When one hits a certain age, strange things start showing up in the mail. Apparently, I’m not just going deaf but my eyesight seems to be failing too.
Back on February 27th (when it was 65 days till I turn 65), I regaled you with things that I like, love, or just make me happy. Now that it is 33 days till that significant birthday I would like to share with you with some things that just drive me crazy. I was first going to say things that I hate but an acquaintance said to me accusingly, “Why would you do that?” I told her not to worry, her name would not be mentioned, at least not this go round. Some of these might make you smile, others will just have you shaking your head but it is what it is.
1. Getting up early. The best part about retirement – sleeping in.
2. Sweet Tarts. They are not fun, eating them is cruel and unusual punishment.
3. Prejudice, Dishonesty, Stupidity. These are so bad they don’t deserve individual numbers.
4. Winter.…quickly followed by
5. Driving in the snow. Another positive part of retirement, I don’t have to go anywhere if I don’t want to.
6. “Unknown Caller” phone calls. If you aren’t brave enough to show your name on my caller I.D. then I ain’t talking to you.
7. You know when you are knitting and you realize you’ve dropped a stitch, like eight rows back? Yah, I hate that.
8. Bad hair days, especially when you are running late for an appt. and you have no time to do anything about it.
9. Evil done in the name of God. In the words of Blaise Pascal, “Men never take to evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”There are too many crazies out there who get away with a lot of bad shit because supposedly God said it was OK ( insert God of your choice, insert holy book of your choice.) Attention crazies! God has your number and he’s not happy.
10. Political commercials. I think I broke the mute button on my remote.
11. Abuse. Physical, mental, it’s all the same and it’s all bad.
12. Gaining weight. And the fact that as you get older it gets harder to lose it.
13. Slow computer connections. Why does it sometimes seem slower now than those old dial-up days?
14. Fish. Bleh! I’m not crazy about them dead or alive. Eating them, no way.
15. Cold feet. Socks are the best invention ever.
Ta-Da! Only one more list to go….on my birthday.
Lidia Bastianich, of course, is the well known TV chef on Lidia’s Italy which is in heavy rotation on my PBS station. She is also a restaurateur, teaming up with her son Joseph (you saw him this past Fall as one of the judges on Master Chef, along with Gordon Ramsey and Graham Elliot), Mario Batali and other less familiar names to form a web of well regarded restaurants. Her TV show, on-line web site, restaurants, books, and commercial ventures make Lidia a juggernaut in the food world.
And, she drives me nuts!
I have nothing against her cooking. I would be happy to eat most anything she cooks. It’s honest Italian cuisine well outside of the spaghetti and meatballs realm. She often has her mother, who she calls Nonna, on the show at the end to taste that program’s dishes. Nonna is a hoot and along with Ming Tsai’s mother, Iris, she is one of my favorite TV chef “side-kicks”. Each, Nonna and Iris, is one of the best things about their respective offspring’s TV shows.
But Lidia caramelizes everything. She never browns or sears food; she caramelizes it. I was taught that caramelization is what happens to sugar, and that the browning of meat or potatoes is not caramelization. In fact, Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen notes that everything browned is not caramelized. He explains that caramelization is what happens to sugar – simple sucrose molecules – when exposed to high heat. The browning that takes place in savory foods like onions, baked bread, roasted coffee beans, potatoes, pork chops or poultry skin is a Maillard reaction – the reaction of a carbohydrate (which may or may not be a sugar) with an amino acid in a hot, dry environment. He says, “Maillard reactions contribute even more to the pleasures of eating than caramelization does. But of course it doesn’t sound as good on a menu.” Or on TV apparently.
I know, the chemistry of cooking can get pretty obtuse and I’m not advocating that we start casually including references to Maillard reactions in our daily culinary conversations. But I could stand to hear a lot less about caramelization.
That having been said, I note that Michael Ruhlman in his book, The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef’s Craft for Every Kitchen (with an Introduction by world-class curmudgeon, Anthony Bourdain) weighs in on the casual use of the term caramelization. He says, “Technically, caramelization is the name we give to what happens to sugar molecules when they get hot, decompose, and begin to form new compounds. When we caramelize plain sugar, the sugar takes on many different hues and complex flavors. We often refer to the browning and sweetening of onions and other vegetables (and almost anything that browns as it cooks, for that matter) as “caramelization.” But in most instances the browning is … the result of Maillard browning (the reaction of protein and carbohydrates to heat) and not actual caramelization. The word caramelization remains a meaningful and less awkward term to describe the browning of fruits and vegetables during cooking than the more cumbersome term Maillard browning.”
So, OK, I get the point. Caramelization is a useful, shorthand for everyday use. But Lidia still drives me nuts when she uses and overuses it. And don’t get me started about what her mouth does when she tastes things!
There is something about a persimmon that seems to make grocery store clerks go apoplectic. “Is this a tomato? What’s this? What do you do with it? What’s it taste like?”
When I am in a curmudgeonly mood I might answer their question of “What is it?” with a retort like, “If I have to tell you then it must be half price.”
More often I’ll offer what I think is a perfectly good suggestion; that they ask the produce manager to, once a week, have a tasting for all the clerks. He picks two items from the produce department and has everyone taste them. Raw, if appropriate, or otherwise cooked in some simple way. I contend, that regardless of whether they like the taste of the item or not, the clerks will remember the difference between a mango and a papaya, or between a rutabaga and a parsnip, or between oyster mushrooms and shiitake. No clerk I have suggested this to has ever thought it was a good idea.
I know why. None of them eat vegetables or fresh fruit.
I do like persimmons. The persimmons available in our markets are botanically called Diospyros kaki and originate in Asia. The two generally available varieties are fuyu, a squat rounded fruit and hachiya, a somewhat larger heart-shapped fruit. The fuyu can be eaten while still firm, like an apple or, if they were pretty ripe when picked, they can be left to continue ripening until they are quite soft. The hachiya are very astringent when not fully ripe and are not considered edible when still even slightly firm. They are best left to ripen to the stage where they start to feel like something has gone wrong and that they’re on the verge of going bad because they’re so soft. That’s when you want to eat them. At this stage they’re a somewhat pulpy jelly-like consistency that is best eaten with a spoon. I like mine with a light sprinkling of black pepper.
Persimmons are not something I grew up on. The first I can remember seeing a persimmon in the store, I must have been in my 30’s but I didn’t buy them to eat them. These were the hachiya variety and I convinced the produce manager that they were overripe and instead of throwing them out he should give them to me to use as still-life material in my drawing class. Amazingly, he went along with the idea. After my class drew them, I used the fruit, that actually turned out to be perfectly ripe, to make a persimmon pudding from a now long-lost recipe. So I suppose if a produce manager can’t tell a perfectly ripe persimmon from an overripe persimmon, I shouldn’t expect a clerk to be able to tell the difference between a persimmon and a tomato.
In the art world persimmons hold a small but very revered place, aside from providing still-life material for my drawing class. One of the most famous Chinese Zen paintings is a sumi painting by Mu Chi, a 13th century Chinese zen monk that shows 6 persimmons arranged in a row. It’s spareness echos the astringency of the unripe persimmon.