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Fighting What You Eat: The Diet Cong

Apr
24
2009

I have a client, a wealthy woman in her 60s, who has celiac disease. This means gluten – a primary protein in anything involving wheat flour as well as a few other foods – makes her ill by disrupting her intestine’s ability to process not just gluten but anything she eats. It’s a serious disease although its effects are mild in some people. I cater three or four dinner parties for her every summer and those meals must not only be gluten-free but indistinguishably gluten free. In other words, it should never occur to anyone eating it – even a nutritionist – that the meal specifically avoids bread, pasta, couscous (a form of pasta), cakes, and similar dishes. She has good cause for being suspicious of food.

At one time I had another client who claimed she was allergic to MSG, but she relished dishes including tomatoes, parmesan cheese, steaks, and mushrooms – all of which have relatively-high levels of mono-sodium glutamate (MSG). She was clearly mistaken about her “allergy,” but she avoided Chinese restaurants.

I’ve had many clients who were on weight-loss diets such as South Beach, Ornish, and Mediterranean. I’ve done high protein/low-carb, carb-intensive/low fat, and mostly veggies with lots of olive oil. As a rule I charge clients more for cooking to a diet book because of the extra effort involved in adhering to an essentially arbitrary set of rules. I’ve never been asked to do a bacon or butter diet, but that’s my dream – I might offer a discount in that case.

I’ve been on several diets myself including some of the famous ones and lost 50 pounds once and 80 pounds twice. My conclusion is that most of them are either hog-wash or they’re thinly disguised versions of the standard advice: eat less and exercise more. If you want pasta, eat pasta, but less of it. If you want bacon, eat bacon, but don’t eat it often. Think of your body as a machine and adapt your energy input to your energy output. This is basic science, verified over 100s of years. But the current funky diet “theory” isn’t even “theory” in the scientific sense – it’s a guess based on hopeful correlations, if that.

Matching caloric input to output always works and it’s generally healthy if you’re careful to eat a balanced diet. But it requires discipline – not only while you’re losing weight but after you’ve lost it. It’s that last bit that’s the real kicker.

After striving for six months or a year to lose weight and succeeding you’re naturally going to begin eating more – after all, you don’t want to keep losing weight. But to relax the discipline just some is incredibly hard. That first brownie in six months tastes even better than you remembered and stopping at Burger King this once won’t hurt. Which is why the standard advice is best: don’t try to lose weight, change your fundamental eating habits.

Yeah. Right. But we eat the way we do because it gives us pleasure and it does so because we’ve evolved to derive pleasure from eating: all animals have. We have taste buds so we can distinguish good food from bad food. Specifically we have chemical receptors on our tongues that detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory flavors (the savory taste, by the way is – literally – MSG). Tastes combined with our sense of smell provide us with a highly nuanced means of finding calories and nutrients while avoiding poisons. This evolution continues. At one time most humans lost the ability to digest lactose by the time they were two or three years old and, today, most Asians still lack this ability. But beginning about 10,000 years ago some groups of humans began evolving the ability to digest lactose on into adulthood so most Caucasians like milk – and cheese! – and most Asians don’t.

Then there’s the whole issue of socialization, some of which is cultural and some of which is individual. For example, at one time the Japanese referred to Koreans as “garlic-eaters,” a term of opprobriation because the Japanese didn’t think civilized people ate garlic. On a personal level, some people think I’m nuts for liking Humboldt Fog, a butt-ugly but fairly mild cheese. However, my parents taught me there are 1,000s of excellent cheeses all worth trying while others never offered their kids anything more complex than Kraft Singles.

That’s why most diet ideas are at best nonsense and at worst harmful; we’ve evolved biologically, culturally, and personally to like food and particularly to like those foods with the highest number of calories so for many of us, losing weight is hard and keeping it off is far harder. We’re fighting a guerilla war against our own bodies and if our bodies win the war our bodies lose the war.

