Saturday, February 28, 2015

Memoire a l'oignon

My college roommate's dad loved to cook. Sometimes she'd bring a group of friends home for the weekend just so he could show off his culinary skills for us. I've been thinking of that lately because one year at the end a of a brutally cold February, she took us home and he introduced us to French onion soup. I'm not normally sold on onions, but I will always remember the deeply caramelized onions, the rich, steamy broth, the topper of a big, golden crouton capped with browned, melty cheese. We each were presented with our own little bowl, and the care he put into the project made the rough month melt away.

So of course, the corner of my mind obsessed with terrible old recipes (It's probably more than a corner, but humor me!) wanted to know how that glorious repast would translate into '70s diet food. The possible answers come from Success Publications' Low Calorie Diet Cookbook (1978, eighth edition).

Onions are pretty low in calories on their own, but the fat needed to caramelize them slowly is not. Broth is low-cal, but giant croutons, not so much... Stripping it down to the bare minimum could look something like this:

Simmer onions in beef broth for a half hour! Then top with a tiny bit of cheese that will immediately disappear into the onions. (I like that the super-basic directions still manage to be self-contradictory. It's hard to place all (three!) ingredients in a pot and simmer them, then add the Parmesan later. If you follow the first sentence, it's already in the pot.)

This sounds as if the flavor will be as complex and nuanced as dishwater.

I like that the picture below the recipe has nothing to do with it, either. Fish, bananas, tomatoes, cheese, strawberries, peppers... I'm kind of glad this picture doesn't really relate to any single recipe, but a perverse little part of me secretly wishes it did.

Okay, so this recipe is too plain to bother with. Maybe changing our expectations for onion soup will lead to a more suitable recipe. If we can't have a crouton but milk products are okay, what about a creamy version?

Boil the onions with some celery and then make the mixture creamy with a cup of nonfat dry milk. I wasn't sure that anything could sound blander than the previous recipe, but I stand corrected. At least it had enough beef broth to give it a little flavor! This would just be sad white glop.

I'm glad my roommate's dad's soup is the one burned into my memory and these are only in my imagination.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Surplus recipes

When I was a kid, my grandparents would get surplus food through some USDA program. We never knew what they would come home with-- enormous hunks of nondescript processed cheese, powdered eggs, powdered milk, canned potatoes, thick and grainy peanut butter. Everything came in white packaging with bold black print and simple line drawings, looking as generic as possible.

When I spotted  Favorite American Recipes: A Collection of Classics from Around the Country, I wondered why it seemed somehow familiar. I'd never seen the pamphlet before. Then I noticed it was by the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA (1974) and realized this must have been a companion piece to all the oddball food the USDA gave away to needy families like ours:

The unadorned, straightforward black and white design on the cover tied it back to all those cans of potatoes and peanut butter. I think I subconsciously made the connection before the rest of my mind could catch up!

This cookbook has plenty of ways to use the free commodities. If the latest batch of surplus had cheese and peanut butter, this recipe could be the answer:

Cheese Bull's-Eye Cookies! Why have plain old peanut butter cookies when you can have them filled with shredded cheese? Nothing encapsulates the weird "here's some food-- now do something with it" ethos of the program quite like this recipe.

Not that others won't try. While "impossible" pies aren't too uncommon, they're usually made with baking mix. The USDA didn't give away baking mix so far as I knew, so they threw the "Impossible Pie" label (so nondescript! We don't even know what kind of impossible pie!) onto this concoction:

This is apparently impossible coconut pie. It would use up 2/3 of a cup of dry egg mix. Yep-- the USDA gave away powdered eggs, so why not suggest them as an impossible pie base? I remember grandma giving me a packet of those to experiment with. Something about powdered eggs gave me the heebie jeebies, so I put them way in the back of the cupboard and never thought of them again until just now. I hope they eventually got used or thrown away....

Note that this also calls for fluid milk, which might seem odd. The program gave away a lot of powdered milk, though, so this was probably code for "reconstitute the powdered milk we gave you before you use it in this recipe."

