Thursday, December 29, 2011

A New Year's Eve Dinner: Celebrating with the Food Phobic

Chances are that if you love to cook, you love to cook for someone. To be sure, eating alone can be very restorative and there are many nights that I’m entirely content to stir up a pot of a spicy Asian noodle soup and curl up in my favorite armchair, legs dangling over one of the arms, watching TV and slurping as noisily as I want. Generally speaking, though, I prefer to cook for other people and I tend to go to far more effort for them than I do for myself. Between Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, I’ve got lots of opportunities to cook up dishes I don’t get to the rest of the year—whether because they’re too expensive, too labor intensive, too time consuming, or too fattening. But on New Year’s Eve, you can throw caution to the wind.

Although I don’t fully understand why, my thoughts often turn to a classic French bistro meal for New Year’s Eve. Something about a great big bowl of mussels steamed in white wine screams celebration to me. A gigot rôti (that’s French for roast leg of lamb) is definitively not something I make on a regular basis, nor is a Pommes Anna, that thinly sliced and layered-with-vast-quantities-of-butter masterpiece that most potatoes can only dream of becoming. With its brittle burnt sugar crust, a crème brulée is the perfect way to close a meal that has paid scant regard to time, money, or calorie content.

All this said, you can imagine my chagrin last New Year’s Eve. We’d invited friends over for what I imagined would be a feast for the senses, at once intimate and refined. I knew that one of them  had her issues with food, but I didn't know exactly how many issues she had—nor how deep-seated they were. As I stood in the kitchen, about to empty the string bag of mussels into an enormous pot of garlicky-winey broth, her husband commented matter-of-factly, “Oh, she’ll never touch that. She doesn’t eat shellfish. Most cases of food poisoning involve shellfish.” 

My bubble burst. Oh well. There’s always the main course, I thought. A large platter of perfectly pink slices of lamb crusted with rosemary and garlic. The smell alone was worth the price of admission. “Just a small piece from the end. One of the browner ones. I don’t eat meat unless it’s over 140 degrees. The salmonella might not have been killed off.” Strike two.

She'd just have to fill up on the potatoes. What possible objection could she have to them? Little did I know. “Were they cooked in butter? I’m avoiding dairy products. No matter what they say, you never know if the cows were given recombinant bovine growth hormones.” Strike three. Strike four too when you take my dessert into account: there’s simply no way to make crème brulée without the crème.
I do not think she gained an ounce that night. Thankfully, the other couple we’d invited relished everything. Not a mussel was left, nor did a drop of the briny broth remain at the bottom of the bowl. No lamb sandwiches were to be had for New Year’s Day lunch, and as I recall, there was some fast and furious spoon action surrounding that unaccounted-for crème brulée.  
So why is it, I wondered, that some people are vigilant to the point of phobia about what they put in their mouths while others don’t give a fig? Why do some people go through life mouth wide open while others purse their lips shut at the merest thought of shellfish, raw fish, raw eggs, rare meat, and dairy products? I’m not talking about allergies or intolerances here; I’m talking about fear of food. I know as well as anyone that it’s a big scary world out there with no end of germs, bacteria, and viruses, each and every one a potential killer. But even so, I long for the days of a bona fide Caesar salad prepared tableside, raw egg and all.  
This year for New Year’s Eve, we’ve invited the same friends over, but we’re taking no chances. It’s coq au vin on the menu. The chicken will be cooked to a safe internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. We’ve still to resolve on the starter, side dishes, and dessert, but of one thing, we’ll be as confident as it’s possible to be in this day and age. There’ll be no shellfish, no red meat, and no cheese on the menu, and, consequently, our guests will have the greatest possible chance of starting the new year off intact, free of e. coli, mad cow disease, salmonellosis, or any other garden variety food poisoning.  
My very best wishes for a happy and healthy new year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Latkes & Applesauce

