Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library's culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called "First Monday," where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara's books include "From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals" and "From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food," which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including "Home Cooking in the White House" published in "White House History." She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called "Cooking in Captivity."

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who's Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television's "The Today Show," "Martha Stewart Living" and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who in Food and Beverages" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escofier.

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Want To Write About Food? 6 Reasons You’re Trending Image

Food writing has become such an immensely popular activity that is attracting hordes of enthusiasts. This is ironic, for in days gone by female journalists who may have wanted to write about politics or finance were instead relegated to the low-status feature pages of their newspapers and told to write about hats and shoes or casseroles and puddings. But before I go on, I must mention the obvious — that I, too, am among the many who write an online food column, so I have a pretty good idea why writing about food has its appeals.

You can write or blog from anywhere

All you need is a laptop and you can write about food anywhere, and at any time. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

All you need is a laptop and you can write about food anywhere, and at any time. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Food writing has taken on a cachet, an activity perceived as glamorous and exciting by both men and women, and while jobs in newspapers dwindle for all writers, anyone with a computer can set up shop as a food blogger. Even a cursory glance at the Internet’s food sites will confirm that professional writers and amateurs alike are beavering away, writing and photographing what they are eating, where they ate it, and providing information, opinions and recipes for the world to see.

To add to this traffic, food writing classes and workshops are springing up, guaranteeing that even more people will be food blogging in the future.

There is a lot to say about food

Cooking classes, restaurant reviews, new and unusual foods -- there is plenty to write about in the food world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Cooking classes, restaurant reviews, new and unusual foods — there is plenty to write about in the food world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Writers are finding that food has enormous scope that includes writing about fresh produce, travel, nutrition, agriculture, recipes, restaurant reviews, personal anecdotes and more. So, for instance, sensualists can describe the texture and flavor of an ingredient or dish, an effective approach when writing about an unfamiliar food.

Traveling, eating and writing — an enticing combination

Writing and traveling are a food writer's dream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Writing and traveling are a food writer’s dream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

This is why writers comb the earth in search of a new place and cuisine to write about that is not already saturated with food writing.

To be able to travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who fancy being sent on expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world in order to eat, write about the food, and then get paid for it. Alas, those jobs are hard to find.

Eating for health is a hot topic

Nutrition and health are always popular topics for food writers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Nutrition and health are always popular topics for food writers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Another big topic is healthy eating, a subject that used to be of interest only to professional nutritionists and dieticians whose writing ran the risk of being repetitive and boring.

But these days, with so much conflicting information around about food and health, what to eat has become controversial and relevant, and writers are adding their voices to such disagreements. Some, for instance, are convinced that avoiding gluten is good for us and others go further by insisting that the avoidance of all grains entirely will make us feel better and lose weight. At the same time, a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health informs us that eating more whole grains is associated with up to 15% lower mortality — particularly from cardiovascular disease. Such controversies are fodder for food writers interested in diet and health.

Big public policy issues such as sustainable agriculture, genetically engineered seed and the humane treatment of livestock are juicy topics for writers, as are the more intimate and nostalgic stories about what Grandma used to cook, the sort of reminiscence that routinely shows up at holidays.

Eating invites the personal

Everyone has food memories, and M.F.K. Fisher turned hers into fascinating memoirs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Everyone has food memories, and M.F.K. Fisher turned hers into fascinating memoirs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

Everyone eats, and that may explain why so many identify as experts on food and want to express themselves through writing about it. Indeed, a whole literary genre, the food memoir, has sprung up whereas before, M.F.K. Fisher pretty much had a monopoly on this territory. The risk in this kind of writing is that fascination with one’s own food memories will not necessarily pique the interest of others, unless the writing is superb and the perspective as offbeat as Fisher’s tended to be.

Food in culture and history is fascinating

Food is intimately connected to our culture, which makes it endlessly fascinating. Credit: Copyright 2015 Shutterstock

Food is intimately connected to our culture, which makes it endlessly fascinating. Credit: Copyright 2015 Shutterstock

Another huge approach to food writing is to treat food as a lens that allows writers to comment on a period in history or on the culture at large. For instance, I am interested in the social roles assigned to men and women at a given time, so I notice who does what, and in the case of food, who cooks, who eats and who serves.

