A Two-Panettone Year

On Christmas Eve afternoon, after dropping off the second half of my Christmas letter mass mailing at the nearby post office, I continued a few blocks to my Walgreens to pick up a couple needed items to get me through the holidays. Just inside the door, a stack of large square boxes, bright yellow with red printing that announced the presence of panettone, a dessert that shows up in American stores around the holidays.  

Grabbing a box as I headed to the checkout counter, I confessed to the young woman waiting to ring up my purchases, “I already bought one of these here last week.” She agreed with me that the year just ending justified my purchasing a second one. She had the good grace not to ask if I’d eaten the entire first one myself.

Grabbing a box as I headed to the checkout counter, I confessed to the young woman waiting to ring up my purchases, “I already bought one of these here last week.”  She agreed with me that the year just ending justified my purchasing a second one. She had the good grace not to ask if I’d eaten the entire first one myself.

The store was, like the post office and the streets outside, sparsely occupied so we were able to continue our discussion of panettone. “It’s Italian, isn’t it?’ she asked. “Yes,” I replied, “and I’m half-Italian. But I don’t remember it being a fixture on my grandparents’ holiday table except only occasionally, perhaps brought to them as a gift. I was sure I wouldn’t like it, so it was not until way into adult years that I learned I’d been missing something. A dessert not too sweet, with a consistency somewhere between cake and bread. “How do you eat it? Do you heat it up?” she asked. “No,” I answered. “I just grab off chunks and eat it with a glass of chilled white wine before dinner.” ( However, in the past I’ve been known to eat chunks of it in the car, without wine, while driving home from the store.)

“Do you like fruit cake?” she asked, alluding I guessed to the glazed fruit pieces in panettone. “Fruit cake? Only sparingly and only if it’s loaded with nuts to make it interesting,” I said.

“I’ve only tasted the one with chocolate , but I guess they didn’t order any this year,” she said. “No,” I told her,  “there’s a separate stack of those down that other aisle,” and I pointed over my shoulder.  “I appreciated they kept them separate so I wouldn’t grab one by mistake. I’m a big chocolate fan but not in panettone. I’ve never tried it, but it seems wrong somehow.  A desecration of both foods.”

“You should write about it,” my new acquaintance said.

“Funny you should say that, I said. “That’s what I do, write.” (Except when I don’t.)

I’ll have to go back and show her this. And ask if she tried the panettone without chocolate chips.

Jersey Tomato Redux

tomato on vineSummer approaches and with it my yearning for a really good-tasting tomato. I wrote longingly last year about the ripe, juicy, oh-so-succulent products picked from the vine in my grandfather’s Orange, New Jersey backyard garden or, in more recent years, from my husband’s Montclair, New Jersey backyard garden. But I live in Southern California now, and besides, the once-famous Jersey tomato is a thing of the past.

Well, hold on a minute, not so fast.

Turns out the plant wizards at Rutgers, New Jersey’s state university, have just introduced a reinvented version of a variety from 1934 that, as Valerie Sudol noted earlier this month in The New York Times, “reigned unchallenged for decades.” She explained that after years of work by the university’s plant specialists “this old-fashioned tomato with old-fashioned taste has returned as the Rutgers 250, named in honor of the university’s 250th anniversary.”

That 1934 variety was “the tomato that made the Jersey tomato reputation,” said Thomas J. Orton, a professor in the department of plant biology and pathology. “It was a groundbreaking tomato that redefined what a tomato should be and was the most popular variety in the world,” he said. “At one point it represented in excess of 60 percent of all tomatoes grown commercially.”

The Jersey tomato fell out of favor with commercial farmers after being judged too soft and perishable for modern harvest and transport, Sudol wrote, although it was still suitable for home and small-scale specialty growers.

Many of the most successful earlier varieties, Sudol explained, were the result of collaboration between Rutgers agricultural programs and the Campbell Soup Company based in Camden, New Jersey. A breakthrough in the quest to resurrect a new tougher variety came, she wrote, “when plant breeders learned in 2009 that Campbell Soup still had genetic material from the parent plants that was used to develop the original Rutgers hybrid. The chase was on – in slow motion.”

