Mulberries are in bloom!

If you’ve never tried a mulberry, I feel sorry for you. I think they’re one of the most delightful food experiences around. Not everyone agrees with me, which perhaps explains why they’re not available commercially. That lack of availability may also explain why I’m so enamored with them!

If you aren’t familiar with the fruit, it looks a lot like a blackberry that was hit with a shrink ray. They’re sweeter and more tender than blackberries, and very juicy when ripe. I have fond memories of picking mulberries from an old tree on the grounds of my middle school and other trees near my house growing up. I’ve heard stories of people who put on special mulberry picking shirts—basically ones that they don’t mind getting stained—and go to town picking. If ever invited on such a spree, I’d have gladly joined in.

Sadly, here in DC, my passion for these fruits embarrasses me. Picking things off of a tree and scarfing them down is just not done around here. To make matters worse, the best ones grow over the sidewalks—in full, public view and constantly awash in car exhaust–tantalizing me as I pass under their branches. (Ellen, I’m not forgetting our adventure in Rock Creek Park picking mulberries, but remember how we were disappointed with their taste, and almost drenched ourselves in the creek trying to get at them?) Continue reading


Real life 101

I’ve always thought that senators and members of congress should have a required orientation when they are voted in. You know, take a month or two to live like the people they will represent. For many areas, that would mean living on minimum wage for a while, serving in the military for a week or two, and/or job hunting while raising a few kids.

Well, now someone’s gone and done it—or something close to it. It’s not the freshest news, but in case you haven’t read about it, Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski (a Dem) went for a week on what he could buy with the average ration of food stamps. If you’re registered with the NY Times, check it out.

And Connecticut state Sen. Jonathan Harris (another Dem, from West Hartford), went a full three weeks. Continue reading

The runt must go

Some aspect of my life (and probably yours) always suffers. If my life were a basket full of newborn hamsters, there would always be a runt that didn’t make it. Eating well, exercising, seeing friends and family, saving money, feeding the soul and creative energies… one of them always becomes the runt of the litter.

Yesterday, I did yoga and went for a run and entertained at home instead of spending money out. Today, I went out to socialize, fighting my introvert tendencies. It was all good, but tonight I found myself driving the short distance to my activity and eating take-out too late at night. Two boo/hiss-worthy actions. Luckily, what I got out of it is the realization that there will always be a runt–a commendable value that you just have to push away from the proverbial water bottle hanging from the proverbial hampster cage and let die. So what’s to be done?

To be good to yourself and to the planet while staying sane, I believe, you have to decide what can become the runt. I think most people do that. They have a few sacred values (or, to continue the metaphor, a few precious baby hampsters that stand out in their bug-eyed, hairless glory), that cannot be ignored. Perhaps its sticking to a vegetarian diet or spending time with family every weekend or never setting foot in a vehicle that runs on anything but human power or recycled cooking oil.

Phew. I feel better already. Some of the litter will always survive to make Mama proud. And as for the rest… well, sweet dreams. We’ll miss you, but not enough to buy an extra hampster bottle.

Pancake Challenge: cast iron vs. non-stick

You know that expression, “It ain’t your grandmother’s ____”? As in “This here ain’t your grandmother’s pickup truck”? Well, I have something that is my grandparents’, and it still works just fine for my generation. It’s a cast iron pan. I have two of them, and they literally belonged to the Greatest Generation.

The other day, I decided to make pancakes and thought I’d pit my grandparents’ cast iron against something that really ain’t my grandparents’, namely a non-stick skillet. Which would brown those babies better? Which would give me the fluffiest result? Which would require the least fuss?

I whipped up a batch of basic pancake batter and set up the challenge. I might as well put in a word about pancake cookery, and quick breads in general. Basically, the two things you should avoid like those tomatoes you forgot in the back of the crisper are overmixing and confusing your rising agents. The general idea is to mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another.  Then you put them together in one bowl and stir until just combined.  As soon as the liquid hits the baking powder or baking soda, its limited amount of fizz starts working. If you continue to mix or wait too long to cook it, the thrill is gone. You’ll be left with tough, flat pancakes or muffins or banana bread. So then the next key is to not confuse rising agents, usually baking powder and baking soda. Some quick breads require both, but many only require baking powder. That is milder because it tempers baking soda with other things like corn starch. Unless you have an acidic element in your wet ingredients (buttermilk, fruit juice, etc.), you are probably NOT supposed to use baking soda. It’s harsher and can make your baked goods taste very nasty indeed. Read your recipe carefully!

Back to the Pancake Challenge. So I mixed up my batter, heated up the pans with canola oil until a drop of water sizzled on its surface (allowing a little longer for the cast iron), and poured me some pancakes. Cue Jeopardy music…


Both were doing pretty well, though I had to turn down the cast iron skillet after a while so it wouldn’t get too hot. It could then chug along on a medium-low flame. The non-stick kept an even temperature with a medium flame. When bubbles popped on the surface and the sides looked dry, I flipped the pancakes.

Then I gave them some space to do their thing and poked ’em a little to see if they were firm on the second side (that means they’re ready).


Then I removed my little darlings and put them out for inspection.


Alas! They looked the same! You can see here, with the cast iron on the left and the non-stick on the right. Both were golden brown and any deviation from that was due to some overly intent listening to Car Talk. Both were pretty fluffy. I admit I did have assumptions, which for the sake of making me look good I will call hypotheses. I thought that the non-stick would turn out irresistably golden, evenly colored beauties while the cast iron would make tougher ones that had the whole spectrum of charcoal brown to light gold on one side. I thought this would be bitter-sweet, since I don’t like the idea of a chemical finish making my food look nice and I wanted something old fashioned to triumph for once.

As it turned out, I couldn’t pick one set of pancakes any more than a mother can say which kid she loves best. Each had their ups and downs, the downs being that cast iron requires a lot of fiddling with the burner temperature, continually turning it down to keep he pan from getting too hot. The non-stick obviously uses more energy to because it it less efficient, receiving heat and immediately letting go of it again to keep that consistent temperature.

So there you have it, folks–it’s a draw.