Thursday, February 26, 2009

Blasphemy and best ever

I had to showcase B’s amazing BLT from yesterday lunch, his “best ever.” He doesn’t cook very often, but when he does he pulls out all the stops. This version had escarole (a bitter green) for the foliage and smoked salt to season. The bacon is our fave: low-salt and house smoked from Pusateri’s. I love when B cooks for himself. He takes such delight in his creations. Though his repertoire is limited, his attention to his craft is impeccable.

A couple of interesting links today:
This article from the New York Times’ Harold McGee (a.k.a. The Curious Cook) is on how much water you really need to cook pasta. He argues in favour of reducing the amount from the traditional 4-6L to 1.5L per pound of pasta, as well as putting the pasta in the cold water and allowing it to cook as the water heats. His point is green: less water means less energy consumed. I imagine waiting less time when cooking pasta to be a stronger incentive for most. As well, the resulting pasta water will have a more concentrated starchiness and taste that is perfect for thickening any sauce. His notes on these tips plus his canvassing of the Italian cooking elite (this method is “blasphemous”) are worth a read.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that even the greats have a run of bad luck. Molly Wizenberg over at Orangette gives us this candid account of her recent culinary disasters, photos included. Earlier this month, The Times of London declared Orangette top of the heap for food blogs (there are 33,000 of us) and for good reason. Her stories of her life in the kitchen are humorous and warm and her recipes are inspired. Try not to fall in love with her.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Presto indeed

Restrictions necessitate creativity. I guess the more familiar saying is “necessity is the mother of invention,” but I like my version better. Where would we be without our ability to make something great out of almost nothing? This is true for all art forms and, as I have discovered, cooking is no exception. Perhaps we could expand the maxim: laziness causes restrictions. Or, winter blahs nets fewer shopping trips which causes restrictions and thus necessitates creativity. Oi, my aching brain.

There are mitigating factors when it comes to cooking, the most obvious being hunger and available materials. I love to cook, experimenting with new flavours and ingredients, but as I have said before, sometimes I'm just too hungry to perform acts of culinary greatness. Or so I think. The wonder of cooking is that our common restrictions—nothing in the fridge, exhaustion, etc.—often produce miraculous (or if you prefer a less sensational adjective, unexpected) results.

Lately, I have been encouraged by the almost too enthusiastic Italian-Canadian David Rocco in his cookbook David Rocco's Dolce Vita. He corroborates my claim by pronouncing in his introduction that magic (or in his parlance, “alchemy”) is the method in cooking. Make your food and pay attention to the process. “Suddenly,” he writes, “you've created alchemy using the most ordinary ingredients.”

This morning I made his recipe for uova in purgatorio, or “eggs in purgatory,” a dish I had often made for myself before I had his book, though using a far more complicated method. I would make mine as you would œufs en cocotte, using warmed buttered ramekins submerged in a bain marie and baked to perfection in the oven, replacing the cream for tomato sauce. (The French, it seems, complicate everything.) In the crisp snap of fall last October, I must have made this three times a week. Now, deep in the fatigue of winter, this method is too involved. My head hurts just to think of performing the many steps to complete the recipe. Rocco to the rescue. In his version, simmer a 1/2 cup or so of tomato sauce in a pan, crack in the eggs, add some grated cheese, cover and turn off the heat. In about 5 minutes you have beautiful eggs poached in sauce. Presto.

My tomato sauce, another super-fast concoction, is also inspired from his book. It's another non recipe: too simple to require one of those annoying list of ingredients that make my eyes glaze over and my hand turn the page. Smash a clove of garlic and add it to a saucepan with about 3 Tbsp of olive oil. Wait for it to sizzle, then add one 26-oz. can of plum tomatoes, undrained. Crush up the tomatoes a bit with a utensil. Add any herbs of your choosing, fresh or dried (oregano, basil, parsley, bay leaf...). Bring to a boil and then simmer for at least five minutes, or the time it takes you to prepare whatever it is you're serving the sauce with (cooked pasta, meatballs, fried eggplant, sausages, etc.). Season to taste with salt and pepper. What could be easier?

I have other such instant discoveries I will be sharing with you over the next few days. In the meantime, do you have any fast food inspirations to share with me?

A note about canned tomatoes
ONLY BUY SAN MARZANO TOMATOES. This is the great secret of Italian tomato sauce. Mama Rosa told me so (though I had heard it years before by the owner of Positano). San Marzano tomatoes are D.O.P. certified in Italy, grown and packed in the traditional manner. They are more expensive than standard canned tomatoes (usually around $4/26-oz.), but they are worth it. I'm not a food snob per se, but in the case of canned tomatoes, there really is one kind. Since it’s a non-perishable, I don't mind buying something I know won't go to waste before I have a chance to eat it. After all, we would spend $3 minimum on a jar of prepared tomato sauce, something that invariably sits half-eaten and rotting at the back of the fridge. Trust me: You won't be able to resist eating your own sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes with everything. Several brands (Unico, Pastene and others) offer San Marzano tomatoes in their canned tomato family. I buy mine packaged by Pastene in yellow-labeled tins at Loblaws.