The intervening years saw researchers working the test fields and greenhouses alongside cooperative extension agents, narrowing the selection until last year when three finalists were grown all over the state and vetted for size, color, yield and disease resistance. “But,” wrote Sudol, “flavor was chief consideration.”

So great is the yearning for a really good-tasting tomato, the 5,000 packets of Rutgers 250 seeds offered on the university’s website in February have already sold out, she wrote. And “then last month, home gardeners snapped up 1,200 seedling plants in just two hours at a campus event…”

I’m wondering how well that tomato would do here in still drought-prone Southern California. Maybe I’d be better off hoping some visiting East Coaster might smuggle one or two in the carry-on bag. An outstanding hostess gift for sure.


Oh, for a Jersey Tomato!

A traveler making his way on the New Jersey Turnpike from Newark’s Liberty International Airport into Manhattan could be excused for wondering why New Jersey is known as the Garden State. Was it someone’s idea of a cruel joke to attach such a bucolic-sounding word to a place of unending asphalt and steel girders? But were the traveler to venture farther into the state – and indeed, not very far – he’d understand the appellation. Even urban back yards can boast small plots of vegetables and flowers, more so of course in suburban areas, and in the southern reaches of the nation’s most densely populated state, actual farms manage to hold off encroaching housing developments.tomato soup

For most of the 20th century, South Jersey farmers grew the tomatoes that went into the products produced by the Campbell Soup Company at its plants in Camden. The company employed agronomists to develop perfect seeds and monitored the farmers’ efforts. At their height in mid-century, the plants employed 5,000 workers year-round and thousands more temporary workers at peak harvesting time. As Daniel Sidorick wrote in his book Condensed Capitalism: Campball Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the 20th Century, “Campbell stopped using South Jersey’s famous tomatoes in 1979 in favor of industrially produced tomato paste from California…(and) the company was free to move production to newer…rural plants. The last can rolled off the line in Camden in 1990, and the plant was imploded a year later.” The company’s world headquarters, however, remain in Camden.

So yes, New Jersey has been known for its tomatoes. During the more than 30 years we lived there, Ed kept expanding our backyard vegetable garden to the point that two freezers were required to hold the produce and foodstuffs like spaghetti sauce and zucchini bread that we made from it. And we ate out of those freezers all winter long. But before we filled the freezers, we ate giant, succulent tomatoes fresh off the vine, sometimes making a meal out of nothing but sliced tomatoes topped with a little olive oil and chopped basil. Thinking of it makes my mouth water.

Now we live in drought-plagued California where Ed has commandeered two pathetic patches of dirt in our vertical yard in which to grow a few tomato plants, some zucchini and peppers. The output, especially this year, is meager and the tomatoes, sad to say, mere imitations. I point out to Ed that there is a farmers market somewhere every day of the week here in Los Angeles, but he keeps trying to grow his own. The farmer gene runs deep I guess.

Our New York daughter and son-in-law are very good about bringing New York bagels – another loss – whenever they visit. But so far the closest we’ve come to Jersey tomatoes this summer is a picture of some they purchased at a farmers market in Washington Square. Gorgeous, aren’t they?

Jersey tomatoes

Chocaholics Rejoice!

Woo-ee! Eating chocolate may keep your heart healthy.chocolate

At least that’s the indication from a study just published in the journal Heart and described in the Los Angeles Times by Melissa Healy. She writes: “Devoted consumers of chocolate – including those who eat up to two candy bars a day – are 11 percent less likely than those who eat little to no chocolate to have heart attacks and strokes, researchers have found.” And, she adds, the study found that “chocolate eaters are also 25 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease,..”

The findings come from a British study that tracked over an average of 12 years nearly 21,000 adults living around Norfolk, England. Those in the top one-fifth ate about half an American-sized candy bar a day, while those in the bottom 20th percentile averaged just 1.1 grams day, Healy writes, adding, “those in the highest chocolate-consuming group also had lower average body-mass indexes, systolic blood pressure and diabetes rates.”

