Asian buffet restaurants are kind of like IHOP as far as I'm concerned:  you need to go there every few years to remind yourself of why you don't go there more often.  The idea always sounds so good ... and the reality always disappoints.

We had a coupon for the new World Gourmet restaurant in town, so we went there after church on Sunday.  (The link is to the one in California, but it looks like the same thing.)  You can't say they don't have variety:  I wouldn't go so far as to say world, but there was what I'd call standard American fare in addition to the Asian food.  But as usual, the quality just wasn't there, nor can you expect it with all that quantity and variety.

Still, the selection was nice, the honey chicken was especially good, and—when I made a point to be the first one in line when the new batch came out—so were the French fries.  Whenever I'm in a place like that, I think of a football-playing friend of Heather's in high school:  he could really have done it all justice.  Me?  I took what I liked, and for once didn't eat too much.  Someone has to make up for the football players.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, June 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Edit
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altCooked:  A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2013)

(This is a long post, with many excerpts from the book.  Consider it an appetizer.)

I almost always start writing reviews in my mind before finishing the book.  I'd planned to begin this one with, "I've never met a Michael Pollan book I didn't love.  Having made my way through the 468 pages, I can still say that with honesty, though honesty also compels me to admit the last quarter of the book was somewhat of a trial.

For all his interest in food, Pollan hadn't given cooking much thought.

Until, that is, I began trying to unpack a curious paradox I had noticed while watching television, which was simply this:  How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?  The less cooking we were doing in our own lives, it seemed, the more that food and its vicarious preparation transfixed us.

I see this less as a paradox and more as a repeated pattern:  the less we commit to and invest of ourselves in the heart and meaning of something, the more we extravagantly value the form, and set others to doing it for us.  When the marriage itself was the raison d'être of a wedding, a reception created and overseen by "women of the church" was sufficient to honor the couple and the guests.  Now we have devalued the marriage vows and it's the reception, professionally catered, decorated, and orchestrated, into which the time, money, and attention are poured.  The less we make music ourselves, in our families and communities, the more we value the concert tickets, recordings, and iPods that bring the work of the professional musician into our lives.  How many sports fans, ever-ready to critique the missed basket, the dropped ball, the faulty kick, get any closer to a real game than driving their children to practice?

But I digress.  What Pollan did was to get serious about cooking for himself and his family.

[The decline of home cooking] is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world.  Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is.  Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed.  Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction.  And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing—what I call edible foodlike substances.  We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

It has been argued that it is more efficient to work an extra hour at the office, doing what we do well, and let restaurants do what they do best.

Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labor, which, as Adam Smith and countless others have pointed out, has given us many of the blessings of civilization.  It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing, while others grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house.  I can probably earn more in an hour of writing or even teaching than I could save in a whole week of cooking.  Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force.  And yet it is also debilitating.  It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Pollan divides his cooking adventures, cleverly and classically, into Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.  Fire is a dissertation into the earliest and most primitive cooking method:  meat over flame.  Along the way he explores the "cooking hypothesis," a recent theory that attempts to explain the development of Homo erectus, "the first primate to bear a stronger resemblance to humans than apes."

Anthropologists have long theorized that the advent of meat eating could account for the growth in the size of the primate brain, since the flesh of animals contains more energy than plant matter.  But ... the alimentary and digestive apparatus of Homo erectus is poorly adapted to a diet of raw meat, and even more poorly adapted to the raw plant foods that would still have been an important part of its diet, since a primate cannot live on meat alone.  The chewing and digestion of raw food of any kind requires a big gut and big strong jaws and teeth—all tools that our ancestors had lost right around the time they acquired their bigger brains.

The control of fire and discovery of cooking best explain both these developments. ... Appliying the heat of a fire to food transforms it in several ways—some of them chemical, others physical—but all with the same result:  making more energy available to the creatures that eat it. ... [C]ooking opened up vast new horizons of edibility for our ancestors, giving them an important competitive edge over other species and, not insignificantly, leaving us more time to do things besides looking for food and chewing it. ... [Anthropologist Richard Wrangham] estimates that cooking our food gives our species an extra four hours a day.  (This happens to be roughly the same amount of time we now devote to watching television.)

By freeing us from the need to feed constantly, cooking ennobled us, putting us on the path to philosophy and music.  All those myths that trace the godlike powers of the human mind to a divine gift or theft of fire may contain a larger truth than we ever realized.

Yet having crossed this Rubicon, trading away a big gut for a big brain, we can't go back, as much as raw-food faddists would like to. ... By now, "humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows are adapted to eating grass," Wrangham says.

