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The Long Arm of the Coconut Macaroon

Friday, August 27th, 2010

This is the story of two blogs and a cookie. 

A couple of weeks ago fellow blogger Jane reposted a piece she wrote last winter about a Random Act of Kindness.  The second time around WordPress picked it up and featured it, driving huge numbers of readers to Jane’s site and leaving their own RAOK stories.  It was really inspiring.

I wanted desperately to jump on this do-gooder bandwagon, but the deck seemed stacked against me.  I simply couldn’t find the right opportunity to inject my goodness into the world.  I saw an old woman walking home from the grocery store on an especially hot day and offered her a ride.  She gave me the sign of the cross and said, “Bless you” in heavily accented English, but turned me down.  I rarely go through drive-thru windows where I might pay for someone’s order.  I didn’t see elderly people needing help crossing the street.  I was striking out left and right.  I decided to stop obsessing.

Then last week my sister Anne wrote an impassioned post about how a simple coconut macaroon helped her through an especially difficult year of graduate school.  I was moved by her post and decided that I needed to make my own batch of macaroons.  Later that day I got an e-mail from Anne which was a forwarded message from my 90-year-old grandfather.  A reader of her blog, he thought her macaroons sounded delicious and asked for the recipe.  Having made them myself I recognized that this was slightly more complicated than your average cookie recipe and potentially out of the culinary reach of a man who has probably never cooked anything more complicated than a bowl of oatmeal.

And then it hit me!

The recipe made nearly 30 cookies.  GAP is not a coconut lover and had no interest in the macaroons.  I have no business eating 30 cookies by myself.  And I could only in good conscience allow IEP (who, it turns out, is a coconut lover) to eat little bites here and there.  The answer?  A care package.

I transferred several macaroons to a Ziplock bag, wrote an accompanying note, and went to the UPS Store.  A couple of days later a truck pulled up in front of Granddaddy’s house and handed him a box that he was not at all expecting. 

That evening I received an e-mail from my grandfather which said, in part, “I couldn’t imagine what it could be as it wasn’t Xmas or my birthday and I hadn’t ordered anything from Amazon.” (As an aside, I just love that my 90-year-old grandfather e-mails and shops online.) “Imagine my surprise to open it and find it was a macaroon package from my oldest grandchild.  I had one for dessert and it was delicious.  In fact I had to make a big decision whether to eat another or not – so they would last a little longer.  Thank you so much.  I think this is the nicest ‘unexpected’ present I have ever received.”

It wasn’t anonymous.  It wasn’t for a stranger.  It wasn’t even entirely random.  But I think it captured the spirit of the little movement that Jane started.  Thanks, Jane, for providing me with such inspiration.  And thanks, Anne, for speaking directly to my sweet tooth.  You were both unwitting accomplices in making an old man very happy.

The Little Things: The Perfect Meal

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

On Friday I posted a little list of things we can do (actually do) to improve ourselves and the world around us.  It felt good to dedicate a post to small tangible things, after focusing for more than six months on abstract and sometimes complicated thoughts.  Over the weekend I thought (ironic, I realize) more about some of the small and simple things in life and this week I’m dedicating my posts to the topic of little things that make a big difference. 

We didn’t have plans for Friday night.  It had been a long and draining week for me and I wasn’t really up for cooking dinner.  GAP and I had the pizza vs. leftovers debate and opted for leftovers.  This was really a decision that we backed into; he’d eaten a big lunch and wasn’t very hungry and I wasn’t especially in the mood for pizza.  It turned out to be the best accidental decision of my week. 

Recently my favorite food blogger (Deb at Smitten Kitchen) posted this recipe for scalloped tomatoes.  It’s the kind of dish I would have reluctantly choked down at my mother’s insistence as a child.  But as an adult it is some kind of magic to me.  The way the tomatoes break down in the pan.  The way they sweeten and caramelize with heat.  The way the crusty bread soaks up their juices and becomes something completely new.  And the way the whole affair becomes the ideal platform for a poached egg, as Deb suggests.    

