Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pasta: a love story

We moved to Barcelona in December, 2001, in the wake of 9/11. We were leaving Argentina in the midst of the economic, and eventually political, crash. It was a tumultuous time. South, people were losing their homes, their livelihoods. North, they were planning a war. Here in Barcelona, Andrés and I spent those first months wandering the streets alone. We had nowhere to go, no here to call home.

We decided to get married. When you’re far from home and sharing your life with just one other person, you do crazy things. You form a family. A family of two. And you create your own home. You stuff your home with things you love: noises, smells, words, texture--things that remind you where you come from, where you are, where you’ve never been.

Sunday in Buenos Aires means one of two things: asado or pasta. Pasta used to mean homemade; for some houses it still does. For others, however, it means the pasta factories. Each neighborhood has its own. Every Sunday, neighbors queue down the block and around the corner, looking to buy tallarines, spaghetti, tagliatelli and linguini by the kilo, ravioli and sorrentini by the dozen. The barrios bustle. Neighbors hurry home with tallarines carefully wrapped in paper, raviolis lining boxes like petite-fours, to tuco simmering on the stove.

Sunday in Barcelona means five-on-five football matches and the cañas that follow. It means the book fair at the Sant Antoni market. It can also mean a coffee at Caelum. It rarely means church and it never means pasta. Spain means rice, paella. Spain knows nothing about pasta.

Sunday is a day of ritual. In many European countries, shops and shopping centers close on Sundays. People infuse their Sundays with meaning--we spent our first few years here looking for one.

Last Christmas, I finally gave Andrés a new Sunday: A pasta maker.

Now, each Sunday, he engages in the same ritual his grandmother used to, kneading love into eggs and flour, transforming the resultant sticky mass into food. And so, as it does for millions of other porteños so many miles away, Sunday in Barcelona now means fresh pasta. It means spaghetti and homemade meatballs. It means linguini and cream sauce. It means penne and sun-dried tomatoes. And lots of fresh basil. For two.


Sunday Pumpkin-Ricotta Ravioli (for a Family of Two)

300 grams fine flour (about 1 1/3 cups, or 10 ounces; Andrés uses 00, though 000 is better)
2 eggs
Fresh Spring Water

500 grams roasted pumpkin or butternut squash (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon tightly packed brown brown sugar
250 grams ricotta cheese (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (for drizzling)


For the pasta:

Measure the flour out on your kitchen scale. Then transfer to a clean surface.

Make a small crater in the pile of flour with your first. Crack the eggs into the crater and beat them with a fork. Once the egg is beaten, use the fork the mix it into the flour, gently bringing flour in from the sides. It will soon have a consistency similar to that of cornmeal.

Once all the flour has been mixed with the egg, it is time to knead. You may need to add water to make this process easier. To add the water, merely dip your hands into a small bowl of water and knead. Repeat this as often as necessary to create a workable blob. Knead.

Wrap the dough in a damp kitchen towel and let sit for a short while. Meanwhile, set up your paste maker and prepare the filling.

For the filling:

In a small bowl, mash the roasted pumpkin with fork. Add the brown sugar and mix well. Now add the ricotta and mix well again. Add sage and turmeric, and salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the dough into smaller bowls. Roll each one out with a rolling pin and send it through the pasta maker till you have the desired thickness. (Andrés says his grandmother did this by hand--she had no pasta maker. She would roll the dough out and then cut it to the desired width with a knife. It's a bit easier with the machine.)


Once you've got the dough where you want it, add the attachment to the machine. In this case, we added the ravioli one.

Spread the filling on two sheets of pasta dough. Crank it through the pasta maker.

Boil 4 quarts water in a large pot. Throw in some salt and a laurel leaf for good measure. Add the pasta and let it cook till it rises to the surface. This should take less than three minutes. Drain.

Add freshly grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Queen Bully of Garlic

In an old FoodVibe post Steve asked: Is it worth trying to juice garlic?

I'll answer this question, unequivocally: NO.

I juiced garlic, once. At the time I was twenty-two, bursting with bravado, and inspired by the heady writing of one of my early heroes, the juicing extraordinaire, Dr. Norman Walker. (Warning: Do not follow that link lightly...) In his famous Fresh Vegetable and Fruit Juices this is what Dr. Walker has to say about garlic juice:

"Metaphorically speaking, garlic itself is bad enough but garlic juice by itself may cause devastating social ostracism for the one who drinks it. It is very beneficial, if one has the mental fortitude to overcome social handicaps, and the intestinal fortitude to endure the general discomfort which accompanies the more or less rapid house cleaning of one's system."

Around this time I smuggled fresh garlic into restaurants. I cut the cloves raw onto my food. (Suzanne will attest to this fact.)

I had the mental fortitude. Unfortunately, I did not have the intestinal fortitude. One cup of garlic juice and I was walloped. I drank the garlic juice, mercifully mixed with carrots, on a Friday morning in July. I was due to go to the beach for the weekend. I never made it. I spent the weekend in bed, immersed in one of the most intense and ridiculous detox experiences of my life. I smelled like garlic until September.

Garlic is intense. At the very least, it inspires intense emotion. I for one love it. Before I became humbled by life and love, I used it in my own cooking like a battle axe. Don't like garlic? Too bad, here's my Risotto with 40 Cloves of Garlic.

Suzanne and I once made Risotto with 40 Cloves of garlic. It was a balmy summer night. We shared the risotto and three magnums of red wine with my brother. Then we went bowling. That sweaty night, as the garlic and wine seeped from our pores, as our friends moaned and complained about the obnoxious smell, we winked at each other and laughed conspiratorially.

No amount of social ostracism could overcome the deep and loving pact we forged over massive amounts of red wine and garlic.

I'm a Garlic Bully. I throw my garlic love in people's faces. Rarely have I met my match. I suppose though when you're a bully you always get your comeuppance.

Once, in Barcelona, I met The Queen Bully of Garlic.

When I lived in Barcelona I made a habit of visiting the fruit and vegetable markets every day. Most days I was so enthralled by the shapes, colors, and smells of the fruits and vegetables that I literally wasted up to an hour, simply browsing the aisles. On one of these occasions I was awakened from my spell by a short fat women whose cheeks were plump and red, and who offered me a clove of garlic speared on the end of a small pocket knife.

Queries?” she asked.

Then, as if preparing for a sudden burst of song, she proclaimed in rapid fire Spanish that her garlic was the most powerful in Barcelona. As she spoke she waddled back and forth with sincere pride, inhaling deeply, throwing her hands in the air as if to prove that the garlic was responsible for her robust posture. Seeing my doubt, she implored me to bite into the clove and taste for myself.

I accepted the challenge with my bravado, throwing the entire clove into my mouth. I chewed the garlic as if it were an apple, but before my second bite I realized that I was experiencing the real deal: the garlic to end all garlic, a perfect, peppery slice of the beautiful, ugly, power of The Stinking Rose.

I continued chewing with a twisted face, as if it were a matter of pride, like taking a shot of whiskey. The taste, however, was too strong. I spit the clove onto the sidewalk in defeat. The small crowd that had gathered burst into laughter. The fat women smiled. She was chewing on one of the cloves for pleasure.

For the rest of that day and onto the next, wherever I went the smell of garlic followed. Garlic seeped out of my pores like a renegade sweat, like a battle scar.

