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?


The kids in the kitchen

Skip the preliminaries; go directly to the recipe for pasta, cannellini beans, bacon, and sage soup

School’s out this week. The DD is immediately plunging into an intensive summer course to learn a year’s worth of Japanese in 6 weeks, and the DS is whiling away the week learning how to survive on a deserted island. Don’t ask me; this is their idea of fun. I generally let them choose summer camps and activities that they want to do, but this summer, I’m also asking them to plan on cooking one meal once every other week. I tried to suggest that they do it once a week, but a tidal wave of groans and complaints drowned me out.

The rules are simple. It can be any meal of the day, as long as it involves planning and cooking. Making a cheese sandwich does not count, unless they make the bread and the cheese. OK—maybe not the cheese. But it needs to be a well-balanced meal with carbs, protein, and vegetables (or fruits). That cheese sandwich would need to be accompanied by a salad, or have lots of veggie toppings in addition to the cheese. Heating up leftovers does not count. The meal can be something that they have had in the past; it does not have to include dessert. We adults will shop for the ingredients once they’ve supplied a list of what they need, and we’ll supervise and help, but they will be in the driver’s seat.

I keep trying to create opportunities for my kids to learn and practice cooking skills because when they leave home (for college, I hope!), basic cooking know-how should be among the life skills they have: that and not turning their white t-shirts pink in the laundry (not that I did that two weeks ago), cleaning up after themselves, taking public transportation, managing money, having healthy relationships…. can I lock them up in a closet yet?

Anyway, I thought I had cooking—at least—covered. For a couple of years, we organized a Lunch Club with a group of my friends’ kids. They had to present recipe ideas, create a balanced meal plan, make sure the ingredients came in within budget ($5 per person, which we adhered to strictly), cook the meal (without adult help, at least in theory), and clean up (the last was mostly theoretical, since the moms couldn’t seem to help ourselves, and we’d end up cleaning up when the kids melted away to play capture-the-flag). The kids made luxurious meals, like fettuccine with peas, asparagus, and pancetta; roasted baby vegetables; and strawberries with chocolate caramel sauce. Or like fresh tomato salsa on cheese-and-spice tortilla chips; flank steak with corn-tomato relish and grilled garlic bread; and fruit salad with citrus syrup. There were very few dishes that were off the mark, only one cut finger, and no burns. But within two years of the Lunch Club’s demise, the DD seems to have forgotten how to measure flour and the DS is afraid to handle an 8” chef’s knife! Sigh—one step forwards and two steps back.

So I’m back, encouraging them to take up cookbooks and colanders again. Don’t tell them, but I hope this is a habit they will continue even after school starts again! The DD has nominated pasta, cannellini beans, bacon, and sage soup as the first main course they make. It’s one of their favorite dishes, and always among the first ones they request when asked to give input on the weekly menu plan. They’ll have to add on a vegetable side dish, and decide whether to do a dessert or not. Hmmm… I wonder if they remember how to make chocolate lava cakes with whipped cream like they did for Lunch Club?

Recipe: Pasta, cannellini beans, bacon, and sage soup

Makes 4 generous servings

This recipe is adapted from Beans & Rice by Joanne Weir (Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library, 1994). The ingredient quantities are flexible; feel free to put in more or less of any particular ingredient to suit your taste!


  • 2 cups dried cannellini beans
  • 1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 ounces lean bacon, thinly cut crosswise
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth, plus additional if desired
  • 8 ounces dried pasta, such as shells
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • for serving: freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Make the beans. Pick over and discard any stones or damaged beans. Put the beans in a colander and rinse them with water. Transfer them to a large bowl, cover with water by 2 inches, and allow them to soak for at least 3 hours or overnight. Alternatively, quick-soak the beans by transferring them to a medium saucepan; add water to the saucepan to cover the beans by 2 inches. Bring the beans to a boil, cover the saucepan, turn off the heat, and allow the beans to soak for 1 to 1-½ hours.

