Getting my appetite back – one bite at a time

It’s been a rough year – digestively speaking. While we usually play with our food on this blog, there hasn’t been much playing - with our without food around our house this last year. When your idea of a great meal is a bowl of instant mashed potatoes, you know you’re not fit to be writing about food for a while.

"The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite."- A. J. Liebling

What do you do when you lose your appetite? How do you get it back? It’s been taking me a lot longer than I thought it would. First, there’s just utter frustration of not being able, or really wanting to, enjoy the foods you love so much. That’s followed by denial, and most depressingly, acceptance.

While instant mashed potatoes offer a comforting blandness equal to a favorite old blanket – they’re not the stuff on which culinary dreams are made. Nor should they ever be enough. It’s like settling. And when you find yourself having a bad day and looking forward to them, it’s time to get help.

I love food. Problem is, it hasn’t always liked me. From the mouthwatering zip of a cold lemon shake-up to the warm, creamy bite of chicken tikka masala – all things rich, creamy, spicy or sour are on my list of no-nos. No coffee, no alcohol and well, no fun.

But like anything that’s fun and bad for you, I’ve always snuck them in - like a naughty schoolgirl caught out after curfew. It’s safe to say it always catches up to you. I had my first ulcer at age 8, followed by more than 20 years of acid reflux, hiatal hernia, a gallbladder that doesn’t work quite right, and now some odd form of colitis. Food has always been a battle of keeping it down or keeping it in.

Last summer put a kink in my culinary dreams. While it started probably more than a decade ago, it’s just now, there’s a name for it. After months of tests (a special thanks to everyone who shared their colonoscopy stories with me – you know who you are) it comes down to that I have too many mast cells. We all need them to survive and have a healthy immune system; just some of us get a few too many.

See, those little cells are granules –full of histamine, leukotrienes and more. Too much histamine and you get all sorts of fun – mastocytic enterocolitis (colon swells up, good times), acid reflux (that’s why acid blockers are actually h2 antihistamines), gallbladder can’t decide what to do, oh –and you get a really bad case of non-allergic rhinitis. The latter of which is utterly ridiculous because you sneeze so much you just pray you can get a bite of food swallowed first.

So, after lots of allergy tests, too – I’m basically allergic to myself. Good thing though, when I found out I wasn’t allergic to peanuts or had celiac disease I had the biggest, fattest peanut butter cookie I could find.

You have to take your first bite sometime . . .

Gina Edwards

GE, 09/07/10

You know that old one-liner, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?

Well, when it comes to human evolution – that old wives’ tale may be on to something. Except that apparently cooking made us smarter.

Primatologist Richard Wrangham, in his upcoming book Catching Fire, argues that by filling our stomachs with cooked foods rather than raw foods a few millennia ago, humans were able to spend less time chewing. And all of that saved energy went to our heads.

“Cooking enabled this species to evolve larger brains, which are energetically costly: if you have a small gut thanks to a cooked diet, the energy spared from maintaining the gut can fuel the brain instead. Cooking also changed the way we use our time. Apes eating raw food spend half their day just chewing. Humans spend under an hour a day chewing, freeing us for creative and social activities.” - Wrangham in a Publishers' Weekly interview.

Of course was also instrumental in structuring society, especially the division of labor amongst the sexes.

“This is an ancient exchange: women give men food, men protect women’s food from being stolen. Women had to do the same thing every day: produce the evening meal. Men could hunt, go on war expeditions, lie under a tree and gamble—and still find dinner waiting. Because of cooking, women ended up chained to domestic responsibilities; men did not.” - Wrangham in a Publishers' Weekly interview.

I suppose hindsight is 20/20, but I think if I had my own spear and a heavy rock, I could have defended my food just fine. How does that old song go, ‘the female of the species is more deadly than the male . . .”

When Wrangham was asked in the New York Times about what he eats himself, Wrangham indicated that he hasn’t eaten a mammal in 30 years as he does not eat anything he wouldn’t kill himself.

So just for fun, following the slippery slope theory, does this mean that vegans who eat a primarily raw diet are at risk for de-evolution?

Sorry. I suppose I should confess that I’m a flexitarian.

-GE, 4/24/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of
Cave art photo courtesy of Stock Exchange poster,

Can you cook without a book?

