Thursday, August 30, 2012

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut squash. Some love it, others can’t stand it. The dictionary will tell you that butternut squash is a popular winter squash producing a bell-shaped fruit with sweet orange-yellow flesh. For those falling into the ‘can’t stand it’ group, some might guess that they haven’t been treated to the fruit’s marvelous versatility. Depending on the mood, butternut squash can be roasted, toasted, mashed, used in casseroles, breads and muffins or puréed for soups; it can be grilled or stuffed with a variety of ingredients.

Squash has been around for a very long time, found even in the tombs of ancient Egypt. A staple for Native Americans for more than 5000 years, it became a dietary mainstay for early Europeans who settled in America. But the story is a little different for butternut squash. The man who reportedly first developed this variety of squash was Charles A. Leggett, neither farmer nor scientist but an insurance man living in Waltham, Massachusetts. He began with a small garden in the late 1930s but it wasn’t until the mid 1940s that he developed the strain we call butternut squash. Basically, Leggett’s focus was on a crossing of the gooseneck squash with a variety called the Hubbard squash—another winter squash but with a green or yellow skin and hard-to-cut flesh. During the years of 1942-45 Leggett faced some challenges, but finally satisfied, he took his squash to the Waltham agricultural field station to show scientists there what he’d developed. They were delighted with the new variety of squash and asked Leggett to come up with a name for it. Feeling the squash was “smooth as butter and sweet as a nut,” Leggett decided to call it butternut squash.

I owe my fondness for butternut squash to my good friend K, who introduced it to me in a version she calls five-star squash using the Chinese inspired Five Star Powder, a combination of fennel seeds, star anise, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Without doubt a mix that ignites an eye-opening jolt of the exotic, but not really a flavor that anyone would condemn as weird and foreign. But let’s expand the exotic by imagining butternut squash in a soup with curry. Those who like curry and eat it on occasion have probably already figured out that the flavor derives from a blend of turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, and fenugreek, all made pungent by the addition of ginger, chili, and pepper. It only gets better with the addition of butternut squash.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 butternut squash (2½ pounds), peeled, seeded and cubed*
6 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon salt, more to taste
2 tablespoons honey
4 teaspoons plain low-fat yogurt for garnish

*Peeling a butternut squash, removing the seeds and cubing it is a troublesome task. An easier method is to use Marketside Butternut Squash in the 12 ounce bag. It comes ready to use without the hassle of wrestling with a whole squash. Two of the 12 ounce bags is sufficient.

Putting it all together
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a 6-quart stockpot. Add onions and garlic and sauté until soft but not brown—6 or 7 minutes. Add the butternut squash, chicken broth, curry powder and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until squash is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the honey and puree in a blender (in batches) until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Ladle into serving bowls and add a swirl of yogurt as garnish.

Serve it with some warm French bread and a green salad. Family and guests will be wowed.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Defining Chocolate

Back in high school, there was a place many of us went on Friday nights after football games or a movie at the Paramount, a place called Hopper’s where you sat in the privacy of your car and got curb service burgers and malts. It was a great place to take a date if you were short of money, and at seventeen that was most of the time. Hopper’s Drive-In started out in Baton Rouge as a family-run ice cream shop in the late 1940s, but by the time we got to high school the owners had opened two or three drive-ins and expanded the menu to include hamburgers, fries and milkshakes. The taste that lingers in my memory of those salad days is not the oniony flavor of hamburger or the super sweetness of a hot fudge sundae but the simple malted goodness of their chocolate milkshakes delivered by a college kid in white shirt and black bow tie running with a metal tray that hooked to the driver’s side window opening. Those long ago Friday night milkshakes define for me not only a time of life, but the flavor of chocolate at its best.

And wasn’t it great in those days to have no notion of things like calories, fat grams and cholesterol? Oh sure, our modern understanding of the food we eat has multiple benefits, but who can deny it has badly shaken the spontaneity of pleasurable eating and drinking. Sometimes health-conscious eating is a crashing bore, and that coming from one who doesn’t drink a glass of Perrier without studying the label. Despite that, sitting here lost in thoughts of a bygone Hopper’s and their chocolate malts I practically drool with the desire for a big thirty-two ounce stainless steel cup of just mixed ice cream, milk and chocolate syrup.    

Walgreens is currently running a television commercial in which they claim credit for “inventing” the first chocolate malt. Some might question whether that claim is altogether true, but it is a fact that in 1922 a distracted Walgreens soda jerk ‘accidentally’ added two scoops of vanilla ice cream to the standard malted milk drink and came up with what they called a milkshake—a recipe of milk, ice cream, chocolate syrup and malt powder.

