Monday, December 31, 2007

The Letter

(This one comes under the "other stuff" part of the title of this blog...)

Years ago when I lived in Chicago some friends and I came upon the opportunity to make some extra cash by cleaning out the basement of a little old lady who lived alone. Her husband had passed away some time before and she needed some strong young men to rid the basement of its trash and treasures. And there was a lot of both. I don't think they threw anything away at any point in their lives. After the basement, we ended up cleaning out the attic. And then her husband's old bedroom. And then the garage after that. What we thought at first would be maybe a week's work for the three of us turned into at least a month and a half. At least. She let us keep almost anything we wanted, so we sold a lot of stuff for even more extra cash, and kept some stuff for ourselves. Ten years later, the one thing I still have is this old letter I found among her husband's stamp collection.

It's dated April 15, 1848.

Though it's three pages long (one piece of paper), all these years I've had it I've never read more than just part of the first page. Finally last night I got it out and read it all. There's nothing terribly remarkable about its contents- just an ordinary letter from one ordinary person to another. But it was written in 1848. It's difficult for me to even imagine. Everything that we know and take for granted today is worlds apart from back then. Never mind cell phones and computers- ink-filled pens weren't even commonplace yet. (Makes me wonder what the world will be like 150+ years from now.) It's not sealed in an envelope; it's simply folded and addressed, without even a zip code. (Had those even been invented yet?) There is no stamp, just a "5" in the corner where the stamp would be.

As average and uninteresting as it may be, I find it fascinating and moving. Which is why I want to reprint it here. I've done my best to reprint it as accurately as possible. I'm confident that all of the words are as they were written on the paper- the ones I wasn't sure of I've noted with [brackets]. Some of the punctuation was left off - including a couple "?"s and several "."s - but rather than insert them where I thought they should be, I left as is. (The pics aren't that great, I know, but for now it's all I got. Someday when I get my Canon 40D I'll upgrade them.)

The return address simply reads "Sebec Me April 18", and it's addressed to "Mrs Mary G. Dow. East Vassalboro Maine"

Sebec April 15 1848

Mrs. [P]Rice Dow

Your favor of 27 July was duly recieved. The reason of my not calling on you is simply this. I wrote you last fall before I left home desiring that you would acknowledge the reciept of the letter by writing to me at Boston. After waiting some 3 or 4 weeks I wrote you from Boston and recieved no answer. This led me to believe that you had left and I was somewhat suprised to hear on my return home that you were still at Vassalboro. I could have called that way with but little delay in time and had I known you had been at home I should have done so.
The factory has been stopped since I went away last Nov- and I probably shall not start up till June when the new clip of wool comes off. Almost all the flannel mills in Massachusetts are stopped and I was advised a day or two ago that none had as yet commenced operations again and they will not probably do so till June. It was quite a lucky thing for me that I had suspended operations. The times never were so bad as they have been since then for manufacturing since factories first started in the country. We ought to have some good times to make up- I have quite a quantity of goods on hand and have not sold any since last Nov.
The Note to Hobart in the hands of Silas Paul- has been contested successfully- and I am happy to assure that we have obtained the judgement. Everett charges very high for his services. Considering the little inconvenience he was put to. Examining no witnesses and probably the whole time he spent would be but a few hours. His charge is twelve dollars ($12.00). I am rather short of funds now owing to the dullness of business- I will take the earliest opportunity to settle with and pay him and the balance to you. I will remit a call and give into your own hands when I can make it convenient- I should like to hear if you are in want of it. write me in receipt of this to that effect.
I should like to hear how Catherine (Litte Kate) gets along attending Quaker meetings. Whether as much mischief beams from her little black eyes. She promised to write me but it appears she forgets promises to me. How is Hannah and is she as evil as ever and does she try her mothers patience as much as she formerly did-
I thank you for you well wishes for my welfare and prosperity. I wonder what could give you such ideas of my intentions what could put it into your head that I had been choosing a companion- I am however I suppose should for as soon as times become better. though it may be a long time before I become a married man- You have never seen my intended choice and she has never seen Sebec- and in fact only once set foot in the State of Maine. Her hair and eyes are much blacker than Kates- I wish Kate could be with her awhile. She would perhaps obtain considerable knowledge of fancy needlework which Kate delights in if I recollect aright. Everett and Angela have made all up and I am told that he makes nightly visitations across Pleasant River. I hope now she will stay put and not cause him any further trouble. He is I am told getting out a house [unintelligible] I suppose by that that things have got pretty well along- I saw her just before I went away last fall. there was nothing between them then- I had quite a talk with her on various subjects. She denied flat enough ever having made any statements about me which you know were laid to her charge. She was very civil and obliging and friendly as well as her father and mother- Mrs. John [unintelligible] lays at the point of death in the village- Mrs Walker's family are quite well. How should you like to be again in the old Boarding House and her neighbor. Henry is at Bowerbank- He went to school all winter. the first part he studied well and the latter it was quite too warm for him. My best respects to all your family.

