Category Archives: Recommended

Book Review — Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Roach-GulpMy relationship with food has always ended at the point when I swallow, but I never knew that. I discovered this blind spot when I read Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (NY: Norton, 2013). Even though it’s not exactly the paean to taste buds and olfaction that I had imagined when I first picked it up, I still think it’s a great book to include in the pages of Cozy Foodie. I figure we can all benefit from being a little better acquainted with our guts. As Roach points out,

Most of us pass our lives never once laying eyes on our own organs, the most precious and amazing things we own.

She’s talking about literally seeing her ileocecal valve and appendix—a pleasure that I will undoubtedly be introduced to within the next handful of years, but that’s another story—but I think we can also take Roach figuratively. Anyway, the alimentary canals in Mary Roach’s book have vastly more remarkable lives than my own; Gulp unquestionably opened my ileocecal valve to possibilities I had never before imagined.

Seriously, Roach’s writing style is so accessible, witty, and vivid that I would’ve gulped down this book (hehe) regardless of the topic. Maybe I’m easy, because reading lines like, “This leaves milk, say, or chewed peas in peril of being horked out the nostrils,” put me in line for some up-close-and-personal horking. (Yep, I’m 7 years old.) Roach has a great time doing the research for the book, and she has a great time sharing her discoveries with her readers: alongside some pretty interesting biology and cultural commentary, she presents her encounters with keenly observed, humanizing sketches that show off the personalities of the experts she meets. And she turns the magnifying lens on herself, too, such as when she tries out to be an olive oil sensory panelist: trying to taste the bitterness in olive oil, she notes,

I’m doing a mnyeh-mnyeh-mnyeh Bugs Bunny thing with my tongue, but it’s not helping.

There’s a lot in this book that comfortably appeals to a Cozy Foodie, like Roach’s foray into the world of a sensory analyst (“Go left at the smell of simmering hotdogs”), and learning what flavors appeal to our cats and dogs (“Cats, unlike dogs and other omnivores, can’t taste sweetness”). Who knew that most people usually eat no more than about thirty foods, and that they run through them all in four days? It was no surprise to me that there’s a deep, learned cultural basis for what we think is delicious or not—I’ll be the first to admit that some Chinese foods can be… unusual. Fermented bean curd, anyone? But I got a better insight into what this means reading about scientific studies done on babies’ food preferences (55% of children around 2 years old will taste “artfully coiled peanut butter scented with Limburger cheese and presented as ‘dog-doo’ ”!), and about how seemingly unbalanced diets, such as traditional Inuit meat-centric foods, actually are nutritionally well balanced. Then there are head-scratchers like: can someone survive being swallowed alive, à la Jonah and the whale? Sharing the latest tidbit about cross-cultural views on saliva or the science behind Beano may earn you a raised eyebrow if you do it over your bowl of chili con carne, but Roach makes it almost irresistible to want to share.

Admittedly, the eeuw factor in Gulp kept me reading, too. Readers with a fascination for the disgusting will get a gross anatomy lesson unlike anything they ever learned in high school: explosive or noxious flatus and inflammable eructation, autointoxication, internal putrescence, nutrient enemas, autocoprophagia, and megacolons, among other zesty topics, but the hork-worthy and the high-minded are plated up together to create an educational and entertaining whole. Take, for example, Roach on the psychology of biting into crunchy food: is it a “destructive process” that we receive pleasure from, a way to “de-stress,” as an oral processing expert hypothesized (just like the de-stressing done by the main character in Assassin’s Creed, Roach helpfully adds), or does it appeal to us because it is a shorthand signal for freshness, as a food physicist told Roach?

Obviously, for Roach, flavor, texture, and bouquet are only the tip of the iceberg lettuce. I should have guessed when she wrote:

Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered, via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self kneading sack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where it is converted into the most powerful taboo in human history. Lunch is an opening act.

So have a gander at the black box that is your alimentary canal. De-stress your way through some carrot sticks, then learn and laugh about what happens after their opening act. You’ll never think about bolus the same way again!