After soaking, drain the beans, put them into a medium saucepan, cover the beans with water by 2 inches again, then bring the water to a boil. Boil the beans, uncovered, for 5 to 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to low, and simmer the beans until they are soft and cooked through, approximately 1 hour. Check the beans as they cook to make sure they are always completely covered by water, adding more water if necessary. Beans may be prepared in advance. Cool completely, and store in cooking liquid, tightly covered. Drain the beans, and proceed with the recipe.

Make the soup. In a 4-6 quart soup pot over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the bacon, onion, and garlic; sauté until bacon and onion begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sage, and red pepper flakes, and bring to a brisk simmer; turn the heat to low, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and add the broth and beans. Return the soup to a slow boil, then turn the heat back down to low, cover partway, and simmer for another 15-20 minutes to meld the flavors, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and bring the soup up to a slow boil, add the pasta, and cook  until the pasta is al dente. Add more broth or water to thin the soup if it is too thick. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the soup, hot, with Parmesan sprinkled on top.

Tips: Substitute 2 (15-ounce) cans of cannellini beans for the dried beans; drain and rinse the beans before proceeding with the recipe. If you have fresh tomatoes and homemade broth, substitute them for the canned ingredients.


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?


Happy Halfgiving! Or, how we came to celebrate Thanksgiving twice a year

(Skip the gabble; get ready to gobble! Go straight to the recipe for puréed sweet potatoes with Grand Marnier and buttered pecans.)

A sudden cacophony of pin-ball machine clangs, rings, and pings deluged the sunny room where I was working. I jumped in my seat. It was my phone, set to the most annoying ringtone possible. On the other end was the DH, at the supermarket: “Hey.”

“What’s up?”

“Did you mean to have yams and potatoes on the list?”

“Er…. No? Why do we need to have yams and potatoes?”

“How can we have Halfgiving without yams or potatoes?”

Let me explain: my family loves Thanksgiving. Not that we have a zeal for proto-American why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along historical fantasies. For us, it’s a celebration of fabulous late-fall harvest food and a momentary pause to recall the many blessings in our lives. (And if I keep saying the second part, maybe the DD and the DS will actually believe it one day!) We love Thanksgiving so much that not only do we celebrate Thanksgiving, we make more sides to join the leftovers in the days following Turkey Thursday (who needs Black Friday?) because even we recognize that it would be a tad crazy to try to make all the dishes we absolutely can’t do without on Thanksgiving Day itself. We love it so much that a few years ago, the kids declared that we also need to celebrate Halfgiving, six months after Thanksgiving. So every year, on the weekend following the fourth Thursday in May, we make Thanksgiving Dinner Lite.

So when the DH made his urgent call from the grocery store, I knew I had crossed the line. You see, I had planned on making the buttery fantail rolls that we all love, plus stuffing, so I thought that would more than take care of carbs for the four of us. What was I thinking!? Who am I to tamper with Tradition? Yams were duly, and speedily, added back into the lineup. It was really a no-brainer; we’ve been making these heady, citrusy yams for Thanksgiving since before the kids were born. And, yeah, yeah: technically, they’re sweet potatoes (so that’s the way I’ve labelled them in the recipe), but I grew up calling them yams, and between you and me, that’s what I’m going to keep calling them.

Here’s our final menu for Halfgiving 2013:

  • Grilled, stuffed turkey breast
  • Green beans with walnuts and dried-cherry dressing
  • Puréed yams with Grand Marnier and pecans
  • Buttermilk fantail rolls
  • Cranberry-orange sauce
  • Gravy

It’s not as extravagant as the actual holiday, but it tides us over until November when we can really do it up right. BTW, the DD and DS are still lobbying for Halfmas, but we’ve told them not to hold their breaths.


Recipe: Puréed sweet potatoes with Grand Marnier and pecans

Serves 5-6


  • 2 cups pecan halves
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, divided
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 4 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (like Red Dianes, often labelled “yams”), about 4 lbs.
  • 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier, or another orange-flavored brandy liqueur
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar


Preheat oven to 325°F. Place pecans in a shallow roasting pan in one layer. Roast in the middle of the oven until fragrant, about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven, and immediately toss with 1 tablespoon of the butter and kosher salt, stirring until coated evenly. (The pecans can be made up to 2 days ahead, cooled to room temperature, and stored in an airtight container.)