Yours Truly

R. W. Robinson

Write in the receipt of this and tell me how you are getting along with your eyes- whether you enjoy yourself as much better than you did here as you expected. Whether you ever expect to live in Sebec again.

The round spot in the middle looks to have been from some sort of wax seal, though I'm not positive

Friday, December 28, 2007

Hummina-hummina hummus

About a month ago or so, I came across a hummus recipe on one of the food blogs I subscribe to that called for olives. I'd never had hummus before, and I like olives, so I thought I'd try it out at some point. Then, a couple weeks ago, we had a complaint at work about our hummus. They said it was bland and tasteless, which I found a bit humorous considering Minnesotans are famous for loving bland food. (My sis-in-law calls Minnesota "the state where ketchup is considered a hot sauce.") So I tried it. Yeah, it was kind of bland, but come on, it's basically just chick-pea-and-sesame paste; what do you expect? I decided this would be a good time to try out the olive-hummus. But when I went back to get the recipe, I couldn't find it anywhere. Not a big deal since I don't need a recipe anyway, but I just don't know who to credit for the idea. (Sorry, whoever you are that came up with it.) Anyway, as far as regular hummus goes, I'm indifferent about it; I might eat it if it's there, but I won't bother to make it. As for this hummus, it's something that I will eat almost daily. It is truly worthy of its title, Hummina-hummina. So hold on to your tastebuds, kids 'cause here we go...

First, a list:

Garbanzo beans, canned or cooked
Fresh garlic
Fresh lemon juice
Crushed red pepper
Kalamata olives
Olive oil

Now, if you have a hard time making stuff without an actual recipe to follow, or if you just want to get a sense of how I do things, read on. I actually wrote down all of the steps I took to make this hummus today, as I made it. What follows is not a recipe, but is representative of how I make stuff. Whether it's the very first time I try something, or the firsteenth time I've made it, this is the exact process I use. And yes, I know that "firsteenth" is not a word. But y'know what? Neither was "blogosphere" until some asshole thought he'd be funny and make it up and start using it like it actually meant something, and now look at it; it's everywhere.
Stupid non-word, I hate it.

Anyway, let's make some Hummus! (remember, these are my exact steps)

Open #10 can of garbanzos (6+ lbs.) Dump a bunch into the food processor bowl. That's what, 2 cups? 3? Eh, whatever, the bowl's about half-full. (Normally I'd say half-empty, but this stuff brings out the optimist in me.) Spoon in some tahini. I can't be bothered to measure this stuff out, but judging by how much was left in the jar, I'd say I used about 12 oz. Lick spoon. Mm, not very tasty, is it? Fortunately, it gets better. A lot better. Spoon in some fresh minced garlic. What's that, about 1/2 cup? Sure! Sprinkle in some crushed reds. Looks to be about a Tablespoon or so. I hope it's not too much. Let's see, what's next? How about juice of 1 lemon and (because we keep it in those plastic squeeze bottles) a hard, 3 second squeeze of olive oil. (Go for the good stuff, not the cheap 80/20 blend we use.) I'm guessing that was about 1/2 cup. Again, I can't be bothered to measure this stuff out. And now, the not-so-secret weapon: Kalamatas! I highly recommend chopping them up before adding to the food processor. Not only because the food processor never really seems to chop them up fine enough, but also because you'll catch any stray pits. I found 6 (!) in about a cup's worth of olives for this batch alone. I don't know what brand we're using, but I'm thinking they need to upgrade their equipment.

Blend it all up.

Tasting results: Maybe a little too much tahini. Maybe. Definitely needs more olives and garlic. In go another 2 or 3 T garlic, and 1 C or so (pre-chop) olives. Crap, I forgot the cumin! Toast up about 1/4 C or so in a fry pan on the stove and dump in. Getting a little thick now, and also needs some salt, so in goes a little of the kalamata juice. Damn, the food processor is almost overflowing. (I strongly believe in the idea that less is more. So when am I going to learn to start practicing what I preach?) Re-taste. Well, turns out the tahini was right on after all (maybe even not enough. Maybe.) but needs still more olives. In go about 1/4 C, plus more juice. Blend. Taste.
Oh hell yeah!
Good thing, too. I don't think I can fit anything else in.
(Well, maybe just a dash of cumin, but that's it.)