Update: 2014 New Year’s Resolutions

I hope the DH is flexing his fingers, because I’ve just crossed the finish line of my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions challenge. You know what that means, don’t you? He’s going to be treating me to a massage.… there’s that tight spot right behind my shoulder blades…. Aaaah!

But I’m sure that you’re more interested in how the Crazy Foodie Whole Grains and Tofu Challenge turned out, right? My goal was to serve whole grains and tofu at least once a week for six weeks. Here’s the week-by-week break down (recipe sources for new recipes are at the bottom):

Week 1

  • Pepperoni pizza and Hawaiian pizza on 100% white whole wheat crust.
  • Short grain brown rice (with black bean, sausage, and sweet potato soup).
  • Oops! What happened? I forgot to make something with tofu!

Week 2

  • Short grain brown rice bowl with oven-baked miso glazed tofu, red peppers and kimchi (Shulman) New! Too much like red rice with miso-roasted squash, leeks, red pepper, and tofu (also from Shulman), so it was good, but we preferred the other recipe.
  • Buttermilk rye bread (King Arthur) New! Pastrami on rye was ubiquitous in New York City delis and diners when I was growing up — I’m sure they still are — but I couldn’t pass up the hot open-faced turkey sandwiches (on white bread, of course) smothered in gravy, so I never got acquainted with rye. What a revelation! We loved the heady flavor and sturdy texture of this quick bread.

Week 3

  • Stir-fried rainbow peppers, eggplant, and tofu (Shulman) New! (with short grain brown rice) Loved the interplay of textures and flavors: roasted eggplant melting in your mouth, crunchy peppers, and meaty tofu. Beautiful colors, and the earthy aroma of hoisin sauce! Adjusted the proportions of the ingredients from the printed recipe to suit my family’s taste.
  • Short grain brown rice (with beef curry).

Week 4

  • Pine nut-parmesan biscuits (King Arthur) New! Everyone really loved these flaky biscuits except me. I thought they were a little too salty, and the flavor of the pine nuts might be brought out more by toasting them first. With a little adjusting, this recipe has potential.
  • Tofu in creamy nut butter sauce with scallions served with roasted brown rice with gomasio (Kaufmann) New! Roasting short grain brown rice lightened up its texture and punched up the nutty aromas of the rice. I could eat gomasio — a traditional Japanese condiment made of toasted sesame seeds and salt ground to a coarse powder — sprinkled on top of rice every day for the rest of my life!

Week 5

  • Brown basmati rice with onions, peas, and corn.
  • Seared tofu salad (inspired by “Grilled Tofu Salad,” in Hugo Arnold’s The Wagamama Cookbook) New! I used the printed recipe as a springboard, because the bean sprouts that the original recipe called for wouldn’t keep long enough, and also, I forgot to get some other key ingredients… doh! But we all loved the results, so check out the recipe here.

Week 6

  • Long grain brown rice (with red beans and rice).
  • Soba noodles with tofu (which counts for both tofu and whole grains, since soba noodles are made with buckwheat) (Shulman)

Final grade? A-. How embarrassing! I didn’t even realize that I missed the first week’s tofu dinner until I went back over my dinner journal. Still, it’s a decent track record, and a good mix of new recipes and picks from the recipe box.

I’ll raise the bar for my next challenge: can I keep both my resolutions for another 9 weeks? Remember that the recipe for the seared tofu salad in week 5 is here. Drop me a line if you’d like to hear about any of the other recipes that I mentioned!


I gave a short review of these sources (except for Hugo Arnold’s book) in my post, 2014 New Year’s Resolutions.

  • Hugo Arnold, The Wagamama Cookbook (Kyle Books, 2004).
  • Julie Kaufmann and Beth Hensperger, The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2002).
  • King Arthur Flour, Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains (Countryman Press, 2006).
  • Martha Rose Shulman, “Recipes for Health,” in The New York Times.



2014 New Year’s Resolutions

We’re in that time of year when resolutions abound. The funny thing is that nobody I’ve talked to personally admits to having any resolutions of their own, but nonetheless, resolutions are floating around out there, like a virus or a deep-seated anxiety. Maybe I was careless about breathing in too deeply as I chatted with my friend over tea? Or when I was washing my hands at the movie theater and eavesdropping on the gossiping and texting teens? Or when I made eye contact with the man behind me at the grocery store? But I caught the New Year’s Resolution bug: the first is to pick up writing again, and the second is to incorporate more whole grains and tofu into my cooking.