Everyone knows that men were traditionally the professional chefs working in restaurants and hotels while women used to do all of the everyday home cooking. But this arrangement has changed because of a shift in American culture. With wives these days holding down full-time jobs, sometimes as professional chefs, home cooking — what used to be seen as a task fit only for women or for sissies — has now become an acceptable activity for regular dudes.

Similar observations are being explored by graduate students turning out Ph.D. dissertations that put food at the center of their research. Although the audience for academic writing is limited, popular writing, especially when it shows up on the Internet, can reach millions. Our hope, of course, is that the number of readers will increase and keep pace with the mounting numbers of food writers looking for an audience.

Main photo: To travel and write about food is a glamorous attraction for people who dream of expense-paid trips to exotic parts of the world. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrea Rosenthal

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Perfecting A Camera-Ready Chocolate Coffeecake Image

I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.

But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.

So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?

Learning experience

To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.

What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.

As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.

The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.

While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment  — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.

Perfecting Povitica

It is similar to cinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Povitica dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out thin and filled with a mixture of chocolate and walnuts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.

With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.

If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.

Povitica

Prep time: 1 hour

Rising time: 3 hours

Baking time: 1 hour

Total time: 5 hours

Ingredients

For the dough:

1 package rapid-rise yeast

1/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1 large egg

2 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:

2 cups walnuts

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Glaze:

1 egg white

1 teaspoon sugar

Instructions

Make the dough:

1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.

2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.

3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.

4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.

5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.

Make the filling:

1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.

2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.

3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.

4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.

Constructing the cake:

1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)

3. Spread dough with nut mixture.

4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.

5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.

6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.

7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.

8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.

9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.

Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.

Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

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How Winter Storms Change The Meaning Of Food Image

Being stuck in the house because of monumental snowstorms is nothing new for me because I grew up in Wisconsin. But before this winter I had never seen the amount of snow that has buried the Boston area where I now live — eight to 10 feet accumulated in successive storms, accompanied by freezing temperatures.

Communities have created “snow farms,” formerly empty spaces where truckloads of snow from streets and sidewalks is dumped. We have been warned to clear our roofs to avoid cave-ins and have been bombarded with tips to do that safely. If we were unable to rake off snowy roofs, one suggestion was that we stuff a pair of pantyhose with noncorrosive ice melt and fling it onto the roof. But when seen from a distance, wouldn’t this get-up look like half of a murdered female body? I don’t want to think about it. Instead, I rush to crowded grocery stores between storms and stock up on food I don’t really need.

This siege mentality put me in mind of the horror of real sieges such as Leningrad in World War II when the Germans put the city under blockade and starved the citizenry. People were reduced to catching and eating domestic animals, digging up and devouring tulip bulbs from public gardens, and licking off wallpaper paste from walls. In contrast, what I am going through — a fear of running out of canned tomatoes in case I want lasagna — is a minor, if not decadent, concern. Nevertheless, off I go to the supermarket to stock up, and along with my neighbors fill my cart just as fast as store employees refill the shelves.

Stocked for any situation

I should say at the outset that I have three freezers that are always stocked with meat, bread and rolls, vegetables and cooked dishes such as thick soups and meat rolled in cabbage, our favorite winter dish. The truth is I probably could eat well for a couple of months if the snowstorms continued and made shopping impossible. Losing power concerns me, but I do have a wood-burning fireplace and would be able to grill steaks and chops and oversee a weenie roast complete with s’mores. When a friend asked me what I would do if power went out and my freezers stopped working I said, “Why I would bury all the food in a snowbank,” and we certainly have plenty of those.