Moroccan Charmoula Tempeh

This is a close adaptation of the great Peter Berley's recipe from the outstanding book The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen--my all-time favorite vegetarian cookbook. Four garlic cloves make this dish garlicky; six make you a "garlic bully." Serve with rice.

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup water (yes water)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh ground cumin (Please tell me you grind your own spices?)
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground chile powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4-6 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 pound tempeh, cut into one inch squares

In a blender or food processor or blender, mix together olive oil, water, lemon juice, spices, salt, garlic, and cilantro.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Arrange tempeh squares in a single layer in a baking dish. Pour on marinade and cover securely with foil. Bake for 45 minutes, until tempeh has absorbed the marinade. Uncover and bake for a few more minutes to brown.

Serves 4

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My son Zev eats cucumbers at night

It's been over a half hour now. You still sit with furrowed brow and tight, pursed lips. Elbows on the table, your chin rests in your hands.

I watch you across the room from the couch as I read the fiction piece in the December issue of Harper's. It arrived weeks ago. I haven't had time to read it yet. I put it down, walk to the table. I should know better than to try reading during dinner time.

"Let's go big boy," I say.


I knew you would say this, yet I have few options in my arsenal. I am resourceless, but not defeated. We stare at each other. We often reach this impasse.

I come home late everyday from my second teaching job. I only have an hour or so with you and Akiva and Sivan before you go to bed. I don't want our time to be spent like this.

First were the fishies with a bit of ketchup, a side of frozen grapes. You did a great job, devouring the fishies in minutes. I expected that. They're your favorite. Then came the finely chopped cucumbers, mixed with vanilla probiotic yogurt. This is the only way you'll eat cucumbers, which the doctor says you must.

Stalling for time, you play with your hands, pretending they are wild animals fighting each other. You frequently play like this. I did the same thing when I was your age. I feel a strange sensation. Not sure what it is, I push it down. Maybe to examine later.

Now is not the time for such things. I'm all business. You must eat your vegetables.

The cucumbers turn the yogurt into a watery mess. I don't blame you if you don't want to eat them. I fix it: Pour out the watery yogurt, replace it with a newer, fresher batch. It returns to its original consistency.

Placing the bowl back in front of you, I scruff your hair affectionately.

"Mmph," you say gruffly and move you head away from my hand.

The doctor says you have to eat vegetables--they will help your condition. Sometimes you don't poop for days. You choose to hold it in--an incomprehensible act of childhood power and defiance. Once when you were three, it went on for two weeks. I used to find you hiding under the dining room table, your face a twisted mask of discomfort as your tiny stomach muscles worked to close your bowels like an iron clamp.

"Why, Zev?" we would ask. Then we would beg, "Let's just go the bathroom, please!"

The doctor said your bowels must be swollen with constipation, that it must painful, that perhaps you can no longer feel the proper time to go. Then came the accidents. Sudden and unexpected, they were a seeming validation of the prognosis. The doctor said avoid dairy, wheat, anything that binds; he said we have to give you daily doses of fresh vegetables with copious amount of olive oil. This would somehow produce the desired effect--that your colon would shrink and allow you to feel the proper sensation again, that you would poop again, regularly and normally.

I try to explain this to you.

You dismiss it all.

"Zev," I say, "You're being unreasonable!"

I know how ridiculous this sounds. You are five years old, far beyond reason.

You still sit there. I get desperate. I begin to think of bargains, the requisite if/then deals. How can I snatch compromise out of the jaws of defeat?

Sometimes the defiance is legendary, as it is tonight.

But so far the cucumber yogurt treatment has yielded small successes. No accidents for a long time. No more holding it in. Good reports from your school in Manhattan.

At home, you will often be on the floor playing when suddenly you'll look up with a crazed look in your eye: "Poopy!" you yell, and run to the bathroom.

"Yay, Zev!" we all yell in unison.

Don't let the smile fool you. He hates red onions and tomatoes too

Now it is later. All the cucumbers have been eaten. Previous angers and tempers drain away like warm bath water from the tub. After drying off and getting into your pajamas, you ask me to lay in bed with you as you fall asleep--a small, conciliatory act of remorse from the five-year old mind, a desire to clear the slate.

I say, "Yes, of course." I am glad you asked. It doesn't always happen.

You are asleep within five minutes. Turning over, I look at the soft rise and fall of your chest. Tomorrow brings another day of school for you, with its social maze. Later, high school, girls, politics. I suppress a shudder, lay my arm across your waist. The fuzzy feel of your winter pajamas, the slight smell of stale urine, rekindles distant memories of my own childhood bed.

What did my father think as he watched me sleep? Was he as lost, as spinning as I am tonight?

In the haze of consciousness between waking and sleep, I have an image of us walking together, hand in hand through an enormous field of cucumbers that stretches for miles in all directions.

Flanking the field on all sides rise buildings of dizzying heights. Still beyond them, mountains, then deep blue sky. Still further beyond, space. Coming from everywhere, the sound of people talking, laughing, rushing. Somewhere overhead, airplanes zigzag the sky. As we walk, I ask you to stop, wait a moment.

Bending down, I pluck a ripe green cucumber from the ground. Kneeling to meet your height, you look into my face as I hand it to you.

"Here, take this," I say. "They taste good."

Spinach, Goat & Cottage Cheese Tart in a Potato Crust

With the green color of spinach and the tangy taste of goat cheese, this recipe is sure to be one that adults love but kids hate. Seth originally published the recipe here.

6-8 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
2-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 bunch spinach, stems removed, and sliced into thin strips, washed and not dried
8 oz. fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup cottage cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ cup basil, chopped
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

Peel the potatoes and slice into 1/8 inch rounds. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add a layer of potatoes to the pan and cook, turning once, 3-4 minutes per side, until golden and easily pierced with a knife. Set aside on plate lined with a paper towel. Repeat with remaining potatoes.

When potatoes are done, add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan. Add garlic and cook until light gold, about 1 minute. Add the spinach (with water clinging to its leaves) and cook until bright green and tender, 2-3 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a bowl and gently add fresh goat cheese, cottage cheese, eggs, lemon zest, lemon juice, and basil. Stir gently. Season to taste with sea salt and ground pepper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To assemble the tart, lightly butter a 9-inch springform pan. Line the pan with potatoes, covering the bottom and sides, covering any empty spaces. Pour in the spinach-goat cheese mixture. Bake until firm and golden, about 50 minutes.

Release the spring from the pan and gently left the side. Set the tart on a plate, slice, and serve.

6-8 servings

Monday, December 08, 2008

Fat Should Inspire Sex

I recently calculated my daily fat intake. Since I eat essentially the same foods every day, my calculations are probably pretty accurate.

For breakfast, I typically consume 3 tablespoons raw extra virgin olive oil. That's 42 grams of fat, 360 calories--66% of the daily suggested intake.

Lunch, I consume 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (baked, in tempeh). That's 28 grams of fat, 240 calories.

By dinner, I've exceeded my daily fat intake, simply by consuming olive oil.

Is this healthy?

One prominent study suggests two tablespoons daily is a healthful dose. But I cannot find any studies on excessive olive oil consumption. I can say, though, that as a type-1 diabetic, I'm prone to an increased risk of high blood pressure, as well as heart and cholesterol problems. And yet, I'm healthy. I get blood tests several times a year. I check my own blood pressure monthly. My levels are healthy, normal.