We would like to think that simply exercising our will is sufficient just as our government thought that simply bringing greater resources to bear against the Viet Cong was sufficient and would win that war. But just as the Viet Cong owned and understood the territory in Vietnam, our biology owns and understands our bodies – our willpower is a Johnny-come-lately in this contest. Which is why I’m not sure the diet war is any more winnable than that more traditional conflict 60 years ago was.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Outside the Food-Shed

Apr
17
2009

I’m a great fan and promoter of eating food produced locally: something called eating in the “food-shed.” A food-shed isn’t one of the wooden buildings that I helped my father build while growing up on a farm, it’s more akin to a watershed, which refers water flowing through a specific geographic area to on its way to the ocean. “Food-shed” is a bit more arbitrary in that it’s usually defined as a set of geographical coordinates (say, everything within a 100- or 200-mile radius of a given home) as opposed to a natural topographic feature.

The concept of a food-shed was created to promote the idea of eating locally, and as I said, I think this is a good idea. Local food is usually fresher and so it tastes better. Growers don’t have the incentive to pick under-ripe fruit or veggies to give them more leeway in shipping and so time-to-market is minimized. The ultimate in local eating at this time of year visiting a pick-your-own strawberry or asparagus farm, coming home, and eating the fruits (or stalks) of your harvest for supper that night. The difference in flavor between asparagus picked and cooked immediately and asparagus cooked a day later is an order of magnitude.

Then there’s the industrialization issue. Producing animals and vegetables on an industrial scale requires some use of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Probably not to the degree Big-Ag uses them, but some. Small, local production requires much less external input because harvesting is hands-on – the farmer inspects each fruit or vegetable to at least some degree. It’s less demanding of soil nutrients because crop/animal rotation is feasible.

For lack of a better work, I really have a “belief” in the importance of agriculture as a personal instead of an industrial endeavor. I like the idea of rewarding people who’s names I know by buying from them and by telling them what I did with those Cherokee Purple tomatoes or that Maine Musk canteloupe. We both, buyer and seller, benefit from that genuinely personal exchange of value for value. Commerce can and often should involve far more than handing over greenbacks for green beans.

However, in planning my Easter dinner this year I called MarxFoods in New Jersey and asked them to send me an evaluation package of their Wild Produce Sampler that is harvested in the rain forests of Oregon and Washington. Not exactly local. But, I’ve had contacts with MarxFoods before and I think they are believers in offering something special to their customers – I went outside my food-shed to get something special. It’s not unlike me buying shrimp here in land-locked Knoxville.

Frankly, the idea occurred to me because I had a hankering for some fiddlehead ferns. I’ve had fiddleheads before when I lived near their native habitat and almost liked them, I wanted to try a new approach to flavoring them. The sampler includes stinging nettles and miner’s lettuce so it offered an opportunity to try some new things as well as revisiting an old one.

The wild veggies were shipped overnight and arrived absolutely fresh. The next day I fixed them as a feature of my Spring/Easter dinner. One of my guests had eaten fiddleheads and nettles before but the other four guests were eating something brand new. When I cleaned up on Monday morning there were a few leaves of miner’s lettuce on a couple of plates – a true complement. If the people you’re feeding say the food is good it’s one thing but when the plates look like they were licked clean, you know they meant it.

The Kenny Rogers song goes, “Know when to hold them, know when to fold them.” When it comes to cooking, know when to stay close to home, and when to step outside of your food shed and munch on the wild side.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:03 AM | Permalink

DIY – Making Lard That Lasts

Apr
6
2009

My stomach is rumbling. Well, not really rumbling so much as gurgling, burbling, growling, and I could swear it just made a barking kind of noise. (Frankly, the barking has me a bit worried.) You see, my house is innundated with the smell of porcine protein and fat – and has been since 9:00 this morning, five hours ago. It’s got about two hours to go.

I’m rendering lard.

Once or twice a year I get some pork fat, render it down, and freeze it. Then come fall I can make an apple pie crust worthy of the effort of making the crust from scratch, or fry to-die-for chicken for a summer picnic, or roast some fresh green beans that will make your mouth sing.

But in the process I get a few puzzled looks. The first time I approached Laurel Creek farms owner Tracy Monday about getting some pork fat was weirder than I expected. I’d been buying from Tracy for awhile and this was right after I’d bought Charcuterie and learned that the best lard, something I’d made once before, is made from what’s called “leaf fat,” the fat found around the pig’s kidneys.

First, the idea that I wanted to buy pork fat was weird to Tracy. This was about five years ago and the concept of making one’s own lard or sausage was still unusual here in Knoxville (it probably still is for most people). Also, he had no idea what leaf fat was and given that I’d never seen it I had trouble describing it to him. I eventually ended up with about a pound of fat that, if I remember correctly, rendered down to about a cup of lard.