We were never the recipients of beans as far as I can remember, but it looks as if those were given away sometimes too. I'm no stranger to desserts with beans (I know black beans in brownies is a pretty popular combination right now), but this recipe title seems a little scary anyway:

At least with "brownies" in the name, you know black bean brownies are a chocolatey dessert. The more open meaning of "bars" makes these a bit mysterious (in a bad way). Are these like lemon bars, with crust on the bottom and a split pea layer on top? Thankfully, no. They are just nut, spice, and dried fruit bars (And you could use government raisins in these! That was another surplus item.) that happen to contain split peas, but the damage is already done by the name.

And split pea bars sound downright appetizing compared to this name:

Bean pudding cake sounds like it should come with a layer of bean pudding on the bottom. I'm not sure exactly what that would be like, but I'm pretty sure I'd prefer the pudding cake I grew up with-- hot fudge pudding cake! A steamy layer of hot fudge under a dense chocolate cake? Yes! A steamy layer of hot beans under a a spice cake? Sorry, USDA, but I don't think so, but thank you for helping hungry families in your own weird way!

This is part of Cookbook Wednesday, now hosted by Modern Day Ozzie and Harriet.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lenten luncheons and loaves

The new dietary guidelines are coming out, and this week it was a big deal to find out that they called for eating less meat. My mom always acted as if we would immediately die of a protein deficiency if we didn't have meat with every meal except breakfast. (I'm not sure why that meal was exempt, but considering how dry and flavorless she could render any cut of meat, I didn't ask questions.) The older cookbooks (aside from those of the dubious health food variety) suggest she was not alone in her meat veneration. The meatless recipes, when they exist at all, are shoved off in a corner and apologetically mentioned as ways to save money or survive Lent.

I guess the point of this whole convoluted introduction is that I'm going to show you a couple of vintage, non-healthy, "meatless" recipes. So if you get tired of all my asides, you should have skipped these first two paragraphs and gone straight to the pictures.

Cooking With Sour Cream and Buttermilk by the Culinary Arts Institute (1965) suggests this as a "delightful main dish for a Lenten luncheon":

The Cheese Luncheon Pie is basically mashed potatoes mixed with eggs, cottage cheese, and sour cream, then baked in a pie shell. With all the cheese, cream, and eggs (not to mention a pastry crust!), this may sound like a nutritional disaster, but the note also assures us this is "full of flavor and food value." I wonder what food value is, anyway. (Here it seems to be code for saturated fat, but maybe they mean vitamins? Protein? Ability to be digested?) It also makes me wonder if there anything I could eat that wouldn't have food value. (Wood chips, I guess? So maybe boasting about "food value" is pretty pointless. It could just mean the food is, technically, food.)

Lent allows for fish, too, so "meatless" sections often had plenty of seafood dishes:

Is it just me, or can you see a skull in the upper right corner of the picture too? Part of that top star seems merged into a skeletal face.... Maybe it's trying to warn us that the oysters aren't so fresh?

At first I thought Oyster Loaf might be a variation on meatloaf, with ground up oysters held together with eggs, crackers, etc. Instead, this is an arts and crafts project recipe, elaborately constructed with an unsliced loaf of bread scooped out and toasted, only to be refilled with a thick milk, oyster, tomato, and sour cream sauce so it can go soggy within minutes of the starry bread cutouts being placed triumphantly atop the steaming mass.

Or the family could have had Lenten fish sticks instead.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fear the Family

Families in Wilmington, Ohio (especially the ones that belonged to the Wilmington United Methodist Church in 1971) had some pretty weird favorites, as the Family Favorites Cook Book amply demonstrates. A lot of the recipes start out sounding like standard favorites, but then they make a sudden u-turn into "Huh?" country....

Apparently "Huh" country is very near this church.

A grilled cheese sandwich sounds like a good family favorite on a snowy day like today, but a grilled cheese sandwich recipe doesn't really show much imagination. This, on the other hand:

I'm not even sure what to picture in my head. With that little flour to so much milk and egg, is this more like an especially cheesy custard? With a weird, perhaps custard-y layer topped with cheese, this sounds like neither a cheese sandwich nor a real pie. I love the note that this is especially good with diced pepperoni. We could just as easily call this a pizza.... which it would clearly not be either.