A few months ago, I went on record confessing that I don’t much care for honey, which makes celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, a bit tricky because you’re all but obliged to serve up a honey cake to your friends and family. Well, now I’ve got another dilemma on my hands. It’s Chanukah and I’m supposed to be frying up a big batch of latkes. Here’s the hitch. I don’t like frying anymore than I like honey. All that oil spattering about, the smell that just doesn’t quit, and then—of course—there’s the matter of the fat and calories. Oil isn’t something I typically use by the quart and it’s astonishing how much oil you need to fry up a batch of latkes. In his book Jewish Food: The World at Table, my old friend Matthew Goodman notes in this regard that the word latke traces back to the Greek eladion, an oil cake, or, “as the American Heritage Dictionary prefers to define it . . . a ‘little oily thing.’” How good does that sound? A nice big plate of little oily things.  

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like a good fried chicken now and again and far be it from me to turn my nose up at a plate of fried shrimp and onion rings. When I lived in North Carolina, I became absolutely addicted to the fried okra you’d see on the menus of such haunts as Breadmen’s and Mama Dips (“Put a little south in yo’ mouth!”).

But I don’t generally fry at home. Which brings me back to my Chanukah dilemma. I could, I suppose, bite the bullet, grate the potatoes and onions, squeeze out the liquid (I’m always amazed by how much liquid comes out of a potato!), add some matzah meal, salt and pepper, start frying away, and then serve up a great big platter of latkes accompanied by an equally great big bowl of apple sauce. And there are plenty of years I do just that.

But this year, I’m going to do something different. In the first place, I’ve only recently made the realization that that’s nothing inherent about the connection between potatoes and Chanukah anyway. The holiday commemorates the military victory of the Maccabees in 2nd century BCE Judea and potatoes didn’t leave their home in South America until after Christopher Columbus arrived in the late fifteenth century CE. There’s no way the ancient Maccabees could have been frying up potato latkes to celebrate the oil that, legend has it, miraculously lasted for eight days.

In the second place, for all sorts of reasons, it’s just my daughter and me this year and since she’s a life-long vegetarian, the latkes can’t play their usual role as accompaniment to that other staple of Jewish-American holiday cooking, the brisket (whether sweet and sour or not). In years past, we’ve tried promoting them to starring role by varying them up. One year we made zucchini latkes (pretty good); another, grated beet, carrot, and sweet-potato ones (even better); and still another, Asian latkes with a soy dipping sauce (best of all!).

But this year, we’re going to dollop our applesauce on top of one large skillet-sized apple latke that we’ll serve pie style, sliced in wedges. It might not use as much oil as your traditional latke, but we like it just fine. We tend to serve it up with a big bowl of yogurt, but sour cream would obviously be just fine too.

Skillet-Sized Apple Latke

2 eggs
½ cup milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 peeled & thinly sliced apple

Whisk eggs, milk, and oil. Add the flour & sugar. Stir in apple slices. Heat a pat of butter (or a bit of oil) in a 10” omelet pan until it’s very hot. Pour in the apple batter and cook until golden brown on the bottom (peek underneath with a flexible spatula). If you’re up to it, flip high in the air to brown the other side; if you’re not, slide out onto a plate and invert the latke back into the skillet.  While the underside is browning, sprinkle the top with cinnamon & sugar.  Serve with applesauce & yogurt or sour cream.

Note: I make my applesauce exactly the way my mother does. She uses any kind of apples she’s got—or a mixture of all different kinds—and, without bothering to peel them, cuts them into wedges with one of those handy apple segmenters-and-corers all in one. She then puts the apple slices into a heavy pot, covers it up, and leaves it to sit over low heat for an hour or so, stirring from time to time. No sugar. No cinnamon. No water. The apples gradually collapse, giving off all their juicy deliciousness. When she can mush a wedge against the side of the pot with no resistance whatsoever, she puts the whole mess through a Foley food mill, the kind you can only buy at hardware stores, not at expensive culinary emporia. As the apples go through the mill, the peels and any remaining seeds get left behind. What you’ll have in your bowl will be the best applesauce you’ve ever had. Guaranteed.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The United Colors of Rice