Lately I’ve been making about a batch of this delicious mess each week.  I portion it out into plastic containers and take it to work for lunch.  Or, as was the case on Friday, I spoon it into a bowl and curl up on the couch with it.  It is not pretty, but for me it is perfect.  In this world of garnishes and flair and finishing touches (both culinary and otherwise) I love this meal which doesn’t try to be anything it’s not.  It doesn’t call for a sprig of fresh basil on each serving.  Nor does it request to be baked in individual dishes for a lovelier presentation (transferring giant scoops from baking dish to plate or bowl does nothing for the aesthetics of this dish).  It is cheap and easy to make – not the kind of thing you’d serve to company, to be sure.  If it were served to you in a restaurant you might send it back on looks alone.  But when the fork hits your mouth you sort of hunker down in your seat and hunch protectively over your food.

Simply put, this dish makes me happy.  Really, really happy.  And on Friday night I actually identified with it in some way.  I sat at home when many adults were out.  My makeup was smudged and my energy flagged.  I felt crumpled and bruised.  Yet when I looked down at my simple supper I was comforted.  Perhaps this is a big metaphor to ask of a leftover bowl of scalloped tomatoes.  But I liked knowing that something so utterly lacking in pretense could pack such a delicious punch.  I will not start this week with smudged makeup or mussed up hair.  Nevertheless, it’s comforting to think that even if I did that might still be okay.

R&D Darlings

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

For the past few weeks I’ve spent my Saturday mornings curled up watching the prior evening’s episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably heard about it:  Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and nutrition activist, has taken on Huntington, WV as the starting point for the food revolution he hopes to start in America.  Through PR events, publicity stunts, and old fashioned cooking he is endeavoring to elicit a change in the way Huntington’s citizens make decisions about food.

It’s a compelling challenge, and a worthy one, I believe.  Without trifling with silly things like statistics, we all know that the American diet is killing our country, and is beginning to drag the rest of the world down with us as they adopt our dietary habits.  And yet we continue to become heavier and more diseased due to our food choices, despite a base level of knowledge that French fries and soda are unhealthy. 

This is a complex problem, the solution to which cannot begin to be devised in a single blog post.  There are social, financial, industrial, educational, socio-economic, political, and cultural forces at play, all of which intermingle in nuanced and unknown ways.  But there is one component of that cocktail that has been flitting about in my head recently. 

The other day I came across this article about McDonald’s head chef.  Yes, McDonald’s has a head chef.  He is paid to apply his vast culinary knowledge to the fast food machine, finding inspiration in food he’d actually be proud to prepare and commoditizing it into food that Americans actually want to eat.  Reading that article then made me think of this post by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wherein he analyzes the smoke and mirrors that are The Cheesecake Factory.

These articles both point to something that is often overlooked in the battle against the bulge.  Every day vast corporations employing teams of highly trained specialists spend astronomical amounts of money creating, testing, and modifying their menu offerings to accomplish two things: 1) making them profitable, and 2) making them irresistible.  When you walk into a chain restaurant you sit down to a menu that exists for the sole purpose of making your mouth water.  And this, my friends, makes healthy living quite tricky.

An increasing number of chains have begun to provide some transparency around the nutritional make-up of their menus.  The Cheesecake Factory is not among them.  Open their menu and you are facing a nutritional black box.  You know precious little about the health ramifications of the decision you’re about to make.  What you know a lot about, though, are the pleasure ramifications.  Absent any other data you are destined to make an ill-informed, if well-intentioned, decision.  Concern over any nutritional missteps can be assuaged by the knowledge that this is just one meal.  And that is where the train runs off the tracks.

A failure to extrapolate the implications of a single meal decision out over a lifetime of eating is what takes a simple, harmless indulgence and transforms it into diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and various cancers.  Eating pizza for supper tonight is not a crisis.  Even eating too much pizza for supper tonight is not a crisis.  But eating pizza for supper several nights a week is a categorically different situation.  The thing is, we all know this.  But there are many compelling reasons to make poor choices.  They are cheap, convenient, and utterly delicious. 

But here’s my favorite factor at play in this dark underworld of food R&D.  We have the power of the purse.  Restaurant corporations are Goliath, but we are David.  So far, we have played into their hands, padding both our bottoms and their bottom lines.  But armed with knowledge we become wise to their wiles.  For me there is something empowering about the awareness that I’ve been duped.  Specifically, I get a little bit mad.  And when I get a little bit mad it makes me want to get a little bit even.  I am one woman.  I understand that eating my salad at home instead of in a restaurant booth isn’t going to change the system.  But if a few million of us decided to try our hands at some good natured revenge it might add up to something. 

