Saturday, May 23, 2009

We must always eat

I had decided earlier in the week to write my next post about cabbage, an entry I have been meaning to create for some time now, though one I have put off for several months. Even now, as I am finally beginning my cabbage post, I am overcome with boredom. Such is the nature of most of our everyday cooking: We cannot escape drudgery. No matter how great our moments of culinary inspiration may be, when our zest for cooking is boundless and we delight in the entire process of preparing a meal, these moments surely pass, but we must always eat. Cabbage is one of my fallback vegetables, perfectly suited for the most listless, uninspired moments in my workaday life.

Cabbage is the only vegetable with the resilience to outlast everything else in the fridge. It can sit patiently on the bottom shelf wrapped in plastic for weeks - even months - crisp and new as the day it arrived. While green brassicas like kale and collards turn yellow, and more tender leaves mold and rot, cabbage remains true. Even carrots and parsnips, though long in shelf life, eventually shrivel and grow brown in the crisper. Cabbage is a miracle.

I have been buying napa cabbages to keep in the fridge. The leaves are frilly, like lace, easily shredded and cook quickly. I have been stir-frying them with garlic and hot pepper flakes, adding some salt to help release the water to create steam, and sprinkling with a few chopped coriander leaves at the end before serving. Sometimes I throw in a handful of frozen peas for good measure. I eat this with boiled pork dumplings you can find in the freezer section and dipping sauce made from a combination of soy sauce, sesame oil and chili sauce.

I present cabbage not necessarily to entice you to include it in your lineup of kitchen staples. We all have the items we fall back on when we can’t think of something thrilling to cook. I could tell the story of my first failed attempt at making cabbage rolls, the filling folded ineptly between the thick, unyielding leaves of conventional white cabbage. Or I could reveal my source for my current method for preparing napa leaves: a casual Chinese luncheon celebrating the successful arrival of a new baby. Instead, I invite you to consider the ways you cook without thinking: how you squirrel things away in the fridge, freezer or pantry to prepare when you just need to eat.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fight the power

If I wasn’t completely smitten for Jamie Oliver before purchasing his latest cookbook, Jamie’s Food Revolution, I am now. I was always impressed by his infectious enthusiasm for all things culinary; he’s like the energizer bunny of celebrity chefs. I’ve enjoyed watching him bounce from one project to next, heralding simple “naked” cooking using fresh ingredients and straightforward methods.

More than anyone else, I think, Jamie’s food philosophy is about empowerment. He recognizes that cooking your own food in today’s world is not just a political act: It’s downright radical.

I wonder if he’s read Paul Roberts’ The End of Food, an impeccably researched treasure trove of information for anyone concerned by how reliant westerners (and now emerging markets like China and India) have become on heavily processed (or, as Roberts calls them, “high margin”) foods. According to Roberts, the items in our supermarkets with the lowest nutritional value (pop, cookies, chips, snacks, etc.) and made with the cheapest ingredients (corn syrup, vegetable oils, synthetic thickeners and flavourings, etc.) have the highest profit margins available to the manufacturer. This is why these items are so heavily marketed to us. (The numbers one and two most recognized brands in the world are Coke and Pepsi, two very high margin items.) Making your own salad dressing, then, becomes not just a quest for superior ingredients and eliminating chemical additives. It’s an act of rebellion, an idea I think Oliver is beginning to communicate more effectively than ever before.

Oliver’s idea for Revolution is to bring the power of cooking to the people. He kick-started his “pass it on” movement by traveling to Rotherham, England, and teaching recipes from his new book to a handful of working class, processed food dependent non-cooks. He then charged them, and all of his readers, with the task of instructing four friends their one recipe, who in turn pass it on to four friends, and so on and so on. After seven repetitions, he says, there will be enough people who know how to cook one good recipe to fill Yankee Stadium one and a half times (that’s almost 80,000 people).

The recipes, as usual, are simple and tasty, like spaghetti bolognese, omelets, fish baked in foil packets and chopped salads. As such, there’s nothing much new, though their presentation (step-by-step photographs, variations on a theme) is really useful.

On the food side, I’m interested in two pantry staples Oliver uses in Revolution: quick oats and cream crackers. I’m always in search of new tricks. On first glance, I see Oliver throwing handfuls of quick oats into everything from smoothies to topping baked salmon. And the cream crackers smash up to make killer toppings and breadcrumbs. Already I have made a smoothie with some oats, and it didn’t turn into a gooey mess. I’m eager to try the rest of the recipes. I’ll let you know how they fare.