Of course, it’s really no bad thing, this aspiration for self improvement, but I know how hard it is to keep up the momentum and create a permanent “new normal.” A handful of general “rules” helps, and I wrote about them in my first posts from 2013. I am applying this process to my own resolutions.

In terms of starting to write again, as you may have noticed, I’ve been on a hiatus from blogging since September. The reasons don’t really matter, the important thing is that I want to start again. My goal is to write 4 times a week for 30 minutes a day. I need to change my habit of doing everything else before I write, so before I check email, or call my mom, or clean the kitchen, I will write. Keeping track of my progress on a spreadsheet will help me visualize my success or need for improvement. If I can meet my weekly writing goal for 6 weeks, then my reward will be a massage (thank you, DH)!


Whole grains and tofu aren’t new in my kitchen, but in 2014, I want to include them regularly in my weekly menus. My goal is to serve tofu and whole grains for dinner, not necessarily at the same time, once a week. At the very least, I want to have brown rice frozen in small(er) servings that I can use any time. I need to be more consistent about using recipe sources I already know about, and I also need to keep an eye out for fresh ideas. I’ll keep track of my progress in my dinner diary. And adding more delicious, healthful dishes to my repertoire is reward enough to keep me motivated (though I wouldn’t mind another massage, hint-hint). These are some resources that I’ve already found useful:

  • The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook by Julie Kaufmann and Beth Hensperger (Harvard Common Press). I have the 2002 edition, but there’s a revised 2012 edition. I skimmed the recipe titles of the first six sections of the table of contents, and except for three recipes that have been removed, the 2002 and 2012 editions look the same. I like the basic cooking instructions for many varieties of rice and grains in “The Perfect Pot of Rice” and “The Whole Grain Cooker.” The family loves Basmati Rice with Corn and Peas with brown basmati rice instead of white, and I want to try substituting brown rice in other recipes in “Simple Everyday Rices and Little Meals” and “The Family of Pilafs.”
  • Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains by King Arthur Flour (Countryman Press, 2006). For every day, the sections on quick breads, and biscuits, popovers, and dumplings have some known winners: Honey-Whole Wheat Biscuits and Peach-Oatmeal Bread are mouth-watering, and the Spelt Popovers are already a family favorite. When there’s more time, Dark & Soft Restaurant Dinner Rolls, Whole Wheat Pita, and Wheat Baguettes have been scrumptious. Can’t wait to try other recipes, especially those featuring other types of grains.
  • One of the obstacles to eating more tofu has been that I prefer dishes that are at least Asian-based — to me, tofutti and tofurky are just tofunky — and I have only a handful of recipes that we all enjoy. But Martha Rose Shulman, who writes the Recipes for Health column in the New York Times, has some promising possibilities that I’m looking forward to trying. Her Red-Rice or Farro With Miso-Roasted Squash, Leeks, Red Peppers and Tofu, for example, introduced me to red rice, with its appealing brown-red color and nutty flavor. The dish is a beautiful combination of colors, textures, and flavors, and the marinade is equally tasty on tofu and veggies. If her other tofu recipes are just as delish, I’ll have lots of great additions to my recipe box!

Where do you find delicious, easy, healthful recipes featuring whole grains or tofu? What resolutions do you have for 2014? I’ll share my progress as 2014 unfolds. Wish me luck!

Book Review — Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.

What’s in your refrigerator? Even if some people only use it for storing a bottle of ketchup, left-over pizza, and a six-pack of diet Coke, there is a fridge in practically every American home. Check your pantry: what canned goods are there? Chef-Boyardee, anyone? In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky (New York: Walker) reminds us of the profound impact of these two inventions on our foodways. Before refrigeration and canning became so common as to be invisible, salting was — along with smoking and pickling — among the most common methods of preserving perishable food in most parts of the world. Salt was so valuable that Ancient Romans sometimes paid their soldiers in salt. The origin of the word salary is sal, or salt in Latin, and the expressions to be “worth his salt” and to “earn his salt” came out of this practice.