Although I know many people do, I generally don’t plan out a week’s worth of dinners in advance. Which means that sometimes eating gets a bit ad hoc around here. Like last week for instance. Somehow it didn’t occur to me until Thursday that I’d made something with rice every single night. On Sunday, we had miso-glazed tofu with edamame on Japanese sticky rice. On Monday it was curried cauliflower and chickpeas on Indian basmati rice. On Tuesday, I had a sudden hankering for arroz con pollo (Spanish for chicken with rice). Wednesday saw me stirring up some arborio rice into a pot of my favorite risotto with wild mushrooms. By the time Thursday came around, I took the cold sticky rice that had been waiting around all week in the fridge and stir-fried it with whatever vegetables and bits of tofu I could find and ended the week with—you guessed it—fried rice. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you what we went out for on Friday night. Sushi.

The week reminded me of a dinner party I gave some years back. I served that marvel of Spanish cuisine, a Paella Valenciana with its saffron-scented rice studded with shrimp, clams, mussels, and chorizo. Entirely on his own, my son produced his favorite dessert for the occasion: arroz con leche, the Mexican version of rice pudding into which you stir sweetened caramelized milk known as cajeta.

Obviously I’ve got a fixation with rice. But, to my defense, so does the rest of the world. It’s the staple food for roughly half the earth’s inhabitants (human inhabitants, that is)—which means that about 3 ½ billion people eat rice on a daily basis. The Chinese don’t even have different words for cooked rice and food; they’re both fan. Everything else, whether chicken, pork, vegetables, or tofu, is mere accompaniment, “cai.”

No surprise that it was the Chinese who first cultivated rice more than 8,500 years ago. Gradually it made its way across Asia and into India, where it was called vrihi in Sanskrit. The Persians brought grains of vrihi with them to the eastern Mediterranean and the Greeks soon adapted the word to oruza, which lies behind the name in virtually every European language, from Russian ris to Italian riso, French riz, Dutch rijst, Serbo-Croatian riza, and, of course, our English rice. Legend has it that rice cooked in clarified butter was one of Mohammed’s favorite dishes; in due deference to their prophet, Muslims brought rice with them as they spread throughout North and West Africa and into Spain, Sicily, and Turkey.

Columbus might have taken the tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and chocolate from the New World, but in return, he gave the gift of rice. Granted, it took a few centuries for the crop to take off, but by the 1690’s, so-called “Carolina Gold” was flourishing around Charleston, South Carolina. You can still buy boxes of Carolina® Rice in supermarkets today. In those early days of our country, Thomas Jefferson went so far as to defy a threatened death sentence by smuggling unhusked grains of rice out of the Piedmont region of Italy—“as much as my coat and surtout pockets would hold”—in his efforts to promote the sale of American rice in France. Apparently he’d been told that Carolina rice was considered inferior to Italian rice because it wasn’t white enough. No surprise that he also acquired the tool the Italians used to clean their rice.

Gone are the days of death sentences for rice smuggling and gone too are the days when white rice reigned supreme. It’s appropriate, when you think about it, that since it’s eaten by people of so many colors, it should come in so many colors as well: white, yellow, red, brown, and black.

Enough talk. I’m getting hungry. It’s time to think about dinner. It’s been too long since I cooked up a big pot of a good old Louisiana Creole jambalaya.

Jambalaya (serves 4-6)

1 tbsp oil
¼ lb sliced smoked sausage
¾ lb cubed chicken breast
½ lb cubed smoked ham
1 heaping tbsp. seasoning mix (see below)
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green pepper
1 cup chopped celery
3-4 minced garlic cloves
1 16 oz can diced tomatoes in juice
1 14 oz can chicken broth
1 ½ cup white rice

In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Brown sausage. Add chicken & cook until done. Drain off fat. Stir in ham & cook 2 minutes. Stir in seasoning mix and vegetables. Cook, stirring until vegetables are almost tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and broth. Bring to boil. Stir in rice. Cover & reduce heat to simmer. Cook, covered, until rice is tender, 20 minutes. Serve with Tabasco & filé powder.