Also, at 5' 11", 150 pounds, I'm slightly underweight.

Keeping this in mind, consider my dinner: I typically consume two tablespoons raw extra virgin olive oil, about 27 grams fat from chicken, and about 1/4 cup coconut milk. After dinner, I eat a little chocolate, about 6 grams of fat worth.

In one day, I consume:

7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil: 98 grams fat ; 840 calories.
2 chicken legs: 27 grams fat; 464 calories
1/4 coconut milk: 12 grams fat; 120 calories
Chocolate: 6 grams fat; 80 calories

That's 143 grams of fat--more than double the daily recommended value.

Again, can this be healthy?

I'd say, possibly. I rarely eat dairy fat (I eat raw butter and goat cheese occasionally.) I never, ever eat trans-fats. My animal fat intake is not excessive. (I take fish oil capsules every day, but the capsules do not increase my fat intake.)

Still, 143 grams.

I don't care. I love fat, with wild abandon.

Without fat, cuisine is unimaginable. Fat provides immense flavor and an impossible to match smoothness. Fat tenderizes food. Fat allows for high-heat cooking--the domain of crispiness and robust flavor. To me, low-fat cuisine is lifeless, boring, just plain stupid. Thousands of studies have proven the health benefits of fats--fish oils, extra virgin, olive oil, even saturated fats such as extra virgin coconut oil. People who eat low fat diets in pursuit of health or weight-loss are simply moronic. To me, low-fat dieters seem as boring and lifeless as their boring, lifeless diets.

No doubt, some chefs might say the same thing about me. I typically eschew the classics of gourmet cooking, cream and butter, in my own manic pursuit of "health." (I do use some animal fat, such as bacon, on special occasions, and when absolutely called for.)

Well, I challenge any chef to make my mashed potatoes. They're delicious; they're also healthy.

I think cuisine should provide taste and nourishment and vitality. Any chef can whip up a great-tasting mashed potato, with cream and butter. But how do creamy, buttery mashed potatoes make you feel after you eat?

I want my diners to feel satisfied, but I also want them to walk away from the table feeling light and sprite. I don't want my diners to moan, to lay around, devastated by my food. I want my diners to dance in celebration. I want my diners to kiss without fear of burbing unhealthy burbs. I want my diners to feel like making wild, winey-love. I want my diners to feel sexy, before and after eating.

Towards this end, I use the sexy fat: coconut milk.

Coconut milk (unlike coconut oil) does not dramatically alter the taste of a dish, if used in correct quantities. (My mashed potatoes do not taste at all like coconut.) And yet, coconut adds the silky luxuriousness that's missing from many dairy-free recipes. I use coconut milk in many recipes where cream might be called for, and usually the result is terrific.

Try mashed sweet potatoes. Try chocolate truffles.

Recently, I've been making variations on what I call "Healthy Creamed Spinach." It's basically greens, simmered with coconut milk. Try it. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Coconut Braised Greens

I originally developed this recipe for Whole Foods Market; if you like it, you can rate it here.

1 large bunch kale or collard greens, trimmed and teared into small pieces
1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, very thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh coconut milk
1 teaspoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper

In a large dutch oven over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and saute, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, 6-8 minutes.

Add the coconut milk and lemon juice to the pan. Add the greens. Gently toss. Simmer over medium-low heat, covered, until greens are just tender, 3-5 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Dear Alcohol

Dear Alcohol,

By the time you read these lines, I’ll be gone. It may shock you, but I've been thinking about leaving you for months—since that day at the beach last summer. But let's not go there. Not now.

Over the last few years, you slowly began to demand more of my time—time usually spent with friends or family. I was dependent on you, at a period in my life when I needed to be independent. I feel sad admitting I won't be able to be with you anymore. But I know I'll be a more complete person as a result. You will be angry. You will resent me. You have that right. I cannot stop that.

Alcohol, we have been through a lot together. Our romance was a whirlwind romance. When we first met in high school, you validated me in ways that no one had before. With you in those early days, I felt a sense of belonging--a belonging I had never felt.

In your murky depths, I saw a reflection of myself. You allowed me to be whomever I wanted to be. You listened. For a while, our relationship worked well for me.

But you changed. I changed.

By the end, we were all wrong for each other.

I just felt betrayed by you one too many times. The false hopes. The empty promises. I slowly came to realize that your smiles were placating and sycophantic. You turned into my enabler. Perhaps I was the real betrayer. I acknowledge this. I betrayed myself by allowing you into my life. You never forced yourself upon me. It was I who sought you out.

I don’t blame you for anything. I have no resentment. I only want to move on.

You may ask, "What about all those late nights? All the times we made love?"

My answer is that, in the end, I was just going through the motions. I faked it. I lost pleasure in our encounters a long time ago. Yes, I can admit that now. I don't feel good about it.

But I do remember the good times. I'll miss the laughter, the mirth. I'll miss our circle of friends- scotch, bourbon, beer.

And who could ever forget wine? Yes, wine with her purple eyes, her long, sleek neck.

But there is someone new in my life. Her name is Coffee. She is hot, lovely. She's also black. Does this surprise you? Coffee picks me up in ways that you never could. By the end of our time together, you could only bring me down.

Coffee and I are beginning to create more of a life together than I could ever hope to have with you.

I hope you can one day understand and come to terms with what I have done. I can only thank you for our time together, and for everything you have taught me about myself.

We'll always have college.

Please, don’t try to find me.



Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Perfect Pot of Rice

My house white is basmati. Early morning I measure a cup or more and wash it in a pot. Washing rice is a custom in India: Basmati is traditionally rinsed seven or more times, until the water runs clear. The stated purpose of washing is to rid the rice of excess surface starch, ensuring a lighter cooked grain. I'm all for a lighter grain, but I wash for kicks too.

Here's what I do: I put the rice in the pot. I pour water into the pot and swish the rice around with my fingers. I love this part: Wet rice in my fingers. Think of Audrey Tatou as Amelie, thrusting her hands into a bag of dried lentils. The camera cuts to her face and there she is, full of verve, alive.

After washing, I let the rice soak in water for hours. In his classic book Healing with Whole Foods Paul Pitchford suggests that soaking grains like rice "germinates the dormant energy." I love the thought of this: I go to work and my rice stays at home, leaping forth into a new kind of ricehood. If I had to define the word FoodVibe this would be it: rice, soaking.

When I get home, I discard the soaking water and assemble the dish.

I throw in the water, a little olive oil, ¼ teaspoon turmeric, two garlic cloves, two slices ginger, a few pinches saffron, and a few dashes fleur de sel.

When the rice simmers the kitchen smells like our old place in Barcelona. I envision my wife in a red blouse, tied at the neck, feasting on paella. So I call her into the kitchen, she comes skipping, and I say: I'm making rice! Rice? she says. And then we make love on the kitchen floor, the smell of the cooking rice inspiring romance, possibility, and dinner.

Perfect Pot of Rice

1 cup white basmati rice
1 3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
two whole garlic cloves
two slices fresh ginger
Sea salt

In a medium saucepan, wash the rice in seven or more changes of cool water until the water runs clear. Do so with a sensual fervor that reminds one of the movie Amelie. Cover the rice with cool water and set aside to soak for 30 minutes, or up to 18 hours. (This is called FoodVibing the rice.)

