The Oscars Need More Food movies, that is. Aside from cooking, I also love to watch movies (good movies) and I love to watch the Oscars - not to see who's wearing what (I couldn't care less about that) but to actually see the movies. In between all the celebrity ego boosting, "comedic" skits, singing and other random glitz, they do show clips of great movies. I make it a point to watch all of the nominated flicks - eventually - and am slowly but surely working my way through the top 250 movies as listed by

It only makes sense that the impending award show made me start thinking about my favorite food movies. I’ve decided to list them Oscar style, in no particular order:

Best Food Movie. Period. ~ Eat Drink Man Woman
Chinese food has never, ever looked better. Ever. 

Best Sweets Movie ~ Chocolat
I’d kill for a cup of that sipping chocolate…

Best Movie Not About Food But With Great Food Scenes ~ Joy Luck Club
Just needs soy sauce!

Best Visuals ~ Babette's Feast
Less the poor doomed-for-dinner sea turtle, I dare anyone to not feel inspired after watching this feast for the eyes and mind.  If I could participate in but one movie meal, this would be it.

Best Copycat Food Movie ~ Tortilla Soup
Hispanic version of Eat Drink Man Woman and equally enjoyable.

Best Food Scenes in a Really Bad Movie ~ Simply Irresistible
This Sarah Michelle Gellar bomb involves a failed restaurant, magic crabs and crying into cookies. I’d love to get the recipe for her carmel éclairs, though.

Best Prison Meal Movie ~ Goodfellas
Ever sliced garlic with a razor blade?

Best Pie Movie ~ Waitress
This otherwise cutsie movie never fails to inspire me to make a quiche or pie or both. Bad Baby Pie, anyone?

Best Historical Portrayal Food Movie ~ Julia & Julia
Despite the fact that she is one of my favorite actresses, I did not see Meryl Streep in that movie.  I felt as if I were actually watching Julia Child alive and cooking.   

I've also heard great things about, but have never watched the following food favorites: Woman on Top, Tampopo, and Big Night.  I welcome any other suggestions...Netflix, here I come!

"A" is for Apple

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. The apple does not fall far from the tree. You are the apple of my eye. An apple for the teacher. Apple polisher. The Big Apple. Adam’s apple. The Apple Dumpling Gang. Apple pie. Apple cobbler. Apple cider. Apple sauce. 

One could go on and on endlessly, as apples are nearly as popular in literature and culture as they are on the table - or maybe more so. They are the symbolic downfall of the human race back in the Garden of Eden, the device used by the wicked queen to practically kill poor, sweet Snow White, the supposed target used by William Tell to show off his archery prowess, and the agricultural product sewn across the country (well, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio at least) by traditionally pan-hat wearing Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman. Even my favorite, Dr. Seuss, wrote of apples in the classic children’s book, Ten Apples on Top.

Apples (Malus domestica) are in the rose family and come in more different cultivars than the average teenager has pieces of clothes on her bedroom floor (some of my research lists nearly eight thousand variations - I counted). Apples were first grown for human consumption in Kazakhstan and were carried east by traders on the Silk Road (an intricate network of trade routes connecting the Asian continent with the Mediterranean as well as parts of Africa and Europe).  Apples eventually found their way to North America via settlers in the 17th century.

Before I moved back to Washington State, I got excited if I found good apples for under $2 a pound (my favorites are Honey Crisps and Pink Ladies). Imagine my pleasure when I saw the 4x4 tri-wall of monster sized Fuji apples for $.68 a pound and then a few days later, deep red – almost black – Red Delicious for the same price. I was finally back in apple country (indeed, more than half of those consumed in the USA are grown in Washington – about 4 billion pounds – yes…that’s billion with a “b”).  

Apples are nutritious, delicious, and amazingly versatile.  According to the Washington State Apple Commission, in addition to providing a myriad of other health benefits including prevention of heart disease, cancer and stroke, one apple has 20% of a body’s daily fiber along with potassium, vitamin C and a bit of vitamin A, iron and calcium. (Maybe they really can keep the doctor away.)  Apples can be used in both sweet and savory cooking; eaten raw, baked, boiled, broiled, dried or fried; made into juice, jelly, bread, crisp, crunch, crumble or compote; or utilized whole, diced, shredded, quartered, chopped, or chunked (peeled or not). There is an apple for every job and a job for every apple. Braeburns are primo in pie.  Galas are good for sauce and salad.  Red delicious are the best straight-up snacking apple – eaten raw with a smear of peanut butter or a slice of sharp cheddar cheese. And, Granny Smith and Yellow Delicious are the numero uno all-around apples good for everything from pies and preserves and even freeze well for use on a rainy (snowy) day (I did not know that!).   

I usually try to eat the apples when the skin is still glossy and smooth and the flesh is crisp and juicy.  However, sometimes one or two or a few get a little far gone (mangy, I say) and then I love to make baked apples.  It is a cinchy but well received recipe.  Preheat the oven to 350, grease a shallow baking pan and core, but not peel, the apples and set in the dish.  Combine 2T of brown sugar, 1/4t cinnamon and 1T chopped pecans (if desired) per apple and pack the mixture inside the hole.  Wedge 1T butter (cut in half) inside each and place the dish in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the apples are tender when pierced with a toothpick.  Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream or not.  Yum!

Our new house has several apple trees right in the yard, which is fortunate, as we are miles and miles from the doctor. So, I look forward to growing my own power packed pommes this spring...and I wonder what kind we have.   