Seasoning mix: 1 tbsp dried basil, 1 tbsp dried oregano, 1 ½ tbsp. paprika, 1 ½ tsp dried thyme, ½ tsp cayenne, ¼ tsp black pepper, 1 tsp garlic powder, ½ tsp mace, 1 bay leaf. Makes 1/3 cup; store in a glass jar.

A final note: Although rice is a staple food for half the world’s people, according to the World Hunger Organization, over 925 million people went hungry last year. Here’s a small way you and/or your kids can contribute to wiping out such hunger by going online to Click on “Subjects” at the top of the page and choose your favorite category. Each time your child (or you) answers a quiz question correctly, FreeRice donates 10 grains of rice through the United NationsWorld Food Programme. Each grain might be tiny, but to date, they’ve donated more than 91 billion grains to countries around the world.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

Just a little more than a week after Thanksgiving and already the turkey’s no more than a memory. The last slices of pie have long since disappeared. It’s funny. For the few weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, all I could think of was pie: apple, sweet potato-pecan, and pumpkin-praline. But now that the last Thursday in November has come and gone, pie’s the farthest thing from my mind and I’m not likely to bake another one for quite some time.

Which doesn’t mean I’m retiring my oven mitts—simply that when I bake during the rest of the year, I'm far more likely to think cake. I don’t need a holiday for inspiration. I hardly even need a reason at all and often find myself standing in the kitchen in front of my workhorse of a KitchenAid, creaming butter, sifting flour, adding wet and dry ingredients alternately, and pouring the batter into round or square pans—but more often into a bundt pan (much as I love cakes, I’m not as fond of frosting, and so prefer the unadorned nakedness of a bundt cake).

This makes me wonder. Why do I bake pies for Thanksgiving but cakes the rest of the year?

Well, on the one hand, they’re easier. Whoever it was who first claimed something was “easy as pie” didn’t know what he was talking about. Pie crusts can be tricky and require technique, not to mention such special equipment as rolling pins and pie weights. Fillings have to balance precariously between moist juiciness and stodgy solidity.

Cakes, on the other hand, can be whipped out by a child. I know this for a fact. I started baking them when I was a girl. Following the recipe from the Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook, I submitted a Chocolate Fudge Cake to a Girls Scouts Cake Competition. I went on to make the Jack-o’-Lantern Cake for my brother’s late-October birthday and the red and white Heart Cake for Mother’s Day. I also remember making the Enchanted Castle Cake for my own birthday, complete with inverted ice cream cone turrets and pink pillow mint crenellations.

These cakes of yore may bring a nostalgic smile to my face, but they give me food for thought as well. Who ever heard of a birthday pie? A wedding pie? An anniversary pie? The practical explanation is that a pie can be only so big and you can’t very well layer them or decorate them with icing roses. Nor does a pie crust offer a smooth surface on which to write your heartfelt message.

But I think there’s something else. I think that cakes speak to us in a way that pies don’t. Why else do you never hear anyone call out, “If I’d ‘a known you were coming, I’d ‘a baked a pie”?

In this regard, I find it revealing that we’ve never been tempted to call them anything but what they are: cakes. We regularly pass our pies off as tarts when we want them to sound fancy. In an earlier post, I wrote about our penchant for speaking French when we want to sound as elegant as possible: just compare an apple pie to a tarte aux pommes. But when was the last time you heard someone call a cake a gateau? Even when they’re dressed to the nines, they’re cakes, plain and simple. Appropriately, they trace back not to a French word, but to the German Kuchen, which in turn derives from the not-very-glamorous sounding Old Norse kaka (the ancestor, by the way, of our most basic cooking word of all: to cook).