Drain the rice. Throw the water, olive oil, turmeric, garlic cloves, slices ginger, a few pinches saffron, and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt into the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Remove the rice from the heat. Remove the lid and put a few paper towels over the pot; cover again and let stand for 5-10 minutes. This last step is utterly essential; resting is crucial.

Fluff with a fork, remove aromatics, and serve.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Real Cost of Food

FoodVibe readers might have read Michael Pollan's recent article on food policy in The New York Times magazine. The article was written as a letter to the next “Farmer in Chief,” then unknown. However, in a pre-election interview with Time Magazine Barack Obama cited Pollan’s article:

"I was just reading an article by Michael Pollan,” he said, “about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats...sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and that are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs..."

Obama merely cites the problems Pollan exposes. But Pollan's article also offers an "elegant solution," which involves the following initiatives:

1. Resolarizing the American: returning to the sane roots of agriculture: diversified, sustainable crops, nourished by the energy of the sun.

2. Regionalizing the Food System: emphasizing local foods.

3. Rebuilding America’s Food Culture: early food education; leading by example.

It’s heartening to know that Obama is aware of Pollan’s ideas. Perhaps an Obama administration will attempt to implement its own elegant solution. But Pollan’s article speaks to me not only as a government solution, but a call to action—a call to support sustainable, local food with my wallet.

Of course, many people and organizations have been sounding this call for years. But now, in the face of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the call to support sustainable, local food is more important than ever.


Because sustainable, local food is more expensive than conventional farmed food.

It’s more expensive because it’s rare. It’s more expensive because the farming techniques are laborious and time intensive. It’s more expensive because many small-scale organic farmers do not receive federal subsidies.

Pollan cites a provocative justification for the added expense:

“It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat,” Pollan writes. “It probably will — as it should. Paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals.”

To me, the phrase that sticks out here is “the real cost of meat.”

To my taste a $.99/lb turkey simply sounds suspicious. At Whole Foods Market, this season’s turkeys—free-range and free of antibiotics and hormones—cost $2.49/lb. The difference is significant, especially in these lean times. But what, really, are you getting when you buy a $.99/lb turkey?

Likely, it has been frozen and preserved from the prior year. Likely, its been farmed conventionally, meaning it DOES contain antibiotics and hormones. Likely, it has lived in filthy conditions, unsuited for any being, let alone one that we might eat--and where there’s filth there’s disease

Good food costs extra money, yes. But it is food, after all.

This is how the Free On-Line Dictionary defines food:

1. Material, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.

According to this definition, a McDonald’s Cheeseburger is not entirely food. Yes, it consists of essential nutrients that might keep one alive. But what does this livelihood look like?

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger produce energy?

Why don’t we ask Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian who made Super Size Me, in which he demonstrated the health effects of McDonald's food by eating nothing but McDonald's three times a day, every day, for 30 days? Some of Spurlock's claims about McDonald's the company have been challenged, but no one has challenged the depiction of how McDonald's food actually destroyed Spurlock's body: he gained 25 pounds, suffered liver dysfunction and depression and extreme, crippling fatigue.

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger stimulate growth? Maybe so, but not the type of growth we expect from food. Pollan noted in a recent interview with Terri Gross that the hormones fed to McDonald's cattle before slaughter might have devastating effects on young children and unborn children:

"...even microscopic amounts at a certain moment in the developmental process," he says, "whether in the fetus or the child, can have a dramatic effect."

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger maintain life?

In a very, very limited sense. Spurlock's physician, after all, compared Spurlock's diet to a severe alcoholic binge.

Does anyone eat McDonald's every day. Of course not. Spurlock's example is exaggerated. But FoodCrack, which is not entirely food, exists everywhere. The majority of American families, for example, eat inexpensive, conventionally raised meat. With this meat, they might also be consuming their fair share of antibiotics, hormones, and filth.

Is this food? And is this food really cheap?

Pollan writes:

"...cheap food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence...not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive."


In the wake of 9-11, George W. Bush implored Americans to go out and buy things. His implication was that spending was our patriotic duty. Regardless of your political beliefs, I think it’s true: what we buy identities a part of our character.

Our spending decisions matter. When we buy a locally grown apple from a small farm, for example, we are announcing not only the type of produce we prefer—fresh picked, ripe, seasonal—but the type of agriculture we support: small scale, local, with minimal impact to the environment, and maximum impact to our good health.

I buy free-range chicken, for example, because I support the idea of chickens roaming freely. I eat free-range chicken, on the bone, on the other hand, because my lust for deliciousness calls for the best meat, and because, as an anemic and a diabetic, I need a viable, healthful source of iron and protein, without the health-threatening additives--I need real food.

This is not an issue of elitism, as some might argue. As Pollan notes:

"It should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry."

To me, food choices are political choices: when you buy food, whether it be from Whole Foods or McDonald’s, you make a political statement about the type of agriculture you support, the type of world you want to live in.

Perhaps this is an unreasonable assumption. Many families, for example, can only afford to buy foods that support out-dated, oil-based agriculture—who’s to say these families do not support something like Pollan’s notion of sustainability?

I’m certain many low-income households would love to eat better, to eat more healthfully and sanely, to support local and/or organic farming. There are federal programs, too, that support this type of lifestyle. Also, there are, certainly, inexpensive venues for local sustainable foods. As Nina Planck writes:

"Self-appointed populists point out that the mesclun at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City is $32 a pound. Yes, some farmers sell it for that. I don't buy it myself, but that's not the only kind of lettuce available."

Just down the street from where I live, a neighbor imports fresh produce from Lancaster. Recently, I bought about 60 local pears for $2.

To me, it's about effort: taking the time to find good places to buy real food. Whole Foods Market is not the answer--it's merely part of the answer, just as the local farm is part the answer, and the guy down the street.

It might be cynical to say, but it's true: a great deal of our ability to influence the world is predicated on how we spend our money. In America, we speak loudly with our wallet. Now that our wallets seem to be shrinking we might focus even more acutely on our expenses. We might not have extra money to waste on food that is not entirely food. We might need to buy the most energy-promoting, growth-stimulating, and life-maintaining food the market has to offer. In that case, real food is the only answer.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Low Brow Epicurean: A Primer

I’m no foodie.

To me, the term evokes elitism, snobbery, and condescension. Upon hearing the word "foodie," I think of a fastidious cook, pacing the kitchen, obsessing over minced shallots. He sits with his coworkers during lunch, describing the porcini dust he sprinkled on last night's grass-fed steak. He eschews my beet salad because the beets are not locally grown. He makes me feel like a culinary barbarian.

Though I celebrate food, I feel the perpetual outsider. Perusing the pages of a cooking magazine, I'm lost among the kalamata olives and goat cheese. My eyes glaze over the glossy apples and perfect looking plum torts. I like to eat and cook, but haven't fashioned it into an all consuming life's philosophy.

I've always thought, "Isn't there a place somewhere in the food universe for people like me?

Now I know there is.

I'm the anti-foodie, the low-brow epicurean. Allow me to explain.

Low brow epicureans enjoy gourmet delicacies, but are really at home with the culinary mundane. In fact, sometimes they prefer to mix the two. This seems to be the true essence of who we are—a mutant strain, a hybrid.

Whether it be Bordeaux or brown bag, it’s all good because the low brow epicurean is culinary contradiction personified. He is a hot pastrami sandwich with extra Russian dressing on an open-face bun of toasted spelt; Jack Daniels sipped from a crystal snifter; Kobe steak served with fresh greens over a bed of Uncle Ben’s.