These days Tracy knows what leaf fat is and his commercial customers get most of it. So I make do with trimmings which make fine lard and are completely suitable for sausage. But the odd looks don’t really stop. When I picked this lard up at Tracy’s new retail outlet the poor young tattooed clerk was as puzzled as Tracy had been years ago.

Why make lard? I can cruise into the nearest Latin American mercado and buy a pound or a gallon of Armour Manteca. That’s what the wife of the guy mowing my condo’s lawn does and then she uses it to make gorditas just like her grandmother’s and the tamales her husband swears by. But that lard is processed; it’s adulterated with preservatives and partially hydrogenated to make it shelf-stable. It’s nowhere near as good as lard can be.

Today’s rendering will produce about four cups of which I’ve promised two to friends. The remainder I’ll use mostly in the four or five pie crusts I make a year. I’ll likely roast potatoes in some of this rendered lard and sauté greens in some more. Try brushing a chicken with lard and then roasting it – beats butter by miles. With potatoes (and anything else you might deep fry) add a quarter cup or lard to the oil for a richer flavor. And spread a bit of melted lard on a grilled cheese sandwich instead of butter for an obscenely good treat.

Making lard isn’t hard, but it takes a strong stomach. You begin by cutting the fat up into 3/4-inch square chunks – more or less. This should fill your pot by about two thirds- figure a four quart pot for four pounds of fat. Then add an inch of water and place the pot over a burner on low.

For the first couple of hours, as the fat stews in the water, the odor is funky. It doesn’t smell bad, but it doesn’t smell good either. This is the easy part. After a couple of hours the water has all evaporated and the fat is melting in fat and it starts smelling good. Crazy good. Mouth-watering good. Chew your arm off good. It’s torture. You sit there, trying to ignore that wonderful pork aroma so that some evening you can make a wonderfully flakey, richly flavored shells for Cornish pasties or make Maine Fries that even John Thorne would relish.

And you start thinking, “I should add some salt to that,” or, “A few sprigs of rosemary would be perfect,” or, “Maybe a few juniper berries would help.” In short you start wanting to cook. But you’re not cooking, you’re producing an ingredient. Anything you do now will come back to haunt you in later pie crusts, french fries, or turnip greens.

The lard isn’t a painting, it’s the white gesso on a canvas – the foundation the painting relies upon – and if you color to the white the final painting will suffer.

Lard

4 pounds pork fat, cut into 1/2 – 3/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups water

Pour water into a 4 quart soup/stock pot. Add fat. Place over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 hours until fat browns. (Note: Water will evaporate, don’t replenish.) Filter through cheese cloth, cool and freeze. Keeps 6 – 9 months in freezer.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Rain in Spain

Mar
30
2009

About this time ten years ago I had little stickers all over my house giving the Spanish word for various things such as lamps, tables, and the toilet. By far, though, the preponderance of stickers were in the kitchen labeling such things as pasta, canned tomatoes, pork chops, and shrimp. Each evening I’d spend some time reading travel books and making notes on places to see. I was going to be in Spain for two weeks, celebrating my parent’s 50th anniversary, and I planned to absorb every ounce of the experience – and the food.

Click for larger image.My sister, parents, and I flew over on the same plane, but my sister was in coach, I was in business, and my parents were in first class so we didn’t really get together until we reached Madrid. On arrival we picked up a rental van, checked into a hotel, and crashed. We didn’t feel like going out for dinner that night, so supper was an impromptu picnic of cheese, bread, sausage, fruit, and wine that we bought at a market and ate sitting on the beds in my parent’s room

The next day we drove south to the villa we’d rented on a mountainside overlooking the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean – arriving some eight hours later in a pouring rain. For supper that night I made a tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelet) and baked some baby artichokes. We ate them in front of a fire in the sitting room. We had set two of the food themes for our visit – picnics and home cooking using brilliantly fresh and flavorful Spanish foods and recipes.

To our great surprise and delight, the kitchen in the villa was adequately equipped with cooking gear. Even better, the villa boasted an herb garden – rosemary, marjoram, mint, chives, sage – and a pair of lemon trees. We all took turns making lunches and dinners on the days we didn’t go out exploring. A few days later one of my brothers and his wife joined us, and several friends of my parents came for a few days here and there. Everyone had a chance to cook and we had some amazing, creative meals.

