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April 2014

What's Margarine Doing in My Refrigerator? A Vegan Cupcake Recipe


When I was very young, I saved up my money and bought a blue ten-speed Fuji bicycle. I polished the chrome it every weekend, and I kept it as shiny as the day I bought it. When I was a little older, I ArmorAll-ed the vinyl of of a 1973 Ram-Air Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 so it looked like new. As a parent, I wipe clean the shelves of a Jenn-Air refrigerator, for that’s what I take pride in these days. 

The things that powered the ten-speed (an adolescent me) and what was under the hood of the Pontiac (a thousand raging horses) were thrilling, but my refrigerator runs on something less mystifying, Con Edison. However, what’s inside it can often be exciting, and confusing. I just came back from a trip away, and I found margarine in it.

Since when did we start eating that? And isn’t it bad for you? What is margarine, anyway? 

I found an easy answer to the first question: Santa Maria bought it to make vegan cupcakes for a nephew who has food allergies. The other two questions, I couldn’t answer right away. So I looked a few things up. 

It turns out that margarine is not necessarily bad for you. It depends on what you need, and who you ask. The Mayo Clinic says it’s better than butter if you need to protect your heart, but it’s important to make sure there are no trans fats, which are usually found in stick margarines. “Opt for soft or liquid margarine instead,” it says. A website called Wellness Mama, however, says it’s to be avoided. Margarines are made from vegetable oils, and those are worse than leaded gasoline, according to Wellness Mama. I’m not sure who to believe, but if someone is allergic to dairy, than there’s little choice.

As for what margarine is, that’s a long story. Created as a butter substitute, it used to be made from beef tallow, and is now typically made from vegetable oils. Some people consider it closer in its chemical composition to plastic than to food, but you can find all sorts of folks on the Internet.

My chief concern with margarine these days is that there’s a tub of it taking up space in my refrigerator, and I’d like to see it gone. So I was delighted the other night when Santa Maria offered make dessert for a picnic we were going to. She emailed the group that she would be bringing vegan cupcakes, and I could see the eyes rolling at the mention of that word, vegan. 

But everyone should have had more faith in Santa Maria. She doesn’t mess around when it comes to baking. Her vegan cupcakes, are excellent. She pulled the recipe off the Internet somewhere, but she’s since forgotten. She tweaked it enough, though, to call it her own, and she’s sharing it here. And if you need any margarine, I have some to spare. And I need to clean up my refrigerator.

Santa Maria’s Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes

Makes one dozen

  • 1 1/2 cups flour with germ
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder (I like Terra Nova organic)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup Canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add the oil, vanilla, vinegar and water. Mix together until smooth.

Pour into a cupcake pan with 12 cupcake liners

Bake for thirty minutes, or until done.

Vegan Buttercream Frosting

Mix 1/5 cup Canola spread/margarine, 1/2 tsp vanilla, 1 1/4 cup powdered sugar. (If, like us, you aren’t actually vegan and you do have butter on hand, you can use softened butter for the frosting.)

Looking for a Quick Dinner Idea? Try Scrambled-Egg Tacos


I just spent three days in Los Angeles with friends, living out of a suitcase and eating out all the time. Last night’s dinner, of local little-gem lettuce and medium-rare rack of lamb at Church & State, which the critic Jonathan Gold recently called, “the closest thing to a first-rate French bistro that Los Angeles has seen in years,” was noteworthy for its flavor, but the others stood out for a different reason: portion sizes.

I know I’m a bit behind the curve on this, but when did three eggs become a standard offering for a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs, and who thought it was a good idea to make a common omelet the size of a throw pillow? And if I wanted a seaside lunch of tacos, does it have to fill a platter large enough to hold a suckling pig? It’s no wonder that nearly 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. This has real consequences. For example, the medical costs related to obesity now exceed the costs associated with smoking. Being overweight is more than just a personal problem.

I don’t have a grand solution, but I have a small one. Learn to cook, and make meals for yourself. That way, you can control the portion size and what you put on your plate. 

Cooking does not have to be complicated. Take a basic dish like scrambled eggs. If you don’t know how to prepare them, here’s a link with an easy-to-follow recipe. Here is my even easier way of making them: I crack two eggs in a bowl, add a bit of salt and pepper, combine the eggs and their yolks thoroughly with a fork, and cook the mixture in a buttered frying pan on a medium-high heat, moving the eggs about with a spatula, until they are the consistency I like. It takes about two minutes. One of the nice things about eggs are their versatility. Best known as a breakfast food, they can also become a dinner by making a few additions. 