Sensing this about myself, I rebelled against the foodie establishment for most of my adult life. I ate anything I wanted, any time. I scorned exercise. I reveled in foodcrack. I drank cheap beer. I smoked menthol. I saw my weight balloon upwards in excess of two hundred and twenty pounds. At 5'6, I was a walking heart attack.

While the foodie prefers filtered Britta water, the low brow epicurean
prefers to drink it sans cup. Notice the extended pinky finger.

Recently, though, I've made strides towards regaining balance. In doing so, I’ve ironically picked up some foodie tendencies along the way. I've lost 60 pounds, mostly through changing my diet and exercising. I buy local produce, organic meat. I rarely eat anything with more than two or three ingredients in it. I juice.

I’m also now more health conscious than I ever was before. I quit smoking. Gave up alcohol. I enjoy yoga. Ran a half-marathon. I've almost regained my former NCAA Division 1 figure. I can even see my abs again, poking through. They're forlorn, angry at me. Emerging from their long exile, they blink and rub their eyes. They say, "Dude! What the hell was that all about?"

I still consider myself well outside the mainstream when it comes to food consciousness and health. I’ll always identify with the low brow because I’ll never forget what it was like during those dark days. I’ll never forget what I was like—indiscriminate, yet persnickety in my tastes. I recall feasting on omelets made of half a dozen free range eggs, lunches of entire blocks of parmesan reggiano. I remember waking in the middle of the night and staggering into the kitchen where I would stick my finger three knuckles deep into the cashew butter, pulling up a tasty, gooey glob. I was always the voluptuary in my excess, the slob with the golden spoon. No meat without ketchup. No necktie without a stain.

Have you ever done this? You may be more low brow than you think.


When I walk into stores like Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca, I feel like an amateur. I'll never know how to use the smoked salts properly. And I'm sure I'd torch that grass-fed steak.

I look at the neatly ordered rows of olives and spices, the rainbow panache of fruits displayed like a color wheel. I have sudden pangs of self doubt. I begin to sweat. I think to myself, "I can't cook. I don't even know how to eat."

I watch a foodie inspect the Swiss chard. He speaks in soft, knowing tones with the produce boys. They look in my direction, pointing. Noticing the ketchup stain on my tie, they laugh, "Go back to ShopRite! I hear they're having a sale on Wonder Bread!"

I retreat to the frozen food aisle, where I get dark and cynical. In the checkout aisle I fantasize how I would exact my revenge on the entire establishment:

"Do you have a coupon for this?" asks the young man at checkout. His haircut is shaggy, trendy. His expressionless face, slack. "It's on sale this week."

I look around, behind me. He's the only one on duty. The time is now. I lean in, moving my face inches from his.

"What did you call me," looking at his name tag, "Frank?"

He perks, backs up a bit, "Um, nothing, I just..."

"Did you say what I think you just said?"

"Look man, alls I asked was..."

With military precision, I'm behind the register smothering his nose and mouth with a chloroform soaked rag. I guide his limp body downward as it slumps to the floor. I look around. No one has noticed. Stage one, clear.

Switching the aisle light to "closed", I grab the microphone to the store p.a. system. It gives a short, piercing, shrill of feedback. I hunker down, below the checkout lane, out of view. Squatting on my haunches, I straddle Frank's body. Stage two, clear.

Over the store p.a. system comes, "Attention Whole Food's shoppers. Today is our 'Slaughter Your Own Livestock' promotion. Hector in Meat will be assisting people with dogs, cats, horses and goats. It can get a bit messy back there, so please bring your own rubber boots and smocks. We'll provide the buckets and blades."

"Also, starting tomorrow our produce aisle will no longer exist. Instead we'll be offering the finest selection of cigarettes, 40 oz. malt liquor, and scratch off lottery tickets. Pick a winner."

"Please remember to try our deep fried, nacho-cheese flavored fried pork rinds. They're on sale this week from the Amish country, fresh from the farm and straight to you.

"Finally, if anyone needs Frank, he'll be at the ShopRite across town. He says they're having a great sale on Wonder Bread."

Switching off the p.a. I peek my head up. The store is a comedy of errors. Employees sprint across the floor. They smash into one another and fall down in a blind attempt to ascertain the situation. Foodies wander around the aisles confused, not knowing what to do. A stray shopping cart careens into a seasonal display of stacked winter gourds. They scatter everywhere.

Knowing the final moment has arrived, I check Frank. He sleeps like a baby. I leave the money for my items in the breast pocket of his green apron and slip out the front of the store to find my car. The door to my Hyundai station wagon is strategically left unlocked, keys waiting in the ignition. I peel out with screeching tires. Stage three, clear.

I pump my fist in the air. With David Lee Roth singing "Panama" over the car stereo, I laugh all the way home.


Even though I've changed my ways, a small part of that culinary barbarian remains. Something deep inside me still has no time for one who can't make at least a respectable attempt to drink a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I still have a somewhat jaded impression of those who can't deign themselves to ever eat fried foods—at least once in a while.

But I'm cool with foodies now. I think. My wife even says I've become one. She may be right. I have to try hard to keep it real, to always remember where I came from.

Tomorrow I'll have egg whites for breakfast. The Weight Watchers guidebook tells me that three egg whites equal only one point. By my old standards, that means I can eat a dozen, maybe two dozen, and still be well under my point quota for the day.

But what if I cook them with half a block of skim parmesan reggiano? I'd then have to add a few slices of high-fiber, one hundred percent whole-wheat bread. Freshly crushed black pepper corns. Salt. Ketchup. Tabasco. A good, strong cup of Café Bustelo with vanilla almond milk and honey would then just throw it all together nicely.

Oh, the possibilities.


Steve's Curry Rosemary Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

This is the perfect snack for dieters fighting those crispy-textured junk food cravings that can strike at any minute. Feeling the foodcrack binge come on, this recipe has saved me many times.

2 cups pumpkin seeds taken from a fresh, large pumpkin
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons mild yellow curry powder
2 teaspoons coarse unrefined sea salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Wash and strain seeds in a colander until they are clean and free of all excess pumpkin strands.

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Spread seeds evenly across a broad pan or cookie sheet.
Cook for 15 minutes, or until a deep, golden brown. Shake the pan every five minutes to make sure they roast evenly.

Serve hot, or let cool to save as a future snack.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Confessions of an Ex-Vegetarian

Warning: This blog contains text and images which may not be suitable for vegetarians, or most Americans.

I was a vegetarian for seven years. As a teenager I shunned meat and its insustainablity in reaction to what I considered to be my parents’ bourgeois lifestyle. Like most reactionaries, I took great pride in my heightened consciousness. I took advantage of each opportunity, no matter how small, to point out the perceived social and ecological benefits of my lifestyle choice. I mocked how others lived. When invited to someone’s house for a meal, I refused their unenlightened hospitality with the most enlightened of utterances: I’m a vegetarian.

I was an asshole.

