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Archive for July, 2009

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Julia Child’s kitchen, now enshrined in the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC http://www.flickr.com/photos/krossbow/ / CC BY 2.0

The man who brought us The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food has tackled the next logical step in the chain:  the loss of home cooking among Americans, and its effect on us. This article in the New York Times Magazine is long, but well worth your time. For those of you without time or who would like a preview, I sum up:

Nowadays, Pollan says, Americans would rather watch people cook on television than cook for themselves. It wasn’t always this way. Pollan begins with his memories of Julia Child, a woman who specialized in making cooking fun, tactile, and accessible:

“When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions,” she declares, clearly a tad nervous at the prospect, and then gives the big pancake a flip. On the way down, half of it catches the lip of the pan and splats onto the stovetop. Undaunted, Julia scoops the thing up and roughly patches the pancake back together, explaining: “When I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have. You can always pick it up.” And then, looking right through the camera as if taking us into her confidence, she utters the line that did so much to lift the fear of failure from my mother and her contemporaries: “If you’re alone in the kitchen, WHOOOO” — the pronoun is sung — “is going to see?” For a generation of women eager to transcend their mothers’ recipe box (and perhaps, too, their mothers’ social standing), Julia’s little kitchen catastrophe was a liberation and a lesson: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!”

He goes on to chronicle the loss of home cooking through the marketing efforts of Big Food and the loss of time at home brought on by Americans working ever more hours. At the same time, the roster of celebrity chefs on Food Network has exploded. Would we really rather sit in front of the TV for 30 minutes or an hour watching someone cook while eating processed food than actually stand in a kitchen for the exact same time actually cooking a delicious, fresh meal?

Now, he says, we’ve been so trained on boxed cake mixes and instant rice packets that we’ve all but forgotten how to cook from scratch. And our health has thereby suffered, he says. When we don’t have to bake chips, cakes, cookies, and fried foods from scratch, foods that were formerly for special occasions, we eat more of them. LOTS more of them.

If you believe in the principles of community supported agriculture, gardening, organic food, and reforming the industrial agricultural system that is sickening both our planet and us, then cooking at home is an essential part of the game plan, he says.

The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.

But if this is a dream you find appealing, you might not want to call Harry Balzer right away to discuss it.

“Not going to happen,” he told me. “Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.

Well, me, for one. I’m not going to take this sitting down. I’m only a tiny part of the solution, though. If you are a cook, keep your eyes open for people you know who might be interested in learning to cook. Invite them over for dinner one night, and offer to let them help you (and let you teach them) in return for the meal. Help rebuild the culture of cooking and the community of shared meals around you.

Once people taste the products of home cooking — freshly baked biscuits, homemade cake, simply but deliciously seasoned vegetables (you’d be amazed what a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil can do for steamed veggies) — they may finally realize what they’ve been missing in flavor and taste. People who grew up in homes without cooking may have no idea that a homemade cookie  or loaf of bread tastes radically better than one from a box or a bag. I even have a friend who had no idea that bread could be made at home, at was utterly amazed to see me doing it! And once they see that you can do it and they can do it, they may gain both the desire and motivation to enter the brave new world at home.

America is a can-do nation. That shouldn’t stop at the kitchen door. So get out there, team, and cook!

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Dear readers — I’m going out of town this weekend, but wanted to share this great article on black currants featured in the New York Times this week. Fascinating stuff! They were probably originally banned in the States because of the currant plants’ role in the life cycles of rusts, which are fascinating fungi with bizarre, multi-host life cycles. Personally, I love the tast of currants, cultivated or wild (and wild currants are quite abundant in the Rockies if you can get to them before the birds! I’ll show you what they look like another time.)

I’ll be back next week with more home cooking tips. Happy weekend!

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You don’t have to cook seven nights a week to be a good home cook. Try starting with one home-cooked meal a week. If you’re already cooking one night a week at home, try increasing that to two. Unless you don’t have a full-time job, seven nights a week is probably unrealistic. Even I only cook at home about 3-4 nights a week. The other nights I eat my own leftovers, homemade frozen dinners, eat out, or very occasionally pull out a commercially prepared frozen dinner or pizza.

Do what you can. If you fall back into old habits; that’s OK! It’s to be expected. Just get back on that horse. Like any major habit change, take it slowly and expect setbacks. But be persistent.