Pollan discusses animal sacrifice, and why fire-cooked meat-eating grew up as a sacred act, hedged in by a multitude of rules and governed by a priestly class.  From there he moves naturally to the modern barbecue, which retains obvious vestiges of those ancient cultures.  I dare you (unless you happen to be a diehard vegetarian) to read this section of the book without your mouth watering.  For the record, "authentic barbecue" has nothing to do with what you do when you slap a steak on your gas grill.  It is pork, pork alone, and preferably the whole pig, cooked with as many rules as any ancient sacrifice.  It's a pity I didn't know anything about barbecue culture when my in-laws lived in South Carolina! (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 31, 2013 at 8:24 am | Edit
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altMake the Bread, Buy the Butter:  What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch—Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese (Free Press, 2011)

In 2008, like many people, Jennifer Reese lost her job.  I don't know what that job was, but if it didn't involve writing, losing it was not a tragedy, but a blessing.  She's a wonderful writer:  clear, informative, and funny.  Definitely funny.

Faced with the opportunity to reconsider her life, Reese decided to focus on food, and the modern tension between do-it-yourself and buy-it-off-the-shelf:

Where is that sweet spot between buying and making?  What does the market do cheaper and better?  And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted?  Could I answer this question once and for all?  I didn't want an answer rooted in ideology, or politics, or tradition, or received wisdom.  I wanted to see the question answered empirically, taking into account the competing demands—time and meaning, quality and conscience, budget and health—of everyday American family life.

And so, over the next months and years, I got some chickens, which I loved; and some ducks, which I loathed; and some turkeys, which we slaughtered.  I learned to make cheese and keep bees and worried that the neighbors were going to call Animal Control.  I cured bacon and salmon, canned ketchup, baked croissants, and made vanilla extract and graham crackers.  I planted tomatillos and potatoes and melons and squash.  My son, Owen, joined 4-H and practically moved into the yard, while my teenage daughter, Isabel, refused to step outside the back door at all, especially after the goats turned up.  My husband, Mark, rolled his eyes at all of it except the homemade yogurt.  That, he ate by the quart.  At the height—or maybe it was the depths—of my homemaking experiment, I had pickles lacto-fermenting on the counter and seven varieties of jam, ranging from banana-chocolate to plum, arrayed in the pantry, and absinthe and Taleggio cheese mellowing in the crawl space behind my closet.  I was overwhelmed and a bit of a mess, but I had my answers.

Turkeys?  Homemade bacon?  This was no simple save-money-by-making-my-child's-school-lunch project.  But the results make for marvellous reading.  It's a treasure trove of recipes, too, and I would be tempted to add a copy to my collection, if I weren't busy trying to get rid of a vast collection of cookbooks gathering dust on the shelves because when I need a recipe and it's not handy, I immediately turn to Chef Google.

The answer to the question that drove me to reading the book, Why not make the butter? is a simple matter of economy.  Making butter is easy, and the result delicious, but cream is expensive.  Store butter is good enough that the author can't justify the extra expense of homemade.  "Unless," she adds, "you have a cow."

Reese might have chosen a different title:  Make the Bun, Buy the Hot Dog.  What she went through to make hot dogs leaves me all the more glad that Oscar Mayer now has a nitrate/nitrite-free hot dog that is delicious.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is much more than a recipe book.  For each entry, you get a story (often funny), a recipe, a difficulty rating, a cost comparison, and a "make it or buy it" recommendation.  Sometimes the answer is "both."  There's nothing like homemade mayonnaise, for example, but "Hellmann's has its place."

Maybe my favorite quote:

"Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself," Michael Pollan writes in Food Rules. ... "Chances are good it won't be every day."

Oh Michael Pollan, you underestimate me.

Finally, a longish quote from the Afterward, which sums things up well:

It's empowering to know I can cure bacon, brew vanilla, age Camembert, extract honey from a hive, and behead a chicken, even if I have no desire to do at least one of those things ever again.  Even if, in the end, I spent more money than I saved.  (A few costly projects like the chickens and the bees ate up all the savings of from scratch cooking.)  Big food companies flatter us by telling us how busy we are and they simultaneously convince us that we are helpless.  I am moderately busy, but not all that helpless.  Neither are you.  Everything I did in the course of my scratch-cooking era—with the possible exceptions of eviscerating poultry and stuffing hot dogs—was very, very easy.  [She must have blocked out the experience of making croissants:  "unbelievable hassle," though she still recommends making them, unless you live near a good French bakery.]