I’m sure this is all quite naïve.  But I can’t help but find myself saddened by the knowledge that big companies are playing to our evolutionary and cultural weaknesses and spinning it as family, fraternity, and fun.  We are not stupid.  And I think we should stand up and say so.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #4

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

My vegetarian experiment concluded a couple of weeks ago, but I have a couple of straggler recipes that I wanted to post.  You can link to the quinoa recipe by clicking on the name.  Hope you enjoy these!

Corn and Black Bean Quinoa Salad
Source
: Gimme Some Oven
Difficulty
: Easy.  Just your basic chopping and stirring.
Labor: Low.  This came together in about 20 minutes with very little fuss.
Overall Results:  Very good.  I increased all the veggies.  I used a whole bell pepper, 4 or 5 scallions, ½ cup cilantrio, and two ears of corn.  I stuck with the single can of beans called for.  The veggies didn’t overpower the grain at all, so I’ll make it this way again.  I also thought the dressing needed a little sweetening, so I added a tablespoon or so of honey.  This kept well for 4 or 5 days in the fridge. 

Black Bean Soup
Source: My own head
Difficulty: Super Easy.  If you can slice a shallot and open two cans, you’re all set.
Labor: Low
Overall Results:  I was really happy with this.  I had some leftover beans and broth and decided not to waste them for a change.  I didn’t have any at the time, but this would be great served with a dollop of sour cream on top. 

Ingredients
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 Tbs vegetable oil
½ tsp cumin
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
Salt and pepper
Sour cream and cilantro (optional)

Directions

  1. Sauté shallots in vegetable oil over medium high heat until translucent, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add beans and cumin and continue to sauté one minute more.  Add broth and bring to a simmer. 
  3. Transfer to a blender or food processor (I used an immersion blender which worked great) and puree until smooth.  Return to pot and simmer until soup has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Serve with sour cream and chopped cilantro on top.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #3

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Confession time.  My energy for new recipes waned in the final days of my vegetarian experiment.  Here’s the thing about new reipces: they are work.  Not that the dish itself is that much more work.  It’s the learning curve.  There’s something about cooking something for the first time that is more draining than each subsequent preparation.  Pre-Veggie Month, I tried to make one new thing each week.  I didn’t always succeed, but I tried.  Anyway, I kicked this month off with a bang – many new recipes.  Things slowed down though and I’ve shot from the hip a little bit during the last couple of weeks.  Today I come to you with only two recipes, both of which I made up, but both of which were pretty good. 

Orichiette with Goat Cheese Sauce
Source: My own head
Difficulty: Easy.  Nothing major here.  I made this up as I went along one evening.
Labor: Low.  The only real work is the chopping, which doesn’t take much time. 
Overall Results:  For it being an experiment, I was really pleased with the way this turned out.  Light but flavorful.  The sauce was creamy without being heavy, and the veggies perked it up quite a bit.  The only drawback was that it was a little dry when reheated.  This one is best the first time around.

Ingredients
½ lb orichiette pasta (could also use small or medium shells, penne, etc)
1 Tbs olive oil and unsalted butter
½ cup yellow onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ red bell pepper, small dice
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
4 oz. bleu cheese crumbles
6 scallions, white and light green parts, coarsely chopped

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook pasta until al dente, according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile in a large skillet over medium high heat, melt the butter and olive oil.  Add the onion, garlic and bell pepper and sauté until translucent – about 5 minutes.  Add the broth and wine and simmer until reduced by half – 6 or 7 minutes.  Stir in goat cheese crumbles and mix until cheese has melted throughout the sauce.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 
  3. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat.  Top each serving with a sprinkling of the chopped scallions.

 

Gnocchi with Greens and Mushrooms
Source: Inspired by a meal I had in a restaurant recently
Difficulty: Easy.  Making gnocchi from scratch is not actually all that hard.  It’s actually kind of fun; you should try it sometime.  Here, though, I use the packaged stuff which isn’t quite as fluffy as homemade, but much less work.
Labor: Low.  Very similar in method to the recipe above. 
Overall Results: I think this could have benefitted from some fresh herbs – dill maybe? – but overall I was really happy with it.  I ate it while watching the sneak preview of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC and felt quite good about myself in the face of so much pizza…  Also, it reheated quite nicely.