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I wouldn’t have believed this if you had told me it was possible . . . but someone has produced photographic proof: you can bake chocolate chip cookies on the dashboard of your car. Why let all that wonderful solar energy go to waste cracking your vinyl and melting VHS tapes when you can use it to make nature’s most perfect food?

Downside: Salmonella risk. As I told a friend, that 180 degrees — she is not boiling. That wouldn’t stop me, though. I won’t eat sushi for fear of parasites (college parasitology being a particularly scarring class) but I’ll eat raw cookie dough like it’s going out of style. One day, I figure, it will catch up with me. But until that day, I’m going to enjoy myself. Smokers, I believe, say the same thing. : )

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Late June 2009 046

I didn’t manage to get my hands on my own kitchen scale until this past Christmas. But oh, how nice it is to have. For about $20, you can have a gadget that will help you extend your leftovers, make recipes more accurately, and even serve as a postal scale.

One of the most important things you can do to become a good cook is follow recipes carefully. That means measuring and timing correctly. Sometimes, though, measuring can be tricky. I know many people are tempted to just guess, and sometimes you can get away with it. But people often wonder how my cooking comes out consistently so well, and there’s one thing that’s probably responsible for 75% of my consistency and quality: follow the recipe. Don’t guess. (The other 25% is I fail out of view. Kitchen disasters and bad recipes are part of cooking, so I pre-test recipes before I serve them to guests. : ) )

How many times have you come across a recipe that asks for 8 0z. pasta? How do you tell accurately how much 8 oz. pasta is? The kitchen scale is how. What about when you need a half-bag of frozen peas, but you’ve already used some of the peas out of the bag? Well, you know how much was in the bag originally. You can divide that number by two and then weigh it out. Miraculous.

True pastry chefs don’t even use cups and spoons to measure their ingredients because the density and wetness of ingredients can vary. Should you get your hands on a recipe for something whose ingredients are only measured in weights, this is what you need.

The most important thing to know about using a kitchen scale is what “tare” or “taring” is. That basically means you zero out the scale. Sometimes, when you’re measuring pasta, lentils, etc., you can’t just put them directly on the scale. In those cases, put a small plastic container (tupperware works great — ceramic bowls do not) on the scale, then hold down the “on” button or “tare” button. That will zero your scale with the bowl on it and you can now measure your little heart out.

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A serious chef at work frying spicy corn fritters in the kitchen. Note the cooking wine and safety glasses.

A serious chef at work frying spicy corn fritters. Note the cooking wine and safety glasses. Photos courtesy Molly Malone.

Spicy Corn Fritters: Difficulty — Medium. Time: About an hour start to finish. Serves: 16 fritters; i.e. 5 30-year old females or 2 adolescent boys.

I often joke that I have two obscure superpowers:

  1. I can tell by looking only at the exterior, to within five years, how old a house is.
  2. I can look at a recipe I’ve never made before and know whether it will be good.

I have been wrong before on both, believe me. But usually I do pretty well. That was the way with the first time I saw this recipe two years ago: I just knew. Coriander, cumin and cilantro are mixed into a batter that enfolds fresh corn and is then pan-fried in oil and served with a sweet vinegar dipping sauce. You will not believe how easy and tasty this is. The dipping sauce can be used for a variety of other appetizers and keeps practically forever in the fridge.

You will also not believe how incredibly good fresh fried food is either. Crispy, savory, hot . . . heaven. And it’s not going to kill you if you only eat it every so often. We fry in oil and not lard, nowadays, which is much healthier. And when fresh corn is on sale for 3 ears for a dollar down at King Soopers, or perhaps even better at the local farmers’ market . . . I invited my friends Molly and Nathan over for fritters on Thursday night, and we went to town on them.

spicy_corn_fritters

The directions are illustrated and pretty thorough so I’ll let them speak for themselves, with the exception of adding you will want a good pair of tongs for flipping these things when they are in the oil. Using a big flipper is liable to cause splashing of extremely hot oil.

My only word of caution: Wear an apron and safety goggles if at all possible. Hot oil spatters and you do not want your iris to be the recipient.

When you’re done, don’t pour the oil down the drain. Once it’s cold, pour it into an old oil bottle using a funnel and save it to recycle or throw away.


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