“Just as we have delegated most of our food decision-making to supermarkets so we have bowed our heads to the recipe. We can’t get through cooking life without them. We’ve come to treat recipes like crutches, to help us limp through the process of cooking a dish, rather (than) relying on our own expertise and judgment.” – Matthew Fort, Word of Mouth Blog, The Guardian.

As a cooking instructor and aspiring food writer, developing recipes is a necessary part of the game. But, I can’t help stopping to think how much easier it would be to just give an idea of what’s in a dish and not constantly measure, time and write notes in a hot kitchen. In theory, if everyone could cook without a book/recipe, I suppose I wouldn’t be needed anymore.

A majority of the culinary questions that I receive at classes, or even from family and friends, center around a recipe that they don’t understand (or had problems with). Or more often, the questions focus on a great deal they found at the butcher or farmers’ market but don’t know what to do with ‘it’ once they got home.

And that’s because, if you haven’t taken a professional level cooking class or immersed yourself in one of those 10-pound cooking tomes published by places like the Culinary Institute of America, you probably don’t know the ins and outs of moist-heat, dry-heat with fat, and dry-heat without fat cooking methods. It’s not just knowing what these methods are; it’s also knowing what type of food benefits from each method. This is something most recipes and cooking show hosts omit. Instead, and I’m guilty of this as well, you get recipe notes about how this was their grandmother’s favorite or how various factors inspired the final dish.

While this is nowhere near being all-inclusive, here’s a quick cooking method primer:

Moist-heat cooking methods include boiling, simmering, poaching, steaming, braising, blanching, deglazing, reducing and using a bain marie.

Dry-heat cooking methods without fat include grilling, barbecuing, broiling, roasting, baking and griddling.

Dry-heat cooking methods with fat include sautéing, sweating, pan-frying and deep-frying.

“But improvisational cooking may not be for everyone. Mark Bittman, author of ‘How to Cook Everything,’ says that for someone who doesn’t have some grounding in basic cooking methods such as roasting a chicken or properly heating a pan before searing a piece of meat, recipe-less cooking will probably be a loss. And baking, which often requires more precise measurements and temperatures, can be difficult to execute off the cuff.” – Pervaiz Shallwani, A Shift to Recipe-less Cooking, Wall Street Journal.

Michael Ruhlman in his latest book, Ratio – The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, may take that last bit of culinary wisdom to task. Just released in April, Ratio brings readers behind the curtain to reveal the wizardly secrets many chefs take for granted.

In Ratio, Ruhlman presents the theory that if you know a few key ratios you’ll better understand cooking in general and with the focus of his book, baking in particular. Included are ratios for dough and how to vary a few key ingredients to create bread, pasta, pie crust, cookies and choux pastry. Batters are also included providing readers with insight into pound cakes, sponges, angel food cakes, a variety of baked quick breads and batters that are griddled.

Not all chefs are bakers and not all bakers are chefs –something you’ll see pop-up in shows like Top Chef where some poor contestant is ‘stuck’ making a dessert. When reading and putting Ratio to the test, you can feel this unspoken trend in the time spent on the sweet versus savory uses of ratios. While guidance is provided for creating sausages, brines, sauces and stocks, the majority of the ratios provided are for dough, batters and custards.

In regards to using leavening, this is one area where Ratio is a weak – like a lot of other reference/basic cookbooks. Knowing how much yeast, baking soda or baking powder to use is left for home cooks to figure out on their own unless following one of Ruhlman’s recipes. And isn’t the point to move away from recipe dependence? This is an area where a lot of good ideas go wrong as many cooks don’t understand how leaveners work or interact with other ingredients in the mix. In the Sweet Kitchen, The Definitive Baker’s Companion by Regan Daley does cover some of these ins and outs while also doing a good job of explaining how different types of flours and grains will affect the final result.

If you’re like me and have a growing collection of culinary reference books, I would recommend adding Ratio to the shelf. By its ratio-inspired nature, the book is more ingredient driven than method focused which may make it a bit of a challenge for new cooks. Ruhlman, who has an engaging writing and teaching style, has one of the best explanations I’ve read on the importance of measuring by weight versus volume.

“When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ratio – The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

So don’t let recipes hold you back. As Fort says in his Word of Mouth Blog, recipes are not precise chemical formulas where if you remove an element you could cause an apocalypse. They should be there to nudge you along and to inspire your taste buds. To be quite honest, at the end of a long day, the last thing I want to do is read a recipe. Writing one? Well that’s just part of the gig.

