Hi, folks, Margaret’s doing swimmingly in school and I’m working on a new, short manuscript, so don’t expect any new posts till the end of September.  Thanks for all your help and good wishes, back as soon as I can, xxx, mcvl




Here’s what I know about the mangosteen.

It’s a pretty little fruit, a dark ball exactly the right size to fit in your palm.  Its jaunty little stem end includes an opened husk in four parts, like a four-leafed clover.  All in all, the mangosteen looks like a fruit designed by Pixar.

Raw, it’s nice but very, very mild.  If you put it in a tropical fruit salad people probably wouldn’t notice that it was there.  That white thing — is it a loquat?  Is it a sapote?  Ah, a mangosteen.  It’s … nice.

Dehydrated, however, it comes into its own, with a tangy, mouthfilling round fruit flavor and a delightful two-part texture, yielding, yielding, yielding and then crunch, as you crunch the edible seed.  I love dried mangosteens.  I love them.

Trader Joe’s carried dried mangosteens very briefly after July 23, 2007, when the USDA began permitting mangosteens from Thailand to enter the U.S.  They were delicious!  Where have they gone?

TJ’s still has freeze-dried mangosteens, which are OK.  I’ve been using them to nurse myself through withdrawal.  But where are the dried mangosteens?  Bring me back my dried mangosteens.  I want them.

All Spread Out


A friend was boasting about what a splendid cook her son is.  She bent toward me and said, in a hushed voice, “He plates.” 

Plating is something family cooks seldom do, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a winning technique for composed salads.

“Composed” salad just means a salad with other stuff than green leaves in it.  It may have other stuff plus greens, or it may have other stuff instead of greens.  (You will sometimes see a composed salad defined as the antonym of a tossed salad, which sounds logical but does not happen to be the case.  You can toss a composed salad, and you can lay a green salad out neatly.  If enough people stay confused long enough, a composed salad may come to mean one that’s laid out neatly, and then what will we call a salad with other stuff than greens?  A piebald salad, perhaps.)

But back to plating.  Last night I made a composed salad from Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington’s Heirloom Beans (Chronicle, 2008).  Cooked white beans, red bell pepper, onion, parsley, escarole, salt, pepper.  All good.  Then I whizzed the dressing up in the blender: hard-boiled egg, garlic, anchovies, wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper.  Then I mixed everything up and plopped it in a serving dish.

Hmm.  I believe the expression is “dog’s dinner.”  Tasty as all get-out, but not inviting to look at.

Tonight, learning from my mistakes, I made a composed salad from Peter Gordon’s Salads (Clarkson Potter, 2006).  Here are the layers I plated, top to bottom:

1) caramelized onions and wilted spinach dressed with balsamic vinegar
2) green beans dressed with lemon zest, lemon juice, and olive oil
3) potatoes and onions dressed with the same lemon dressing as the green beans
4) raw, undressed baby spinach

If I had mixed that all up in a serving bowl, it would have been even less appealing than last night’s mixture.  The dark caramelized onions would have stained everything else, and the nice crisp texture of the raw spinach would have disappeared.

Plating.  It’s not just for smart alecks.

Shirley Pie


Before we tell you about the next phase of our Shirley Project, we need to congratulate Shirley on winning the annual James Beard Baking and Dessert award for the very book we’ve been using, her fabulous BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking (Scribner, 2008).  If you have even the slightest interest in baking, you should run right out and buy this book.  It’s warm, brainy, and full to the brim with insights and explanations that will transform your relationship with your oven.

Our project, the Shirley Project, is to cook every recipe in the book.

Responding to some grumbling about eating so many similar cakes in a row, we’ve decided that we’re going to cook every recipe in BakeWise, but not in book order.  We’ve done five different pound cakes, I did an angelfood cake, summer fruit season is at hand, both Margaret and I consider ourselves expert pie-makers, so onward and upward with pies it is.  (Margaret’s taking off the summer from 2 Takes, but she’ll certainly be making some pies, and I can interview her on her experiences.)

As I said, I do consider myself a pretty darned good pie-maker, but I know only one crust, and I just make that crust over and over.  I’m excited about learning more, and also about understanding what I already know in practice.

So the first pie I made is the first pie in the pie chapter, a fresh blueberry pie with a cookie-crumb crust and honey mascarpone whipped cream topping.

With cakes, I made the full-sized version first and then scaled it down;  I had so little experience of baking cakes that I was afraid my small versions would be travesties (although that proved not to be the case).  With pies, I feel confident about scaling back right from the beginning.

So I whipped out my favorite pie pan for making a pie just for Mark and me.  It’s a shallow 8″ Pyrex, and sure enough Pyrex doesn’t seem to be making it any more, so as soon as I finish this post I’m off to eBay to stock up.  I made 2/3 of the crust, 1/2 of the filling, and the whole recipe for the topping.  Not bad for a first try, but I’d make a little less of the crust next time.  We didn’t like the crumb crust as well as our regular flaky piedough, but it made a nice change, and my heavens how fast and easy crumb crust is.  I plan always to have some good cookies on hand so I can crush them and whip up a crumb crust on the spur of the moment.