On the days we played tourist we usually had a picnic lunch in an olive or cork grove, or near a ruined castle, or at the base of a coastal watch tower. Dinner (and sometimes lunch) we’d eat at a restaurant. These restaurant meals were almost never fancy, we’d just stop into roadside tavernas when we got hungry, but they were often astoundingly good.

Click for larger image.I think the best meal I’ve ever had was in the touristy town of Rhonda where we had lunch at a café hanging over the gorge. I had slow-roasted piglet that took pork to a level I hadn’t even imagined could exist in an equally stunning setting.

The trip wasn’t purely about food. We did make that visit to Rhonda. We also drove up to tour the Alhambra palace one day – a stunning piece of architecture – and visited a cave featuring some of the oldest Paleolithic art in Europe. We saw our share of Roman ruins, great cathedrals, castles, and famous art.

But the part of the trip I enjoyed most were the days we spent at the villa between site-seeing forays. We’d begin such days with a bit of bread, cheese, fruit, and coffee on the patio – each according to his or her own schedule. Then a few of us might make a quick trip down the hillside to the city markets or up the hillside to the village market. If it rained (as it often did) we’d read or play games inside and if it was sunny we’d read or play games lounging by the small swimming pool or on the patio under it’s arbor of grapes looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. Around four on these days we’d open a couple of bottles of wine and put together a collection of tapas and gather on the patio. Eventually someone would start cooking supper, which we’d eat on the patio.

There was almost never any hurry, and although all families have their frictions, ours only became unpleasant when we were packed in the van. And even then a glass of wine and handful of olives at the end of the day did much assuage hurt feelings and remind us that, at least for now, all was right with the world.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Myth of Sustainability

Mar
23
2009

When foodies use the word “sustainable” they typically mean a system that doesn’t require outside inputs – no chemical fertilizer or herbicides, no purchased feed for livestock, and only water that falls from the sky or flows on the surface. In other words everything needed to produce vegetables, fruit, and meat over the long term is either already available (water, for instance) or can be produced (manure fertilizer) on location.

This a wonderfully pleasant, bucolic idea that takes many proponents back to a distant time when farming was less of a business and more of a way of life. But before you write it off as hopelessly romantic and idealistic you should know that a number of studies have found that such operations are capable of at least equaling the calories-per-acre production of state-of-the-art industrial farming operations. There are, however, a couple of caveats.

First, the successful farms are located in areas sporting both plenty of clean water and rich soil. Second, the farmers running these operations devote far more time and effort to their farms than the average mega- or even mid-size farmer does. It takes a lot of data collection, analysis, and planning to achieve such yields without external inputs. Add in the actual physical labor and farmers such as the Salatins, who Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, work far harder than almost anyone else in our economy. Only someone who truly loves farming would invest the effort required.

The hard work quotient is just the first road block to nationwide sustainable agriculture – the utopia many foodies dream of when they think of the future of farming. There’s also the issue of arable land. Large swaths of this country, even those that provide much of our produce, are incapable of self-sufficient agriculture. A significant percentage of the fruits and vegetables in this country come from the Central Valley of California – an area that relies on water piped in from Northern California. Arizona and New Mexico are also major producers and their climate makes Southern California look like rain forest. With irrigation these areas produce almost enough vegetables to feed the nation – and the do so year round.

Obviously the western mountain chains (and large areas of the eastern mountains) are incapable of supporting more than subsistence farming. Additionally the vicinity of major metropolitan areas (think NYC, Chicago, Boston, and so on) means a lot of potential farmland is already in use and what land is available is too expensive for agricultural uses.

Government policies also impede sustainability by encouraging mono-cultural (one crop) agriculture via direct and indirect subsidies and by excluding farms from laws regulating air and water pollution. For instance, any sane policy would prohibit the manure lagoons produced by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) rather than giving them an exclusion from environmental laws.

Finally, it’s worth noting that with the exception of sunlight the Earth is a closed system – meaning we aren’t the only ones affected by our decisions and the decisions of others will inevitably affect us. In other words, although thinking about sustainability within the borders of the United States is a valid starting point, sustainability eventually must be considered globally. And, given that the Earth is a closed system, we must think about sustainability.