The researchers combined their findings with those of nine other studies involving 159,809 people “to provide further context for their findings.” That analysis showed that “heavy chocolate consumers were 25 percent less likely to suffer a wide range of cardiovascular ills and 45 percent less likely to die of those ills.”

The LA Times quotes Dr. Farzaneg Aghdassi Sorond of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who says that “observation studies” such as this most recent one call out for deeper analysis to learn whether it is chocolate itself that makes people healthier or something about the lifestyle of those who eat it. His research has shown “that when elderly people at high risk of stroke and dementia were given high quantities of cocoa to consume, the blood flow to their brains improved.” He notes that the British study did not “distinguish between grades of chocolate – and thus the cocoa content.”

chocolate2Chocolate’s benefits have long been suspected – and not just as wishful thinking by chocolate lovers like me. A friend of mine, someone much more disciplined than I, eats one piece of dark chocolate every day. I have a favorite cookie containing chunks of dark chocolate, one of which finishes off my lunch each day, but the only thing keeping me from devouring the whole package in one sitting is knowledge of one single cookie’s caloric count. When an entire box of chocolate (preferably dark chocolate with nuts and caramel) enters our home, it calls out my name repeatedly until the box is empty.

chocolate3Someone else I know swore off chocolate years ago because, she says, it makes her face break out. And even though everyone tells her that has been disproved, she will not relent. “All I know,” she says, “is when I eat chocolate my face breaks out and when I don’t eat chocolate, it doesn’t.” Hard to argue with that evidence.

But as for me, wouldn’t I love to participate in a chocolate-eating trial. Eh, on second thought, with my luck I’d be put in the control group and have to abstain while that top one-fifth pigged out.

Photos: clker.com, medicalnewstoday.com, livescience.com

More Drought Talk

Save The Drop Image EnglishOh, I know it’s boring if you live someplace where rain falls at reasonable intervals. But it’s all the talk around here. Just heard of another person who’s pulling up all of his lawn to install artificial turf. That’s plastic, isn’t it? Guess that guy in The Graduate was right: the future lies in plastic. And we all know where plastic comes from, don’t we? As someone once said to me, in explaining why some product or other cost so much, “It’s a petroleum product, you know.”

When Ed and I and our children were ricocheting back and forth from one coast to the other — 4.5 cross-country moves — we missed the last California drought. But friends told us about it at the time: how they would place a brick in the toilet tank to reduce the amount of water per flush (now they’d buy pricey low-flush toilets), keep a bucket in the shower to catch used soapy water to pour on plants (now they’d invest in expensive gray-water systems), and of course not running the water when they brushed their teeth (today, electric tooth-cleaning systems minimize water use). A cartoon recently implied that the characters were not bothered by drought restrictions because they were Europeans – “We don’t shower as much as Americans.”

Two facts that I learned and have carried through life, both counter-intuitive, are that showers use less water than baths and that dishwashers use less water than hand-washing dishes. I have had arguments with people on these two topics, but here’s the Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts confirming both assertions as they list water saving tips.

Our local Southern California Public Radio station had a piece about businesses that are suddenly profiting from this new interest in water conservation. After years of just getting by, a company that installs gray water systems can barely keep up with the telephone inquiries, and a nursery specializing in cactus and succulents sees its clientele surging from its former few aficionados to crowds of new devotees. And, of course, business is booming for landscape installation companies whose work seems to appear almost overnight. I drive by and ask myself, “When did they do that?”

Even without tackling major projects, the drought has the benefit of making us more aware of what a precious resource water is and how much more care we need to take about its use.