Kurlansky-Salt-cover-reviewSweeping through swaths of world history, Kurlansky details beliefs, production, trade, government policies, military strategy, scientific discoveries, and technological innovations demonstrating salt’s crucial role in human endeavors. The transformation of communities into civilizations depended on their ability to first extend and stabilize their food supply. Civilizations from the Incas to Asian India were founded not only by rivers, but also near places with access to salt. Salt became economically important as communities expanded: though salt, which is relatively bulky, was usually not exported on its own, it was used to preserve food that was then profitably sold. Wars were won or lost depending on an army’s access to salt to make and preserve food, for medicine, and to maintain livestock or horses for cavalry or hauling supplies. In example after example, Kurlansky illustrates how salted foods shaped economies for four millennia, and with economies, also government policies. Even as recently as 1930, Mohandas Gandhi sparked the independence movement in India against British rule by leading a campaign to deliberately break the laws prohibiting local harvesting of salt.

Salts have been used for much more than preserving food. While most of Salt focuses on the use of food salt, Kurlansky touches on the uses of non-food salts. He writes that by the Middle Ages, salts were used to cure leather, clean chimneys, soldering pipes, glazing pottery, and as medicine. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the use of salt for food has become less significant compared to its uses for industrial purposes. Kurlansky shows the direct connection from scientific research conducted on salts to new industries. He even connects the inception of the oil and gas industry with salt mining: much of the drilling technology was the same, and oil, gas, or both are frequently found on the edge of salt. Even unused salt mines have found contemporary usage as storage for nuclear waste and emergency oil reserves. Nowadays, the US is the largest producer and consumer of salt, but only 8% is for food, and 51% is for deicing roads, and the remainder is for industrial purposes.

Lest it gets too geeky, Kurlansky seasons the text liberally with historical recipes and instructions for salt-cured foods, from the ancient Roman fish sauce, garum, to artisanal soy sauce crafted by modern-day entrepreneurs in Sichuan, China. The book is a fascinating review of history through a crystalline lens.

I particularly enjoyed Kurlansky’s discussion of salt’s symbolic value: emerging from its ability to preserve and sustain life, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all believed that salt protected infants from evil, but so did disparate peoples from Japan to Haiti. Long linked to fertility in ancient societies from Egypt to Borneo to North American Indians, salt was also thought to cause sexual arousal or to spur reproduction.

It’s trendy now to write history from “below,” exploring the perspectives and experiences of regular people, instead of the leaders and the generals. This book accomplishes a similar feat with that workhorse, salt. Salt doesn’t have the gleam and glamour like the quest for gold and territorial conquest, but without it, how would the world’s civilizations have functioned? Would a different method of animal domestication have been found? And what would food preservation have entailed? Would we wonder how to walk like an Egyptian? Would all roads have led to Rome? Would the sun have risen over a British Empire? You’ll never see our most common seasoning the same way again after reading Mark Kurlansky’s Salt.


Essential kitchen tools: my top 10 list

What are the 10 kitchen tools that you use all the time? The ones that, if you didn’t have them, would keep you out of the kitchen or keep you from cooking more than you do now? I’m talking about the stuff that isn’t built into a kitchen, like the fridge, stove, or sink. The answers might surprise you. For me, they aren’t the glamorous, stainless steel items with electric motors that outgun a Prius. If you’re someone who wants to cook more, this list highlights the fact that cooking doesn’t depend on having a lot of fancy equipment. And if you’re setting up a kitchen for the first time, this list will help you get a handle on your shopping list.

As a matter of fact, I was surprised at how ordinary most of the items are, like a vegetable peeler or kitchen towels. More durable items, like knives and pans, can last for decades, so it pays to do some research. I’ve had my tomato knife for about 22 years, and a piece of the handle just broke off the other day. The DH glued it back on; with some luck, it might last me another twenty years! So do get the very best that you can afford, but also keep in mind that price doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. For example, I wish I knew about cast iron pans when I was starting out; I might not have needed to replace my first set of pans if I’d started out with cast iron ones. I’ve included brand names where I could, as well as product links, mostly on Amazon. Note that if you buy these items from Amazon after clicking my links, I receive a small commission. (It doesn’t increase the Amazon price at all.) Cozy Foodies need to pay for our groceries!