All that changed about ten years ago. My first spring in Argentina, I was invited by Irving, the Peruvian office cleaner I had befriended at work, to spend mother’s day with him and his family. One November Sunday, I took the train heading to the airport and stepped off an hour later in the middle of nowhere. I was greeted by Irving's family and two bicycles, a small one and a slightly less small one. The family of five balanced on the smaller bike with acrobat agility. I teetered alone on the less small one. Local custom dictates that guests have the priveledge of riding unencumbered. They gave me a tour of the town. Finally, they led me to the outskirts where their shantytown began its great expanse to the horizon. We rode down the unpaved streets past the only kiosk, which sold milk and beer, to Irving’s small house, which he had built with the discarded satellite dish crate (he worked in the offices of a telecommunications company). As in most houses in this neighborhood, and the thousands that pepper Gran Buenos Aires, there was no running water. A neighbor had rigged electricity by pinching a cable that led to the town. Lights burned until the electric company disconnected them. But it wouldn’t take long to find another cable to pinch.

I was offered a cola and beer. I accepted with great curiousity. Lunch, I was told, would be ready in about an hour. Irving was preparing chicken, as they often do in his part of Peru. A hole is dug in the ground and lined with hot coals. Potatoes and a whole chicken are added and the hole is covered. An hour or so later, the whole lot is unearthed and served.

Chicken? I choked. Chicken. I could say I was a vegetarian and teach these people a thing or two about social conscientiousness. I could refuse the chicken and just eat the potatoes. (But hadn’t the potatoes been cooked with the chicken?) I could stick with my Coke and beer mixture and say I wasn’t hungry. Analyzing the options, I watched Irving gingerly pull lunch out of his front garden. It became increasingly clear: There was only one option.

The chicken was delicious.

And so, little by little, I reintroduced meat into my diet. The first years I limited myself to accepting meat when invited to dine at others’ homes. In my own kitchen, I kept a strict ban on meat which was only lifted at Thanksgiving.

When we came to Barcelona the ban was lifted for fish. Over the last year and a half I have lifted the ban again and again as I experimented with locally raised chicken and beef in the kitchen.

Spain is surely one of the worst countries in which to be a vegetarian. And if you’re vegan, you may as well not even come here. They do not consider ham to be meat, so it's impossible to know if the waiter’s interpretation of no tiene carne and your interpretation of no tiene carne are the same. Also, the Spanish have a very strange fetish for animal carcasses.

Most American tourists think the local markets are lovely until they reach the butcher’s section.

The butchers’ stalls often look like an animal side show from the exhibition Bodies. Small, firm rabbit carcasses laid out over cuts of meat, their floppy ears and cute little noses skinned and shiny pink. A suckling pig, creamy white and dull eyed looking over the counter, right at you. Many butchers sell cuts of suckling pig, with the head resting on top for decoration.

In most bars and local restaurant, a ham fetish is on full display. Pig legs – from the thigh to the hoof – often line the walls as the establishment’s only decor or, at the very least, sit upon the bar. Borges once commented that there was something almost sensuous about the way Spaniards treated their ham, comparing it to the pin-ups one might find in a mechanics' garage.

Most tourists find it appalling.


Even the fish here is often mildly offensive to most American visitors. The most common way to serve fish is whole. There was the case of the British-American professor who had to change places with someone at dinner because the person next to him had ordered a whole fish. It keeps looking at me.

The fishmonger will ask how you want it cleaned. Head and guts or just the guts. Just the guts, please.

Fish heads, fish heads.

The other day I served up my first attempt at whole sardines, minus the guts, grilled, on a bed of sautéed fennel and red onion sprinkled with lemon juice and fresh dill.

Rolly, polly fish heads.

By the end of the meal, both Andrés and I had each found a fish eye rolling around on our plate. Of the twelve eyes between us, only eleven could be accounted for. Eat them up, yum!

I have a come a long way since my days as a vegetarian. When I first started cooking with fish and chicken, I did so filled with disgust. I got used to fish quickly enough. But the raw chicken smelled. And it felt funny. I could only handle touching skinless breasts. I wouldn’t go near anything else.

I took a big step last Sunday, when I decided to prepare a whole roast chicken for the inauguration of our new oven. I went to the market on Saturday to purchase the chicken and when I opened the package on Sunday I was reminded of yet another curious thing about meat in Spain.

They sell you the whole chicken. Dead and plucked, but with everything else intact. Luckily, they had cut the claws off this one. But the head, the rump and internal organs were all in place.


I had no idea what to do with it. So I did what any of my 21st century American counterparts would do. I googled.

You can imagine how helpful American websites were. America, the land that has managed to sterilize even meat so that it is inoffensive to American sensibilities. There is no skin, certainly no feathers, no fat, or bone, or blood in those cuts of beef, chicken or pork so carefully placed in their plastic packaging. Meat in American bears no trace of the living animal it once was. If it did, people probably wouldn't eat it.

Cleaning a chicken can seem quite scary or put a knot of disgust into someone’s stomach if they have never cleaned store bought chicken before...Once you’re ready to begin cleaning your chicken be sure your sink is empty, then place the package of chicken in your sink. Start by cutting open the package of meat with either a knife or a pair of scissors. Reach your hand inside the cavity of the bird, pull out the bag containing the giblets and set aside.

That was no help. Though it did prove amusing to read the comments:

"If you put the chicken in the sink you will make your family sick."

"I rinse mine off with hose in the backyard. It’s tough in winter but I’d rather be cold than make my family sick.


Another link led me to a headline report in the Sun: I was about to tuck into my dinner and found a whole chicken head in there! I demanded compensation of course! The offending chicken head was apparently found in a package of frozen ribs and chicken wings.

Most websites that came up were warnings to anyone who might happen to stumble unawares into a Chinese butcher's. Make sure you have them remove the head and claws before wrapping it up.

But once I tucked into the job of chopping off the head and carefully cutting around its buttocks without cutting into it, I worked on pure instinct and assumption. This must be the esophagus. I yanked at it. That yellowish green sack must be bile or something. I have no idea what the yellow liquid that oozed out when I severed the neck was. I don’t know if I want to know.
I chopped and hacked and got inside that bird to clean it out. I marveled at how the organs were all connected. I identified the heart, lungs and liver. I looked for the gizzard. I couldn’t find it. I wondered how similar this chicken’s organ placement was to my own. I got my hands gooey, full of chicken body fluids, blood and fat.

It was glorious. I had officially become a carnivore.

And the chicken was delicious.

Grilled Sardines over Fennel and Red Onion

6 sardines
2 small red onions, halved and sliced thinly
1 fennel bulb, halved and sliced thinly
2 tablespoons, plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Lemon juice
Fresh dill
Salt and pepper

Season the sardines with salt and pepper to taste. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the fennel and red onions and sautée, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low and cover and cook 10-12 minutes, until fennel and onions become caramelized.

Empty fennel and red onion mixture into a small bowl. Heat remaining olive oil in the pan over medium-high heat. When just smoking, add sardines. Cook about three minutes on each side, until crisp.

Serve the sardines on a bed of the caramelized fennel and onion.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Followed Seth’s mashed potato recipe with the following additions.

Add a bay leaf three peeled cloves of garlic to the potatoes as they boil.

When they’ve finished, drain the water and remove the bay leaf, but leave the garlic and mash it together with the potatoes.

Roast Chicken with Potatoes, Carrots and Onion

Seth has already posted the definitive recipe for roast chicken. This is merely what I added:

1 whole onion, quartered
1/2 fennel bulb
1 lemon, quartered
4 potatoes
2 carrots
1 onion
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven. Fill the cavity of the bird with the onion, fennel and lemon.