News about storing fresh parsley!
In the photo above, you can see a bunch of beautiful, fresh parsley leaves filling the top of the frame. Would you believe that bunch has been sitting in a vase on my counter for a week? No joke! I have taken to arranging my parsley in a drinking glass or small vase when I bring it home from the grocery store, putting a half-inch or so of water at the bottom of the jar to keep the ends moist and replacing the water every few days. I'm so happy I made this discovery. It’s pretty and such a time-saver: One less thing to pull out of the fridge when I'm cooking! If you try this, I guarantee you'll be adding fresh chopped parsley to every dish you make.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Nemesis, thy name is Headcheese

My list is shrinking.

I have discovered that my aversion to eating great-tasting foods because I think they are bad for me is a nuisance. B and I had a lovely Sunday morning coffee and croissant (pain au chocolat, no less!) and, miraculously or not, I have lived another day. Thus, I have amended my list to only include the foods that I cannot bring myself to eat, that cause an instant gag-reflex in my mouth. This list is relatively small, as it probably is for most people. But we do all have our culinary kryptonite.

Texture is a deciding factor for whether or not we enjoy our food. A Google search of "Why we hate certain foods" will return pages of testimony from individuals on the items they cannot abide, including the reasons for their revulsion. I have a friend who can't stand yoghurt. "Too phegmy," is her criticism. I've put natto in that category for myself, as well as improperly cooked oatmeal. When the spoon leaves the bowl, there should be no viscose attachments clinging to the underside. Otherwise, it's gross.

Sometimes it's a question of temperature and state: solid or liquid. I once had a co-worker who couldn't eat cold butter. If the butter was applied to hot toast and melted, that was fine. If he could feel the cold slick of butter in his mouth, however, he'd have to spit it out. As a child I had the same rule about cheese: melted only, please. Cold cheese, especially when served in cubes on the ends of toothpicks, disgusted me. I would only eat cheese that was still bubbling and runny, fresh from the oven, and never allowed to cool.

Of course, there are the foods that just freak us out. Yesterday, I met a woman who has an irrational fear of dried fruit: "anything larger than a raisin." I suppose on a conceptual level, dried fruits are like the bog people of the food world. They have an unnatural almost mystical moistness that contradicts the nature of their preservation. Yet they are indeed mummified: brown, shriveled and old.

I have grouped my feared foods according to what I think bothers me about eating them.
Too slimy and/or gelatinous: brie, okra, natto, sea urchin, kefir, shark fin soup, beef liver (if cooked medium), real Chinese food (corn starch sauces), some prepared yoghurts, sea urchin

Too rubbery: seaweed, mushrooms, tripe, beef liver (if cooked well)

It freaks me out: processed cheese food, ranch dressing, sweetbreads, headcheese, tongue, durian, furry/moldy cheese

Taste: cream cheese, rum

Friday, February 20, 2009

Leftover lessons

It's the morning after the night before. I'm laughing at myself.

After yesterday's epiphany via Jeffrey Steingarten that I have been letting my food phobias run (ruin?) my life, Byron and I went out for dinner. I discovered two things:
1) Some food just isn't worth eating
I remember my cousin Brenda, a lifelong healthy eater, once telling me that if she were to leave her regimen for a piece of cheesecake, it had better be a pretty darn good piece of cheesecake. I thought of her last night. Fresh from my commitment to become a perfect omnivore, I dutifully ate from the plate of breads placed on our table. The foccacia, normally soft, was dry, and the lone dinner roll was uninspired. As I chewed on pieces of stale foccacia I first soaked in olive oil (to no avail), I was reminded of Brenda's adage and subsequently reinterpreted Steingarten's message. The point of becoming the perfect omnivore is to free yourself of restrictions so you can choose from everything being offered with neither fear nor remorse. Instead, I had interpreted his direction as go forth and consume the foods you are afraid of eating whenever they are put infront of you. I am pleased with my amendment: Eat it if it's worth eating.