Where the fear of scarcity takes us

Although I am well-supplied, I rush to the supermarket to stock up on what I think I must have if I am housebound. I first load up on staples. When I see the store’s supply of bread is depleted, I go to the baking department and, to my surprise, see that most of the flour is momentarily gone too. I stock up on other staples, buying half-and-half for coffee and a favorite brand of plain yogurt for my usual breakfast of  yogurt parfaits. Getting more coffee is not a problem because I buy large quantities online, but I do pick up grapes as well as a crate of clementines, which have been especially good this year. I cannot help but notice how much food is available. Grocery workers are everywhere, replenishing the shelves with abundant supplies. I fill my cart with canned goods — salmon, tuna fish, sardines, whatever can be eaten straight from the can, for you never know.

Retail therapy

I decide to go after goods I don’t normally buy, feel-good luxuries such as a Stilton from Neal’s Yard Dairy and plenty of candy, my junk food of choice. I only need the suggestion of hardship to think I deserve chocolate-covered peanuts or licorice from Australia. I look at other people’s carts and see huge jugs of bottled water and wonder whether some think that municipal water supplies will be endangered. I also see carts full of pretzels and chips, which I suppose serve as compensatory junk food. At home I struggle to find room on pantry shelves for recent purchases, then do the equivalent of window shopping by looking at favorite online food sites.

No matter what side of the street you live, there's no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

There’s no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Perspective amid the snow

At the back of my mind is the realization of just how lucky I am to be living in a country where only 6% of the household budget is spent on food, unlike poorer countries of the world where 40% to 50% must be spent, and 15% in the more prosperous European countries, as professor Anne McCants pointed out in a paper delivered at the MIT symposium “Consuming Food, Producing Culture.” I become aware that shopping for food and anything else has become a pleasant, and often, idle pastime. And when I think about my recent stocking-up foray to the grocery store, I recall how the aisles were cluttered not only with frantic shoppers but also with store clerks restocking shelves with massive loads of food, and I think again of the siege in Leningrad where people died of starvation. That it occurred in the winter is the only thing my Boston experience shares with that real siege. In all other respects I have it good, especially since I won’t have to think about how to cook the family cat and how that would taste.

Pantry Pea and Carrot Soup

Adapted from a recipe in “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer. I like this version because it is fast and because I usually have the ingredients on hand. Plus, it is really good.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 55 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced 1/8-inch thick

6 cups chicken stock (canned is fine)

1 cup green split peas

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Using a large saucepan, heat oil and sauté onion, garlic and celery for 5 minutes.

2. Add cumin and carrots and cook 2 minutes.

3. Add stock, bring to a boil and add split peas.

4. Simmer partially covered for 45 minutes or until peas are very tender

5. Purée 2 cups of soup mixture in a food processor or blender and return to rest of the soup in the pot.

6. Taste for salt and pepper.

Main photo: The more the snow falls, the less is available on supermarket shelves as customers panic and buy out stores. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

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How Anyone Can Do Better On Valentine’s Day Candy Image

If I happen to be in a drugstore on Valentine’s Day, I see men of all ages standing in line to pay for those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates tucked under their arms, and I say to myself, “You can do better.” By waiting until the last minute, they wind up in stores open later than others and buy chocolates that can be waxy, too sweet and filled with artificial flavorings. With a bit of planning, people seeking Valentine’s Day candy can present their loved ones with something really delicious.

That chocolates have taken their place as a Valentine’s Day gift of choice is easy to understand. It is a sensuous food that gives instant pleasure, having a flavor and texture people truly love. In the words of cartoonist and humorist Sandra Boynton, “Research tells us that 14 out of any 10 individuals like chocolate.” Her book “Chocolate: The Consuming Passion” came out in the 1980s when we believed that chocolate wasn’t good for us and would buy carob from health food stores, thinking it a worthy substitute. About this practice Boynton says, “Carob can, when combined with vegetable fat and sugar, be made to approximate the color and consistency of chocolate.” She adds, “Of course, the same arguments can as persuasively be made in favor of dirt.” Happily, these days we are told that chocolate contains properties that are healthy, and when eaten in moderation can provide nutrients as well as pleasure.

For reasons that have never been clear to me, gifts of chocolates have been assigned to what men are supposed to give to women and not the other way around. But I dare say that we all know men who like candy, just as we know women who love beefsteaks and roasts, foods thought to be the prerogative of men. With this in mind, I have suggestions for gender-free Valentine gifts bound to make almost anyone happy.