Ingredients
1, 16-oz package gnocchi (on pasta aisle)
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
½ lb shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
¼ lb Brussels sprouts, base cut off and outer leaves discarded
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper
½ cup roasted red peppers, finely chopped
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Drop in gnocchi and cook according to package directions.  Drain, cover, and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile in a large skillet over medium high heat sauté the shallots until slightly softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté until most liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes more. 
  3. While the shallots and mushrooms are cooking peel the inner leaves off of each Brussels sprout.  At some point you’ll get close enough to the heart that no more leaves will peel away.  Discard the hearts.  Add the Brussels sprouts leaves to the shallot and mushroom mixture and sauté 1 to 2 minutes more. 
  4. Add the wine and broth, bring to a simmer and cook until reduced by half.  Season with salt and pepper according to taste.  Stir in chopped roasted red peppers.  Add gnocchi to sauce and stir to combine.  Top each serving with a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese.    

Hot Cross Buns

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, I am newly obsessed with The Pioneer Woman’s blog.  Yesterday when I pulled up her site I was delighted to see that her latest recipe was for Hot Cross Buns.  My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that had been served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  They too didn’t measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.

Vegetarian Update: The New Normal

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

I did it.

Well, almost.  Provided I make it through today without caving, then I can say I did it.  But given that I’ve made it this far I think I can count on myself to complete the day without wrecking my vegetarian experiment in its final hours.

When I last reported on the status of this project I was hitting some proverbial bumps in the road.  I was drooling over the smell of meat on grills, and puzzling over the nearly immeasurable role that food plays in our cultural landscape.  Since then I’ve bounced back a bit, thankfully.

My second book of the month, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was an interesting read.  If Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma felt like a fascinating lecture from your best college professor, then Eating Animals feels like a freakishly well-sourced rant from your smartest activist friend.  But all of the propaganda was studded with incontrovertible facts that I couldn’t have dismissed even in the context of the most vitriolic rhetoric.  Nevertheless I think the strength of Foer’s bias ultimately proved counterproductive for me.  Not that it undermined his premise altogether, but I think I would have found his positions more compelling if presented in a more objective way.  He draws comparisons between people and animals that I believe are quite a stretch.  Many of his arguments ultimately rest on the assertion that animals are entitled to the same rights as humans, which I don’t believe.  I believe they are entitled to a respectable degree of welfare and a life free of suffering.  But I do not believe they are equal to humans.

One thing I did appreciate about Eating Animals was that Foer included passages from other stakeholders in the food industry.  In their own words he represented the arguments of a factory farmer, two family farmers, an agribusiness man, a PETA worker, and others.  These voices, alongside Foer’s own, painted a more complete picture of the competing perspectives in the larger food source landscape.  These are complicated problems and while Foer certainly pushed a particular agenda, I appreciated that he turned a few of his pages over to the voices of others.

So, where does this month leave me?  The short answer is, I’m not entirely sure yet.  Inasmuch as this experience has affected me throughout its course, I’ve tried very hard to prevent myself from drawing long-term conclusions prior to its close.  Now that I am here I have some mulling over to do.

There are some things I know for certain, and other things I haven’t yet worked out.  As for the things I know for certain:

  • The old maxim about 21 days to break a habit is true.  I hit a rough patch around two and a half weeks, and then things got much easier.
  • It is quite a challenge to get enough protein without meat.  Meat is a highly convenient protein source.
  • I will not forego meat altogether.
  • I will be much more selective in the meat I choose to eat.  I will try to find locally raised organic meat that was not subjected to factory farming methods.
  • I will select vegetarian options in most restaurants.
  • I will cook more (but not exclusively) vegetarian meals at home.
  • I sort of agree with Michael Pollan’s quote of the old French custom that any dietary restriction is bad manners, and will graciously eat any meal that is prepared for me by someone else without quibbling over its source.
  • I will not beat myself up if I occasionally slip and purchase/eat food that I can reasonably suspect was raised in a factory farming environment.
  • I will also pay more attention to the produce I eat, choosing regional or locally grown organic fruits and vegetables when possible.

As for the things I haven’t quite worked out yet:

  • How much am I willing to inflict my new beliefs system on my husband and son?
  • What impact would be brought to bear on our budget if I tried to buy only organic food?
  • How inconvenient will it be to change my shopping habits?  Is this a change I’m willing to make all of the time, some of the time?
  • How can I convey the importance of this issue to other people without sounding like a goody-two-shoes or a pushy evangelist?

So, yes, I have some thinking to do.  The last thing that I know, though, is that I’m glad I did this experiment.  I’m glad I know that I can go a month without meat and not feel too burdened by it.  I’m glad I’ve explored the dark side of the food industry and can make my decisions based on greater information than I did in the past.  And I’m glad that I’ve seen this project through and can feel satisfied with my (albeit minor) accomplishment.