And that's it. Goes great on just about anything, but I prefer mine on tortilla chips. We make our own, which I recommend doing, but if you're going to go with store-bought, get some good ones. I personally like those Tostito's Gold ones. Nice and thick and crunchy.

So, how's it taste?

Mmmm, hummina-hummina!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Split-pea soup

Simple+cheap+easy= super awesome and delicious on a snowy Christmas day!

1 bag of split peas (1 lb)
a Tablespoon or so of crushed red pepper
1 smoked hamhock (liquid smoke, if you're a vegetablearian)
4 or 5 guajillos and a couple anchos, stemmed and minced
1 medium to large onion, diced
dash of cumin
salt to taste (if you're using the hamhock, or bacon or anything like that, probably less than you think you need, due to the already present saltiness in the pork)
black pepper to taste

Rinse the peas, then throw everything but the onion in a pot and cover with an inch or two of water (the hamhock probably will not be completely covered).

Bring to a boil, covered, then turn down to a simmer. After about 20-30 minutes toss in the onions and keep simmering until done (about 45 minutes total). Blend in the pot with your immersion blender and just try to keep yourself from going back for more until you feel like you're ready to explode.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

It burns! It burns us!

Yesterday at work I was chopping jalapenos for our chili; two pounds, to be exact, which is about 30 or so peppers. Maybe I was just being lazy, or maybe my memory is just worse than I thought, but I broke my cardinal rule of jalapeno-chopping, which is always, always, ALWAYS!! wear gloves whenever you chop more than about 3 of them. Four or five, tops. The reason that is my cardinal rule is not because I forgot one time and rubbed my eyes or used the bathroom aftewards; I'm not that absent-minded. But because I've done this before and found out the hard way that handling lots of chopped hot peppers will really irritate your skin. Yes, even your hands. Except that it's not as immediate as rubbing your eyes afterwards. It can take up to an hour, or even more, to start. Which is what happened with me. I didn't even really have much contact with the peppers- just lightly holding down a pile of them, pushing them towards the knife. That's it. I think in this case it was about a half-hour later that my left hand started burning. Really burning. I think I could have lit peoples' cigarettes with my fingertips. It was bad. It got to where I couldn't go 30 seconds without sticking my hand in cold water. 30 seconds of ice water, 30 seconds of air. Then repeat. Again and again. And again. I knew from past experience that this was going to go on for a really long time. Not really practical, y'know? Anyway, there is a point to all this. Most of the guys I work with are Mexican and whenever they get a burn, they always put mustard on it. I vaguely remember trying it once a long time ago and not noticing much of a difference, but I figured I didn't have anything to lose this time. So I grabbed the jar and covered my hand with it completely. Mmm, tasty, yellow mustard-coverd hand! I guess a mustard-covered hand probably isn't much more practical than sticking it in ice-water every 30 seconds, but y'know what? It actually worked. It still burned some, but it was bearable. Not like before where it felt like I had coated my hand with super-industrial-strength IcyHot. I suspect it's actually the vinegar in the mustard that does it, but I'm not sure why. (Time to watch Fight Club again, I guess.) One of the guys told me that lemon juice and tomato juice work too. Again, with the acids. And I'm sure they do work as well, but mustard has the advantage of actually staying put. Which means you can also play jokes on people with it (assuming it was your hand that you burned); like say, offer to shake their hand. Or slap them on the back. Or just talk about how weird it is that only your hand has jaundice. Or whatever.

Anyway, learn from my pain. Always wear gloves when chopping more than a few hot peppers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Guajillo, baby!

(Pronounced "Wah-HEE-oh", more or less.) Not a really well-known pepper here in the U.S., relatively speaking. Certainly not right up there with the jalapeno, or the habanero, although it should be. I just discovered them myself less than a year ago, pretty much by accident, but they're now one of my all-time favorite peppers to cook with. If you've never had something made with them, you're missing out big-time on some awesome flavor.

Read on for a really kick-ass Red Chili-Garlic Salsa...