Thank you, Jamie, for being a champion of culinary self-empowerment. Rock on.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The nocebo effect

Nocebo effect: The power of negative thinking. This idea comes my way via Margaret Wente’s column in today’s Globe and Mail. She is in support of the once radical now less incendiary view that our obsessive attention to the minutae of our health and nutrition is unnecessary. I believe she refers to this article in Maclean’s magazine, though one need not look far to find yet another writer claiming that we’re killing ourselves with our seemingly harmless habits. Have a read to get in on the discussion.

I also picked up two books in the airport last Sunday, displayed side-by-side on the non-fiction centre table: Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and Paul Robert’s The End of Food. Funnier still is the front cover quotation by none other than Pollan in defense of Robert’s book: “For anyone concerned about the future of food, this is an indispensable book.” Now I’m intrigued: Are these seemingly opposite views really the same book? I’m curious to learn how similar they are rather than how different.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Spring things

Over the past week, my garden has sprung into action. I have a sizable plot mixed with perennial flowers, herbs, shrubs, rocks and empty spaces for annuals and edibles. My garden is a consistent source of joy and woe, as are most creations, although after seven summers toiling in the soil, I am confident I have worked out many of the problems.

Truth be told, I’m not much of a gardener. I have soaring bucolic fantasies, including an impulse every few years to move to the country and live off the fat of the land. In practice, however, I avoid working in the garden like I avoid vacuuming or washing the shower curtain. Weeding, as any gardener knows, is a never ending almost Sisyphean task requiring constant vigilance and commitment. I also have an irrational fear of worms. Much to my dismay, in any outdoor garden, worms are unavoidable: toothless, sightless and prehistoric, lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce.

I am looking forward to this year’s garden, the maintenance of which I have now entirely subcontracted to my landscaper. He is a proper artist whose loving attention to garden beauty and bounty makes up for his bureaucratic failings. We have devised a system we will test out this year I'm hoping will satisfy both my need for financial order and his desire to create at will. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Through the years, we have grown a sampling of edibles with varying degrees of success. In the beginning, I imagined growing enough vegetables to preserve and consume all year long, keeping step with my prairie ancestors. In reality, the abundance of tall Norway maples in our neighbourhood prevent the maximum sun exposure such a venture requires. That's a good technical reason for my failure. I would be remiss not to mention, however, that my ancestors were farmers, a seven days a week, sun up to sun down job, whereas I have many other things I want to spend my time doing. Such is the distraction of the city.

Of all the vegetables we’ve planted, only a few are worth repeating. Many were more trouble than they were worth. Lettuce, for instance, tastes wonderful when freshly picked, but comes in quickly. Unless you are skilled at timing your crop, planting seeds every two weeks throughout May and June as the package demands, you will have all of your lettuce available at once. Then, after a week or so, it will bolt, become tough or bitter, and unwieldy. Radishes require lots of sun and resowing to leave space for the roots to form, as do carrots. The chore does not yield produce any better than can be purchased at the green grocer.

Two items in particular warrant the fuss of home growing. One, swiss chard, is hardly a fuss at all if you don’t mind earwigs and sprinkling the slug bait once a week or so. I have been growing a bed of swiss chard for several years, enjoying the tender fresh leaves once or twice a day from July through the end of October. Their flavour is unmatched by the leaves you buy in the store, and as such to my mind worth the effort.

The other item we grow is cherry tomatoes. Truth be told, all tomatoes grown in the garden are unparalleled by ones bought in the store. Cherry tomatoes, however, are far less effort and frustration than their larger bretheren. Squirrels, for some reason, bite into tomatoes when they're green, then leave them to rot on the ground, uneaten. They don't do this with cherry toms. So unless you’re into building cages for your plants, cherry tomatoes is the way to go: the squirrels seem to ignore them. Remember to prune your tomato plants every few days, removing the dud sucker shoots that only serve to drain the plant of its resources. They are easily snapped off with your fingers, resulting in exponentially more fruit.

Of course, growing fresh herbs is a no-brainer, such as the lemon thyme I have pictured above, already available for use this early in the season. Whatever you choose to grow, you will be pleased I'm sure with the feeling of independence and power that comes with providing for yourself.