Keep home economics in the home

In today’s New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit argues that America’s public schools ought to revive the teaching of home economics. That simply isn’t going to happen, not given the state of public school funding, the priorities of education reformers, or the inexorable march towards core curriculum. And that knowledge, frankly, is a relief to me, because I’d be deeply worried about the effect the schools might have on what little there is of American home cooking. By all means, teach children to cook – but not in school. Continue reading “Keep home economics in the home”

Gilded Age tomato ketchup

For a few summers several years ago I made ketchup from half-bushel boxes of paste tomatoes, using a recipe from an old issue of Fine Cooking. The ketchup had good flavor, but it was a little too reminiscent of something Italian, with lots of bottom notes from charred onion and the faint pizza-aroma of oregano. We liked it but never used up a batch. The problem was that it substituted for industrial ketchup in only a few of its uses. It made a good topping for burgers and dipping for fries, but as a base for cocktail sauce it was terrible. Industrial ketchup essentially has no aroma; it’s pure mouth-taste — sweet, sour, salt, and umami. To emulate that blend at home would be a waste of time and money; homemade ketchup ought to have flavor. But making ketchup flavorful makes it something entirely different.

I decided to give homemade ketchup another try this summer, and this time, I went back to the nineteenth century for inspiration. Continue reading “Gilded Age tomato ketchup”

Not just for breakfast anymore!

In 1900, Pillsbury held an amateur recipe contest, with $680 in cash prizes going to the twelve best uses of Pillsbury’s Vitos. Introduced in 1897, Pillsbury’s Vitos were the flour-miller’s answer to the boom in breakfast cereals begun by Shredded What and Corn Flakes, a packaged, ready-made, processed cereal product. Advertising proclaimed it “the ideal wheat food, [which] needs to be boiled only and is then ready to serve as a breakfast food.” Ah, but not only as a breakfast food! “It can be served in thirty other ways—breads, cakes, puddings, desserts, etc.” A free cook book, available by mail, showed you how.

Also, according to the packaging, they were sterilized. Yes! “Pillbury’s VITOS, the ideal wheat food, is sterilized. Unlike other cereals, it does not have to be critically examined before using and none need ever be thrown away.”

Fourth prize in the recipe contest went to Pillsbury’s Vitos Cheese Ramekins — individual serving-sized cheese soufflés made with breakfast cereal. What, I ask you, could be more indescribably scrumptious than that? Continue reading “Not just for breakfast anymore!”

Apples and time

I spent half the weekend making apple butter. Twenty-two half-pint jars of apple butter, from a half-bushel of apples, a completely unnecessary quantity that will be foisted off on unsuspecting friends come Christmas. In the meantime it occurs to me that this is the twentieth consecutive year (!) I’ve made apple butter, and so I ought to know something about it by now. Yet what I know isn’t anything I can reduce to a recipe. Apple butter is a pure expression of the apple’s essence, an exercise in simplicity; easy to make, impossible to perfect. It has, after all, only two ingredients: apples and time, both of which can seem to have minds of their own. Here’s what I know about each. Continue reading “Apples and time”

Preserves

It has for several years been a source of mild frustration to me that I cannot find a reliable recipe for preserves. I have all kinds of recipes for chutneys and conserves and marmalades, and for jams with honey and low-sugar jellies and for special preserves made from this or that sort of (where I live) unattainable stone fruit. What I want is simply strawberry preserves, peach preserves, blackberry preserves, and there, so far as I can tell, are no well-tested recipes to be had in books.

For basic jams and jellies, of course, the folded sheet in the box of pectin gives me instructions, but the point of preserves is not to use boxed pectin. Preserves is fruit with just enough sugar to literally preserve it, and perhaps a touch of fresh lemon juice if even that much sugar seems too sweet; it is stirred and tended while it cooks down; it is soft on the spoon and in the mouth, not molded like a school-lunch dessert. To make true preserves is to capture the essence of fresh summer fruit and hoard it away in a cupboard for the horrible soggy February morning when you simply cannot face another day of winter, and you open it up and spoon dollops onto buttered toast and feel that perhaps you can live another day. Continue reading “Preserves”

Maybe it is magic after all

When I was learning to cook I liked to watch Jacques Pépin. In the early 1990s he recorded a series of short videos on basic cooking techniques that the local PBS station aired every year during its pledge drive. Poaching an egg, for example, or making mayonnaise, or trimming an artichoke, or making tomato flowers. When demonstrating a technique that required learned skill he slowed it down and patiently explained it so that the viewer could see and understand what he was doing. Then — and this was the part I especially liked — he would speed it back up so that you could see what the technique looked like in the hands of a professional. “In cooking school you would do it three, four hundred times,” he would say with a shrug, “and then it will look like this.” This looked like magic, but because I’d seen it step by step, his expectation that I would emulate him at home seemed perfectly reasonable. Continue reading “Maybe it is magic after all”