I whittled the list down to my top 10, but then, I couldn’t resist adding a second (short) list of items that I use every day, but are arguably not essential, and may not even be considered “tools” per se. All those brawny machines would end up on a third list: the “nice to have, but not essential” list. There’s a long list of things that I would miss, and things I couldn’t make (muffins anyone?), but the essentials list really pares things down to the basic necessities for cooking.

Finally, I asked my kids to check my list, and the DS had a great suggestion: my brain! True enough, but I guess I was thinking about stuff that you need to buy (thanks, anyway).

What are the cooking tools that you absolutely can’t live without?

My top 10 list of essential kitchen tools

  1. 8-inch chef’s knife. I’ve had the same knife for so long, that the manufacturer’s information has rubbed off. It’s either a J.A. Henckels 8-Inch Stainless-Steel Chef’s Knife or a Wusthof 8-Inch Cook’s Knife.
  2. Tomato knife. Besides its most obvious use, I use it as a paring knife to make fruit salad every morning, and it also works well on bread. Mine looks a lot like this Zwilling J.A. Henckels 5-Inch Stainless-Steel Serrated Utility Knife.
  3. Cutting board. My favorite one is a 16” x 20” wooden one with no feet, so that I can use both sides. I like the large work surface and that wood is easier on my knife edge than other materials.
  4. Pans. If I could only have 2 pans, I would want them to heat evenly, release food well, and go in the oven as well as cook on the stove top. My 6-Quart Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless Saucepot and my Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron Skillet would allow me to cook most every day dishes.
  5. Sharpening steel. Cooking is so much easier, fun, and safe with sharp knives!
  6. Measuring cups and spoons. I have several sets of each, and my favorite is this Cuisipro Stainless Steel Measuring Cup Set, with oval cups to reach into narrow-necked jars. I have an older model of this Endurance Measuring Spoon Set, which has rectangular spoon bowls to reach into narrow spice jars.
  7. OXO Good Grips Can Opener. Mine is so old I don’t remember exactly when I got it. The current models look different from mine. But I like the comfy fat handles and knob, and the built-in bottle opener.
  8. OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler. Peel vegetables and fruits, even slice cheese (not very well, but sometimes I’m too lazy to wash the slicer)! As with the can opener, I have an older model, but this one has a similar comfy fat handle.
  9. OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner. Dries lettuce and other leafy greens, serves as a prep bowl, and a serving bowl, and works as a cake dome (not pretty, but it gets the job done). I have an earlier model, and it works very well, but the pull-apart lid has always been difficult to operate (I don’t know if this feature has been modified since I got my spinner). The DH can’t do it at all and claims that these were purposely designed to thwart males. The kids love using the “brakes.”
  10. Kitchen towels. My favorites are woven 100% cotton, not terry cloth or waffle weave. Dry my hands, dishes, countertops, ingredients. Wipe up spills. Cover rising dough. Open jars. Handy oven mitts (not recommended—I have accidentally set them on fire!).

My short list of tools I use every day, but may not be essential

  1. GelPro floor mat. Oh, my aching back and knees! The floor mat allows me to stand for a lot longer than I otherwise would be able to. You can sometimes get good deals on these on Amazon, so check prices.
  2. Seventh Generation Natural Paper Towels. They’re made of 100% unbleached recycled paper, so I feel OK using them once and recycling them. Wipe up small spills. Dry meat after rinsing. Use them to cover things in the microwave.
  3. Wooden stirring spoons. Easier on your pans. I’ve got 4 of these, and more often than not, they are in the sink because I use them so much.
  4. Stainless steel prep bowls. I can drop them without worrying about breaking them. They stack up nicely, and don’t react to foods or retain odors. Prep ingredients ahead of time, and when it’s time to cook, have ingredients ready to go, just like on the cooking shows. I wish mine had lids.
  5. Apron. It’s a splash guard and a towel rack (I tuck a kitchen towel into the pocket).