Besides making my first crumb crust ever, I learned a wonderful new technique for making a glaze for uncooked fruit.  Like everybody else, I’ve always used a seedless jam as a glaze, but this time Shirley had me add a tiny bit of gelatin and cool the fruit off before I spooned it into the crust.  The gelatin made all the difference — the fruit was so much easier to handle, especially all those little blueberries that want to run away and be rambunctious.

And the topping!  Honey and mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) and whipped cream — ambrosial.  I made extra (in proportion to the rest of the pie) and so found out that it keeps perfectly.  Won’t go flat.

I was also quite surprised at how well the crumb crust held up.  The 8″ Pyrex pan makes six servings of a sweet pie for us (four of a savory pie), which gave us three days of desserts.  Day 2 the crust was a little soggy but not unpleasant, and day 3 was the same as day 2.

Before I close, I want you to follow this link and watch the Shirley video.  Smart, articulate, with bounteous good spirits, she’s a wonderful good lady.

Hollandaise Part 1


As I’ve said, I’m working on Chapter 2 of my book Domestic Intelligence, a book about changing recipes to fit your life.  Chapter 2 is How To Make a Recipe Bigger or Smaller.  I picture most chapters as having about a dozen recipes treated in detail.  Sometimes I have to search and search for a recipe to illustrate a strategy, but sometimes, blessedly, a recipe finds me.  When we chose our cookbook of the month for May, Sonja Lee’s Sauce, I didn’t realize that one of its recipes would be perfect for chapter 2.  Imagine my delight.

The recipe is for hollandaise, a classic French sauce, lemon-flavored butter custard, perhaps best known as the sauce on Eggs Benedict.  I need to find out what the connection is to the Netherlands; most of the things we call Dutch in English are insults, dating from the great trade rivalries of the 18th and 19th centuries.  And it would also be nice to know why those eggs are called Benedict.

But all that is by the by.  What’s important about the recipe for chapter 2 is that it illustrates the strategy “Make it bigger to make it easier.”

Here are the ingredients for Sonja’s hollandaise:

2/3 cup butter
2 eggyolks
juice of 1/4 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

And here’s what she wants you to do (in my words, not hers):

Take two saucepans, A and B.  Melt the butter in saucepan A, warm the eggyolks in saucepan B.  With a whisk, beat the yolks in saucepan B, all the while keeping the eggs from overcooking by moving saucepan B over the burner and then away, over and then away.  Keep an eye on saucepan A to be sure the butter doesn’t burn.

When the yolks have absorbed enough air to change color from eggy yellow to a pale lemon color, remove both saucepan B and saucepan A from the stove.  Quickly, before they have a chance to cool off, pour the melted butter from saucepan A in a steady, thin stream into the yolks in saucepan B, whisking like crazy all the while.

When you’ve used up all the butter, whisk the lemon juice, salt, and white pepper into the sauce.  Voila, hollandaise.

If that way of making hollandaise sounds hard to you, believe me, it is hard.  I used to make hollandaise that way a zillion years ago, before I owned a blender.  As soon as I had a little mechanical friend to help me, I started making hollandaise like this:

Put the yolks in the blender, turn it on high, and beat air into the yolks.  Meanwhile, melt the butter on the stove.  When it has just melted, take the little inner cap off the blender.  With the blender running, either pour in the hot butter in a thin, steady stream or spoon it in a spoonful at a time.

Again, when you’ve used up all the butter, whisk the lemon juice, salt, and white pepper into the sauce.  Again, hollandaise.  Hollandaise that’s just as good, just as authentic, and dead easy.

There’s only one problem about making the hollandaise the easy way with Sonja’s ingredient list:  It won’t work.  Or rather, it won’t work in my kitchen (it might in yours).  It won’t work because my blender won’t beat only two yolks.  They’ll just lie there under the reach of the blades, and when I pour the butter in it will make scrambled eggs.  Delicious scrambled eggs, but not what I’m looking for.

What do I need to do?  Make it bigger to make it easier.

I happen to know that my blender will blend three yolks just fine.  (To check yours, sacrifice a few yolks; then you’ll know for all time how many you need.)  Two yolks plus half of two yolks (one yolk) equals three yolks.  Now do the same thing to the butter.  Two-thirds of a cup plus half of two-thirds of a cup (one third of a cup) equals one cup.

Or, to put it more succinctly, but at the risk of scaring away the mathphobic, multiply each of the main ingredients by 1.5:

2/3 cup butter x 1.5 = 1 cup of butter
2 eggyolks      x 1.5 = 3 eggyolks

The minor ingredients, the lemon juice, salt, and pepper, I’m going to be adding to taste anyway, so I don’t bother to multiply them by anything.

Your blender may be different.  Two yolks might work fine, or you might need four yolks, in which case you’ll need a cup and a third of butter.  (Two times two-thirds of a cup of butter is four-thirds of a cup, or a cup and a third.  A third of a cup of butter is an awkward measurement; call it five Tablespoons.)