-GE, 4/10/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Willing to pay more for Roquefort . . .

. . . and other imported European delights?

In January, the United States trade office announced a new set of tariffs to go into effect in March 2009. Their goal is to make the European market accept hormone-modified beef that has been banned from import from the United States.

If the tariffs pass, you can expect to pay more for any of the following imports:

  • Cured meats including hams and sausages

  • Lingonberry and raspberry jams

  • Peach and pear products

  • Fresh or chilled truffles

  • Oats

  • Italian mineral water

  • French chestnuts

  • Chocolate – including cocoa, blocks, slabs and filled bars

  • and of course, Roquefort cheese

The last one on the list seems to be causing the biggest stink, if you’ll excuse the pun. Already at a 100 percent tariff, Roquefort’s tariff would increase to 300 percent. That’s a lot for a stinky blue cheese that would be priced for at least $60 per pound.

While the change is causing an uproar in Europe and at specialty shops throughout the states, the cheese makers at the heart of the problem have already developed a ‘new’ cheese called Bleu des Basques Brebis. Apparently, it tastes just like Roquefort, comes from the same region, but somehow evades the tariff to be exported at a third of the cost.

But what about homegrown blue cheeses? Some of our ‘local’ favorites include:

Moldy blue cheese, high-priced truffles and imported Italian waters aside, what’s going on with the chocolate? Cheese we can find substitutes for – but a good, French dark chocolate, uh-uh.

-GE, 3/19/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Getting Spicy in 2009

Just like skirt lengths, hot colors and strappy thing-a-ma-jigs come and go on the runway, so goes the way of trendy flavors when it comes to predicting spice trends. Some years it’s all about fish sauce and ginger and other years it’s smoked Spanish paprika and acorn fed ham. Earlier this year, The Nibble, reported on what spice giant McCormick is predicting will be the hot flavors for 2009.

Cayenne Pepper – especially when matched with tart cherry. McCormick recommends incorporating these two flavors with the sweetness of corn in either corn bread or spoon bread.

Chinese Five Spice Powder – used to season cured pork. Bacon and pancetta are great choices to match with five spice powder. Since most home cooks are not curing their own bacon, try sprinkling a little of this herb blend (which includes cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns) on fresh side/pork belly or pork chops that will be grilled.

Dill – oddly combined with expensive, and hard to find, avocado oil. Both of these flavors are great match to the light seafood flavor of shrimps or scallops.

Garam Masala – used to season Mexican pepitas (pumpkin seeds). McCormick recommends using the pepitas in breading seasoned with garam masala or mixing the two flavors in a pasta salad.

Mint – the popularity of mint outside of sweet dishes comes and goes and here they predict it matching with the chewy, nuttiness of quinoa. Try using the mint in a dressing for a cold quinoa salad.

Tri-Color Peppercorn Mix – matched with the clean taste of sake – use the peppercorns in a rub and use the saké in a broth or a marinade.

Rosemary – particularly with fruity jams and then with cheese – think a rosemary infused cheesecake with a think preserve or jam topping.

Smoked Paprika – smoky, dried peppers have their heat offset by agave nectar. McCormick recommends using the paprika and nectar together for a spicy sweet sauce on shrimp, or adding a little paprika to an agave-sweetened margarita.

Tarragon – with beetroots (hmm . . . ) McCormick recommends using the tarragon in a vinaigrette to dress the beets.

Toasted Sesame – mixed with the taste of true root beer (personally I’m not a root beer fan, so I’ll take their word for it). McCormick recommends using root beer in a cake recipe and adding toasted sesame seeds to the batter.

McCormick tracks these trends through chefs, cookbook authors and food technologists.

- GE, 3/11/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

Maybe it is easy being green

. . . because you really can grow lettuce indoors in the Midwest

Nothing can get you more in the mood for spring than having a deadline. Mine was January 20, when it was so cold outside, one deep breath could make your snot crispy. The story objective - to encourage readers to get out there and dig around in their own back yard and start a garden. After all, how much more local can you get while saving money and being creative in the kitchen?

Slight problem, even if I scraped away the snow and ice covering my yard the only thing I was going to find underneath was more frozen tundra and freeze-dried brown things - I needed artwork to tell the story. I needed some earthy little sprouts. On the plus side, my tiny kitchen has one large south-facing window that I use to grow parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives and catnip in year-round.