And for me, prone as I am to find things about which to feel guilty, all of the drought talk has left me with a whole range of new guilt outlets. Like: Is it true that it takes more than a gallon of water to grow just one almond? No, that statement has been disproved, although almond trees do require water year-round. Just like beef, which requires more than 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of meat. Almonds with their shells, according to a Los Angeles Times report by Kyle Kim, require 48.6 gallons of water per ounce. The LA Times website also has a neat interactive graphic feature in which you can calculate the total “water footprint” of your meal, should you be so inclined.

Enough drought talk. Now I’ll concentrate on hoping for the return of El Niño and all the rains he might bring with him.

Can You Say Cheese?

cheeseI love it! Yet another formerly frowned-upon food stuff may be returned to favor by nutritionists.­­­­­­­­ TIME just ran an online piece by Mandy Oaklander titled “Here’s Your New Science-Backed Reason to Eat More Cheese.” And my reaction is: “Yay!” Not that I ever stopped eating the stuff but maybe now I won’t feel guilty doing it. TIME writes, “Americans have long been bewildered by the French paradox: that despite consuming a dream diet full of cheese, baguettes and red wine, people in France have generally low rates of coronary heart disease. By some estimates, the average French person eats 57 pounds of cheese each year – more than any other country – while the average American eats a measly 34.” Theories vary about the lucky French and their dietary habits (well, excepting snails; it takes a LOT of wine before I’ll eat them, delicious as the sauce may be) including the beneficial effects of resveratrol in red wine. Another reason for French people’s good fortune, according to TIME, points to a growing number of experts who say “that we were wrong – or at least partially wrong – to condemn saturated fat as a primary cause of heart disease. A small new study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests yet another delicious possibility: cheese.” Admittedly, the study was small and funded in part by a Danish food company that produces dairy products and the Danish Dairy Research Foundation, but who cares? Cheese is good for you, it says. I’ll let you explore for yourself if you wish the rather graphic descriptions of what the bacteria from cheese and also milk do when they reach your gut. Suffice it to say, as TIME does, “The study adds a new dimension to our understanding how fermented milk products interact with the body.” I’m telling you, there’s no end to this good food news. First it was eggs, yokes and all, and then nuts that made it back into foodies’ good graces. As someone who can’t stay interested long enough to understand what the word “probiotics” actually means, I’m feeling somewhat vindicated in trying to follow a normal, sensible diet of good, mostly nutritious food and adhering to Oscar Wilde’s advice of “everything in moderation, including moderation.” But the day I hear that Pringles Sour Cream and Chives-flavored potato chips have been added to the Food & Drug Administration’s recommended basic food groups, I will know nirvana has indeed been achieved. Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Ah, Nuts!

nutsThe good food news continues. First we were told that eggs are our friends after all and now food writer Jane Brody recently wrote in The New York Times that unlike what she and I and lots of other people have always believed, nuts are not fattening. Hoo-ray! She wrote, “Sadly, for more than half of my life, I had avoided some of nature’s most perfect and healthful foods: nuts and peanuts. I had been mistakenly told as a teenager that nuts were fattening and constipating, effects I certainly wanted to avoid.” Fortunately for me, in my skinny teenage years, “fattening” was an attribute. So I moved into my not-skinny adult years with a love of nuts of all kinds, and now Brody’s research gives me permission to bulk up on them even more. She cites studies that indicated that “the more nuts people consumed the lower their death rates from all causes and especially from heart disease and stroke.” Her article acknowledged that allergies to nuts, and particularly to peanuts, seems to be more prevalent than ever, but even there, the news is encouraging. Two recent studies point the way to preventing children from developing such allergies. Women who consumed the most peanuts during their pregnancy seemed to have children less likely to develop peanut allergies, she reported. And another study suggests introducing peanuts into the diets of infants 4 to 11 months old – ground up and in nut butters of course – could reduce the children’s risk of being allergic at age 5. And yes, Brody wrote, “nuts are high in fat and contain more calories per gram (9) than protein or sugar (4 grams), even more than alcohol (7 grams),” but when consumed in reasonable quantities – the key phrase! – “are not fattening and can even help people lose weight and maintain the loss.” Whoo-ee!! One of my favorite lunches, a holdover from my childhood, is a cream cheese and walnut sandwich. (Cream cheese and olives is good too. Actually, pretty much anything with cream cheese, speaking of fattening.) I always wondered but never asked if my family began making the sandwiches with nuts during wartime meat-rationing times. Nuts are a source of protein and other nutrients and probably helped to stretch the food budget dollar. There is one bit of bad news in Brody’s article. Two exceptions to the claim that nuts added to an otherwise healthful diet can reduce the risk of heart disease: macadamia nuts and cashews, both too high in saturated fat to qualify. Cashews, huh? Those things I buy when guests are invited to dinner and then polish off myself after they’ve left. Bummer.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Let’s Hear It for the Egg