But the more helpless we feel, the lower those food companies move the bar of our expectations, and the bar is now very low at your local supermarket.  Trust me.  I have eaten my way through mine.  It makes me quite furious when I think about the sicketating powdered hollandaise sauce, the extortionate price of the vanilla extracts, the pathetic bread, the soups sweetened with corn syrup, the abomination of Pillsbury "creamy vanilla" canned frosting that contains neither cream nor vanilla.  It upsets me that we pay as much for these foods as we do.

Almost everything is better when it's homemade.  While this may have started out as opinion (though I'm not sure it did), I would now state it confidently as fact.  Almost everything.  But not everything.  Which makes me inordinately happy.  Because I think it's reassuring that you can walk into a supermarket and buy a bag of potato chips and a tub of rice pudding that are better than anything you can make at home.  I wish there were more foods like that.  I really don't want to spend my life standing over a stove, muttering about the evils of ConAgra and trans fats.  It seems a tragic waste to shape one's life around doctrinaire rejection of industrial food.  Which means, I suppose, both insisting on high standards most of the time and then, sometimes, relaxing them.

Jennifer Reese has a blog, The Tipsy Baker.  I haven't read much yet, but I'm sure I'll find it clear, informative, and funny.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 8:10 am | Edit
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Speculoos à Tartiner, in its American incarnation as Biscoff Spread, is now available at many stores here and around the country.  Trader Joe's even has its own version, which I will be able to sample and compare because we are finally getting our own Trader Joe's!  You can even buy Speculoos in tiny Hillsborough, New Hampshire—which also needs a Trader Joe's, but we'll take one step at a time.

The exploding popularity of this heavenly spread was featured in the Orlando Sentinel yesterday.  I don't know what goes into the decisions involving placement of articles and advertisements on the page, but surely this could be no coincidence:

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On the bright side, all this publicity may dampen the TSA's suspicious attitude, although there is now less reason to transport it in my luggage.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 8:24 am | Edit
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For the läckerli-lovers in the family, and anyone hungry for a reminder of Basel:

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:53 am | Edit
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It's no secret that I like Michael Pollan's food books, and I'm fifth in line for his latest, Cooked, at our library.  In the meantime, here's a chance to hear Pollan speak on the nutritional value of home cooking.  (H/T DSTB)  I'm sorry I can't embed the interview; you'll have to click on the link to hear it.  Here are some quick excerpts:

Why don't people cook at home anymore?  Skills have been lost over the last two generations, and people are intimidated by culture of cooking they see on television.

Time is not a valid issue:  "people make time for things they've decided are important."

Neither is demographics:  "poor women who cook have better diets than wealthy women who don't."

"Built into the very nature of cooking at home is a curb on consuming the worst possible food."

The best diet for an American today?  Pollan, quoting a marketing researcher in the food industry itself:  "Eat anything you want, as long as you cook it yourself."

Pollan's final recommendation leaves me scratching my head, however:  Cook at home, and get soda out of your house, and obesity is taken care of.

It sounds great, but reminds me of the facile advice I heard years ago that an easy way to gain more time is to cut down on television viewing, or that you can save a lot of money by quitting the smoking habit.  What if you don't smoke and don't watch TV and still find yourself short of time and money?  What if you already cook at home and don't drink soda?


If that depresses you, take a moment to enjoy the story of Rowan Jacobson's (author of Fruitless Fall and and Chocolate Unwrapped) attempt to break all of Michael Pollan's Food Rules in one day.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 7:33 am | Edit
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Having watched the documentary on GMO foods, which reveals that those in charge of food safety in this country have treated with scorn the simple request that products made with genetically modified organisms be labelled as such, I have little faith that the Food and Drug Administration will not grant the request of the dairy industry to to alter the definition of "milk" to include chemical sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose without putting "Low Calorie" or "Reduced Calorie" on the label.  The artificial sweeteners would still be included in the ingredient list on the packaging, but the main label, that which most people read, would give no hint that the product was artificially sweetened.

I say that even "low calorie" is disingenuous.  "Artificially Sweetened" or "Contains Sucralose" (Aspartame, whatever) ought to be in large, bold print on the package.  Once upon a time, "no sugar added" was synonymous with "unsweetened." Now we must drill down to the small-print ingredient list to find out this important information, and more than once I've been caught and ended up at home with a useless product.  It is as if the surgeon general's warnings were printed on the inside of cigarette packages.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 19, 2013 at 7:21 am | Edit
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In the spirit of Fruitless Fall, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Food, Inc., Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, and similar stories about problems in our food supply, I present Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of our Lives (H/T DSTB).