I got the idea for this post when I made dinner to celebrate my wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago. The DH and I have done our share of romantic dinners at dimly lit restaurants, but this year, we opted to stay home. We made the day special by being especially kind and thoughtful to each other, and by using “happyanniversary” as an adjective when we talked to each other, like, “Take out the happyanniversary trash!” Very romantic (LOL)!

At one point in the evening, I surveyed the mayhem in the kitchen. In one corner of the counter, the slow cooker crouched timidly, meekly cooking the pork shoulder in barbeque sauce. The postage-stamp scale I use as a kitchen scale stood foursquare next to the slow cooker, daring it to take up more space; I had used it to weigh out roughly equal-sized balls of dough for the buns. On the other side of the slow cooker was a cooling rack crowded with the buns and also cream puffs for dessert. The food processor hulked muscularly, preening over how quickly it slivered cabbage and carrots for slaw. The bread machine sulked glumly on the other end of the counter, it’s job making the bread dough completed. In a metal work bowl next to the sink, the pastry bag and tip relaxed in a bubble bath after forming the cream puffs. There were two trays, one lined with parchment paper and the other lined with a silicone baking mat, abandoned on the stove top. And from the other room, the ice cream maker whined loudly, lonely for company. I couldn’t help thinking: this is a ridiculous amount of machinery and equipment for making just one dinner!

But it was yummilicious: pulled-pork sandwiches with coleslaw, and cream puffs with lemon ice cream for dessert. “Oy! Huge happyanniversary mess! Thank you for doing the dishes, honey!” It’s definitely nice to have all these “helpers” when I need them, but, honestly, the kitchen tools I would miss the most are the ones that I use every day!


Book review: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

Sometimes an ear of corn is just an ear of corn, but occasionally it’s something else altogether. Sigmund Freud and his stogey can relax, I’m talking about Charles C. Mann’s revelations in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Vintage, 2012). In this compelling book, Mann uncovers history and reads the metaphorical tea leaves on our dinner plates. 1493 delves into the new biological era, the Homogenocene, that was touched off by European trade and exploration, in which globalization created a world that’s much more uniform and that continues to change societies in ambivalent ways.

Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, John Smith, and others were chasing the dream of an oceanic route to China, but what they accomplished was a world-spanning trade system that disrupted ecologies and societies across Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia. Some plants and domesticated animals were knowingly transplanted to the Americas. Others were taken from the Americas around the world. The consequences of relocating all these resources couldn’t be foreseen. Corn (or maize, as Mann names it), a native of the North American continent, is a tasty vegetable, but it is also a symbol of this new ecological, economic, and social world. Food plants such as corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes from the Americas were the sources of a new food security, which in turn, lay the foundation for population explosions in Europe and China. Corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes led to the development of modern industrial agriculture, which relies on improved crop yields, high-intensity fertilizers, and factory-made pesticides. These same crops also were followed by new crop diseases and pests, deforestation, erosion, flooding, and associated with these, social destabilization.

Then there were the accidental transplants. Some of these, like honeybees, might be seen as beneficial. Others, like dandelions and earthworms, caused deep alterations in the ecosystems into which they spread. But there can be no doubt that epidemic diseases, and the hosts that carry and spread them (like rats and mosquitoes), devastated the Americas, directly or indirectly killing a vast majority of the indigenous population.


Mann highlights the many changes wrought by the voluntary and forced migrants—human or trade good, mineral or microbe, flora or fauna—as they moved around the globe and the consequences of these movements. The Homogenocene, ongoing now for more than half a millenium, is at best, a cautionary tale. My apple pie, that quintessential American dessert, wouldn’t be possible without apples and honey bees from Europe, sugar from New Guinea (and in more recent history, the forced labor that made sugar an affordable commodity), butter from European cows, or wheat from the Middle East. But when I read about the newest proposal to introduce bacteria to control the odor from bird droppings in San Diego or the newest foodie fashion for quinoa, what I see is the continually spreading ripples of Columbus’s search for China 500 years ago. Not always a cheerful read, to be sure, but I certainly recommend Mann’s 1493 to any Geeky Foodie who likes to toss social and environmental politics, history, and economics with her locally-grown micro-greens.