I’d love to leave you with some pearl of wisdom; something poignant that will make you want to explore this topic for yourself.  But there are a couple of problems with that.  1) I have a very low tolerance for evangelism and I believe that what we put into our bodies is a highly personal decision.  What I’ve learned this month makes me believe that we are facing a system-wide problem that calls for broad attention and action.  But my little voice in the blogosphere is all I’m willing to offer.  You must decide for yourself what your beliefs are and how to comport your life accordingly.  2)  I’m still working much of this out myself and I don’t feel qualified to close this post with any statement so definitive when my own thoughts are still in their nascent form.

So I will close this post by saying, I’m glad to have learned what I learned.  I’m honored that you’ve followed along with me.  I hope I’ve sparked your curiosity on this topic.  And I hope you’ll explore it further on your own.

Vegetarian Update: Cultural Connotations

Friday, March 19th, 2010

I won’t lie to you.  Wednesday night was rough.  It was a beautiful day – 60 degrees and sunny.  I got home from work a little earlier than usual, so IEP and I took the dogs for a walk.  We were chatting with each other, pointing out leaves, trees, and squirrels.  It was a perfect spring evening… until the halfway point of our two-mile loop.  It was faint at first, but with each step it became more distinct.  Someone was cooking out.  You know that smell: the first savory waft of meat on a grill after a long winter of propane and charcoal hibernation.  (If you don’t know that smell, woe is you.)  I usually cheer that smell.  It means that winter is officially behind us.  We’ve taken to our backyards with tongs in hand.  Hooray!!

Not so much for me, though.  For me that smell was just a tease; a nanny-nanny-boo-boo to my current vegetarian imperative.  Rather than slowing my pace to bask in the scent of sizzling hamburgers I hastened to move into neutral air space as quickly as possible.  Instead of being excited I was sad; sad that I couldn’t participate in one of my favorite springtime rites of passage.

This whole little episode, while brief and anecdotal, was a strong reminder to me of why so many of us have willingly turned a blind eye to the dark side of our food supply.  Meat tastes good.  Not only does it make us full gastronomically, but it makes us whole culturally.  Consider the extent to which meals are the lynchpin of our biggest cultural moments.  And consider the extent to which meat is the centerpiece of those meals.  The Thanksgiving turkey.  The Christmas ham or rib roast.  The ballpark hot dog.  The backyard barbecue.  Without meat these events would hinge on stuffing, Brussels sprouts, peanuts, and potato salad, respectively.  And while I love each of those things, they hardly get me excited enough to loosen my belt a notch to make extra room.

This, for me, is the biggest conundrum of my vegetarian experiment.  I want to be an informed consumer whose actions reflect her understanding and beliefs.  But I do not want to sever myself from the culinary components of my culture which make me feel a part of something significant and enduring. 

In a moment of blogging kismet, one of my commenters alerted me last week to an upcoming episode of Oprah that would feature my author du jour, Michael Pollan.  I set my DVR and watched it later that evening.  Mr. Pollan said a number of things I found valuable, many of which were also included in his book.  But one point I heard him make for the first time was the following (I’m paraphrasing).  “The great thing about this issue is that we get to vote.  And we don’t vote just once.  We vote with our forks three times a day.  And you don’t have to get every one of those votes right.  But if you get even one of those votes right each day, it will eventually amount to real change in the way our food supply is managed.”

Sweet relief!  I don’t have to be perfect!  I can pop into a McDonald’s on a road trip without dismantling my entire values system.  I can go to a cookout at a friend’s house without nitpicking over the source of the meat they’re grilling.  I can live a normal life and still uphold my beliefs to a reasonable level.  Pardon me a moment while I exhale. …  Whew.  Okay.  I’m back now.

As for my reading assignments, I have finished (mostly) The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  (Full disclosure:  I skimmed the second half of the third section.  To take his intellectual premise to its logical extreme, Pollan spends the third section of the book actually hunting wild boar and foraging for mushrooms.  Since these are activities that will never factor into my own food chain I didn’t devote the same time and consideration to them that I did the sections on industrial and organic farming.)  And it was completely fascinating.  Perhaps my fascination stems in part from the fact that my level of interest in this topic includes me in a self-selected pool of people who are inclined find this book fascinating.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.  It reads like the transcripted version of a lecture by a really interesting college professor.  He takes agricultural theory and brings it to life.  Topics like corn subsidies, grass species, and the dimensions of organic baby lettuce beds could be mindbogglingly dry.  But Pollan doesn’t just provide the facts.  He tells the story, and it lures you in.  He writes with a slant, to be sure; I was never confused about his position.  But when you consider that the slant I’ve been subconsciously provided by the food industry for 32 years tells a very different story, I don’t think a bit of impassioned positioning from Pollan discredits him that much.