I'm always a bit skeptical of one-sided documentaries, especially of the scary and countercultural kind.  But this look at the unforeseen consequences of the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms into our diet, environment, and social structure is well-done and contains much food for thought, including the rise of herbicide resistance, decreasing yield, suppression of academic freedom, and the devastation visited on third-world farmers.  I had to watch in bits and snatches because the film is an hour and 25 minutes long, but I found it well worth the time invested.

Here's hoping my nephew will accede to the suggestion that he take on, as a school project, a balanced investigation of both sides of these claims.   If he does, and gives his permission, I'll report the results here.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 7:31 am | Edit
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I've written about Biscoff Spread, aka Speculoos à Tartiner before.  Thanks to a tip from my sister-in-law, yesterday I made Biscoff fudge.  I tried the recipe from this site almost verbatim the first time, using the creamy version of the spread and substituting butter for margarine.  The second time I tried the crunchy, and used half the vanilla called for.  Both results were very good, but I prefer the smooth Speculoos and the smaller amount of vanilla.  I'd love to research other fudge recipes to use as a base, but that's a future project.  The recipe from the bakerella.com site, with my alterations, follows:

Biscoff Fudge

1 1/2 cups sugar
6 Tablespoons butter
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1/4 tsp vanilla (or 1/8 tsp Penzey's double-strength vanilla, which is what I used)
1/2 cup Biscoff spread (creamy or crunchy)
3.5 oz. or half a jar of Marshmallow Creme

  1. Combine sugar, butter, and evaporated milk in a medium pot.
  2. Bring to full rolling boil, stirring constantly.
  3. Reduce heat to medium and continue boiling for 4 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent scorching.  (Actually, with my stove I started at Medium and came to a full rolling boil from there.)
  4. Remove from heat and stir in Biscoff spread until melted.
  5. Add marshmallow creme and vanilla. Use a mixer to beat in the pot until well blended.
  6. Pour into greased 8 X 8 pan.
  7. Let cool and cut into small squares.

This makes a delicious fudge.  It's a bit drier than I prefer (not as smooth and creamy as most fudges), but that might be solved with some tweaking of the cooking time.  It's also very sweet, so make the pieces quite small when you cut it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 8:05 am | Edit
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Don't you love what you can do with statistics and charts?  This chart is from a great article in the New England Journal of Medicine Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates.  For a less scholarly report on the data, see this Reuters article.

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The article begins like this.

Dietary flavonoids, abundant in plant-based foods, have been shown to improve cognitive function. Specifically, a reduction in the risk of dementia, enhanced performance on some cognitive tests, and improved cognitive function in elderly patients with mild impairment have been associated with a regular intake of flavonoids. A subclass of flavonoids called flavanols, which are widely present in cocoa, green tea, red wine, and some fruits, seems to be effective in slowing down or even reversing the reductions in cognitive performance that occur with aging.

One day, while apparently bored in a Kathmandu hotel room—I'm guessing it was night, or cloudy—the author, Franz H. Messerli, began to think.

Since chocolate consumption could hypothetically improve cognitive function not only in individuals but also in whole populations, I wondered whether there would be a correlation between a country's level of chocolate consumption and its population's cognitive function. To my knowledge, no data on overall national cognitive function are publicly available. Conceivably, however, the total number of Nobel laureates per capita could serve as a surrogate end point reflecting the proportion with superior cognitive function and thereby give us some measure of the overall cognitive function of a given country.

The results astonished him, though perhaps he should not be surprised:  he is Swiss.

There was a close, significant linear correlation (r=0.791, P<0.0001) between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons in a total of 23 countries.  When recalculated with the exclusion of Sweden, the correlation coefficient increased to 0.862. Switzerland was the top performer in terms of both the number of Nobel laureates and chocolate consumption.  [emphasis mine]

The only possible outlier ... seems to be Sweden. Given its per capita chocolate consumption of 6.4 kg per year, we would predict that Sweden should have produced a total of about 14 Nobel laureates, yet we observe 32. Considering that in this instance the observed number exceeds the expected number by a factor of more than 2, one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.

Which perhaps explains why I need to eat more chocolate than Porter does, he being 1/4 Swedish.

Dr. Messerli reports regular daily chocolate consumption, mostly but not exclusively in the form of Lindt's dark varieties.

The above quotations were all from the NEJM article; the final ones from Reuters.

Messerli ... said that despite the tongue-in-cheek tone, he does believe chocolate has real health effects—although people should stay away from the sweeter kinds.

"[D]ark chocolate is the way to go. It's one thing if you want like a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, ok, but if you want a physics Nobel Prize it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate."