The word ‘milkshake’ was coined way back in 1885 but used at the time to describe an alcoholic drink of whiskey and eggs. It wasn’t until 1900 that a milkshake became a hand-shaken mixture of crushed ice and milk, sugar, and flavorings. The Hamilton Beach Cyclone drink mixer with its spindle and metal cup appeared in 1911 and soon became the iconic milkshake mixer. It was then that ice cream got added to the mix bringing the milkshake closer to what we know today. The Walgreens malted milkshake coincided with the 1922 invention of the electric blender, a device that eventually brought milkshakes into the home.

Certainly there are a thousand and one places famous for making the ‘best’ chocolate milkshakes and we all have our favorites. Unfortunately, for many of us the chance to go back again to a favorite drive-in or malt shop from younger days is now nothing more than a nostalgic dream. Still, there are places that serve what some call world-class milkshakes, and if you’re lucky there’s one not far from home. There’s never a time that I skip the chance to have a chocolate milkshake at Johnny Rockets when shopping at the Mall of Millennia in Orlando, Florida. It’s a drive of a couple of hours, but shopping sometimes requires it and I can write off the long drive knowing that an almost Hopper’s chocolate milkshake is on the lunch menu.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Thunderstorms have returned to Florida’s east coast. On most days this summer the late afternoon dark clouds fat with rain kept their distance while the fringe of green above the beach began to brown. But something jostled that dry pattern and one day in mid-August the familiar claps of thunder and razzle-dazzle of lightening returned, bringing with it the long awaited downpours. For the past ten days the afternoon rain has crashed down in a daily abbreviated monsoon. We’ve been spared the threat of dangerous weather this far into the season, but according to weather wizards, the approach of Tropical Storm Isaac now in the northern Caribbean may change that. Looks like we could be tying down the outdoor furniture and battening down for Sunday and Monday.  

Stingrays are common in coastal tropical waters around the world, but a comparatively rare sight on the Florida beach that I call home. Unlike a hundred other creatures of the deep, until this week I had never seen one washed up in the surf. The one in the photograph below is a baby whiptail stingray in the family called Dasyatidae. Found worldwide in tropical to temperate marine waters, they have flattened pectoral fin discs that are most often oval, but are sometimes seen in a diamond shape. They range in size from seven inches to almost six and a half feet across. The name comes from the whip-like tail, which is longer than the disc. All of the whiptail rays have a venomous barb near the base of the tail for defense. In the picture below the stinger barb is visible just below the small white shell at the top. 

Stingrays are a fish with a cartilage skeleton and related to the shark. Most have the barbed stinger on the tail, which has two grooves on the underside with venom glands. In larger rays the barb can reach a length of almost fourteen inches. It is covered with a thin layer of skin where the venom is concentrated. 

They feed mostly on mollusks, crustaceans, and sometimes small fish, but with eyes on top of the body and a mouth on the underside, stingrays cannot see their prey, so use smell and electroreceptors instead. They bear live young in litters of five to thirteen. 

Usually docile creatures, the most common reaction is to flee any disturbance, but they will use their stinger in cases of self defense. For the victim, the sting causes local trauma, pain, swelling, muscle cramps from the venom, and possibly infection from bacteria. It is a very painful injury, but seldom life-threatening unless the stinger hits a vital area. (Most are familiar with the sad death of Steve Irwin in 2006 from a stingray.) In most cases the barb breaks off in the wound requiring surgery to remove the fragments.

In some countries rays are caught as food using fishing lines or spears. Depending on the country, there are any number of recipes, but in Singapore and Malaysia it is commonly grilled over charcoal, then served with spicy sauce.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The War At Home

1944 poster for the Advertising Council-National Garden Program; Dick Williams artist
Those of us who grew up in the postwar years of World War II were not a part of the nationwide movement of planting victory gardens, food rationing, canning and preserving and other programs designed to support the government and armed forces during the years when America’s attention was focused on events overseas. Like many, our family did have a vegetable garden in the backyard, and like middle class mothers everywhere, my own mother preserved a variety of foods. But in those optimistic years following the war there was no rationing and I am unable to recall a time in childhood when many of us were forced to do without the basics that defined life among America’s middle class during that time.

