May 2007

The Guardian, one of Britain's finest newspapers, recently installed several blogs to which their staff writers contribute, including a food blog. Last week one of their restaurant reviewers, Jay Rayner, wrote a negative review of a well known London vegetarian restaurant - which upset quite a lot of vegetarian readers. He defended his review, and several commenters bit back. One opinion expressed was that, since the critic is not a vegetarian himself, that he did not have the palate to judge vegetarian food, and that only committed vegetarian or vegans should be reviewing vegetarian restaurants.

That's an interesting point of view. While I doubt that main stream media outlets instituting such food-specific critics and such, in the wide world of blogs it is theoretically possible - so someone might choose to only trust restaurant reviews from a vegetarian blogger. Is it plausible though? Is an omnivore disqualified from judging what's good vegetarian food because his or her tastebuds are tainted by a fondness for meat? Should vegetarian food only appeal to non-meat eaters?

As someone who has gradually increased the percentage of vegetable based food in my diet in the last few years, but is not a vegetarian, I'm really curious about this. I do like the taste of meat. but I love the taste of fresh vegetables too. If I gave up meat products totally though, would my palate change that much, so that I enter a magical realm which is reserved only for vegetarians? Will meat become totally inedible? I'm a bit skeptical about this, since so many vegetarians seem to at least occasionally crave a 'meaty' taste.

Everyone knows in theory that the fresher the vegetables, the better they are. But I think that many of us fall into the habit of buying a bit too many vegetables, storing them in the fridge, and using them as long as they haven't rotted away or become science experiments in some form. You know, things like carrots and celery, apples and other rather indestructible produce.

But once you see how produce does deteriorate, you start to wonder. Case in point I had some rhubarb stalks left over, and stored in the fridge for about a week after I bought them. (Normally I cook rhubarb right away, but it was cheap at the market so we'd bought more than we needed.) So, yesterday I took them out - they looked crisp and perfectly fine - and turned them into rhubarb crumble pie.

While I've posted recipes for several different kinds of sushi on this site, I have never published a recipe for making nigiri zushi, the kind of sushi most people think of is the sushi, in spite of several requests to do so. There are a couple reasons for this, which you may want to consider before embarking on your own nigiri sushi making experiments. One reason, as I've written about before, is that it's quite difficult to get the nigiri part (the forming of the rice ball and placing of the neta or topping) right. Of course you can practice this, or use a sushi former, or even - if you get fanatical about it - a sushi robot. But the more serious reason is that raw fish is something to be very, very wary of at all times.

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The disaster zone kitchen has been largely cleared up now. The kitchen table is still piled up with foodstuffs that need to be re-housed, but otherwise things are mostly back to normal. Except that is for my general will to do some serious cooking. There is something about throwing away bags of ruined flour, sugar, and formerly dry pasta that damages ones will to live, er, that is cook with a light heart.

What I did discover though is that I am a hoarder. With a small household, there's no need at all to have so many things stockpiled. Why did we even have 6 bags of sugar and buy flour by the ten-pack anyway, when it's not even cheaper to do so? I don't bake that much, and I only need sugar in large amounts during jam and preserve making time, which is still weeks down the road. Likewise, we have still 10 cans of tuna when we barely eat the stuff at all.

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We've had a bit of a Plumbing Disaster in the kitchen, which has necessiated the removal of everything from shelves and such up onto higher ground (not to mention the disposal of many ruined food items). This has meant cooking activities have had to take a short pause. Hopefully the kitchen, my sanity, and cooking (and posting thereof on this blog) should be back shortly.

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I'm a week late in reading this, but last week's article in the NY Times by Mark Bittman about a low frills kitchen for $200 really reminded me how our cooking choices are influenced by our culinary heritage. In other words, I would not have made the choices he did in a lot of cases.

For instance he says that you need some expensive burner kit to 'properly' use a wok, so you might as well forget it. A decent wok was the first thing I bought for myself when I was starting out on my own was a decent wok from a local Chinese kitchen supply shop, and it worked fine on my regular issue gas range. Another thing I also got was an inexpensive rice cooker like this one (which you may note costs less than his totally extraneous vegetable cutter gadget). I may not have made rice 'twice daily', which he says is your criteria for purchasing a rice cooker, but I relied on it all the time, especially for making my own bento lunches which saved me tons of money in the long run.

Three steel bowls? One that's big enough to handle most tasks is fine. If you need to lay out ingredients or something you can use your dinnerware (which I still do when I run out of bowls and such.) 3 different frying pans? I just had a small one, and the wok, which is much more useful than multiple frying pans. I still only own three frying pans and a large flat-bottomed wok, and the last gets much more use.

I think when you are equipping a kitchen, regardless of budget, you have to really ask yourself how you will use it.

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As I've stated many times here over the years, the basis of most Japanese savory foods is a good dashi, or stock. Dashi is not just used for soups, it's used for stewing, in sauces, batters, and many, many other things.

The regular way to make dashi was one of my first entries on Just Hungry. It uses kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi). Some people use niboshi, small dried fish, in addition to or instead of bonito flakes.

Katsuobushi and niboshi are both fish-based, so not vegetarian. So how do you make a good vegetarian, even vegan, dashi?

Following up to my previous post about food stamp budget experiments:

Rebecca has left a comment, where she points out she is following the USDA Thrifty Meal Plan, on which food stamp benefits are based. This is where her budget figure of $74 per week for 2 people (not $74 per day as I erroneously typed...that's sort of generous!) comes from, which comes out to $5.30 per day per person.

Actually another blogger did a month-long Thrifty Meal Plan experiment 2 years ago, though she did not stipulate organic/local as Rebecca is doing. Half Changed World ate on the Thrifty Food plan for a month (followup posts are here, here, here, here and the final wrapup.) She had the additional challenge of feeding her two small children, including one who was (is) a picky eater, as well as her husband.

(It seems quite illogical to me that the food budget or food stamp allocation is the same for all people, whether it's a tiny baby or a growing hungry teenager. But I guess that's government for you.)

[The following has been edited to correct some things from the original posting and add a couple of links. Serious Eats lists some more congresspeople participating.]

Last year the most popular food plan experiment was "eating local". This year so far it seems to be "eating on a food stamp budget". The main reason for this is upcoming debate on the 2007 farm bill. Bush administration is proposing to make big cuts in food assistance for the poor, a large part of which would mean cuts to the food stamp program. [Edit: as an anonymous commenter pointed out, that was a link to an article about the 2005 farm bill cuts.] (A NY Times editorial about the subject [Edit: this actually is about the 2007 Farm Bill :)].) So a number of politicians are doing the Food Stamp Budget Experiment at least in part to protest against this.

Here are the ones I've found so far (Note, some of these links were already posted to my, so my apologies for the duplicates if you follow that also.)


One of the (many) food obsessions I have is nut brittles. Peanut brittle, macademia nut brittle, almond brittle (which, when pulverized, turns into praline). I love that combination of caramel and nut flavor. Peanut brittle is the most handy kind to get a hold of, and make. I make it as often as my teeth and waistline allow.

But, I realized yesterday that I have never had truly good peanut brittle.