Burdick

Most cities and many towns have chocolate shops run by independent chocolate makers who have specialty items that make wonderful gifts and, like other businesses, these shops have online services giving everyone access to these treats. In Boston, where I live, we have Burdick candy shops, and their signature chocolate is in the shape of a little mouse filled with divine ganache. These come in your choice of dark, milk or white chocolate, and packed together in a little wooden box make charming gifts.

Burdick's signature chocolate is in the shape of a little mouse filled with divine ganache. Credit: Barbara Haber

Burdick’s signature chocolate is in the shape of a little mouse filled with divine ganache. Credit: Barbara Haber

Jacques Torres

While in New York recently, I gazed into the Jacques Torres shop at Grand Central Station and understood why this famous pastry chef and chocolatier has been dubbed “Mr. Chocolate.” His window was filled with stunning examples of his art including chocolate boxes filled with beautifully shaped pieces, and a clever and elegant Valentine’s gift of a three-piece puzzle that, when put together, forms a heart that says “I love you.”

Less is more

This leads me to an important point I want to make. Fine chocolate makers offer small sizes of gifts that are affordable as well as appropriate. Encased as they are in exquisite packaging, they are a far cry from those cardboard red hearts with tacky gold bows found in drugstores. That they are available in five-pound sizes does not make them better.

See’s

If you prefer a homespun candy, then I would recommend See’s Candies, a confection that was started by Charles See in Los Angeles in 1921 and is available in shops throughout the American West. Its logo is a picture of Mary See, the founder’s mother, whose sweet-faced, white-haired, bespectacled image is meant to reflect the fresh and wholesome ingredients found in the company’s chocolates. This brand happens to be a favorite of mine, and when Warren Buffett bought the company because he liked the product, I said to myself, “If it’s good enough for Warren Buffett, it’s certainly good enough for me.” Like any of the shops mentioned, See’s does a flourishing online business that even allows you to select only the pieces you like. This avoids the infamous practice of people squeezing and peering at chocolates found in assortments to examine their fillings, then putting them back in the box when not to their liking.

Chocolate to last

If a single gift of chocolates seems too minimal, then perhaps signing up with a chocolate-of-the-month club will strike you as a good idea. These deals vary in the quality of the chocolate, the varieties available and the frequency of the deliveries. You can, for instance, sign up with a company such as Godiva or Harry & David that can send out the gifts every three or even four months instead of once a month. There is something really exciting, not to mention romantic, about receiving such a gift throughout the year; in this way, the intent of Valentine’s Day — to express one’s love — is stretched out, too.

Don’t let your sweet tooth cloak your inner wisdom

When making this rather pricey overture, however, a word of caution is in order. Make sure that your relationship is on solid ground, for what could be more galling than knowing the person who dumped you is still receiving your generous gifts.

Main photo: A Valentine Day’s message that needs no explanation. Credit: Barbara Haber

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The Good News About Cooking Mistakes Image

Once in a great while I stumble across a new way of doing things in the kitchen, sometimes as the result of carelessness. For instance, I was boiling some small unpeeled potatoes recently, having salted the water as usual, then wandered off, only to return to the kitchen where I caught a slight whiff of food on the verge of burning.

When I checked my pot I saw that all of the water had boiled off. What remained were potatoes that had crunchy skins and, as it turned out, tender and delicious interiors. When I tasted them I realized that the salt in the water had penetrated so that every bite of the potato was perfectly flavored and the crusty skins delectable. They reminded me of potatoes that had been cooked on the grill, but without the fuss of lighting fires and dealing with charcoal and its accompanying gray dust.

I am thinking about cooking this dish again, but have no idea how long it will take for the water to boil away. So I have devised a plan: I will situate myself in the kitchen along with a good novel — “War and Peace,” perhaps — and be sure to stay put while the potatoes cook, and I will pay attention to how much time goes by before the potatoes turn into the delicious dish on which I stumbled. I want to avoid ruining the potatoes and wrecking my pot.

