. (In retrospect I should have shown a flashlight down there, but I didn’t.)

nutOne evening Terry said that I really needed to call our contractor about that, as it had only been seven months since the new garbage disposal had been installed as part of our upgrade. In fact, I had been debating whether to call him and ask about the length of any warranty, or to simply call our regular plumber. However, just a few minutes later I turned on the disposal and it tossed up a tiny nut. The metal kind that screws on to a bolt, not the kind you eat. How it got down there I have no idea.

So our garbage disposal is now working fine again, for which I am grateful.

upgrading our food containers

Food Storage 1Terry and I have long made use of plastic food containers. We put leftovers in the fridge or put them in the freezer so I can later seal them up in plastic with our FoodSaver vacuum sealer appliance. When we had our china cabinet built and installed six years ago, shortly after moving here, we allocated one of the lower drawers for our plastic containers. Our container collection has been growing ever since. We had a set of plastic containers that we bought at Costco ages ago. We’ve also been collecting takeout containers from our local restaurants since well before the start of the pandemic. So our plastic food container drawer became unruly and overgrown. We decided it was time to do something about it.

Food Storage 2Recently Terry and I were watching Pioneer Woman (as we do each week), and Ree was packing up food in containers that looked sleek and practical. Terry commented on them, saying how much she liked the appearance. I agreed with her.

I went online thinking they must be part of Pioneer Woman’s merchandising empire at Walmart. But there was nothing like that there (which was fine from my perspective, since I hate Walmart). I then went to my go-to source, Amazon (of course) and quickly found containers that exactly matched the ones we saw Ree using. I ordered a seven-piece set (the listing said fourteen-piece, but they were counting the lids). When they arrived Terry was delighted and I very much liked what I saw. However, there were only two of the medium-sized Food Storage 3container, the 3.2 cup size. I knew that wouldn’t be enough. We give that size container a lot of use. Not only do we use them frequently for leftovers, but when Terry fixes her make-ahead three-bean salad for her lunches she uses three containers that size. I went back to Amazon and discovered that they had a five pack of the 3.2 cup containers. Exactly what we needed. I ordered the set.

We now have a very neat and well-organized food container drawer with plenty of containers for our leftovers (and for Terry’s three-bean salad) that are freezer, dishwasher, and microwave safe.

I like that.

Butter Chicken

I love Indian food, as you may know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. Sadly, my options are limited these days. Our local Indian restaurant here in Hemet was short-lived, though Terry and I did all we could to support it. We could drive thirty minutes south to Temecula and go to an Indian restaurant there called Mantra, but their primary business is buffet, and such service is, as you well know, not currently allowed in California. (Besides, neither Terry nor I are comfortable with restaurant dining right now.) And then, to add insult to injury, some time back my favorite brand of frozen Indian lunches, Tandoor Oven, disappeared from the freezer cases of the two stores here that carried it.

So what’s left? Right. Fix it yourself.

Butter ChickenI have a lot of Indian dishes in my recipe database, and multiple versions of some, such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken (two recipes that are hard to distinguish from each other). Last week I decided I had gone too long without Indian food and planned Butter Chicken for Friday. I chose a version that recently appeared in Food Network Magazine.

I didn’t follow the recipe exactly; I rarely do. The recipe called for sautéing an onion while adding some of the spices, but I can’t do that as Terry is allergic to onions. The recipe called for tomato, so I blanched and peeled a fresh one. I threw the tomato into our Dutch oven along with tomato paste (in the recipe), and a small can of tomato sauce (not in the recipe). I then added all the specified spices.

I had previously browned the chicken with the indicated spices. I cooked the tomato mixture down, threw it in the Vitamix, and put it back in the Dutch oven. I put the chicken back in and let it simmer for a while. At the last minute I added heavy cream and butter.

Meanwhile, I had been cooking a cup of Basmati rice on another burner.

The result? I was happy. Terry was pleased. If you can’t go out for Indian food you can certainly make it at home. It is a lot of work, but the finished product is well worth it.