2) Eating food you find repulsive takes extraordinary feats of strength
Byron, as usual, ordered the cheese plate for dessert. One of his selections was taleggio, a supremely stinky cheese with the odor of, for lack of a more polite analogy, butt crack. He gladly consumed this cheese among the others (marscapone and an aged pecorino) and then enjoyed sneaking his unwashed fingers under my nose for the rest of the evening. Even now I feel a tad queasy. I understand what Steingarten meant when he said he had to sit down alone and eat a plate of chickpeas, one by one. I will need to buy my own wobbling slab of taleggio and eat it piece by smelly piece, recommitting myself to the cause after every bite. As such, I am going to amend my list of feared foods, removing the items I clearly enjoy when they're worth eating and leaving the ones I cannot approach without the automatic dry heave. I will tackle this list in a schedule to be determined.
For dessert, I happily ordered tiramisu: not the best I'd ever had, but certainly delicious. Even though I was already full, I ate a few bites, then brought the rest home for breakfast.

Oh the hardship.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to become a perfect omnivore

I came across this article by food writer Jeffrey Steingarten on overcoming food phobias. He argues that since human beings are omnivores--that we are basically designed to digest anything--our recent hyper diligence in controlling what we eat is nothing short of mass hysteria. According to Steingarten, only a very small percentage of us have true food allergies such as lactose intolerance or celiac desease. Instead, our fear of the consequences of eating forbidden foods rather than physiological necessity prevents us from consuming freely. Informing others of our food "intolerances" is our way of managing these fears to our detriment. We forgo the pleasure of sharing food with one another in favour of feeding what separates us--what makes me unlike you--all for the illusion of safety. With great humour and humility, he recounts how he overcame his own food phobias--including dill, chickpeas and coffee ice cream--ultimately training himself to be the perfect omnivore, free to enjoy all of the tastes life has to offer.

Of course his argument struck me. I have lived a virtually wheat-free diet for almost 10 years. One day out of the blue, I stopped eating wheat because a nutritionist told me I should. I have never been medically diagnosed with a food allergy or intolerance. I don't even know if such a thing is possible. I simply took her word as truth and believed with all of my energy that she was right.

Looking back, her words were music to my ears. The shock of her pronouncement lasted about a minute before I began scheeming how I would enact such a restriction. I have remarkable will power and enjoyed the challenge of removing one of our staple foods from my life. During the last decade, I have credited my growth and success in part to my careful and conscious nutrition. In the story of being me, life before eliminating wheat was fraught with illness and insecurity. By eradicating my enemy, I could finally flourish.

If I think about it, I can see why I have enjoyed this story. I am the heroine of my own epic saga: me vs. the wheat-obsessed world. I have overcome adversity, challenged the status quo, forgiven people their trespasses. Only occasionally do I consume the odd slice of bread. These moments are usually in a restaurant, a fresh-baked loaf sitting before me, waiting. I am by myself, separated from anyone who knows what I never do, and I devour the crusty baguette or the pillowy foccacia feverishly and with wild abandon. I know I am doing something forbidden: something I will regret.

Steingarten says that people can learn to eat anything if they try it eight times. Any child given spinach often enough will learn to like it. Regarding adults, I have only ever heard this said about olives: that if you can stand to eat eight olives in a row, you'll eat them for the rest of your life. To achieve his goal of becoming the perfect omnivore, Steingarten took his list of feared foods and overcame them one by one: eight sprigs of dill, eight chickpeas, eight scoops of coffee ice cream.

When I first read his article, the foods he claimed to have once feared seemed absurd, almost frivolous. How could he not like chickpeas? I imagined my own list of foods that I don't like or are afraid to try and chuckled at the obscurity: okra, natto, lapsang souchong tea, durian, etc. Not in a hundred years would these foods ever appear at a family gathering or at a friend's dinner party; I could easily live an unencumbered life without training myself to enjoy sea urchin or shark fin soup. But now, I'm filled with dread knowing that my real food phobias are of the ones people eat all the time, things like like birthday cake and ice cream, pasta, coffee, wine, milk, macaroni and cheese. These are the foods I have defined myself by in their exclusion from my life. To embrace what I fear, I would be changing who I know myself to be.

I am unsure how I will proceed. I am hesitant to commit myself to the challenge of conquering my food phobias. The excitement I feel at the prospect of being free to enjoy all of life, however, is a powerful incentive. Here is my list of feared foods:
wheat, yeast, milk, coffee, any stinky cheese, brie, cream cheese, buttermilk, ranch dressing, okra, natto, sea urchin, sweetbreads (i.e. pancreas, or is it adrenal gland? they're both on the list), brain, tripe, durian, lapsang souchong, blood pudding, oatmeal, processed cheese, mushrooms, kefir, Guinness, rum, dulse, seaweed, mocha, capers, iced coffee, ice cream, anchovies, raw fish, yak butter tea, real Chinese food, bitters and beef liver
(I'm sure there are other foods to add that I'm forgetting.)