I'm not a fan of pickles, but I know plenty of people love them. A treasured family pickle recipe might be a welcome addition for a lot of people-- maybe pickled beets (blech! But I know some people love them), pickled eggs, pickled peppers, or just plain old pickled cukes. This is not a pickle recipe I anticipated, though:

Raisin pickles! I was really confused at first because I thought the recipe was simply to pickle raisins, which are already preserved. Then I saw in the recipe that the raisins apparently go in with regular cucumber pickles. I'm still not quite sure what the point is-- I can at least understand the allure of dill pickles, even if I personally wouldn't want them. Pickles that taste like raisins, though? I'm not even sure what anyone would do with them. Put 'em on bran flakes? Put them in sandwiches with cold cuts? Put them in dressing (bread stuffing OR salad topper)? Nothing sounds even remotely plausible.

How about pudding instead? Pudding is a family favorite!

I was thinking something more like chocolate pudding. A can of tomato puree loaded up with brown sugar and baked under breadcrumbs should not be anyone's idea of pudding, but apparently it's a fine idea in Wilmington.

It might be safer to go for a cookie instead:

Ham cookies! Full of butter, flour, cottage cheese, ham (or Spam!), and grated sharp cheese. Actually, they sound a little like savory rolls. Sadly, ham cookies may be the least weird of the lot....

This is part of Cookbook Wednesday, now hosted by Modern Day Ozzie and Harriet.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My Rancid Valentine

It's Valentine's day, that time of year for those who are lucky in love to sicken those of us who are not. In the name of equal opportunity, I dedicated myself to finding a heart that could sicken everyone, coupled or not. From the Hotpoint refrigerator Approved Recipes collection (1937):

So here is a lumpy, canned catfood-colored heart (presented upside-down, but it is a heart!) studded with greenish-brown and blood red flecks. The pickly headdress and blocky radish roses try to make it look romantic and exotic, but instead make this gelatinous slab seem a little bit desperate.

If you need a recipe for an anti-Valentine's Day party or a (literal) gag gift for a not-so-beloved ex, here's the recipe:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Glamorous Cooking for Busy Women

I chose today's cookbook because it is so glamorous. Just look at it!

Yes, whoever owned The Busy Woman's Cookbook (1971) before me was too busy to worry about the cover. The real reason I described this book as glamorous, though, is that it seems to redefine the term:

Pancakes and a bread loaf stuffed with something that resembles cat puke apparently qualify as not just glamorous, but "mighty glamorous" in this book.

So what went into these glamour shots? The top is "Salmon Biscuit Roll":

Cream soup and canned salmon team up with celery, pepper, olives, and onion to stuff a fresh "biscuit mix" loaf. They're topped with a "piquant sauce" of milk, "salmon liquid" (such a yummy-sounding word pair!), and lemon juice (not pictured here because presumably it looks too much like the topping on the other recipe).

The salmon biscuit roll may not sound particularly appealing, but at least its name makes sense. I'm more perplexed by its little friend at the bottom of the page:

I'm sorry, but if I see "crescents" in a recipe name, there better be crescent rolls! How do pancakes get upgraded to crescent status? Does the glamour of being stuffed with canned hash, pickle relish, and ketchup give them an upgrade? Maybe it's the jizzy cover of sour cream and mustard?

I'm not sure, but I doubt that real busy women actually gave the question a second thought. They just called it "canned hash in a pancake night" as they finished writing up tomorrow's grocery list.

This post is part of Cookbook Wednesday, now hosted by Modern Day Ozzie and Harriet.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Winter veggies to make you shiver

The howling winds and several inches of snow make me yearn for some crisp, delicious vegetables, but the selection in winter is pretty limited. There's onions... or Brussels sprouts... or celery... and did I mention onions?

Good news, everyone! (I mean that in the Professor Farnsworth sense, for any Futurama fans.) The imaginatively-titled The Cook Book by the Vanderburgh Southwestern Medical Auxiliary (1967) has me covered for winter vegetable recipes.