Increase oven temperature to 425°F. Prick each sweet potato 6-8 times all over. Place on a roasting pan lined with parchment paper or foil. Roast them in the middle of the oven until easily pierced through the middle by a fork, about 1 hour.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.

As soon as the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel half of them them, and place them in the work bowl of a food processor. Add 2 tablespoons of Grand Marnier, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and 2 tablespoons of butter. Purée the sweet potato mixture until smooth. Scoop the purée into a gratin dish. Repeat with the rest of the sweet potatoes, Grand Marnier, salt, and butter. Level the sweet potato mixture in the casserole dish. (The sweet potatoes can be made up to this point a day ahead. Cool and cover before storing in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.)

Arrange the pecans in one layer over the top of the sweet potato purée, and sprinkle with the brown sugar. Bake in the middle of 325°F oven until heated through and pecans are slightly browned, approximately 30 minutes (or, 35-40 minutes, if starting from room temperature purée).

A foodie at the pro b-ball game

At the end of March, the DS and I went to the Oakland Warriors v. Portland Trailblazers basketball game with his swim team, which had reserved the Skybox. I’m not a basketball fan, but I figured I’d just go for the experience. The outing left an impression on me, but not because of the game play; what has stayed with me was what a whacky total-immersion cultural experience it was—kind of like going to Disneyland, but not as much fun—and the schizophrenic food messages embedded in it.

Happy pop music with a driving beat, amplified to a mind-numbing roar, set the mood as we climbed up to the entrance of Oracle Arena. As we passed security, near-continuous chatter by an M.C. was layered onto the throbbing music so that conversations had to be carried on at a quiet shout. We were drowned in odors blasting from the fried-food vendors. Eye-popping billboards screamed for our attention. Basketball per se was sandwiched in between hula and maori dancing demos (it was Pacific Islander Day, coincidentally); peppy cheerleaders in small outfits shaking their things (and I’m not talking about their pom poms); stuntmen making improbable baskets after bounding acrobatically from a trampoline; couples encouraged to kiss, or audience members to dance, on camera; and lots of advertiser-sponsored breaks.

And here’s where the head-trip really hits a Cozy Foodie, and why I’m writing this post. Throughout the evening, we were bombarded with bizarre food messages. Let me set the stage. “Guests” are forbidden from bringing “outside” food or beverages into the arena. It’s an understandable precaution when a friend pointed out that it’s impossible for security to distinguish water from vodka, but Cynical Foodie that I am, I thought about the unfettered profit margins that could be wrung from the captive audience. Indeed, water went for $5.50 for 1.25 pints; prices went up from there. The food choices ran the usual gamut of fast food options: burgers, chicken tenders, pizza, fries, nachos, popcorn, beer, and soda. But while fans downed their greasy cardboard pizza, they gazed up at Lucky Supermarket’s full-color, bigger-than-life banners advertising healthy meal choices; during the game, the M.C. asked rhetorically which meal the fans would choose, but nobody could actually get any of those healthy meals at the arena. Lucky also sponsored a break where a fan was pulled from the stands: if he could make a basket, he would win free groceries, but the poor schlub missed all his throws. Seems like Lucky wasn’t so lucky for anyone that night. Meanwhile, McDonald’s parachute drops with coupons, and advertisements for 20 chicken McNuggets for $4.99, had people practically diving and wrestling in the aisles. And coupons for free 16-ounce smoothies from Jamba Juice if the Warriors won and kept the Trailblazers from scoring 100 points or more fed the frenzy of the home crowd.

The group of swimmers I was with eventually did find dinner at a small stand tucked behind a big column. Staffed by two African American women, it purportedly sold Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, but which were really just heros dressed up with a large slice of cucumber, shaved carrots, and some cilantro on top. A bunch of us opted for these as the best option. I ate my banh mi and was hungry again before the end of the game. When I got home, I snacked on leftover chicken fajitas in the quiet coolness of my kitchen with the lights turned down low, ruminating about this upside-down trip where I paid a lot to have a three-ring circus shot at me from point-blank range so that ads could then be injected directly into my inert, overwhelmed brain. Now that’s entertainment!