I am more than halfway through the month of March now.  I am craving a hamburger.  My creative culinary juices are running thin and I’m missing my normal kitchen routines.  But I have another book to read and nearly two more meatless weeks in front of me.  I don’t presume that I’ve learned all I can on the topic of our food supply and its reverberations throughout our society.  So for the next 12 days I will continue to forge ahead.  Perhaps I will find myself energized by Mr. Foer.  I’m about 50 pages in and, again, riveted.  Perhaps I will sate myself with mental meat, rather than the hamburger I’d rather devour.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #2

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

In keeping with my current vegetarian experiment, here are the latest recipes I’ve tried.  To see last week’s recipes, click here.  This past week’s challenge was incorporating more protein into my diet, so these recipes include more eggs and tofu than what I ate during my first week of vegetarianism.

Note: The title of each dish links to the recipe.  The Source link goes to the website’s homepage.

Asparagus, Artichoke, and Shitake Risotto
Source
Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
:  Medium.  As I mentioned in last week’s recipe recap, if you’ve never prepped an artichoke before, you may find it helpful to watch a video of the process first.  This was my second artichoke rodeo (last week’s being my first) and I found it much easier and quicker the second time around.
Labor:  Medium.  Again with the artichokes.  Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment.  This recipe only called for two of them, though, and that cut down on the time required a lot.  Otherwise, it was par for the risotto course.  Lots of stirring, but I knew that going in.
Overall Results:  Decent.  I swapped Oyster mushrooms for the Shitakes and that was a mistake.  They have less flavor, less structure, and less color, and when you’re making a dish that is essentially formless, you need to make it perk up as much as possible. (Why the swap? When I went to the store the shitakes were really picked over.)  The Oyster mushrooms basically just blended into the rice and didn’t add much to the dish.  I don’t think that would have been the case with Shitakes.  I also didn’t love Deb’s artichoke cooking method.  I like the procedure outlined in last week’s Artichoke and Leek Lasagna recipe better.  Nonetheless it was a tasty dinner.  Just not a showstopper. 

Baked Gnocchi
Source: Recipe card I picked up at the grocery store
Difficulty: Easy.  Except for chopping one clove of garlic and half an onion, this is basically “dump and stir” cooking.  Anyone can do this.
Labor: Low.  This was in the oven in about 10 minutes.
Overall Results: Pretty good.  But then how could it not be with that amount of cheese stirred in?  There wasn’t much depth of flavor, but that could be easily remedied by adding some vegetables and fresh herbs.  Also by eliminating some of the cheese.

Ingredients
1 cup panko or other white breadcrumbs
3 Tbs butter
1½ tsp Italian seasoning*
¼ tsp salt
1 16-oz package gnocchi (vacuum packed, available on pasta aisle)
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
1½ cups half and half (I used whole milk)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup shredded provolone cheese
½ cup plus 2 Tbs shredded parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.
  2. In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium high heat.  Add breadcrumbs, Italian seasoning, and salt.  Stir until all breadcrumbs are coated.  Remove half of the seasoned breadcrumbs and reserve.
  3. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until softened, about two minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes (with juices), half and half, and gnocchi.  Heat until simmering, about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in mozzarella, provolone, and ½ cup parmesan cheese.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Pour gnocchi into an ungreased 9×9” baking dish.  Top with remaining 2 Tbs parmesan cheese and reserved breadcrumbs.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until bubbly.

*I didn’t feel like buying a new jar of Italian Seasoning, the components of which I already had sitting in my spice rack.  I just used about ½ tsp each of dried basil, oregano, and sage, and added a pinch of red pepper flake.  It worked fine.

Eggs in Tomato Sauce
Source
: Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
: Easy
Labor: Low.  There are about 20 minutes of total cooking time, but most of that is inactive while the sauce simmers. 
Overall Results:  Wow!  Talk about comfort food!  This was cozy and delicious.  I almost didn’t make it because GAP had plans Wednesday night and it was a convenient excuse not to cook.  I’m very glad I didn’t take the short cut.  I think this could become part of our weeknight rotation! 