The initial practical answer probably isn’t the farm described in the first paragraph. Instead the answer is semi-sustainability; a reduced reliance on fossil-fuel based fertilizers and herbicides, a greater effort to prevent the loss of topsoil, the development of drought-resistant plants – perhaps even using genetic engineering. And it’s livestock breeding and ranching methods that don’t require antibiotics to prevent disease.

We need to keep in mind that, however appealing it may be, a system of agriculture that fed 77 million people in 1900 – the model that today’s sustainability proponents harken back to – won’t feed the 304 million people alive today. Furthermore, the current system can’t be scaled up to support even twice the current population.

That brings us to the biggest obstacle to sustainable agriculture – even a modified, more realistic, less pure agriculture – our eating habits. We need eat far less meat than we do now because our meat-eating habits simply aren’t sustainable. We need to quit throwing household organic waste into landfills and instead turn it into fertilizer (composting on a grand scale). And lastly, we need to care enough about the issues to express our opinion.

Sure, write your Congress-person. But if you educate yourself on the topics and just talk about it when the subject comes up you’ll have as much effect as writing a letter or planting a garden on the White House lawn. And eliminating meat one day a week will reduce your carbon footprint more than almost anything else you can do.

In fact, just giving a damn at all can make a difference eventually.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Seriously Good And Simple Food

Mar
16
2009

I recently spent some time in the hospital. I’d forgotten just how bad food can be. Among other things I was served scrambled eggs with the texture of soggy cardboard and flavor of feathers, pork loin cooked until it was barely suitable for making shoes, and frozen vegetables seasoned only with water. I lost ten pounds and if I hadn’t persuaded a visitor to smuggle in some salt I would have lost even more.

When you’re passionate about some activity, it’s sometimes easy to focus so much on the “how” that you lose track of the original “why”. These days I choose what I cook to match the needs of catering clients or cooking classes. I also cook to develop article ideas and make decisions based on a dish’s photographic potential. And I eat with a critical tongue: Too much rosemary? Too little pepper? Need something to add brightness? Is the texture right? I get so caught up in the details and craft of cooking that I forget why I began cooking: To eat.

A casserole I made the other night is a good example of this. I needed a new recipe for a web site where I write. It needed to be an inexpensive dish, somewhat low-calorie, easy to make, using leftover meat. I spent around an hour planning the dish (including writing out a starting recipe) then another hour making it, adjusting seasonings, and making notes. While it was cooking I planned the photographs and then I plated it and shot it. Finally I sat down and ate it, again making notes. The casserole was good, which I duly noted.

Too often I eat as a critic. Judging the tastes and smells and textures against existing expectations, prejudices, and history. Too often, my efforts meet these criteria.

I say “too often” because even if a dish – or entire meal – is exceptional in some sort of absolute sense, it’s no better than I expected. Occasionally something does turn out better than expected and that’s both revelatory and great fun. Such events are one of the reasons I cook and judge my cooking (and other’s) so critically. But ironically, the better I get as a cook, the less often I’m pleasantly surprised and these days it often takes such surprises to get my complete attention.

The day after I got home from the hospital I was dying for a good meal. Something quick and simple because I was sore and standing for very long wasn’t in the cards. So I made a sandwich, specifically a panini using thin-sliced country ham, raclette cheese, and sourdough bread – all of which I had on hand. It was a meal with no other purpose than tasting good. And boy did it taste good.

But after a week off from the kitchen (a week notable for its lack of decent food) I was ready to eat purely for enjoyment’s sake. As I picked up my sandwich I noted the grill marks and delightful golden color of the rest of the bread. Biting into it had a satisfying crunch and there was a light note of carbon from the grill marks. The ham was sweet, salty, and almost meltingly tender while the cheese was pungent and unctious. I resisted my urge to wolf the sandwich down and made a point of enjoying each bite. A great meal needn’t be fancy, it only needs to be thoughtful in the choice of ingredients, the preparation, and the dining.

As much as I enjoy developing recipes, preparing them, photographing them, and writing about them, the reason for cooking so is ultimately to eat – and eat well. When I become too caught up in the minutiae, focus too much (and not “just enough”) on good technique or choosing the right olive oil, I lose track of why I set out to become a cook in the first place. It is my intellectual centers, not my pleasure centers, that are in charge of such meals. Fortunately, something usually comes along about then to remind me that the more genuine pleasure isn’t cooking but eating. Especially if, like my sandwich lunch, the food is seriously good.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

For Appearances’ Sake

Mar
6
2009

My personal cheffing business has pretty much dried up with the economic downturn, but, interestingly, cooking classes continue to hold their own and occasional small parties still offer catering opportunities. Frankly if I could get a bit more catering I’d happily forget about the regular meals I prepared for clients that were my bread (if not butter) a year ago.