Obviously, I wasn’t the target audience for pro b-ball. I’d rather clear poison oak! …from around the base of that tree with the wasp’s nest! …(it’s not even my tree, or my poison oak!) …on a high pollen count day! …than go to another game. I’m only exaggerating a little. But if I ever do go to another game, say hello, you’ll recognize me. I’ll be the Crazy Foodie with the empty water bottle that I can fill at a fountain after I get past security.


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.


Pneumonia’s Silver Lining

I don’t recommend pneumonia, from which I have been recuperating since the beginning of the month. IMHO, the only upside to this nasty bug has been—once I was on the road to recovery—the incredible sensation of eating “regular” food again. For a  small handful of days, I drank only water, and I ate only that quintessential Chinese comfort food: rice porridge (also known as jook or congee). Too tired to put any effort into savory stir-ins, I simply had my jook with some fried gluten (an admittedly unappetizing name, but neither is “vegetarian mock duck”) or 5-spice baked tofu and edamame, with some fruit on the side. That’s all that I wanted.

When I was ready to vary my diet again, I nibbled on a few tablespoons of plain grilled chicken, cut into small bite-sized pieces, and boiled, sliced carrots. I felt like a baby trying chicken and carrots for the first time: the flavor of each of these foods burst in my mouth like an intense and complex display of fireworks. The apparently tough texture of the chicken had me chewing like a cow on her cud, but the carrots were smooth and soothing. I wasn’t sure I liked chicken: it was overpowering and rubbery. But how do you explain the flavor of chicken? Carrots? Any food? It’s like trying to explain anything you feel with your senses: impossible. But the sensation recalled vividly my memory of the faces the DD and DS made when they tried foods for the first time: wondering, curious, grimacing, gumming, surprised, dubious, skeptical, and then, if they liked it, the bottomless open maw with a desperately groping hand as the spoon approached. If they didn’t like it, their mouths were shut tight like Fort Knox, and they did everything they could to swat the spoon away or move their heads in the opposite direction from the terrible idea of another mouthful of the awful stuff.

Over the next few days, I slowly rediscovered pork, broccoli, udon, Nappa cabbage, and so on. I was forced to eat slowly; if I ate too fast, I would feel out of breath and tired. I wanted only a little bit: chewing, again, was tiring, but the flavors were so intense that even a little bit was enough (not to mention the fact that I didn’t really need a whole lot of food, since I was essentially sleeping, napping, and resting all day). This process brought home the realization of the extent to which I usually take the look, flavors, and textures of food for granted. It reminded me of an article I read last year about mindful eating (“Mindful Eating as Food for Thought,” by Jeff Gordinier, in The New York Times, Feb.12, 2012). After reading it, I sometimes tried eating at least a few bites of a meal with this Buddhist concept in mind: doing nothing but chewing, tasting, and being in the moment of eating my meal. I didn’t stick with the program though. There are too many distractions: talking to the family, thinking about  what happened with the day or what would be happening after the meal, snatching a few minutes to read the newspaper or a book while I eat. This experience of discovering food anew reawakens my appreciation and gratitude for food. I hope that I can maintain this awareness and slow down, at least for a few bites, when I eat my meals!

Photo by p.Gordon

Home-made granola

Hola, Granola!

Score one in my column. For years, my family insisted on eating bagels most weekday mornings. In terms of nutrition, bagels are more or less Jewish Wonder Bread: tasty but empty calories. There just aren’t a whole lot of health benefits in poppy seeds and sesame seeds. But they rejected other, healthier choices, like whole wheat toast and whole wheat bagels. The price of bagels has steadily increased over the years, and because I buy them by the dozen, that’s almost $10 a week! I’m cringing even as I type this…. I feel like I’m channeling my mother complaining, “Ah-ya! I remember when bagels were 4 for a $1!” But it’s not just about the cost, Ma, really! There just had to be a better way.