I loved it as prepared according to the recipe, but there are a few things I’ll tweak next time.  First, I’m forever substituting olive oil for butter, but in this case I think the sauce would benefit from swapping butter for the olive oil.  I think it would mellow some of the acidity in the tomato puree.  Secondly, leaving the eggs in the sauce for 5 minutes cooked the yolks all the way through.  I like a runny yolk, so next time I’ll cut the cooking time to 3 minutes or so.  Lastly, the recipe says this amount of sauce is enough for 4 eggs.  You’d have to really stretch it to get 4 servings out of it.  If you want to have enough extra sauce for dipping and sopping, this will really only serve two.   

Peanut Braised Tofu with Noodles
Source
: Williams-Sonoma
Difficulty: Easy
Labor: Low
Overall Results: Very good.  This dish came together very easily and was quite tasty.  I was a little nervous about the sauce because I used natural peanut butter (which sometimes separates when used in recipes) and reduced fat coconut milk.  However, neither affected the quality of the dish at all.  If you used rice noodles I recommend breaking them in half before cooking so that they don’t clump together as much when served.  This was comforting and delicious.  IEP even loved it.  After his first bite he immediately started signing “more!”  The only drawback to this recipe is that it doesn’t reheat well.  It was significantly better the first time around.

Asparagus Frittata
Source: My own head
Difficulty:  Depends.  If you have a nonstick ovenproof skillet it’s super easy.  If your ovenproof skillet isn’t nonstick it can take a little finessing.
Labor: Low
Overall Results:  This is a great recipe to have in your back pocket.  You can add any vegetables, meat, or cheese and come up with countless versions.  I used asparagus and gruyere because that’s what I had sitting around.  You can use mushrooms, broccoli, sausage, cheddar, goat cheese, etc.  The possibilities really are endless.  Frittatas are most commonly served for breakfast, but I love them as a simple lunch or supper along with a tossed green salad and a hunk of crusty bread.  They also reheat nicely as leftovers.

Ingredients:
2 eggs
6 egg whites
½ lb pencil-thin asparagus, trimmed and cut into ½-inch segments
½ cup grated cheese
2 Tbs milk or cream
1 Tbs butter
2 Tbs olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. In a shallow sauté pan filled halfway with simmering water, blanch the asparagus for about 3 minutes.  Drain the asparagus in a colander and wipe the pan dry.  Warm 1 Tbs of the olive oil in the pan over medium high heat, and return asparagus to the pan.  Sauté until slightly browned, about 3 minutes.  Set aside.
  2. Slide oven rack to highest level and preheat broiler on high.
  3. In a medium sized bowl combine the eggs and egg whites and beat with a whisk.  Stir in the grated cheese, prepared asparagus, milk/cream, and one pinch each of salt and pepper.
  4. In a 10” to 12” ovenproof skillet (preferably nonstick)* warm the butter and remaining 1 Tbs olive oil over medium heat.  Swirl the pan to ensure that there is an even coating of oil/butter all over the pan.  Pour in the egg mixture and cook, undisturbed, until the eggs are set around the edges and mostly set in the middle – 5 to 6 minutes.  You will have a runny pool of egg mixture on top in the center.  Slide the skillet into your oven centered underneath the broiler.  Leaving the oven door cracked, broil the top of the frittata until it is fully set and slightly browned on top, 2 to 4 minutes.  Watch carefully during this time as your frittata can quickly go from perfectly browned to completely burned quickly.
  5. Remove skillet from oven and using a rubber spatula carefully loosen the frittata from the pan.  If you’re using a nonstick skillet this should be very simple.  If your skillet isn’t nonstick, be patient while working your spatula around the edges in circles, sliding the spatula a little bit farther with each turn.  When the frittata is completely loosened, slide it onto a cutting board and slice into 4 to 6 wedges.

*A note on skillets.  Nonstick is obviously best.  If you don’t have an ovenproof nonstick skillet (I don’t), anodized aluminum (such as Calphalon One brand) will also work just fine.  If you only have a stainless pan (such as All-Clad) I would recommend using some extra butter in your skillet and working very slowly with your spatula.  And be prepared for some stickage. 