Years ago, when I lived in Chicago, my friends and I would often go to the many local Mexican burrito joints for lunch. You'd order your food and while you wait for it they bring you out a bowl of tortilla chips with red and green salsas to go with them. Both of those salsas were awesome and I've always wanted to try and make them at home, so when I came across a cookbook called "The Well-Filled Tortilla" awhile back and noticed that they had a few recipes in there for red and green salsas, I knew I had to get it. Finally, a couple weeks ago I got around to checking out the red salsa recipe.

Here's their recipe, in a nutshell:

1 1/2 oz dried red chili peppers, preferably japones or guajillos, stemmed
5 garlic cloves
1/3 C olive oil
1/4 t salt

(Basically, you soak the chilis in warm water for a half hour or so to soften them, then blend everything together in a food processor or whatever and you're good to go. Makes about 1/2 cup. Incidentally, I haven't actually tried the book's recipe, as written, although I'm sure it's very good.)

Now, when I saw that it called for guajillos I was a little skeptical, especially since the name of the salsa was "Red Hot Chili-Garlic Salsa". For one, guajillos are not very hot. They're considered about a 2-4 on a scale of 1-10 (10 being hottest). Also, I'd been using guajillos for a very different kind of recipe (which I'll post about later) and I just couldn't mentally separate the two; looking at it that way, the guajillos just didn't seem like a good fit for a salsa. Then I noticed that they said you could sub, in a pinch, dried red chili flakes for either the guajillos or japones. So I tried that instead. And the results weren't all that great. It needed something. So I figured, "What the heck, I'll try adding some guajillos." Now it was really starting to taste kind of crappy. I was actually getting ready to dump it out when I decided I'd try adding a little lime juice. Yes, in my world lime juice is like a mom's kiss on a kid's boo-boo- it just makes everything better; (well, almost everything). But crap, I didn't have any limes! I live a block or so from a grocery store, but as it was later in the evening, I didn't feel like walking over. What to do? So, I figured apple cider vinegar might be the next best thing. As it turned out, it was even better. A lucky accident that I didn't have any limes- otherwise I might never have tried the cider vinegar and would not have come up with this particular salsa. I've since tried lime juice, as well as red wine vinegar. Neither are as good as the cider vinegar.

Now as you might expect, I don't have an actual recipe, but here's a basic guide for making some of the best salsa I have ever had in my life:

A bunch of guajillos, stemmed. (15-20 is probably a decent amount to use.)
Fresh minced garlic
Crushed red pepper
Olive oil
Apple cider vinegar
red (or green) jalapenos, or other hot red pepper

I like to give the guajillos a rough chop, just to help them settle in the pan a little better. Toss them in a pot and add water to cover by about 1/2 inch to 1 inch. Bring just to a boil, then turn down to a simmer for about 10-15 minutes. When they're done, drain them, but save the liquid. Toss the peppers in a blender or food processor with some crushed red pepper (maybe 1/4 C), olive oil (1/4 C), and garlic (2-3 Tablespoons) and blend away. If you're using a blender, I'd recommend pulsing it on the lowest setting- you don't want to turn it into a puree. (Of course, if you have one of those really great immersion blenders, those are just about perfect for this, but it helps to do it in a tall, narrow container, like a pitcher.) Add a little of the vinegar and salt, tasting constantly and making adjustments as necessary. Add a little of the leftover cooking liquid as well, for some more guajillo flavor. If you can get your hands on some red jalapenos to add, seeds and all, for a little extra flavor, color, and heat- a major plus. If you can't get red jalapenos, green ones work well too, but the color won't be as deep. Two or three is about all you need. Thai bird chilis work nicely as well.

I really never use a recipe when making this, and I make so many minor adjustments to taste that it's hard to come up with an actual recipe to post here (I mean, if I wanted to). Amounts aren't really critical anyway- it's very easy to adjust this one by taste. You want more guajillo than anything else, a fair amount of crushed reds (they really add a good flavor without excessive heat) and just enough olive oil to give it a smooth consistency without being "oily". As for garlic, it kind of depends on your tastes and how much you like the stuff. I love garlic, but for this one I want the flavor just coming through from the background, not right up front. It's easiest to go overboard on the salt and vinegar, so go light to start, maybe just one or two teaspoons of vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. How's it taste? It's ready whenever you think it is. (Remember, though, the vinegar is a key ingredient for really bringing out the best in this salsa, so if the flavor doesn't really grab you, try adding a little more.) Of course, if you do go overboard on anything, it's easily fixable by adding more of the rest.