Do you think a book like 1493, which is not centrally about food and cooking, should be recommended in a foodie blog? What foodie books (geeky or otherwise) are you reading?


Michael Pollan and the alchemy of cooking

Cooks are modern-day alchemists and mages. We are sensualists, spiritual pilgrims, and death-defying stuntmen. We are healers, change agents, and activists. Our day-to-day routines may obscure these awesome truths, but Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin, 2013), is a heartening reminder. In the second half of May, I had the pleasure of hearing Pollan twice—once in a radio interview, and then live at a book signing in the San Francisco Bay Area—as he “entice[d] people into the kitchen by showing them how interesting and pleasurable it can be.” Of course, with Cozy Foodies, he is preaching to the choir, but he sure has a knack for connecting the dots between good food and cooking, and just about everything that is (or should be) central to living well.

Frankly, I like the idea of a little sorcery in my everyday life. But to become adept at transforming those lumps of leaden raw ingredients into golden morsels of food, you need a few more things. Pollan draws an analogy between cooking and doing yoga: both require patience, practice, and presence. I don’t do yoga (Ssh. Don’t tell anyone! They’ll take away my license to live in the Bay Area!), but sometimes I do a mindful breathing exercise, and—man!—it’s hard to keep your mind only on breathing. Every seventeen seconds or so, my mind shifts to thinking about the worry du jour or the obsession of the moment. But, on good days, cooking is like meditating: I become solely focused on the activity of dicing and slicing, and everything else melts away. My brain quiets down; I’m calm and relaxed. The activity of cooking can be, in and of itself, a moment of living well.

Living well means coming to terms with death. Cooking means that I must grapple with death: as an omnivore graphically contemplating the animal who gave its life to nourish me, but also in the act of fermentation, which Pollan piquantly calls “the management of rot.” It’s not polite, but it is true. Thinking about rot and other earthy topics isn’t comforting when I bite into a well-matured piece of cheese that’s been hiding in the back corner of my deli drawer (I sure hope that was Gorgonzola!). Understanding fermentation, however, adds an extra layer of interest and depth to things like bread, beer, or yogurt. And when I really pause to allow the thought to percolate, it’s also a spiritual one too, in an “ashes to ashes” kind of way. Do you know what I mean?

By now, people’s eyes tend to glaze over when they hear that making more home cooked meals is an important way to take charge of our health or to strengthen our family bonds, so I won’t gnaw on that old bone again. But cooking is also a way to take part in “maker” culture, the D.I.Y. movement—it’s hip and fashionable! Who doesn’t want to be more in control of their lives? By making our own food more of the time, we challenge the balance of power between corporate food producers and ourselves when we cook. As Pollan notes, we don’t outsource our workouts and hobbies; why should we outsource so much of our cooking, an activity that is essential to better health and can be a source of deep satisfaction?

Many of these Big Ideas have knocked around in the old thinker at one point or another, so it’s affirming to have them displayed beautifully like a bouquet of roses. There is so much upside to cooking for ourselves; I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do some magic! How about you?

Pancakes anyone?

King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour is the pancake of my eye

As I flipped pancakes on a recent Saturday morning, I was thinking about how much more baking I’ve been doing recently (skip the chatter, and go straight to the recipe). For instance, besides the pancakes, the day before, I made whole wheat walnut-raisin bread, and that night, the DH was going to be making pizzas, one with pepperoni and one with sausage and green bell peppers. Yeah, yeah, I know, pancakes aren’t baked; the actual connection is the main ingredient, flour (but I do keep the pancakes warm in the oven, wink), and when I think flour, I think baking.

A couple of different things led to this state of affairs. It all started last summer, when a friend shared a lemon muffin with me that she made with King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour (thanks, Michele!). We could’ve been in an ad, all exclamatory remarks: “You’ve gotta try this!” “This is made with whole wheat flour? No way! It’s so light, and the color is like regular flour!” Then she gave me a bag with a couple of cups in it, and I started playing with it. I began substituting the white whole wheat flour in muffins, cookies, and brownies, starting with just a quarter of what the recipe called for, then a third, and now, depending on the recipe, half or all the flour. Everyone—the family, my adult friends, the kids’ friends—continued to ask for my baked goodies (better than complements, I think), so it just encouraged me to try it in more recipes.