This is where granola takes the stage (skip the chit chat, and go straight to the recipe). I resisted making granola for years. We all love it, but I don’t usually buy it at the grocery store, because it doesn’t feel like a great value. After all, granola essentially is oatmeal minus water, but making it felt like too much work. Not that I actually knew how much work it would be since I’d never made it. Well, I must have had 10 free minutes on my hands in February, because I finally rolled up my sleeves and did it! I had all the ingredients on hand. It turned out to be easy and delicious! And everyone ate it the way people eat Cracker Jacks. I’ve made a handful of batches since then, refining the original recipe to get the perfect balance of toasty nuttiness and sweetness. The DH has switched to eating my homemade granola with milk on weekday mornings, and the DD and DS make homemade yogurt parfaits with the granola, fruit, and plain yogurt. We all eat it straight up or with milk as a snack, too.

What was my mental block against making granola about? Maybe it was an unconscious resistance to shedding another token of my New York City girlhood. I know, there are lots of “iconic” New York foods—it’s a big city—but bagels are it for me. In its place, insert granola, a (tie)dyed-and-true Northern California hippie emblem. Heck, I’ve only been living here for 20+ years. Probably not, but don’t you love the symbolism of it?

OK. Crazy Foodie time: does making my own granola actually save money? I did a bit of calculating to find out. There are about 8 ½-cup servings in one pound of granola; that’s $5.79 for 4 cups. My granola cost $8.65 for 7 cups—see my calculations below (the only ingredient I didn’t include in the cost analysis is salt)—or $4.94 for 4 cups, which is 17% less than the store-bought stuff. Of course, that doesn’t include cost for energy, water and detergent, or my labor. [Update: this cost analysis was based on an earlier version of my recipe. I've since substituted brown sugar for the honey, and I now add fewer nuts and dried fruits, which should bring the cost for ingredients down.] When it’s all said and done, it’s not a huge cost savings, but now that I know how easy it is to make, I’m going to keep making my granola anyway (and the kids are helping out, too!)—it just tastes better when it’s homemade.

Recipe: Granola

Makes about 10 cups


  • 4 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup steel cut oats
  • 1½ cup raw wheat germ
  • ⅜ cup flax seeds
  • 1¾ cups chopped raw nuts (almonds, walnuts, or pecans)
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup canola oil
  • 1½ tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1½ cups mixed dried fruit (cranberries and raisins)


Preheat oven to 325°F with the oven rack in the middle of the oven. Line 2 roasting pans with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, stir together the first 7 ingredients (all the dry ingredients except the dried fruit). Stir well to combine. Add the oil and vanilla, and stir again. Spread the granola evenly onto the roasting pans.

Bake the granola for 30-35 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes and switching the position of the pans each time. The granola is done when it is golden brown and fragrant. Mix in the dried fruit as soon as the granola comes out of the oven, then allow the granola to cool completely in the roasting pan. Store granola in an airtight container. Granola can be frozen.

My dilemma

What would you have done? As I prepared to finalize the text for my ebook, Twice As Nice, I couldn’t decide whether to include a section I had written about factory farms and chickens. I had several conversations with friends and even nice (or perhaps simply polite!) strangers who I met at a party about whether to include it or not. In the end, I decided to omit this section, on the grounds that foodies already know this, and others might feel put off or resentful, since agricultural practices are not usually the purview of cookbooks. But I promised myself that if I started a blog about food and cooking, that the factory farming essay would be among my first posts, so here it is: Food for Thought—The Chicken in the Factory Farm.

Looking over the essay now, I think my factory farming essay does a fair job of giving readers a general idea of the stakes involved, without getting into gory details. I didn’t want to change it from how it would have appeared in the book, but I feel like I could have pointed out the upside of the factory farming system, which is that it has made chicken, and food of all types, more affordable for everyone. And if you’re an omnivore, eating chicken certainly has a lower environmental impact than eating any kind of red meat. For example, the amount of water used to produce one pound of beef could be used to produce four pounds of chicken. Across the board, the environmental cost of eating chicken is much lower than the cost of eating red meat. Of course, having a vegetarian or vegan diet would have the lowest environmental footprint of all.

