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Food Writing: A Rant

June 26, 2011 2 comments

I love food writing. I like doing it, but I also like reading it. I’m always good for a nice meta discussion, and food writing combines so many things I enjoy.

So every year, one of the things I always pick up is Holly Hughe’s “Best Food Writing [year].” And every year I, well, devour it. As I did yesterday.

It has the elements I like – discussions of food and of food history. There’s an essay on milk toast with a bonus one for BREAD AND MILK, which is ubiquitous throughout the Louisa May Alcott books, as well as other American domestic/girls’ novels of the time period, but which they NEVER describe because it would be like us describing french toast. For the record, bread and milk is chunks of break soaked in warm milk, sometimes sugared. Like breakfast cereal but much, much soggier. And warmer. And less appetizing.

They also discuss cooks and restaurants and food trends and home cooking vs. restaurant cooking, and there are often recipes. It’s all fascinating to me.

It’s also incredibly marginalizing and frustrating to me. Essay after essay about pork and ham and seafood and meat/milk combinations – and half of them written by or ABOUT Jews, too. Jews PROUD of tossing away their heritage, or so it seems. Or proud of never having had it in the first place. That’s their right and they can believe as they will, but it makes it no less frustrating to me. (Even when I didn’t keep kosher, even when I cooked, ate, enjoyed all those things, I still kinda felt it was wrong. But no one else needs to feel that way.)

Essay after essay about this culture and that culture – Southern,. Indian, California – written by people who were part of those cultures, and the only one vaguely Jewish was about a non-kosher, open-on-Shabbos appetizing store (and not one hint that maybe that might be a problem, mostly because this article was NOT written by anyone Jewish (at least if one can go by last names) and so she wouldn’t realize it. Because, again, the Jewish writers? Running as far from Judaism/kashrut as possible. As if it were something to hide, to be ashamed of.

I’m actually wrong. Jonathan Safran Foer has an essay – about how he’s raising his sons to be vegetarian, and how he was influenced by his grandmother, who wouldn’t eat pork even though she was starving, because if you don’t believe in something, what’s the point? Yay.

That’s the marginalization. And I do understand – I’m a minority of a minority. Why should there be essays about our cuisine, which only consists, really, of taking local cuisines and adapting it to our needs and rules? That there are French and Italian and Mexican and Chinese and Indian and fast food and bar food restaurants that manage to serve delicious (and once in a while, authentic) food despite having to leave out or change vital ingredients? That kosher supermarkets are as stocked with nori and shoyu and exotic spice blends as any other?

Mostly, I suppose, because the assumption is that people AREN’T interested. Also, I suspect, because until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of kosher food writing. Still isn’t, compared to the mainstream, which makes sense. But right now, in newstands in my neighborhood, four or five magazines dedicated to that subject – magazines written for Jewish home cooks that revolve around OUR holidays and needs, but are attempting to break free from kugels and gefilte fish, with glossy photos and step by step recipes. Not many essays, though, except about keeping kosher in Buenos Aires. Nothing that would attract Ms. Hughes’ attention.

So I get that.

The other part, the frustration? Is no one’s fault, but it’s still there. The recipes. I don’t use a lot of recipes when I cook. I don’t like measuring, I don’t like cooking the same thing all the time. I like improvising, tossing things in, seeing what happens. This is not true, because while I don’t use measuring cups or spoons when I do most of my cooking, I still have a reasonable idea the proportions of stuff to use and one pot of meatball soup tastes pretty much like the next.

Anyway, I like READING recipes, because I get ideas from them and because they’re pornography for me. I can taste the food as I go down the list of ingredients and techniques. At least, most of the time. Reading The French Laundry Cookbook, for example, failed. I could not taste any of that food (and I knew I never would, either.)

But I have a decent palate and I ate a fair amount of foods I won’t eat anymore before I started keeping kosher. So I can taste the recipes. And sometimes I think about making them.

And that’s when it gets frustrating. Two quarts of chicken stock and one cup of heavy cream. A ham bone. Six slices of bacon, fried crisp. Dried shrimp. Half a cup of Parmigianno cheese. Sometimes it’s the ingredients when they can’t be left out or substituted for. Sometimes it’s the sheer amount, so a subsitute would make an obvious difference. Sometimes it’s that there would be too many substitutions so I’d end up making an entirely different dish. Whatever – I think the only recipe I can actually make in the latest book is a trout with cilantro-mint chutney. Which sounds entirely delicious, btw. Oh, and I can make the bread and milk AND the milk toast, but that would be a waste of both bread and milk.

It’s seeing them all at once that makes it overwhelming, I think.