eggsIt’s almost Easter. Aren’t you glad that eggs have now been rehabilitated?

Also avocados, shrimp and other supposedly cholesterol-laden foods that nutritional experts have been warning us about for years. Cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” according to an advisory panel. Chris Erskine, a funny writer I enjoy reading in the Los Angeles Times, wrote a tongue-in-cheek obituary a while back for the white-egg omelet, a gustatory abomination embraced by the health-obsessed.

In the same piece, Erskine also lamented the see-saw nature of our nutritional advice. ‘Decades of government warnings about fats and oils proved increasingly shaky,” he wrote. “After years of shunning butter, consumers were told that margarine was even worse, described by some as ‘chemical gunk.’ The findings on their morning coffee were even more confusing,” he continued. “One day coffee was good for you; the next day it was the worst thing since nuclear sludge.”

Similar uncertainty surrounds red wine and dark chocolate. Are these things good for you or not? Do you care? Or do you, like me, take most of these reports with a grain of salt? Oops, another bad thing.

The other day in Trader Joe’s, where we buy our house wine — the one that Ed and I drink when company’s not around – I thought I’d pick up the “20 slices of bacon” a recipe called for. Surrounded by all the earnest young shoppers filling their baskets with guaranteed healthful and non-chemically adulterated food products, I surveyed the bacon offerings. It was confusing and I walked back and forth several times reading the packages, all proclaiming “UNCURED! NO NITRATES OR NITRITES!” Okay, I thought, I guess I know nitrates and nitrites are not good, but isn’t meat supposed to be cured? Can bacon give you trichinosis? Maybe if I cook it a good long time it will be okay.

Life should be simpler. Food should be enjoyed, not obsessed over. Personally, I like to follow Oscar Wilde’s advice: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Photo: commons.wikimedia

Abbondanza? Of Course!

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, The New York Times printed a state-by-state rundown of favorite dishes that might grace those holiday tables. As a half-Italian person who grew up in New Jersey, I was glad to see the entry for that state included baked manicotti. The writer of that piece states, “For many Italian-American families, in New Jersey and elsewhere, the Thanksgiving smorgasbord doesn’t feel quite right without a little touch of red sauce.”

Thanksgiving, Jeff Gordinier points out, “also represents an American expression of abbondanza, the Italian concept of too-muchness that makes a meal feel epic.”

The manicotti recipe sounds lovely, made as it is with crepes rather than pasta to make it lighter and less filling. I will try it sometime. But not at Thanksgiving. My family’s tradition calls for lasagne, made in as close an approximation as possible to my grandmother’s, and served as a first course prelude to everything else.

lasagneIf you happened to drop in to my grandparents’ house in the days preceding any major holiday, you’d find Grandpa spreading sheets of paper over the high back wooden chairs that would then be covered with strips of pasta dough that he took from Grandma as she finished making them. The fresh dough would be allowed to dry and then be assembled into layers with cheese (ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan) and homemade tomato sauce. When the day of the dinner arrived, the oversized iron stove fairly glowed, filling the house with an assortment of delectable aromas. Once everyone was seated at the long dining room table, the baked lasagne was brought in and placed before Grandpa who cut the first square and declared it “a perfect brick,” just the right consistency of layered pasta, cheese and sauce.