Hot dogs, beyond the long bun

Another time, when preparing lunch for my husband, I found in my freezer one lone hot dog bun that was scheduled to hold two hot dogs. (He prefers that combination while I would be happier with one hot dog and two buns, being the bread-lover that I am.)

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

While I usually avoid putting any sort of bread into the microwave, I popped in the frozen bun thinking I would retrieve it in seconds and then toast it before squeezing in the hot dogs. I must have been distracted and set the microwave time in minutes rather than seconds because when I finally retrieved the roll, it had the look and texture of a block of wood, and I instantly dispatched it to the garbage can.

I still needed something for the hot dogs and could only find a plump-but-frozen hamburger bun. This time I was careful to let it thaw on its own before toasting. Then I was delighted to find that, with a bit of surgery, two hot dogs fit perfectly into one round bun. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that such a discovery would require a couple of advanced degrees, but this story does have a moral. Sometimes we are so conditioned to go along with conventional thinking when preparing a dish that we can miss a tasty or useful variation. Just because hot dogs are traditionally served in a long bun, why can’t they be served in a round one? And must we always fry our eggs in butter? How about olive oil? Speaking of which, the best boiled lobster I ever tasted was provided by a friend in Maine who served it with a fabulous warmed olive oil instead of the conventional melted butter.

Meatloaf, with whole allspice

I experienced another kitchen error years ago when preparing a meatloaf for a weekday family meal. My recipe involves a pound of ground beef, a grated raw potato, a grated raw onion, an egg, salt and pepper, and I was in the habit of studding the top of the dish with whole black peppercorns before it went into the oven. But one time I mistakenly reached for a jar of whole allspice instead of the peppercorns, and, unaware of this error, lightly tapped in six or seven over the top of the loaf before starting the cooking process. When a delicate fragrance soon filled my kitchen, I became mystified, for it was a subtle aroma not usually associated with meatloaf, which, after all, is hardly an exotic dish. When we sat down to dinner, everyone loved the new taste that had transformed my old standby recipe into something a little unusual, and ever since I have been using allspice whenever I make meatloaf.

Young chefs cross the invisible line in the kitchen

While I find such innovations delightful, in part because of their accidental origin, I am dubious about the deliberate attempt, especially by young chefs these days, to create new dishes by throwing all sorts of ingredients together.

Bacon, kale and salted caramel are the latest trendy foods to pop up with alarming regularity. In thumbing through new cookbooks, I spotted recipes for bacon in caramel corn, in s’mores, and sneaked into the streusel for an apple pie, all of which struck me as unappetizing. I found a kale recipe for what was dubbed a “green bloody Mary” because instead of tomato juice, it contained pulverized kale. A better name would have been “vampire bloody Mary,” since I like to think that vampire blood is green. All of these treatments are novelties that do not necessarily add to the taste of an altered dish. I must say, though, that I am more forgiving about the liberal use of salted caramel as long as it’s being added to a dessert and not to mashed potatoes.

To be sure, many deliberate innovations are delectable. Delicate pizzas made with bits of tender chicken and a touch of pesto, instead of gloppy red sauce and greasy melted cheese, come to mind. So does the combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, discovered by an ingenious Italian whose country makes the delectable gianduja, one of my all-time favorite confections.

Still, I like best my happy accidents, and do hope there will be more to come.

Main photo: Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

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The Dinner We All Want For The Holidays Image

I am thinking about having an ecumenical holiday party this year to bring together friends of varying religious and ethnic persuasions and am enjoying the challenge of coming up with an inclusive menu that will honor my guests. I have been giving this party a lot of thought and decided to limit my scope to foods that represent Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the main holidays celebrated this time of year. Otherwise, if I try to include dishes representing the backgrounds of each of my guests, I will get into a tizzy trying to bring in dishes that reflect everyone’s nationality and/or religious belief. Besides, I have no idea what Ethical Culturists eat.

For Christmas

First, I will be thinking through Christmas dishes because that celebration dominates American culture this time of year, so much so that it is hard to believe that the holiday as we now know it has evolved only since the 19th century. Before that, our Puritan forefathers frowned upon its observance because they saw it as pagan. When Christmas finally came into its own, it became a holiday associated with children — gifts, good food and good cheer heavily influenced by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Those influences make clear why the holiday is so child-centered, what with hanging up stockings and leaving cookies for Santa Claus, and singing about reindeer.