In a bowl toss together the potatoes, carrots and onion with the olive oil and sage. Add salt and pepper to taste. Tuck the raw potato, carrot and onion mixture under the bird in the roasting pan. These will cook in the bird’s juices as it roasts.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Simply Cooking

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about craft. Cooking the simple meal. Writing the sharp, deliberate sentence. Craft is the way we work, a way of doing things.

I taught The Old Man and The Sea this summer. I used the book because Hemingway's ridiculously terse prose is a great way to introduce emerging writers to the idea of craft. The book urges conversation about the technical aspect of writing, the nuts and bolts. It's also a great way to get paid to talk about fishing. Double score.

Say what you want about Hemingway's life but when he wrote, he was tight. His sentences are lean and effective. Like a meal of olive oil, salt and bread, wine. Deceptively simple.

The novel's opening line has it all:

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

Like this one, great opening lines can be read as microcosms of the entire story to come. The drama and struggle all unfolds in concentric circles rippling outward from it.

In the line above, the reader gets the whole story in one shot, framed in one tiny window. Yet nothing is betrayed--the fight to come, the eventual loss, the lonely walk back up the beach, Santiago's dream of the lions in Africa. For those of us who are familiar with the book, I think these things are what lie hidden behind words like alone, skiff, Gulf Stream, and taking.

There is a brilliance to Old Man's opening line. Perhaps it is in the way Hem says it all, but still keeps things hidden. The essential mystery of the piece is still concealed. Like the faces of people in Rene Magritte's paintings, there is always an element of secrecy. That small kernel of truth buried at the core remains unknowable. His craft is in how he lays all of that down in so few words.

Like Hemingway, Magritte's work is full of concealed faces and objects.

But it all translates in the kitchen as well. Cooking and writing share so many natural commonalities. That's why we write this blog. That's maybe why many of you like to read it. You. Us. We know these things. It's our little inside joke. It's the reason why some of our favorite books are always cookbooks.

To me, great cooking and great writing share a common minimalism, an economy of resources. I like both best when they are unadorned, laid bare to their essential elements. Efficient. Penetrative, to the heart. Crisp and clean, like a blade. High and tight, like Derek Jeter's haircut.

But just like a great opening line of a novel, the first course of a meal can also be a microcosm. It might capture the essence of the entire meal to come. It might tantalize. If the art of seduction is the ability to both reveal and obscure at the same time, then let that be the first course.

Take my typical Friday night meal: fresh bread, roast chicken, green vegetables, potatoes, garlic, olive oil, water, red wine. I think it may be the perfect meal. It is also the simplest.
Chicken soup is the necessary first course for this meal. It needs to be. Every ingredient in the soup is something that will be served again, but in a different form later on: meat, vegetables, potatoes, spice, water, salt, warmth. When stared deeply into from above, the best chicken soups auger the meal to come. This soup must be eaten carefully.

For six years my wife has come up with hundreds of variations of these same simple ingredients every week to near perfection. The only variables are vegetables, maybe some fish here and there. Usually salmon. Maybe herring. But the main components of the meal are the same every time.

She calls me at work. She says: What should I make for dinner?

I go: It's cold outside. Can you make a chicken soup? Do we have time to make challah? Should I make garlic when I get home?

She says: What do you think?

Then: Love you. Bye.

I believe her. Hanging up, I sometimes pause, say a quick word of thanks. I have to remember to do that more. One word prayers are sometimes the most effective.

Before she hangs up I hear the shrill, hysterical voices of children in the background.

I think to myself: Please, just let there be soup.

She never has time to make the meal. Yet every week about an hour after sundown, the meal doesn't so much come out of the kitchen as emerge. It wafts out. I smell it coming before it arrives. (This happens even in early December, when the sun sets at 4:15 pm.)

If I ask her how she had the time to make such a meal, she is aloof and evasive.

I demand to know. I again ask how she did it.

She smiles and turns around, walks into the kitchen.

She's all: I don't know. I just somehow did.

Voice lilting as she speaks: I even had to hold the baby in one arm all day. He was crying. I cooked with the other. And did the bills.

Some people are secretive about their craft.

I stand amazed, but suspicious. She even went to the store for the wine? It simply can't be. I begin to snoop around the kitchen. I lift pot lids to sniff inside. I inspect things. From the corner of my eye I watch what she does with her hands.

She says: Get out.

Later on, the meal is a smashing success. She tells me not to drink all of the wine. Soon some reading, then bed.

Cooking with simplicity is less of an art and more of a mastery of the basic elements of what can satiate the body and soul. How to really make a meal. All great cooks have this. Some people just have an intuition of what ingredients will truly work in a dish or a meal. In the greatest ones, it's an innate alchemy. It's a knowledge of how to mix the best spices or how to invite the right guests. It's like Remy in Ratatouille.
The best cooks know how to make a meal out of the simplest ingredients.

When shopping at the market, the bread we buy should have no more than four or five ingredients. Anything more is asinine. As for preservatives, most of us live in areas where we have twenty-four hour, seven-day a week access to fresh produce, meat, or fish. Therefore to buy anything containing preservatives is ludicrous, offensive. There is no need whatsoever. The same goes for food dyes. Absolutely preposterous.


I think all of this may come from a desire of mine to have everything boiled down to its basic elements. To simplify. To find the grand unifying theory. Hashem Echad: God is One

I think I need that. I need to know that truth is always simple yet everywhere and unadorned. It's ubiquitous. It's as uncomplicated as a single line of prose.

In his poem The First Words, Seamus Heaney writes:

My only drink is meaning from the deep brain,
What the birds and the grass and the stones drink.
Let everything flow
Up to the four elements,
Up to water and Earth and fire and air.

Isn't that so tight? But I love that- the final dissolution of all things into their basic elements. It makes so much sense to me.

It's is as simple as the way a meal is reduced to bones on a plate and half-conversations lingering in the air. It's the way salt dissolves in warm water when stirred, giving itself over so utterly and completely. It's the way some things vanish into the air when they need to. Just like that.


Chilled Peach Soup

It's peach season now on the east coast. Baskets full of peaches line local farmer's market. Often, though, you buy a basket and some peaches are just too ripe. A soup is a great way to use the overripened, bruised, but still ridiculously sweet peaches. Seth originally published this recipe here.

6 large ripe peaches
2 cups water
1 cup apple juice
1/4 cup honey
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Mint sprigs

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut a small "X" through the bottom of each peach, then drop them into the water to blanch for 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer peaches to a bowl of ice water. When peaches are cooled, drain well then peel them, starting from the "X" at the bottom of each peach. Discard skin and pits and transfer peaches to a blender.

Add water, apple juice, honey, lime zest and juice, salt and pepper and blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, about 2 hours.

Pour soup into bowls or cups, garnish with mint and serve.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Potato, Light of my Life, Fire of my Loins

Potato, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my dinner. Po-ta-to: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Po. Ta. To.


Ladies and gentleman of the jury! I've endured a brutish affection for Potato for nearly four years. Before I succumbed to her alluring spell I rarely palpated her flesh or sunk my teeth into her ethereal hollows.

Recently, though, my affection (affliction) has threatened to take over my life.

In fall and winter, sometimes far into spring, I balance my Potato affection with a healthful Sweet Potato romp. Lately, though, my preferred Sweet, Jewel, has been conspicuously absent from the grocer's bin. Let me say, the other "Sweet" the Garnet, is a sham--impossible to cook, finicky, and dry. Jewel works: she cooks to a creamy texture. Garnet, for some reason, shams: she hardly ever achieves a suitable texture.