Click for larger image.Because the catering is for special events, there’s more room to stretch and experiment in the menus, which I like. Also, I get to be on hand when the meals are eaten and so get to observe the reactions to the food. It’s hard to beat standing in the kitchen and listen to “oohs” and “ahs” from the dining room. But perhaps most enjoyable is that when I cater an anniversary or birthday party I get to do “plating.”

Plating is the process of arranging food on a plate to look as appetizing to the eye as it smells to the nose and tastes to the palate. It may seem beside the point to most day-to-day cooks, and it’s certainly been carried beyond the bounds of reasonableness in many expensive restaurants that arrange towers of food rivaling the Chrysler Building. And yet appearance matters.

Presentation and plating, is not a task personal chefs do. Everything we cook gets stuffed in a plastic box and frozen for transport and eventual consumption by our clients. There’s no opportunity to arrange a plate or to add garnishes and sauces in an appealing way.

I started my blog, Seriously Good, back in 2003 and when I got serious about it – and started comparing what I was doing to other Web food publications – I realized that the most popular food blogs featured photographs – sites like Lucullian Delights, La Tartine Gourmande, and Souvlaki for the Soul. What’s more, I realized they featured really good photographs. And not only was the photography technically good, but the food was presented thoughtfully, carefully, artfully, and, yes, tastefully. Meaning you wanted to taste the food just because of how it looked.

So I hauled out my cheap point-n-shoot digital camera and started pointing and shooting. I produced a lot of pictures that could best be described as “table kill.” But I kept at it and eventually learned to use the camera effectively. Then I started learning presentation – the art of making the food look good enough to eat. I’ve always paid attention to presentation, but photography forced me to concentrate on maximizing appearance alone.

I’d always considered colors when planning menus, but I began devoting a good deal of thought to other presentation elements for catered events and even the classes I taught – even to the extent of making drawings of plates. The effort is fun and challenging, but more so, it actually does make my food seem to taste better. And perception is all.

Even when I cook for myself appearance made a difference. A panini with cross-hatch marks from the grill may not actually taste better than one without them, but the marks make the eating experience more enjoyable by evoking memories of panini I ate in Italy. I avoid garnishes that don’t fit the dish -however pretty parsley might be it doesn’t belong on a bowl of ice cream. Typically I use garnishes and sauces that feature ingredients already in the dish. I also avoid overly fussy constructions. Food should look like food, not abstract art.

Tomorrow I’ll be cooking a birthday dinner for my mother. She loves lamb so I’m grilling lamb steaks, which I’ll top with gremolata – a highly flavorful mixture of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest. On the side I’m serving Cauliflower Puree Parmigiano and it will be garnished with celery leaves – a particularly tasty and visually appealing combination – and glazed baby carrots. Dessert will be a simple gingerbread cake dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with a bourbon/cream sauce. It’s a meal driven by flavor, but with some thought given to appearance, after all, she’ll only turn 85 once and it should be a special meal. A feast for the palate, nose, and eyes.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Cheap Eats

Feb
16
2009

I made fondue a few weeks back. The gruyere and emmentaler cheeses cost $9.00 and $6.00 respectively for a half pound of each. I used a California Sauvignon Blanc at $13.00 a bottle. The bread (a good artisan French loaf from a local bakery) was $4.00. Kirschwasser (cherry brandy) was $8.00 but I only used a bit – call it $2.00. Assorted pickles, olives, and sliced sausages on the side – $5.00. So altogether I spent $39.00 on dinner for a dinner for two. There was a bit of fondue and bread leftover, so let’s assume it was more like $35.00 for two. Not so cheap, but cheaper than the $70.00 the Melting Pot charges – and probably better tasting.

fondueAnd yet, fondue is actually a peasant meal. Herders in the Alps would melt the cheese they made (probably the cheese that wasn’t quite up to commercial quality) over a fire in the wine their neighbors made. Then they’d dip the bread their wives made in the cheese and munch on homemade sausages and pickles. Such a meal wasn’t exactly free. Making cheese, wine, sausage, pickles, and bread all require a great deal of work and skill. But such meals probably didn’t cost the herder a single Swiss centime. Peasant food. Cheap eats.