Say I want summery strawberry shortcake but know the wan, whitish fruits that show up to my supermarket in the middle of February will not really fit the bill. Betty Newnum (who is apparently not bothered by dessert names on main dishes) has a suggestion:

Fried onions and sour cream over packaged biscuits will stop me from thinking about summer in no time (mainly because I'll be running for my toothbrush).

Maybe it's best not to think of a summery dish and to just embrace the season for what it is. Brussels sprouts are wintery, so they might be a good starting point. They usually need a little work to dress them up and make them feel like they're worth eating and not just the sad result of neutering a cabbage. (Try to get rid of that mental picture!) Lois Bender has a sure way to dress them up:

Add a cup of diced celery per pound of Brussels sprouts because celery really adds a spark to any dish it graces with its presence. I like that this also presumes everyone cooks Brussels sprouts the same way: "Cook together as you would ordinarily prepare Brussels sprouts." Since the next step is draining, I guess we all boil them. (Roasting vegetables was not a thing then.... And neither was flavor. Are the two connected?)

Sorry, but I am not convinced boiled celery will really make boiled Brussels sprouts much better (or even worthy of the title "Medley." Shouldn't we at least have three veggies? And shouldn't at least one of them be more interesting?).

Forget it. Maybe it would be better just to pick out a nice summer vegetable and find a new way to fix it with widely-available foods so the fact that it is off-season won't be so noticeable. Alberta Dodd has a suggestion:

These cucumbers are not cool! That's because they're baked in two full cups of catsup with some onions.

Now I can't tell whether I'm shivering from the cold or shuddering from the recipes, so that's it for today's winter veggie roundup.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Under Pressure

Once in a while, I think about getting a pressure cooker. It's mostly when people tell me how much better home cooked beans are than the canned variety. Then I remember that I like canned beans fine anyway. They're already salted, they are super-convenient, and while they do cost a little more than dried beans, they cost significantly less than a new pressure cooker. I know a pressure cooker would likely wind up sitting next to the dusty dehydrator that never gets to make the tofu jerky and dried pineapple rings I envisioned when I got it, so the pressure cooker isn't likely to find its way into my home.

The 1945 Presto Cooker Recipe Book suggests that Presto was worried that cooks in the '40s were similarly skeptical about how often they would use a pressure cooker. The cover shows it with a variety of meats and vegetables to hint at its versatility:

And the recipes inside give instructions for all kinds of dishes, even ones that do not particularly make sense for a pressure cooker.

You could make cream of wheat--

in about two minutes once the water came to a boil. Or you could just make it in a regular pan in about three minutes.

You could make quick oats--

in about three minutes once the water came to a boil. Or you could make them in the same amount of time in a regular pan.

You could make macaroni--

in 5-6 minutes. Or you could cook it for about 8 minutes in a regular pan. Maybe the pressure cooker was a more exciting option in that it could explode if the cook wasn't careful. Making oatmeal in a regular pan does not present nearly as much danger of having to clean molten oatmeal off the cupboards and ceiling (and your own face and arms if you're unlucky enough to be nearby for the detonation).

The cookbook presented me with other mysteries as well:

Besides the obvious question of why it would be better to make a recipe best suited for stir-frying in a pressure cooker, there is also the question of what makes chop suey American-style, fancy, or plain. These recipes are all quite similar: meat, onion, celery, and a sauce. The American variation is the only one with green beans, so I guess green beans are American. Suggesting the rising reverence toward processed foods, the fancy chop suey has canned Chinese vegetables and bean sprouts. Oddly enough, the plain one sounds fanciest to my modern ears because it has the widest variety of fresh vegetables: green peppers, cabbage, and tomatoes in addition to the celery and onions. Granted, they've been pressure cooked for 8 minutes, so I'm not sure what kind of flavor or texture is left, but at least this version had some variety.

Looking at this cookbook has actually made me less interested in getting a pressure cooker than I was when I started. Presto seems to have accomplished the opposite of their goal...

This post is part of Cookbook Wednesday, now hosted by Modern Day Ozzie and Harriet.