Thanks to the Washington State Apple Commission for the "Core Facts":

In a Pinch

I celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and even Valentine’s Day with food, but the Super Bowl? Not usually. No one around here really cares that much about the game (Big Ten/Ohio State college ball is completely another story), so I had nothing special planned. But…I started thinking I should make something to munch on while watching the new Doritos and Budwieser commercials. I wasn't going to the store on Super Bowl Sunday and dug through my provisions to discover fat free refried beans, cornbread mix and a couple cans of Rotel tomatoes (one Original and one Mexican Lime and Cilantro) in the pantry, half a block of cheddar-jack in the fridge and whole kernel corn in the freezer and formed a plan.

I also recently picked up a quarter of free-range, grass fed, family farm owned beef and had plenty of steaks, roasts and a ton of ground beef (about fifty pounds to be exact – thank you Three Sisters). I wanted to preserve the rich flavor of the beef, so I toasted (just until they started to smoke) 1t of cumin seeds and 1T of dried onions and ground them together in my (coffee) spice grinder and added it, along with 1t of kosher salt, ½t cayenne and 1t garlic powder, to a pound of browned hamburger.

On top of this first layer (in my 9x13 Pyrex glass baking pan sprayed with cooking spray), I added the two cans of tomatoes, then a pound of thawed corn, the can of refried beans and finally the prepared cornbread mix. I placed the whole mess into a 400 degree oven for thirty minutes - uncovered - then added the 8 ounces of shredded cheese and put the pan back in the oven for about ten more minutes (until the top was golden brown).

Topped with a blop of sour cream (I like the Darigold Crema Agria Mexican Style Sour Cream I found in the grocery here), the result was a hearty and delicious, one-pan meal the family dubbed Taco Pie.

I also had a bag of Trader Joe’s Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips (my favorite), so I made my famous quick and delicious, cheater salsa by quick pulsing a 14.5 ounce can of Muir Glen Organic Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes with Green Chilies in my blender with a handful of fresh cilantro, 1t of kosher salt, ½t fresh ground black pepper and a half dozen jarred jalapeño slices.

All in all, it turned out to be a quick, satisfying football worthy a pinch.

Three Sisters Beef: 

All About Avocados

About a week ago, I decided to dig in to MIT’s free, online Kitchen Chemistry class. The first lesson involves preparing salsa and guacamole – two tasty and nutritious treats I love to make. I, however, decided to focus on the guacamole portion of the lesson right now because I rarely make salsa when tomatoes are not in season – I’ll save that one for the summer. (Call me a tomato snob, but I don’t like them if they are not locally grown and vine-ripened. They just don’t have that deep, rich tomato taste to me.)  Without any further ado, here is what I learned about avocados:

Avocados (Persea americana) - sometimes called alligator pears (so says my research, quite exotic sounding, huh?) – are fruits and, oddly enough, are in the same family as cinnamon. More specifically, they are drupes (new term for me) which are fruits that have pits or stones (meaning the seed is protected by a hard outer shell – think peach, plum, cherry).

Avocados are full of folate (good for heart health), vitamin K, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and copper and have more potassium than a medium banana.  They also contain nutritious monounsaturated fat (oleic acid) which is thought to increase good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease the bad (LDL).   

Ripe avocados are firm with a little give but not squishy and have darkened, unblemished skin.  Notably, avocados do not ripen on the tree - it is not until after they are picked that they begin the ripening process.  This makes them very shippable and durable but a pain to get just right.  Everyone who has cooked with avocados knows they are usually rock hard when found in the store and using avocados in a recipe takes some pre-planning.  Everyone also probably knows that stashing them in a brown bag at room temperature will ripen them...but why?  Gas is the answer - ethylene gas to be more specific.  Fruits and other parts of plants naturally produce this during key stages of growth.  Some fruits, such as bananas, produce copious amounts of ethylene.  In fact, placing an overripe banana in the brown bag with an unripe avocado will supercharge the process.  (This works to ripen tomatoes too.)  To cease, or at least slow, ripening, place the avocados in the fridge.  The coolness will put them in a sort of suspended animation - for a few days. 

Once the avocado is cut open, it will begin to rapidly brown.  Some fruits turn brown when exposed to the air due to a process called oxidation which is, in essence, a reaction by fruit enzymes (found in bananas, apples, potatoes, avocados and more) to the oxygen molecules in the air. This chemical reaction (akin to rust in metal) can be slowed or stopped by destroying the enzyme (through cooking), lowering the pH of the fruit (with ascorbic acid like orange juice or lemon juice) or physically blocking oxygen exposure (covering with water or plastic wrap). In guacamole, the addition of lemon or lime juice to the recipe accomplishes this as does pressing plastic wrap against the surface of the final product. I also found some recipes that suggest adding mayonnaise to the guacamole - which makes sense - as mayo is a stable emulsion of oil, egg yolk and either vinegar with a pH of 2.4 or lemon juice with a pH of 2.2. (<7 is acidic, >7 is base, 7 is neutral) (I’ve heard mashing the interior of the pit and adding it to the dip will do the same, but I’ve never tried it.)

Well, all this fancy science talk has made me hungry.  I think I'll go mash some avocados!  Here is my favorite Cook's Illustrated Chunky Guacamole recipe:

3 medium avocados, ripe (preferably Hass - the kind most commonly seen in the store)
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1 small jalapeño chile, minced (1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons)
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
2 tablespoons lime juice

1. Halve one avocado, remove pit, and scoop flesh into medium bowl. Mash flesh lightly with onion, garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, salt, and cumin (if using) with tines of a fork until just combined.
2. Halve and pit remaining two avocados, and prepare. Gently scoop out avocado into bowl with mashed avocado mixture.
3. Sprinkle lime juice over diced avocado and mix entire contents of bowl lightly with fork until combined but still chunky. Adjust seasoning with salt, if necessary, and serve.