It strikes me as supremely ironic that some of our most-renowned dishes – dishes you can pay a fortune for in three-star restaurants – are ultimately peasant food. Bouillabaisse, Boeuf Bourguignon, Choucroute and even sushi, like fondue, all began as poor peoples’ foods. But here’s the kicker: These deservedly famous foods began as peasant food because the ingredients, cooking techniques, and cooking equipment were indeed cheap in their place of origin. Bouillbaise is made from the fish that didn’t sell, which is cheap if you’re a fisherman in Marseilles but expensive if you’re a middle manager in Kansas – same with sushi. When you can trade the cheese or sausage you made from your own cows for a bottle of wine from your neighbor’s fields, wine is a cheap ingredient, but not when it has to be shipped in from California or the Rhine Valley.

Cassoulet is another famous French dish that began as peasant food. It includes duck confit, pancetta, and garlic sausage – expensive ingredients where I live. But it’s basically just another bean dish and it’s essence can be captured with a few deft ingredient choices for a fraction of the cost and effort. And for that matter, Boston Baked Beans (or the Southern Barbequed Beans) are home-grown and absolutely delicious local peasant foods. I adore macaroni and cheese, made from scratch with quality ingredients. I made that fondue because I owed a friend a special meal, and I’m too chintzy to take anyone out to dinner. Or for a fraction of the cost of fondue, try Welsh Rabbit. Same idea, another imported peasant food, but using domestic cheese, beer, and toast makes it cheap eats.

Want to go all-American? Make your own burgers – America’s ultimate peasant food. Burgers have moved into upscale restaurants and, if you wish, you could once blow $125 on ground meat on a bun at the Boca Raton Resort. Make your own and it will beat the hell out of any fast food joint. Ground beef, pork, turkey, even lamb are relatively cheap. Add a few spices and herbs and pay attention to what you’re cooking and you can eat a burger worth writing about.

I have the luxury – like agrarian peasants of yore – of working at home so I can devote time to cooking and slow-cooking intensifies flavors and tenderizes tough meat – pot roast is a classic American example. But these days you can buy a slow cooker pretty cheap and cook supper while you’re at work.

The lesson to be learned here: Make the best of what you can afford. Peasant food isn’t about eating fancy, it’s about eating well.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

St. Valentine Prep: Aphrodisia

Feb
9
2009

Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me. ~ Sarah Bernhardt

It’s nearly St. Valentine’s Day when a young chef’s thoughts turn fondly to foods that will spike the libido. In fact, Valentine’s Day is one of the two biggest days of the year for restaurants (the other being Mothers’ Day). If you’re planning on going out to dinner next Saturday and haven’t made reservations yet, it may be too late. Personally I prefer the intimacy of preparing (or sharing preparation) with my loved one. Then pile the dishes in the sink, toss a towel over them, and settle in for an evening for two.

It’s not surprising that we associate food with love. Eating is second only to sex in it’s sensuality, because like sex it involves our senses of taste, smell, touch, and sight. That being the case, it’s not surprising that over the centuries humans have turned to various foods to arouse and stimulate. The Romans considered asparagus and eggs to be aphrodisiacs (separately, not together).

For the most part, reputed aphrodisiacs fall into one of three categories of magic. The first group are what you might term spiritual aphrodisiacs. By eating a Tiger’s penis you take on the strength and virility of the tiger, the same applies to eating a pig’s testicles.

The second group are associative, the Aztecs associated chocolate with the fertility goddess, Xochiquetzal and the Greeks considered sparrows to be stimulating because they were favorites of the goddess Aphrodite (the root the word “aphrodisiac”).

But by far the most common aphrodisiacs are forms of sympathetic magic – foods presumed to have an effect because of their resemblance to human sex organs. Oysters, figs, strawberries, peaches, and epithelial orchids are all said to resemble female genitalia (you have to slice the fruit open to get the effect).

On the male side, I mentioned asparagus above as a symbol of the phallus, but in that same category also fall leeks, carrots, ginseng, bananas, and parsnips. Avocados are said to resemble testicles – in fact the name “avocado” comes from the name of the tree, Ahuacuatl, which means “testicle tree.” Nutmeg falls into this same category.