Dark Chocolate Mousse Ice Cream
Source
: Orangette
Difficulty
: Medium
Labor: Medium
Overall Results: Sooooo delicious.  I found this recipe last fall and have been making it ever since.  I like to add an extra ½ to one cup of milk or cream, though.  I think it makes the final product a bit softer.  Other than that, I pretty much stick to the recipe.  This stuff never lasts long in our house.  Enjoy!

*Note – This is a great recipe to make concurrently with the frittata, as it calls for 6 egg whites, and this one calls for 6 egg yolks.

Vegetarian Update: Enlightened, Not Enraged

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

I am ten days into this adventure.  I had hoped that by now I would have some sense of the effect this experiment is having on me.  Perhaps evangelical transcendence, utter frustration, or something in between.  Sadly, so far my response is the lukewarm: I think it’s going fine, which is in itself frustrating.

From a strictly dietary perspective, I’m doing pretty well.  I’ve tried many new recipes that might have otherwise lingered online without my ringing endorsements (travesty!).  I’ve felt happy and sated after each of my meals, and have not once gone to bed feeling underfed or undernourished.  I’ve only really craved meat once (and that was shortly after a six-mile run, which I’m sure had something to do with it).  And for the most part I haven’t felt overwhelmed by this challenge.  I am not bored with my diet and I’m not unreasonably out of my comfort zone without meat.  I am a bit concerned about my protein intake.  So this week’s recipes include more eggs and tofu than the first week’s menu.  But other than that, I’m slightly sorry to say that so far the effects of this transition have been relatively trivial.  (I’m not sure what that says about me.  Was I looking for drama?  Am I just highly adaptable?) 

From the bigger-ecological-picture perspective, I’m finding myself surprised and enlightened, but not yet enraged.  I’m about 175 pages into it, and with the exception of the early chapter entitled “Corn Sex” (no kidding) The Omnivore’s Dilemma is proving fascinating.  I have learned about the economic causes and effects of commoditizing crops (the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon cut a deal to increase the price on corn exports to Russia that altered the entire incentive structure for corn farmers to value yield exclusively and indefinitely).  I now know that nitrogen is the single biggest component of fertilizer; that inert atmospheric nitrogen makes up something like 70% of the nitrogen on earth but is useless to crops; that a process invented by a Nazi called “fixing” said inert atmospheric nitrogen enabled both the invention of chemical fertilizer and the extermination of thousands of Jews.  (Do I sound like a complete nerd yet?  No?  Okay, I’ll keep going.)  I have learned that feeding corn to cattle on feedlots has changed the levels of acidity in their stomachs and rumens (I’ll spare you the explanation of a rumen) which has prompted the emergence of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”  And I have learned that if all cattle were exclusively grass fed they would rarely get sick and agricultural veterinarians would be out of work.  Okay.  I’m finished now… at least with the really nerdy stuff.  

I had some sense of the sins of large-scale agriculture (if you’ve never driven past a feed lot, count your blessings) before I started reading.  But I had no sense of the magnitude of the marketing ploy that buoys “industrial organic” (think Whole Foods) agriculture.  As it turns out, we consumers are gullible pawns, and if someone posts a glossy placard next to a wedge of cheese stating that it came from Farm X, and that the cows on Farm X drink Evian, play croquet, and have bridge clubs, then we will pay $18/pound for Farm X’s cheese.  I’m not altogether humiliated yet, but I am starting to feel a bit foolish.  I haven’t finished the book yet though, so I imagine that humiliation is forthcoming.

At this juncture in my journey I’m reluctantly playing a prediction game.  I’m attempting to foretell in what ways I will be changed by this month of vegetarianism.  And yet, I don’t want to jump to conclusions that will influence my experience as it unfolds.  I don’t believe that I could ever permanently exclude meat from my diet.  But I am finding the reach and influence of “big ag” to be pervasive and disturbing.  If I have any integrity at all, I will have to find some means of reconciling these facts.

And it is this conundrum of integrity – of reconciling my actions to my beliefs – that I suspect will be most troublesome for me.  The food industry is buttressed by decades of economic policy that has facilitated the creation of a dietary economy geared solely toward making my food purchases convenient and affordable.  To find food sources that defy the juggernaut food industry almost by definition requires that my purchasing habits become inconvenient and expensive.  (Intellectual curiosity is starting to sting a little bit.)  I hope that by the time the month ends my selected authors (Pollan and Foer) will not only have opened my eyes to these problems, but also offered some solutions.

In the meantime, bring on the tofu.