As for the food I will serve, I want to avoid menu clichés such as the usual Christmas turkey or ham and will aim for other dishes gussied up to look festive. If I am feeling flush, I may go for beef tenderloins and will be extra cautious to not overcook this expensive meat. But if my guest list is large, I may cook the less costly pork tenderloins and will surround the platter with roasted apples and red potatoes and a sprinkling of sage leaves that may still be available from my garden. And this reminds me of a blunder I almost made. I recently bought a Jerusalem cherry plant because I was attracted to its shapely leaves and big red berries. I had just about decided I would decorate my holiday platters with cuttings from the plant when I discovered that the berries are poisonous, a member of the deadly nightshade family. So let us not get carried away by putting unfamiliar vegetation on food platters.

For Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that generally coincides with Christmas, is a less important observance than Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But Hanukkah’s proximity to the Christian holiday has led to its growing prominence, and it too has become a child-centered event with the daily lighting of candles and the distribution of gifts. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the ancient temple of Jerusalem when its menorah miraculously burned for eight days and nights despite only a bit of oil being available. This explains why food fried in oil symbolizes the event, with potato latkes and jelly doughnuts the best known of the dishes. I have learned that I can make trays of latkes in advance, so I will prepare an assortment that will include not just those made with potatoes, but some with salmon and zucchini, and a dessert one with apples, all fried in advance, then heated in the oven just before serving.

For Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, based on several African harvest festivals, is a seven-day holiday that was established in the United States in 1966 as a tribute to African-American culture. Fruits, nuts and vegetables play a major role in this celebration so they should be featured in dishes served. My appetizers will include toasted almonds, and I will serve a roasted chicken surrounded by such vegetables as carrots, sweet potatoes and onions. For dessert, I will have sautéed bananas with a rum raisin sauce served warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Not for Festivus

Thinking about the origins of these holidays has put me in mind of Festivus, dubbed “the holiday for the rest of us,” an invented celebration made famous in an episode of “Seinfeld.” The preferred dishes are some kind of meatloaf and spaghetti with red sauce, created I suspect because they include low-budget ingredients. This spoof involves the ritual “Airing of Grievances” that takes place immediately after the Festivus dinner when each of the assembled guests lashes out at the others to complain about affronts they have experienced all year. Festivus makes fun of consumerism and the often-manufactured good cheer that dominates the culture for all of December.

The music and mood

While it is amusing to think about such a grouchy holiday, I have decided not to include it in my party since I prefer a more positive approach to my celebration. I will, however, insist that gifts are not exchanged and the music I play will be limited to classical guitar, a bit of Bach, some Gershwin and the rapturous trumpet-playing of Miles Davis.

Holiday Pork Tenderloin

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 60 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

Ingredients

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 garlic cloves finely chopped

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 pork tenderloins with a combined weight of 3 to 4 pounds

6 or 8 small red potatoes cut in half

3 large red apples cut into quarters

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup water

Springs of fresh sage for garnish

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In small dish combine thyme, garlic, oil, salt and pepper to form a paste.

3. Tie the two tenderloins together, place on rack in roasting pan and rub with the garlic and thyme paste. Roast 30 minutes.

4. Reduce oven to 350 F and surround pork with potatoes and apples. Roast for about 35 minutes longer or until meat thermometer registers 145 F. Remove potatoes and apples to a plate. Let pork stand for 15 minutes, and temperature will continue to rise 5 to 10 degrees.

5. Meanwhile, take away rack from roasting pan. Stir flour into drippings and cook at medium heat for 1 minute, stirring. Add wine, heat to boiling and keep on loosening brown bits from pan. Add broth and water and boil 1 minute. Pour into gravy boat.

6. Place pork on serving platter with potatoes and apples arranged around it. Garnish with sprigs of sage or whatever other fresh herbs are available.

Main photo: Roasted pork tenderloin with red potatoes, apples and sage. Credit: Barbara Haber

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