Anyway, this has been a rant and thank you for reading.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Meatball Soup

June 20, 2011 Leave a comment

You’ve had a bad day at work. You’re exhausted. And you want comfort food – a nice, meaty soup. Except the only meat in your freezer is ground beef and you live a half-hour’s drive away from the nearest source of kosher meat and you don’t want to move your car anyway because it’s parked perfectly for alternate side.

You do have the ground beef. And carrots, onions and celery for a mirepoix. Even a very large can of crushed tomatoes. And other staples. And it comes to you. Meatball soup. Why not?

Open the can of tomatoes, and pour them into a soup pot with a can of water. Put over high heat. Chop a large onion, or two small ones, and several stalks of celery. Peel the entire package of carrots and slice into coins as thin as you can. Dump that into the pot. Add a lot of garlic and some pepper, and oregano and a bay leaf or three. Add a shot of vinegar, too, or some wine. Let it cook.

You need a pound of ground beef. Lean is best, but use what you have. Add the oregano and the garlic and the pepper, and a handful of matzo meal (or bread crumbs or corn flake crumbs or ground up panko. Even flour if that’s what you have.) And an egg. Mix it with your hands. Roll into tiny – less than one inch – meatballs and drop into the boiling soup. Turn it down to a simmer and let it go. If you do it right, it can take less than a half hour to prep, and it’s ready when everything is cooked – half hour or so.

You can use ground turkey or chicken, but add a little oil to the meatballs. You can leave out the meat, add potatoes or pasta and you have a vegetable soup. Add thyme to the veg soup, and then add fish at the last minute and you have Manhattan fish chowder. Very versatile.

And it’s simmering on my stove right now.

Categories: cooking

Chicken Stir Fry

June 1, 2011 1 comment

Tonight’s dinner was a chicken stir fry. Now, I don’t pretend my stirfries are authentic. They’re not. But they smell of garlic and ginger and scallions, and they taste good, so we’re happy.

The essence of a stirfry is the mise en place because it all goes very quickly once you get the heat on, and you want the heat ON. You don’t need a wok – even my stove with the extra large burner won’t get it hot enough and it’s the wrong shape anyway. You need as big a frying pan as you have – a nice heavy one if you have it, with high sloping sides. You don’t need non-stick, either. But you want that burner high and you will not turn it down.

Get everything assembled first – the soy sauce, some kind you like. Sesame oil. Canola oil. Red pepper flakes. I like spice. Garlic, ginger and scallions. A vegetable, and a protein. Tonight, the vegetable was carrot and the protein was chicken thighs. Can be beef, can be turkey, can be tofu. Can be green beans or sugar snap peas. Can be mushrooms. But they all MUST be fresh. I believe in frozen veggies, but not for stir-fries.

Prepare the garlic, ginger and scallions. Peel an inch of fresh ginger with a spoon. Grate it on a microplane, or mince it finely with a knife. Whack a couple cloves of garlic with a knife or a bowl or a pastry board cleaner. Peel them, and grate them or mince them. Do not press them. If you really want, chop them up with a hand blender or a food chopper on pulse until they’re small but still recognizable. I like my knife – it’s the easiest to clean. In fact, for this, a wipe will do. Slice four or so scallions and cut them, any size you want so long as they’re all about the same size, at an angle. White and green. It’s all good. Put these all in the same bowl.

Peel four or five carrots. Cut them very finely on an angle. Thin is best. Knife is best. Trust me.

Cut the chicken thighs into strips or cubes. I did strips this time.

Get that pan hot. Crank it up. Pour on about a tablespoon of canola oil. Throw in a pinch of red pepper flakes – more if you like. Then toss in the chicken. Toss that around with whatever will survive the heat – a silicon spatula or a wooden spoon, by preference. Love silicon spatulas, by the way. I find them indispensable for white sauce.

When that’s looking more or less cooked, add the carrots. Toss them around. You don’t want them to burn, which is why everything is ready NOW. And then throw in the garlic scallions ginger. Yes, traditionally you add them first, but then they burn. Add them next to last. Really. And then add the sauces. You want about two tablespoons of soy and maybe a teaspoon of oil. Toss it all around.

You’ll notice that it doesn’t use cornstarch. You don’t need it for this. You’re not making a lot of sauce. You’re flavoring the protein and veg.

It will start to smell glorious. That means it’s done. Serve it over rice. I use brown basmati I make in a rice cooker because this way I can go away and not worry about it. I love my rice cooker a lot, and all I use it for is rice and oatmeal.

If you don’t like any of these ingredients, substitute or leave out. Soy can be replaced by salt, sesame oil and red pepper flakes by black pepper. Leave out the ginger or the garlic or even the scallions, or use onions. It’s your food. You don’t want it to taste bad or kill you. But don’t use garlic powder, onion powder or powdered ginger. Fresh or not at all. Unless you have no choice. Just don’t tell me.

Categories: cooking