Grandma’s lasagne was incomparably delicious, and unsuspecting newcomers to the holiday table gladly accepted offers of second helpings. Then, to their dismay, came the rest of the meal: the meat (which type dependent on the holiday), potatoes, vegetables, assorted relishes, bread and finally, a simple lettuce salad dressed with oil and lemon juice. Dessert was also fairly simple because cake would be served later at a follow-up supper.

Ed and I have continued the lasagne tradition at all our holiday dinners. It came in handy when increasingly more diners were vegetarians; you knew they wouldn’t go hungry if they passed  on the turkey, roast beef or ham. But I’ve never been able to figure out how Grandma managed to put together the follow-up supper, even though it consisted of little more than sliced meat and cheese, bread and crackers – and cake. One gargantuan meal is the most we can pull off in a day.

[Photo: mondoricette.forumfree.it]

Fine Dining at the 5 & 10

A friend sent a 1957 menu from Woolworth’s lunch counter showing costs of various food items like a “super de-luxe” ham sandwich on “plain bread, toast or hard roll” for 40 cents, topped off by a “king size” Coca Cola for 10 cents. It brought to mind my teen years in New Jersey and my first paying job, after babysitting, at Kresge’s 5 & 10 in Bloomfield Center. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the federal minimum wage at that time was 75 cents an hour. But I remember being paid 35 cents to start and then 50 cents an hour so perhaps my rates reflected my part-time status.

Menu-2I worked several different counters in the store but my absolute favorite was the lunch counter, taking orders and serving hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, ice cream sodas and the like. If our shift covered a mealtime, we were entitled to fix ourselves something to eat. I was a very thin teenager – some may have said skinny – with a prodigious appetite. For my food break, I’d wait until there were no customers in sight and fill a big soup bowl with several scoops of different flavors of ice cream, top them with hot fudge, “wet walnuts” (the ones swimming in sticky syrup) and whipped cream. I’d put the bowl in the dumbwaiter, call “Taking my break” to a co-worker and race downstairs to meet my food in the basement. I’d then sit in the ladies room and devour it.

I remained skinny however, yearning for the curves that other girls had. For one period of time, I put myself on what I called a “gain weight diet,” having a milkshake and a banana every afternoon after school. “Your friends must have hated you,” one of my daughters said. I suppose they did.

Bond's_Ice_Cream_-_Monticlair_NJ - Copy (2)Bond’s was a northern New Jersey chain of ice cream stores with a couple of traditions appealing to gluttonous teenagers. One was a Pig’s Dinner, featuring several scoops of ice cream slathered with various toppings and served in a dish designed to look like a trough. Anyone finishing the dish was memorialized with a listing on the wall and received a pin to wear reading “I was a pig at Bond’s.” I was certain I’d have no trouble polishing off the dish; I just had no interest in the appellation.

Awful AwfulThe other Bond’s tradition was an Awful Awful, so called because it was “awful big and awful good.” It was a milkshake made with five scoops of ice cream, served with a straw but so thick it really required a spoon. If you could get through four of them, the fifth one was free. A boy at school bet me I couldn’t pass that test and even offered to foot the bill if I wanted to try. I did, but I forgot on the night we’d arranged and ate dinner first – meat loaf, potatoes, vegetable as I recall – and there he was at the door to pick me up. Okay, I thought, I can do this. So off we went to Bond’s. I got through three Awful Awfuls before admitting defeat.

In the sorority house at college, it became common knowledge that I usually wore two half-slips in an effort to fill out the pencil-thin skirts that were the style. Once, someone put an ad in my mail cubby from Frederick’s of Hollywood for a padded girdle designed to give the wearer the appearance of a backside. “Pat, maybe you should try this,” the person had written on the clipping. Years later, at a sorority reunion, I reminded my aging sisters of the incident and offered an opportunity for the guilty party to “fess up, no hard feelings.” But no one stepped forward, and in fact, it appears I was the only one with memory of the incident.

Besides, by that time being too thin had long since stopped being a problem.