Husband and I have just agreed to eat tonight's dinner at Grano, one of our favourite Italian restaurants. Although I love their food, given my restrictions, I usually have a total of five items on the menu to choose from. I see a grand opportunity to begin this new quest.

What are your feared foods? Leave a comment with your list and see if you take on the challenge of becoming a perfect omnivore. As scary as it may seem, I think in the long run it's going to be fun.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More greens please

Even though it's snowing outside, I felt for the first time this week the beginnings of spring. I don't know what it is: whether the sun is higher in the sky, or the days are slightly longer, or because the snow has mostly melted there is less cool air evaporating from the streets. Regardless, spring is in the air. Soon, the ground will thaw and new shoots will push through the once-frozen earth. I can sense them getting excited.

Perhaps this feeling of spring prompted my craving for spice. I have added hot pepper flakes to every meal this week. I even bought a prepared sauce, which I rarely do, and have enjoyed adding it to everything. It's a sweet teriyaki sauce, deep red speckled with pepper flakes and sesame seeds, all organic. The bottle was awkward, so I decanted into a jam jar and promptly took the original vessel to the curb. I don't recall the brand name or the ingredients list.

Buying prepared sauces is such a tease: the promise of the miracle sauce, everything you could ever want to taste in one bottle, and the disappointment upon realizing that you will be adding another mediocre confection to the angry mob of bottles already crowding your refrigerator. But, I fell for the new bottle the other day, perhaps because it was tall and thin like me, or that it promised organic goodness.

I also bought some new dishes from Ikea and have felt a flush of inspiration for new cuisine. Sautéed asian greens and napa cabbage, rice vermicelli, spicy rich chicken broths, and pulled chicken. My new dishes are pure white porcelain and showcase any meal so brilliantly. I especially love the plates I bought with little bowl-holders. I now imagine meals according to how I will configure food into this arrangement, and consequently I'm cooking differently than I normally do. Who knew that buying a few new dishes could inspire so much innovation?

As for methods, I have mothballed my steamer basket and am sautéeing leafy vegetables in garlic and oil. I use the Italian method, slicing a clove of garlic thinly, letting the slivers brown in hot oil and adding a pinch of hot pepper flakes before adding the chopped greens. Turn the greens in the pan, adding a few drops of water as needed if the pan is too dry. Finish with salt and/or any sauces you have vying for your attention in the fridge.

I love the velocity of this kind of preparation, the loud woosh sound the moist greens make as they hit the hot oil. I feel like a pro.

I'll leave you with this list from the New York Times of the top 11 healthy foods “you aren’t eating.” Hmm. Is that a challenge? I think so.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Instant risotto

February sucks. There's no way around feeling the blahs, especially when it's grey and raining like it was yesterday. I lose my inspiration for just about everything, especially cooking, so I'm glad when opportunity takes me by the hand and leads me in a new direction.

In this case, a combination of laziness and financial constraint has kept me at home and fending for myself by living off of the foods in my freezer. I arrive in the kitchen fainting from hunger and needing to fill myself with comforting food ASAP.

This risotto did the trick. Ordinarily, cooked from scratch, this dish would take about 25 minutes, which is too long by my hungry-meter. I mocked myself (as probably some of you did) when I said I freeze cooked rice in portions. Well, this recipe is the best reason I can think of to do so. I also have bacon frozen in two-strip quantities and frozen peas. Risotto in about 8 minutes. What could be better?

Now, to assuage the purists, this is not risotto. It's not arborio rice cooked in broth for just the right amount until the grains become little toothsome pearls in an iridescent sauce. It's mockzotto.

The key is with the egg. If you've ever made spaghetti carbonara (which you can watch my friend Linda make here) you'll remember that adding a beaten egg quickly to the pasta and bacon creates a velvety sauce, but cooked to long and it turns into scrambled egg. The same goes for this recipe. Make sure to remove your pan from the heat before you add the egg, mix it in quickly and serve. If not, you'll have fried rice with the eggy bits cooked solid.

Incidentally, I made mine with brown rice, verboten to true risotto, but it tasted really good.

Serves 1
1 tsp olive oil
2 strips bacon, cut into pieces
1 clove garlic, smashed
1/2 c cooked rice (brown or white)
1/4 c frozen peas
1 egg, beaten
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp shredded hard salty cheese (Romano, Parmesan)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)
In a skillet over medium heat, fry the bacon in the oil with the garlic. Be careful not to burn.

Defrost the peas and rice in the microwave for a couple of minutes if they are frozen solid. When the bacon is crisp, add the rice and peas to the pan. Cook until heated through, stirring frequently so the rice doesn't stick, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Add the egg, butter, cheese and parsley to the rice mixture and stir quickly to coat and heat through. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if desired. Serve immediately.