Eventually, I ran through the recipes I usually make and that I wanted to substitute in white whole wheat flour, but I was on a roll. And when my friend Julie asked me what she could do with her new stand-mixer besides bake sweet treats, I thought of bread. Now, I used to bake bread here and there—mostly things like challah and standard 1½ lb. loaves for sandwiches—before I had the kids, but bread making mostly fell by the wayside as I focused on my two bundles of joy. The big exception is pizza, which the DH or I still make from scratch, including the dough. But I love (who doesn’t?) that heady, yeasty perfume and slight crunch of cutting open a fresh-baked loaf.  I’m lucky that there are many great bakeries in the Bay Area, and I occasionally buy beautiful breads from Semifreddi’s, my favorite local bakery. Taking a page from my book Twice As Nice, I’ve taken to stashing a few of their wheat panini in the freezer to use on the fly. But the local bakeries don’t stock a large variety of whole wheat loaves, so I started keeping an eye out for recipes for whole wheat bread, especially bread which I can then freeze and then later, defrost just as much as I need. Goody! More baking! I’ve continued experimenting with both white whole wheat and regular whole wheat flours, and I’m sure that I will be sharing some recipes in the future.

Here’s what I learned: substituting some or all the the regular white unbleached flour with King Arthur White Whole Wheat in everyday recipes works well. If it’s not at your local grocery store, you can get it directly from King Arthur’s website or from Amazon. Since the nutrition profile of white whole wheat flour is the same as regular whole wheat, it’s a great way to bump up the healthfulness and heartiness of everyday baking (including pancakes and waffles!). The white whole wheat flour, milled from white spring wheat rather than traditional red wheat (according to the King Arthur website), is heavier than regular white flour, so it’s very important to use proper measuring technique to avoid a dense or dry end result: loosen up the flour by stirring it around inside its container (I suppose sifting the white whole wheat flour before measuring it would be the foodie thing to do, but frankly, I’m too lazy for everyday baking), then scoop the flour into your measuring cup. Finally, use a butter knife to scrape off the excess—never tamp it down! For every ½ cup of regular flour, substitute ½ cup minus 1 tablespoon white whole wheat. The white whole wheat does add a “tan” and a subtle nutty flavor to the dishes, which I think actually makes things like pancakes taste better. But I wouldn’t substitute it in cakes, pie or tart crusts, and other delicate baked goods; after all, treats are treats are treats. Leave ‘em alone, I say. There’s plenty of other ways to make our everyday cooking healthier; an easy way is to start with these pancakes with ½ cup, 1 cup, or all white whole wheat flour!

Recipe: Pancakes

This is my pancake recipe; I’ve used it for years, but now I usually make it with 1 cup white whole wheat flour. I even make it with all white whole wheat, which the DD prefers. It’s a good recipe to experiment with, because you can easily substitute ½ cup, 1 cup or all the regular flour for white whole wheat. Just remember to use proper measuring technique, and subtract 1 tablespoon for every ½ cup!

Makes about 20 pancakes


  • 1½ cups flour
  • 1½ tablespoons sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup lowfat buttermilk
  • ½ cup skim or lowfat milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1½ tablespoon canola oil, plus more for greasing pans
  • 1½ teaspoon vanilla


Heat a serving plate in 150°F oven. Lightly grease a cast-iron double burner griddle pan with a little vegetable oil, and heat over low flame. If not using a cast-iron pan, after the pancake batter is ready, heat your preferred pan, greased a little vegetable oil, over medium-low heat until hot but not smoking.

Place all the dry ingredients into a medium bowl and whisk together; make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk just until smooth. Let the batter rest for a minute.

Fill a ¼-cup measuring cup about ¾ full for each pancake (about 3 tablespoons batter). Cook the first side until bubbles are forming on top, the edges begin to set, and the bottom is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook another minute. Grease the pan again as needed. Move the cooked pancakes onto the serving plate, keeping them warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Serve with your favorite toppings.