So with the countdown clock set, my mission was to find some quick sprouting vegetables that are the harbingers of spring. The answer – baby mesclun mix and baby spinach. To speed things up, and to justify buying a new gardening gadget, I purchased a heated seed-starting mat that goes under prospective seedlings to warm their little plot of earth.

That earth was a mix of potting soil containing fertilizer and seed-starting medium (which is lighter). For aesthetic purposes, and since I wanted to fake a spring garden plot, I left out those little brown pellets and their fibrous pot cousins and spread my earthy mix in the seed starting tray. Then, each half was sprinkled with my little budding wonders of joy – half spinach and half lettuce.

With their buns warming and a mist of water each day, the little green heads began emerging within a few days. Once the sprouts were established, the warming pad was no longer needed. To keep moisture even, the clear tray lid was propped open with chopsticks – while I was home. You see, a big tray of dirt with little sprouts was too much temptation for the feline members of the house.

Which led the melt down of 2009. Well, the year is still young. You see, as I was waiting for the sprouts to get a bit bigger for their pictorial debut, curiosity did just about kill the cat. Someone decided to reach in their paw and tipped the whole mini-garden plot into a pile of green confetti and brown rubble. Of course this was as I was leaving for the day job. I thought all was loss until Mr. Andshecookstoo mentioned getting to work late that day.

Did I mention that most of the cats are his? After a careful replanting of each little seedling – something akin to playing a game of Operation – the plot was restored. He even kept the spinach and mesclun sprouts in their separate halves. Did I also mention he’s a librarian?

Consequently, the little darlings lived. And now, when most spring gardeners are just starting their plots of lettuces and greens, we have a bountiful little tray fit for two. Or more. I keep finding half-chewed pieces and dirty paw prints around the kitchen . . .

Mesclun is a mix of salad greens that offer a variety of flavors from peppery to herby. Originating in Provence, the greens come in a wide assortment of size, color and textures. The reason we used baby mesclun and baby spinach in this experiment was to save sprouting and maturity time and to not need a great depth of dirt while still providing room for the roots. With just a few seeds needed, I think this is something I will grow indoors year-round in addition to my herbs.

-GE, 3/1/09

A little food humor in honor of my Siamese, Frankie

And here's Frankie - he has a sweet tooth. He enjoys homemade angel food cake, ripe cantaloupe, peas, waffles with Lyle's Golden Syrup, Otap Crackers (like palmiers), and of course, any thing of the pork/bacon persuasion.

For more of Get Fuzzy,

-GE, 2/21/09

Funny Name, Great Fruit, In Season Now

They may have a funny sounding name, but kumquats are bite-size morsels in a sweet shell and a sour after bite. With a children’s fascination with all things sour in the candy aisle, maybe kumquats offer a perfect alternative.

Native to China and Japan, kumquats sport a sweet edible skin that is quite different to traditional citrus rinds allowing them to be eaten whole. Of course, with their little oval shape similar to grapes, also helps our snacking pleasure.The inside of a kumquat is not as juicy as its lemon and orange cousins and contains small seeds, or pips.

More resistant to cold, kumquats are grown on shrubby trees and in warm climates; they are grown for ornamental purposes.The Chinese have been preserving their crops of kumquats for centuries – the most popular of which is to preserve them in honey.

While they’re great sliced or whole in salads or as a garnish to roasted meats, cooking kumquats allows us to enjoy their short season a bit longer while bringing out a mellowness to the fruits. This is most often done by candying sliced kumquats, pickling whole fruits or allowing them to macerate in a hard liquor like brandy, whisky, rum, etc.

Try our Brandied Candied Kumquats – a method that fuses preserving the fruits in liquor with the candy process. The result - a honey-like preserve that can be used as a sauce for cheesecakes to pound cakes or even used for savory dishes, such as a sauce for pan-roasted pork loin chops.

Brandied Candied Kumquats
1 lb kumquats
1 ½ cups brandy
1 ½ cups water
2 cups sugar
Pinch of salt
3, small cinnamon sticks (approx. 3-inches in length)

Trim stem end of kumquats, and slice into 1/8 inch thick slices, removing pips/seeds.

Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan and using a candy thermometer boil mixture until it reaches 230 to 234 degrees (between thread and softball stage).

Pour hot mixture into a large glass jar, cool to room temp and then store in the refrigerator.

Yields approximately 2 to 2 ½ cups of candied kumquats/sauce.

For more great recipes
like this one, visit

-GE, 2/15/09