Throughout the years of World War II the average American depended upon a ‘victory garden’ to provide food during a time when the nation’s major production was geared toward providing a food supply for the troops overseas. It was a nationwide effort by government agencies, private foundations, businesses, schools, and seed companies all working together to provide land, instruction, and seeds for both individuals and communities to grow food. Both Americans and the English created gardens from backyards, vacant lots, parks, baseball fields, and schoolyards, where children and adults fertilized, planted, weeded, and watered in an effort to harvest an abundance of vegetables. Any excess was canned and preserved for winter and early spring, until the next year’s victory garden produce was ready for harvest.

1917 Bureau of Education, Department of Interior; Edward Penfield artist

Those gardens are now a fragment of American history. Thankfully, we still have a wealth of catalogs, photos, film, newspaper articles and diaries that tell the story.

Prompted by a colorful outpouring of government sponsored propaganda, canning and preserving surged during both world wars. Citizens were encouraged to start victory gardens with an aim toward reducing their reliance on limited food rations. The next step was naturally preserving the newly-grown produce.

For both the government and the people war became a challenge to elevate the importance of food production and the daily habits surrounding food economy. Circumstances required citizens on the home front to adjust their daily, peacetime routines, an adjustment no one thought would be easy. Canning and preserving at home became a way of relieving pressure on the canning industry that was needed to preserve food for soldiers. With this aim in mind, the government called on artists to create a propaganda poster campaign designed to make canning seem patriotic. The result was an outpouring of posters featuring brightly colored artwork and slogans that recalled a simpler time when life and humor for most was unsophisticated. The posters became a device for bringing the public together around a common need to support the armed forces, conveying the message that Americans faced a vital need for food conservation, rationed goods, meatless and wheatless days, home gardening and canning.

1917 Connecticut State Council of Defense; artist unknown

Posters produced during World War I were for the most part designed in the older style of word outweighing picture or image. At the time of World War II the style was full-color, presented in an enthusiastic tone without mention of war and devoting more space to image than text.

The two posters above and below (both from World War I) speak to American common ground through religion, language, patriotism and the experience of immigrants. Both were produced in 1917 by the US Food Administration-Educational Division; the top poster is by artist A. Hendee, the bottom one by Charles Edward Chambers.

National Food Emergency-Food Garden Commission, 1917

Friday, August 10, 2012

Jumping the Reverend’s Bones

After long years of living in a land far away, my anticipated return to America two years ago was troubled by fear of cultural adjustments I knew were waiting on the horizon. I worried that America would turn out to be a society nearly foreign to my sensitivities. The fears all came to life once my feet were back on native soil. For months I thought the plane had set me down in the wrong place, dropped me in a land completely out of sync with what I remembered. Stranger in a strange land, a fish out of water, a square peg in a round hole, a hopeless misfit.

No surprise that time has softened the hard edges, and while occasional aspects of life here continue to baffle me, I’ve discovered my place and no longer thrash about out of water, ill-fitted to those around me. 

Had the great good fortune last week to stumble upon a book that left me dazzled by its story of a middle-aged man suddenly uprooted from everything he knows and thrust suddenly into what seems to him at first a Martian landscape full of odd creatures. The book is Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais, published last month by Scribner.

Seido Oda is a thirty-nine year-old Buddhist priest who has lived and worked most of his life in a remote mountain temple in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Entering the temple as an acolyte at the age of eleven, he has known no other life, apart from a brief flirtation with the outside world during his time at college in Tokyo. Even within the temple precincts Seido manages to live in a world all his own, a world of books, painting and poetry, insulated within the idyllic setting of his leafy private quarters. There are events in the priest’s early life that have shaped his ways and made him something of a thorn in the side of his superiors, and it is this prickly concern that prompts the Head Priest to send this cloistered soul to Brooklyn, New York with the task of overseeing the building and foundation of a Buddhist temple there.

Met, hugged and welcomed at JFK by what Reverend Oda imagines is a ‘militant American lesbian’ he finds himself bundled into a car and lurching onto the highway…‘She drove like she had just robbed a bank.’ Meeting an important member of the American Buddhist community a day later he is confronted with a startling sight. ‘The woman’s hair, and even the tinge of her skin, resembled the color of overripe oranges. She was short and plump, with numerous gold rings snaking around her fingers. She wore a tent-shaped dress of black and gold material that was light and diaphanous, so the overall impression I had was of someone wearing an expensive shower curtain…Mrs Symes insisted I call her Harriet.’ But Harriet is just the beginning. The baffled priest soon meets another of the American believers, one who has been guiding the weekly study group using The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion and Buddhism for Dummies.