This really is one of the best salsas I've had in my life. It's fairly quick and easy, and all the ingredients are readily available.* Not quite the same as I remember from Chicago, but I think it's actually better anyway. Also, almost everyone I work with happens to be Mexican, and they all like it a lot too, so I think that's a good sign. The very first time you make it, if you just taste it from the spoon or your finger, you might not be as enthusiastic as I am. I wasn't either. It wasn't until I tried it on an actual burrito that I really fell in love with it. It goes wonderful on all things Mexican. Interestingly enough, the "cheaper" the Mexican food is (i.e. Taco Bell, etc.) the more it improves the flavor of whatever you're eating it on. Not that I recommend that stuff, but I know some people who actually like it.

*Guajillos are actually starting to become more mainstream- I've been seeing them in more and more "regular" grocery stores, but if you happen to live in a small town or someplace where you just can't find them, there's always the internet. One good site to check out is GourmetSleuth. Even with shipping, the prices are competitive to what I'd pay around here in the store.

Happy eating!

A word on salt...

Seeing as how salt is used in almost everything we cook, I thought I'd offer up my thoughts on it here.

A few years ago when I first started noticing sea salt coming into the mainstream, I totally scoffed. I chalked it up to just a marketing gimmick-

"Our potato chips are better because they're made with Sea Salt."

Yeah, right. "Sea salt & vinegar" potato chips are only different from "regular" salt & vinegar chips in that they cost more. Or at least, that's what I thought. Then I started reading some BBQ books by Steven Raichlen. He recommended using Kosher Salt as opposed to table salt. Said it didn't burn your tongue the way table salt would (in addition to being easier to sift through your fingers due to the larger size crystals). That got me re-thinking about sea salt, so I went home and did a simple taste test with sea and table salt-
First, I just tasted a pinch of sea salt- didn't notice anything unusual; tasted like salt. Then I tasted a pinch of regular table salt. What a difference! The table salt had a harsh, burning taste to it, not "clean" at all like the sea salt. Later on, I went out and tried some sea salt & vinegar potato chips. (I like salt & vinegar chips anyway, so it was some tasty research.) Big difference there, too. Although tasty, if you eat regular salt & vinegar chips, you'll notice that after awhile your mouth will burn and sting from the salt; not so with the sea salt variety. Marketing gimmick or not, it really is better. (Not to mention that if you throw it in a pot of cooking water, like for pasta or something, it will foam up a little, like ocean foam : )

All salt is not "just salt". I'll never use table salt again. Maybe the harsh taste of it just comes from the added iodide and un-iodized salt won't have that harshness. I don't know; I haven't tasted the un-iodized kind. Maybe that makes me a food snob. Maybe I don't care. I'll continue to use both Kosher and Sea salts. Sea is a little more expensive, but you can get it fairly cheap nowadays, and find it almost anywhere. Hain and Morton both market a commercial variety that you can find in almost any grocery store, and if you have a co-op or natural foods store nearby, you can usually find it in bulk for less. When I need a large amount of salt for a recipe (like the sour pickles I'll be writing about before too long) I tend to use Kosher. For smaller amounts, or for sprinkling on food, I go with Sea.

You can read a little more about the differences between the three at Food Network.

Monday, December 10, 2007

No, you can't have the recipe... because there isn't one.

So, I like to cook. Sometimes I even think I'm pretty good at it. It used to be that when I told someone I liked to cook, and they asked me if I was any good, I'd say "Well, I'm good at following a recipe!" But I've come to realize that that's just not true. I actually am a good cook, and I really suck at following a recipe. The only time I can really stick to them is when I'm mixing baking stuff, like flour, and baking powder, that sort of thing- because that stuff doesn't really taste very good on its own, so you really can't judge by taste whether you need more or not. Other than that, whenever I actually try and follow a recipe, my head starts to hurt, I get dizzy, have to hold on to something so I don't fall... ok, maybe that's a little much, but I do get that "far-off" look in my eyes, like I'm trying to make sense of one of those Magic Eye pictures. That actually does happen. Not to say that I never use recipes; I do use them, all the time- I just can't stick to them. I look at them as more like using one of those multi-state maps to find your way from Point A to Point B- you've got a general idea of what direction you're going to go, but as far as which streets to take, you'll just have to figure that out along the way. Which I think is a lot more fun anyway. If you don't have a set path to follow, there's no way you can go off course. If you don't have a set recipe to follow, there's no way you can make it wrong. As long as it tastes right, it is right, and it can be slightly different every time (and probably will be) and still be great. And sometimes you might just end up with something totally new and different that you can share with your friends.
Recipes? We don't need no stinkin' recipes!