The other night, before my trip to LA, I came home late from work. The kids were in bed, and Santa Maria was out of town. I paid the babysitter, and gave some thought to dinner. I wasn’t that hungry, because I’d had a late-afternoon snack at my office, but I needed something. In the refrigerator, I spied half an avocado left over from earlier in the week, and there’s always a jar of salsa on my shelves. The carton of eggs caught my eye, and a package of soft-corn tortillas called out to me: I could make scrambled-egg tacos. I whipped up two eggs, laid them out on two warmed tortillas, topped them with slices of avocado, salsa, and some fresh cilantro, and I had dinner made in about ten minutes. 

As I sat down to eat the tacos, a funny thing happened. I couldn’t finish them. They were delicious, but I had overestimated my hunger. Because I was at home, it was easy for me to control my portion size. I ate one, and put the leftovers in the fridge. 

Scrambled-Egg Tacos

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 soft-corn tortillas
  • 1/2 avocado, sliced
  • jar salsa
  • fresh cilantro to garnish

Warm the tortillas in a frying pan.

Scramble the eggs.

Assemble by putting eggs on tortillas, and topping with avocado, salsa, and cilantro.

Serves one (or more, depending).

Tomatoes and the Meaning of Life


To me, tomatoes have always been like people: often around, but rarely worth knowing. Still, there have a been a few in my life that struck me with such goodness that I haven’t given up on them. When I was younger, I had one during a bachelor party at the Commander’s Palace, in New Orleans, that still lives in my mind. It animated my mouth with such a fury that I thought I’d be speaking in tongues soon. I might not have been making sense at that dinner for other reasons, the euphoria of youth being the most powerful one.

When I do the shopping for the family these days, I so often feel like I’m under such time pressure—to move the car, to get back to the house, to get to work—that I move rapidly and grab the first things I see. This sounds like a very silly strategy, but I’m no fool. I shop almost excessively at a local food coop, where the prices are low (there’s only a mark up to cover overhead) and the produce flies off the shelf faster than the anxious thoughts move through my head. Everything is there is fresh.

Shuffling down the aisle of the Coop recently and looking for tomatoes, I grabbed a box of Village Farms Sinfully Sweet Camparis. It was a reckless move, for I don’t know if I can go back to any other tomatoes. These things are summer in every bite. Turns out that they are grown in hydroponic greenhouses in a small town in West Texas called Marfa. I have good friends who live in Marfa, which sits on a plateau in the Chihuahan Desert, and it is a strange and fascinating place of “Mystery Lights” and minimalist art installations. To that I have to add the best tomatoes I’ve tasted in a long time, especially in winter.

I sliced a few on Sunday morning, and added them to an omelet of goat cheese, ham, and parsley. That sounds simple, but as I was preparing it, I was in the midst of doing five loads of laundry (we live in an apartment building), making breakfast for the kids, and and cooking black beans, tagine, and Bolognese. I had a lot going on, and I couldn’t sit and eat my omelet when it was ready. By the time I got back to it, the thing was so sorry-looking that I can’t even use the photograph of it here. But the cheese was so rich, the ham so savory, and the parsley so sharp that everything was all right. And the tomatoes were so bright, that they made me feel young again.

A Side is Just a Side is Just a Side: A Brief Ode to Fingerling Potatoes


With apologies to Gertrude Stein, I wanted to dash off a short note on the simple beauty of roasted fingerling potatoes. When I was a boy, we had baked potatoes every other day, and I was forever mesmerized by my mother’s occasional observation that one might have been “a good baked potato.” What was a “good baked potato?” I wondered. “Didn’t they all taste the same?” I took potatoes for granted and they’ve long been an unassuming staple. But sometimes, they surprise me, and fulfill me more than I might have imagined.

While I was doing the weekly food shop on Saturday, visions of mushroom risotto danced on my tongue, but something in my head told me that I’d be too tired, too busy, and otherwise too preoccupied with domestic and professional responsibilities to stand over the stove stirring risotto. Of course, I still picked up the mushrooms, for like love and fire ants, the hope for culinary bliss is not something easily dispensed with. But I also grabbed a handful of sprightly fingerling potatoes, just in case.

Sure enough, when I got home that evening, there were a hundred and thirty one things that had to be done that did not involve dinner, to say nothing of mushroom risotto. That would have to wait. Instead, I sliced the fingerling potatoes lengthwise, salted them a bit, dressed them with olive oil, and roasted them at 350 for about a half hour. I made sure the pan was not crowded, and they crisped up along the edges nicely, and became creamy and delicious inside. I finished them with a bit of freshly chopped parsley, and they were so good I forgot to photograph the finished dish. 

As for the mushrooms, I sautéed those quickly and served them as a side, too, to go with the sirloin steak and asparagus that I was serving. I grabbed a quick shot of a half-set table and the full meal, before it vanished. Something like this doesn’t sit around long. Note the bowl of roasted fingerling potatoes, third from the bottom, again taken for granted.