There are a few genuine aphrodisiacs. Testosterone affects the libido of both men and women. Anything that increases dopamine levels increases libido – cocaine falls into this category. Chocolate contains caffeine, a stimulant, and phenylethylamine, which does have a mild libidinal effect, as well as theobromine, which affects the pleasure centers by emulating serotonin.

So, if you’re planning on cooking your own romantic dinner this Valentine’s Day, here are a few suggestions from my cooking and recipe site, Seriously Good. Bon Apetit!

Oysters Shooter
Rack of Lamb
Glazed Carrots with Mint and Lemon
Leeks with Anchovy Butter
Pots de Crème

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 11:10 AM | Permalink

Eating Dirt and Staying Healthy

Feb
2
2009

Last summer I spent a week in the hospital after developing a severe staph infection on my lower belly. I drove myself to the emergency room one Sunday evening after having reached the conclusion there was something seriously wrong – this wasn’t just a heat rash. The doctor’s reaction on examining me was (“Holey Moley!!”).

Perhaps I have a sensitivity to staph. I’ve had three staph infections in my life (although this was by far the worse), but I don’t have much sensitivity to anything else infectious – or autoimmune either.

I had asthma as child but outgrew it. For about five years I had something cold-like every fall when the weather first turned cold – but that’s been over 20 years ago. I had the flu when I was 18 and a strep throat when I was 26. Aside from these events I don’t catch diseases. Oh, there have been days when I snuffled a bit or had an upset stomach and may have been fighting off an infection, but it was always gone in a day.

I’m not alone. My parents seldom get colds, don’t have allergies, and aside from the inevitable effects of aging are hale and hearty. Same with my siblings. Sure, you can argue good genes, but I’ve long had another theory about this, one I was reminded of by an article published by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times: “Babies Know: A Little Dirt is Good for You.”

My parents grew up in the 20s and 30s before our culture became terrified of germs while my siblings and I grew up on a farm eating food and drinking water that wasn’t perfectly clean. As children we were all exposed to a broad spectrum of bacteria at low levels and our bodies simply developed the ability to kill the unfriendly ones. Our immune systems were regularly exercised and, as a result, became strong and discriminating.

We’ve seen a huge increase in allergies here in the West and there’s evidence this may be a result of immune systems that “panic.” They have not learned to distinguish between organisms and chemicals that threaten the body and those that don’t. Consequently anytime these immune systems see something odd they attack – even if it’s you they’re attacking.

In another couple of examples, some current research points to potential links between celiac disease and lactose intolerance and the lack of microorganisms in the gut that can break down gluten and lactose. A decrease in breast-feeding may well contribute to this. The placenta isn’t a perfect filter, but it’s pretty good. So breast feeding not only passes on the mother’s existing antibodies to her children, but also passes on some useful bacteria. Ultra-sterilized infant formula doesn’t.

We have become a germophobic nation. The supermarket hands out wipes to disinfect buggies, we buy anti-bacterial soap for our kitchens and bathrooms, we expect our doctors to give us antibiotics whenever we get a runny nose or our child has an earache, we shoot our industrially raised cattle and chickens with drugs to prevent illness – not cure it.

This is silly. We live in – and surround – a sea of bacteria. In fact, aside from physically breaking down the food you eat by chewing and the application of some acids and enzymes, you do relatively little to digest your food. Instead a host of microorganisms living in your gut extract and then excrete the nutrients that keep you alive. If your intestine ruptures many of these bacteria can quickly kill you, but in their place they’re not only harmless but positively beneficial.

Besides, anti-bacterial soaps don’t work any better than ordinary soap, but they do enable bacteria to evolve their own immunity to the anti-bacterial agents. Our over-reliance on drugs whenever we don’t feel well combined with the additional drugs we get in every bite of chicken or drink of milk we eat is breeding a new group of super bugs – and making us less able to defend ourselves.

I don’t really advocate eating dirt, although eating a bit is unlikely to kill you. Washing your hands regularly – but not obsessively – is wise. And washing fruits and vegetables is a good idea, but the most effective way is to disinfect them is by briefly soaking in a vinegar solution. And the next time you feel bad, instead of going to the doctor, just take the day off and relax. Give your immune system a chance to do it’s job – and get a little exercise.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

 

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