In case you were wondering, the date on Messerli's article is October 10, 2012.  I guess they couldn't wait six more months.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 10:04 am | Edit
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Thanks to my sister, I have three Trader Joe's reusable grocery bags that would just love to be used at an actual Trader Joe's.  And now, at last, Florida has a Trader Joe's store!

But it's in Naples.  Granted, we really enjoyed our visit to that part of the state back in Novemeber, but I'm not one of the "Trader Joe's tourists" who are travelling hundreds of miles to the store.  There's a store opening soon in Sarasota, but that's still too far away.

Nonetheless, I have hope.  Now that the Florida border has been breached, can Orlando be far behind?

I note that the Naples store went in where a Borders bookstore went out.  We're getting a Michael's at our former Borders.  Not that Michael's is a bad idea, but there's already one nearby, and wouldn't it be fantastic to be able to walk to a Trader Joe's?  Oh well, I'll be happy enough for one within a 15-minute drive and not on the far side of town.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Edit
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There's some debate just what Emmen is.  Stephan says it's a suburb of Luzern, and I suppose it is, Luzern being a 15-minute bus ride, or an even shorter train ride, away, which we proved today when Vivienne acquired her Swiss passport.  But it hardly has a "suburban" feel, at least as I know suburbs.  For one thing, there's decent public transportation—but that's no doubt because it's Swiss.  For another, most people live in apartments, which says "city" to me, though Janet says that is also a Swiss characteristic, city or no.  There's traffic.  There's industry.  There are plenty of stores, but no strip malls (though there is a mall or two).  Everything is close together, and what yards there are, are tiny.  Children walk to school.  Janet walks to the grocery store (actually, several grocery stores), the train station, the above-mentioned malls, the swimming pool complex, and church.  That feels like a city to me.

And yet....  Emmen certainly isn't a city like Basel, or Luzern, with a lively city center, and centuries of history and culture.  And it has a rural feel, as well.  Also within easy walking distance is a long hiking trail along the river (pedestrian, bike, and also equestrian in most places).  The trail runs through wooded areas where trees are still being harvested by loggers.

(Switzerland is a great place for hiking trails.  There's one that leads all the way into the city of Luzern; we had planned to hike it today, but the -9 degree Celsius temperature was a deterrent.   Perhaps we should have taken advantage of such balmy weather, though:  tomorrow's high is supposed to be -10, with a wind chill of -16 (that's 3 degrees Fahrenheit).

There are also several small farms nearby.  One of Joseph's favorite walks is to the see the cows and goats at the nearest dairy farm, where for a single franc we pick up a liter of fresh, delicious, raw milk.  (Click on the pictures to enlarge.)

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So, what is Emmen?  Whatever it is, it's like nothing in the United States that I know of.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 6, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Edit
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Breakfast
An international child, Joseph might start his day with leftover pizza, or rice, or bread and peanut butter, or a tortilla with "spices" (more on that later).  But for the most part his breakfast is "no no bissi" a.k.a. yoghurt and muesli.  Unsweetened muesli and plain yoghurt—and he loves it.  His drink for all meals is water.  He feeds himself with a spoon quite competently, although as you can imagine some cleanup is required.

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For breakfast I might have yoghurt and muesli, or cooked oatmeal, or good Swiss bread, or yummy, fresh Swiss eggs (with golden yolks). (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Edit
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If I weren't eating so well at the famous Swiss Zum Stücklin, I might be sad at missing the Outstanding in the Field event held at our favorite egg (and more) farm, Lake Meadow Naturals.  Not that I'm in the habit of spending $180/person on meals, not even in Switzerland, not even when we ate at the incomparable restaurant at Les Trois Rois in Basel.  But I'm happy for our local farm to get such national recognition.

Les Trois Rois
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 13, 2012 at 9:16 am | Edit
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We're stocking up on meals, pre-birth, and today made a double batch of our favorite stew.  The recipe calls for a hefty helping of paprika.  Spices should not necessarily be increased in direct proportion, but I like paprika, so I doubled the quantity—and then, as I usually do, threw in a bit more.

Some of Janet's spices are labelled in English, but most in the Swiss triumvirate of German, French, and Italian.  This jar had but a one-word label:  "paprica."  Perhaps paprika is the same in every language.

Or not.  The spice in that jar was decidedly not paprika as I have always known it.  Picture a pot of stew seasoned with a heaping tablespoon of red pepper....

The stew was delicious.  Even Joseph liked it.  (Then again, he asks for "spices" on almost everything.)  Hot pepper worked.  But it's a good lesson in taking care when cooking in another country.  What if "paprica" had actually meant "ginger"?

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 10:51 am | Edit
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