Great.  Now I have a very easy recipe and more hollandaise than I really wanted.  I guess properly the second half of the story goes in chapter 5, how to make a recipe cheaper, where we talk about never wasting anything, but I don’t expect to be working on that chapter till 2012, so I’ll bring you hollandaise part 2 as soon as I figure it out.

Stay tuned.


June is a good time to make raspberry vinegar, June or July, when raspberries are at their berriest.  We get raspberries year round these days, and that makes me happy, but I still like to eat as many of them as I can in June and July.

So you take a clean bottle with a stopper and you push raspberries in till the bottle is almost full.  You want a combination of whole berries, berries pulled in half, and crushed berries — sort of a time-release raspberry spansule.

Then you pour in some decent white wine vinegar.  Don’t you hate it when recipes say things like that?  “Decent white wine vinegar.”  How can you tell whether it’s decent?  Open the bottle, put your thumb over the top, turn the bottle upside down, right the bottle again, and lick your thumb.  Sourness and maybe even a tiny bit of fruitiness?  Decent.  Metal or mildew or dust or rot?  Use it to wash windows.  I can buy decent white wine vinegar at my regular old supermarket; I hope you can too.

At any rate, you then pour in your (decent) white wine vinegar, put the stopper in, and turn the bottle this way and that till there are no air bubbles left in the raspberries.  Treat the bottle as you do an open pickle jar; if you keep opened pickle jars in the refrigerator, keep the raspberry vinegar there too.

At first the mixture will be ridiculously incarnadine, like berry blood on fire.  Then in a while the berries will fade to a very Goth purplish-grey.  Don’t be sad, that means the vinegar is ready to use.

Use for what? 

To revive pale-tasting fruit. 

You can find thousands of recipes that use raspberry vinegar in salad dressings and sauces and stews, but I don’t make any of them.  I save my raspberry vinegar for fruit that needs a boost — for plums that aren’t plummy enough, peaches too far removed from their home in the Central Valley, strawberries that taste more white than red, tomatoes (remember, tomatoes are fruit too) a day too many off the vine.  Lemon juice is tremendous, of course, but raspberry vinegar is subtler.  You never need more than a quarter of a teaspoonful, more often several drops.  (Pure cane sugar also helps.  So does salt, even less salt than raspberry vinegar, just a few grains.)

When the year comes round to June again, I drain the last of my raspberry vinegar into a glass, crushing the faded grey raspberries to extract the last goodness from them, add as much simple syrup as I have vinegar (simple syrup is one part sugar dissolved in one part water), and top the mixture with sparkling water.  This drink is called raspberry shrub, and Mark doesn’t like it, so I have it all to myself.  And then I start in with another year’s worth of raspberry vinegar.

Off and Running


The story so far:  My friend Stephen has decided to learn to cook.  To that end I got him a cookbook, Great Food Fast (Martha Stewart Living, Everyday Food, Clarkson Potter, 2007), we’ve cooked one meal together, and now he’s been racing on ahead alone.  Here are the e-mails we sent back and forth about one of his recent triumphs.


I tried a very simple recipe, the Chicken Chilaquiles.  It turned out quite well but I will say I was a little frustrated when I went to the store to buy the ingredients.

The recipe called for a can of Chipotle peppers in Adobe sauce.  I assumed that this would be a product one could find fairly easily, but when I went to the Safeway, which has its own little Hispanic food section, I couldn’t find it.  I poked around and wasn’t even able to locate Chipotle peppers.  Taking your lead, I improvised and grabbed a jar of Adobe sauce and randomly pulled another type of Mexican pepper out of the produce section.

Well when all was said and done, it tasted great.

I also used the extra sour cream, Queso Fresca and cilantro to put a Mexican spin on the potato salad we made the other night.  Yum.  My cooking adventure begins and so far so good. 



> a can of Chipotle peppers in Adobe sauce …

Golly, even my white-bread QFC has them.  Did you look in the “ethnic foods” section?  Did you ask somebody at a check-out stand or customer service window?

> a jar of Adobe sauce and randomly pulled another type of Mexican pepper out of the produce section …

Wow!  You’re a natural, Stephen.  That potato salad sounds divine; I will have to make it myself some time soon.  Already you’re thinking through what kind of effect you want to achieve, what goes with what, Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work out.  I’m amazed.  I’m delighted.



Had some of the left overs today and it was even better after an evening in the fridge.

I think I will eat the potato salad heated.  I loved it when I ate it right out of the pot but after it cooled I realized that I am really not a big fan of cold potato salad.  I tested a little bit last night and it heats up just fine.  And I can add some fresh sour cream on top to make it even better.  The cilantro was a delicious addition. 

I finished up the rest of the potato salad last night (heated up…so not really potato salad.  More like a broken up baked potato.) With a little cool sour cream and Mexican cheese it was the furthest thing from a low fat meal.  And delicious, if perhaps not the most well rounded dinner.  Well, one step at a time.  I have the rest of the Mexican chicken here for lunch today (one serving went to my roommate and the other two have saved very nicely for lunches).  I am hoping to fire up the grill this and try the flank steak with green sauce this weekend!