As I said in my essay, I still choose to eat meat; I write about that choice in the essay. Ultimately, I feel fortunate to live in a place and time where I can make choices that feel right for me and my family. I can find answers and information about questions I have about the food I eat. I love that there’s a lively conversation happening about the whole range of food culture: not just the best new restaurant in town, the hot new ingredient, or the newest diet fad, but the agriculture and processed food industry, the environment, and the human impact of our food choices.

So, join the debate! Tell me what you would have done:

[1] You should have followed your first impulse, and included the essay in the back of the book, between the Index of Recipes by World Cuisine and Sources.
[2] This topic is too political and depressing. You did the right thing leaving it out of the book, but it was OK to bring it up here in the blog.
[3] This topic is too political and depressing. You did the right thing leaving it out of the book, and I wish you didn’t bring up in the blog either.
[4] Other. Tell me about it!


Six steps to more home-cooked meals (Part 3)

Who’s still excited about making more home-cooked meals?! I’ve shared a lot of tips and ideas for how I’ve managed to make home-cooking a priority for me and my family. In part 1 of the series, I wrote about setting realistic goals and specific things you may do to meet your goal. Then in part 2, I talked about getting support and tracking your progress. Here, I will talk about two more key ideas that will help you to succeed in your efforts to make more home-cooked meals: these two points are that we all slip sometimes and that it’s important to recognize our successes.

5. Recognize that a stumble is not failure

How many times have I forgotten to buy a key ingredient, despite my supposedly minutely-detailed shopping list? Forgot to look over a recipe that requires precooking and then “resting” for a few hours or overnight? The kids have a change of schedule that they “forgot” to tell me about. A deadline “sneaks up” (eh-hem) on me? The DD had a #!!?*@ bad day and really needs my support. I had a monumentally, super-sized suck-monster of a day and the thought of having to make dinner makes me want to bang my head repeatedly on the kitchen counter and sob.

It’s OK. Really. I have some “emergency” packaged ingredients ready to go in the pantry and the freezer for those times: spaghetti and tomato sauce or spaghetti with olive oil and Parmesan cheese, grilled cheese or chicken salad sandwiches, anyone? And the supermarket stocks delicious rotisserie chickens, fresh-baked baguettes, and a solid salad bar….. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “After all… Tomorrow is another day.”

The ironic thing is, of course, that my family thinks of these meals of last resort as treats, and they get excited for them, which helps to cheer me up, too! The important thing is: tomorrow, pick yourself up and try again.

6. Give yourself rewards

By all means, set a goal, like “I will make five home-made dinners a week for two months,” and when you reach that goal, go out for lunch as a treat, splurge on a dessert from the local bakery, buy that new vegetable peeler or pair of really cute socks (I like socks!) with the money you saved on your food bills. Then set a new, more challenging goal!

My family knows how important I think it is that they express gratitude for the meal they’re eating. They might comment on how much they like a particular dish, or at least show appreciation for the effort of preparing it (if the dish is “not their favorite”). I already mentioned this is part 2, enlist a buddy. And I get such the Psyched Foodie buzz when the DS comes home from swim practice, takes a huge whiff and exclaims, “Are we having stinky pork for dinner?! Awright!! I LOVE stinky pork!!” (Explanatory note: Stinky pork is what my kids called pork clay pot when they were younger. Redolent of fish sauce, shallots, garlic, ginger, and chili, pork clay pot fills the house with its mouth-watering fragrance as it braises.) It doesn’t get better than that.

For me, cooking has become a reward in itself. Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, cooking actually makes me feel better. When everything seems out of control around me, chopping onions (and enjoying a good cry… because of the onions), turning a recipe into a meal, or stirring together a big pot of soup reminds me that I am a competent person. When my family sits down to dinner, I might feel like the rest of my day was an excrementous chasm of waste, but in this one hour, I was able to make something good happen.

So. Eating healthy. Making something real. Sharing a meal with my family. Creating lasting memories and traditions. Saving money. Wow! Sign me up!

What rewards do you give yourself for reaching a goal?