The culture-lagged priest is further beleaguered by a female member who lusts after him, another who keeps a picture of Jesus on her Buddhist altar and one other devout believer who spends much of his time in a mental home. But amidst these oddities of life and work in Brooklyn, Reverend Oda begins to catch glimpses of something that is more human than anything he has known before, realizing as well that he is beginning to learn more about his own faith, opening doors and windows into long shuttered corners of his heart.

One reviewer of Buddhaland Brooklyn complained that Morais occasional goes overboard with purple prose, one particular criticism this reader is far from understanding. For a moment I thought I might have misunderstood the term (overly elaborate; ornate), but a moment later decided the critic had simply applied an erroneous label to what most others would call exquisite prose. The novel is full of poetry, art, a few basics of Buddhism and never faltering in its accuracy. Too often a writer chooses as his setting an unfamiliar place, an exotic culture and then proceeds to describe it all based upon poor research, ending with characters speaking odd phrases in settings imbued with the resonance of postcard photography. In this sense, Morais has provided an exemplary model of accuracy.

Buddhaland Brooklyn is indisputably a feel-good fairy tale skillfully leavened with color, personality and laughter, but one including as well a wee dose of sad endings. Definitely a contender on my 2012 list of favorite books. First discovered in the library, after the first fifty pages I stopped reading long enough to order my own copy of the book, along with the writer’s earlier book, The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Full of Baloney

“No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.” —former New York Governor Alfred Smith

Ears, snouts and lips. Had I known at the time, my teenage years might not have been so full of baloney, a time when coming home from school hungry and bread with mayonnaise and baloney fit the bill perfectly. Like many other teenagers, if the taste was okay I gave little thought to what the baloney was made of. Little doubt we all would have preferred roast beef or fresh ham, but for many families bologna was a popular alternative to those more expensive meats. And that remains the case today. Bologna is America’s most loved lunchmeat and the survey takers say that Americans eat 800 million pounds annually, only one part of the $3 billion a year lunchmeat industry. The most popular lunch eaten by Americans is a sandwich, with Oscar Mayer claiming that six million bologna sandwiches are eaten every day. 

A staple food during the depression, bologna sandwiches have also been a part of school lunch boxes for generations, and are frequently served in jails and holding cells throughout the US. The name bologna comes from the Italian city, Bologna, a place famous for its sausage—a mixture of smoked, spiced meat from cows and pigs, mortadella is the original bologna and has a history dating back to 1691. The Bolognese original is a large smoked sausage, usually pork, studded with cubes of pork fat, peppercorns, pistachios and green olives. American baloney is a poor imitation made from low quality scraps of meat. Ranked among world meats, American bologna falls somewhere between canned sausage and the ham from a gas station convenience store.

An up-close look at this popular sandwich meat shows that it is cooked, smoked sausage made from cured beef, pork, or a mixture of the two and basically having the same ingredients as hot dogs. A typical recipe includes salt, sugar, pepper, and spices, plus a curing mixture that includes sodium nitrate. Smaller producers may use choice cuts of meat, but the large manufacturers use almost any part of the carcass, including organ meats, trimmings and end pieces from other meat processing. The meat is ground and chopped very fine, then pureed before machines pour it into casings. Like other sausages, bologna is covered in either a natural casing made from the gastrointestinal tracts of cattle, sheep, and hogs, or a synthetic casing made of collagen, fibrous materials, or even plastic. All bologna is cooked and smoked to pasteurize it, so it’s ready to eat when you buy it. A serving size of two slices is high in saturated fat, high in cholesterol and high in sodium. The ninety calories and eight grams of fat may sound harmless, but the sodium nitrate in those two slices carries the highest health risk.

In August 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved six viruses as a food additive to be sprayed on cold cuts and packaged deli meats. The viruses are intended to protect against the food-borne bacteria Listeria monocytogenes sometimes found on cold, packaged meat products.

Six million may be eating baloney sandwiches every day, but now and then even a sandwich-maven likes a switch. Here is a recipe for baloney soup that might offer an interesting change.

½ inch slice of bologna, chopped
1 cup chopped cabbage
½ cup chopped carrots
2 green peppers, chopped
½ cup celery, chopped
1 cup canned or fresh tomatoes
2 medium sized potatoes, diced
1 onion, chopped
4 cups water

Bring the water to a low boil and cook bologna for 15-20 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for an additional 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

The online directory lists eighty-eight people in the US with the last name ‘Baloney.’

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America