Perhaps it's a storage problem. Sweets are typically "cured" after harvesting, then stored for months. In On Food and Cooking, Harold Magee notes: "True to their subtropical heritage, sweet potatoes store best at 55-60 F. Chilling can contribute to 'hardcore' a condition in which the root center remains hard even when cooked."

I hope you don't refrigerate your Sweet, or your Potato.

Magee also notes: "At colder temperatures their [potatoes] metabolism shifts in a complicated way that results in the breakdown of some starch to sugars."

I hope, too, you don't buy Sweets or Potatoes from a grocer that refrigerates, lest he ruin the supple quality of your perfect little jewel.

Unfortunately, Someone's been ruining my Garnet. I've tested her from Asheville, North Carolina to Philadelphia: without a doubt, she refuses to cook perfectly.


Perfection is a courageous cook's goal, even if it's an unreasonable, unattainable goal. But unreasonable behavior might just be the touchstone of the best cooks; after all, the passion generated by the unreasonable pursuit of perfection usually inspires a fabulous meal.

I'm talking about the pursuit of perfect ingredients; an extreme attentiveness to cooking; and an even more extreme attentiveness to the food itself: its finicky needs, its demands.

I honestly feel in the bottom of my heart that this is a human being's most frankly honorable pursuit: the adamant pursuit of cooking perfection. It's impossible, of course. But the trying, the very trying, is what matters: you cook for others, after all, and your effort is your honor: the honor you feel and the deep, humble honor you bestow upon others.

All you have to do is try, really hard.


The potato's needs are often underestimated by the home cook. The obvious example is the typical mashed potato: watery and lacking true potato flavor, this dish often tastes acutely of butter and salt; one mere taste is an indication of the cook's lack of effort.

Perfect mashed potatoes require pain.

First, the potatoes (Yukon Gold or Russets are best) are simmered (not boiled!) whole.

The potatoes are then peeled after simmering, while still relatively hot, and mashed.

This is a simple, but lengthy and pain-staking method, sure to burn your fingers. And yet, the burn is a symbol of love--love for the potato; love for the family and friends you are cooking for. When you serve the perfect mashed potato your guests feel that love with each ethereal bit.

The courageous cook will hurt themselves simply to offer love. The courageous cook's mashed potatoes say: I adore you. I want to please you. I am Humbert, you are Lolita!

The lazy cook's mashed potatoes say: I hardly care about you. Please eat this butter and salt-laden dish so you might die quicker. I am Humbert, you are Charlotte, Lolita's pestering Mother.

The lovable geeks at Cook's Illustrated put it this way:

"Peeling and cutting before simmering increases the surface area of the potatoes, through which they lose soluble substances such as starch, proteins, and flavor compounds, to the cooking water. The greater surface area also enables lots of water molecules to bind with the potatoes' starch molecules. Combine these two effects and you've got bland, thin, watery mashed potatoes."

Perfect mashed potatoes should taste like potatoes, ethereal, earthy, merely accented by other flavors like butter and salt, not dominated by those flavors. This is the fey grace, the elusive shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the perfect mashed potato from the boring ineptitude of the careless, fatty, salty mushed spud.

Roasted potatoes offer a different texture, a new challenge. The perfect roast potato offers a crisp, crunchy outside and a moist, creamy flesh. Lazy potatoes merely tossed with oil and roasted in the oven rarely achieve this sort of perfection. Lazy potatoes are usually moist throughout, but offer no textual variation, and are often too soft, sometimes mushy.

Harold Magee offers the simple solution:

"If preheated to 130-140 degrees...[potatoes] develop a persistent firmness that survives prolonged final cooking. This can be valuable for...potatoes whose outer-regions are inevitably over-softened and may begin to disintegrate while the centers cook through."

Magee is talking specifically here of boiled potatoes for potato salad, but the same principle holds for roasted potatoes: pre-cooking, or par-boiling, potatoes ensures a crispy exterior.

The geeks at Cook's Illustrated agree:

"Parboiling...produced a potato closer to our idea..."

Unfortunately, the geeks go on to say: "...but preparation required considerable attention owing to the additional step."

This, from the same cookbook authors who urge you to brine your birds, who boast of having made 38 different versions of crème caramel to find "the absolute best version."


The perfect roast potato begins in a pot of cold water. You bring it to a slow simmer and you let it be for five minutes. The whole process takes less then ten minutes. You can clip your nails, read a bit, eat a snack, have a smoke--is this "considerable attention"? And oh, by the way, that extra pot: rinse it out; no big deal!


Can you spare ten minutes for perfection?

If not, please consider this: After having eaten your half-assed potatoes, when you're on the couch, watching TV, think about those ten minutes, think about all the ten minutes you might have wasted in your life, all the simple little moments you might have missed.

I like how George Saunders describes it in his essay "Buddha Boy":

"You know the feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?"

I read this and think solely of my wife, the insane love I feel for her, and the incredible gap between my substantial feelings and my daily expression of those feelings.

Why the gap?

I get tired. I feel unwell. She annoys me. She shows up late. I show up late. It's hot. It's cold.

There's always something.

Lucky, for me, I cook, we cook.

Dinner saves me, each night, from regret.

I put my effort, my heart into each meal. With love, I try to close the gap. I simmer my potatoes; I peel them while they're hot. This is heroism, to me. The goal, the simple goal, is my wife's pleasure.

I am thinking of steam and angels, the secret of persistent firmness, prophetic mashers, the refuge of cooking. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Potato.

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

This recipe is adapted from Cook's Illustrated's recipe, in The New Best Recipe. My recipe, I think, highlights the potato's flavor more than the Cook's Illustrated recipe; it's more healthful too, and ultimately more satisfying: it leaves one feeling light, not heavy, ready for a little post-dinner dalliance. I call for peeling the potatoes by hand, but a food mill or ricer works wonderfully well in this recipe, producing the most light, airy potatoes imaginable. Finally, make sure you add the oil BEFORE the coconut milk...I won't explain why.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup coconut milk (full-fat is best)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 25-35 minutes. Drain. Reserve pot for mashing.

Meanwhile, warm the coconut milk in a medium saucepan over low heat. Season the coconut milk with sea salt, and black pepper to taste.

While still warm, cut each potato in half, then peel the skin with fingers or a small paring knife. (Alternately, and much better, place the potatoes, skin-on, into a ricer or food mill.) Drop the peeled potatoes back into the pot you used for boiling.

Gently mash the potatoes with a potato masher. Add olive oil. Add the warmed coconut milk, and gently season with additional salt and pepper, adjusting seasonings to taste.


Roasted Red Potatoes with Olive Oil & Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs and lemon zest brighten the potatoes, as they intensify the flavor of the olive oil.

1 ½ lb small red new potatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons fresh herbs—basil, thyme, and/or marjoram
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Sea Salt, fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Cover potatoes with salted cold water by 1 inch in a 6-quart pot, then simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.

Slice potatoes in half. Toss potatoes with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a few pinches salt in a bowl. Spread potatoes in 1 layer in a large roasting pan, skin side down, and roast in middle of oven, turning once, until golden, about 20-25 minutes.

Toss with remaining tablespoon olive oil, herbs, sea salt, lemon zest, and fresh pepper to taste.

Serve immediately.