It seems fitting to me that cake should have a name that comes to us from the Vikings rather than from the Mediterranean. Northern Europe, after all, is where cakes came into their own, no doubt because northern Europe is famous for its butter—and without butter, our default idea of cake simply wouldn’t be. Yes, there are sponge cakes that rely on egg whites and yes, there are moist cakes that use oil rather than butter, but as Flo Braker writes in her wonderful The Simple Art of Perfect Baking,

When you are thinking of making a cake, a butter cake is likely to come to mind. Butter cakes are part of our past. Our birthday cakes, our wedding cakes, our everyday cakes are butter cakes. It’s the butter cake recipes that have been passed down from family to family: American classics, such as the 1-2-3-4 Cake and Wellesley Chocolate Cake, as well as untitled splendors, such as yellow cake, gold cake, Bundt cake, and good old-fashioned pound cake.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a pie as well as the next person, but there’s just something about cakes.

They say the purest ice cream is vanilla; with no additional flavorings, distracting chocolate chips, or streaks of toffee, the main flavor's got nowhere to hide. By the same logic, a simple pound cake has got to be the purest cake of all: nothing but butter, sugar, eggs, and flour (and, in this case, a pinch of salt, and a dash or two of vanilla and lemon juice). Try this one the next time you want to bring a smile to your family’s face. It's the essence of cake. It never fails.

Edna Lewis’s Pound Cake

½ lb unsalted butter
1 2/3 cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
5 eggs
2 cups sifted flour
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice

Butter a 9 or 10” tube pan and preheat the oven to 300. Cream the butter and when it’s very fluffy, add the sugar and salt. Cream well. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating well after each one; after the third egg, add 2 tbsp of the flour. Add the rest of the flour in four additions, taking care not to overmix. Blend in the vanilla & lemon juice. Spoon into tube pan, drop on the counter to burst any bubbles, and bake at 300 for 40 minutes, and then at 325 for another 20 minutes, or until done. Let cool on a rack for 5 minutes, before turning out and letting cool completely. You can, of course, glaze the cake with anything you want—lemon, chocolate, coffee, etc—but I like it plain best of all.

(Adapted from Edna Lewis & Scott Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking)

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Giving Thanks & Eating Turkey

My guess is that if you’re a product of the American public school system, at some point in your early years, you paraded to the cafeteria in either a floppy white paper hat or a brown construction paper headband with orange and brown feathers. Who doesn’t remember learning about the story of the first Thanksgiving when the grateful pilgrims sat down to a three-day-long feast with their friends, the Wampanoag Indians?

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I read in Andrew Smith’s Eating History that Thanksgiving has much less to do with pilgrims and Indians than it does with two women novelists I’d never even heard of: Sarah Josepha Hale and Jane G. Austin (no relation to the far more famous Jane Austen of Pride and Prejudice fame).

Yes, a meal was shared by the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Colony in 1621, when then Governor William Bradford declared a holiday after the harvest, but the day in question was in no way considered to be one of thanksgiving. Anyone who knows anything about the pilgrims knows that a day of thanksgiving would have been spent on one’s knees thanking God in church, not gluttonously feasting around a groaning board. They were Puritans after all!

Our first president was no Puritan but he agreed that thanksgiving was one thing and a celebratory meal quite another. Washington frequently declared days of thanksgiving, but he also went out of his way to recommend that “such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.”

All things considered, you have to wonder how such solemn days of thanksgiving managed to turn into our Thanksgiving extravaganza, complete with the Macy’s Day Parade, football games galore, and enough food to sink a ship.

Well, people being what they are, festive thanksgiving dinners were celebrated around the country, although not necessarily on the same day and not necessarily with the same food. In her 1823 novel Northwood; or, a Tale of New England, Sarah Josepha Hale—later known as “the Mother of Thanksgiving,” devoted an entire chapter to one such dinner, complete with roast turkey, gravy, and pumpkin pie. Shortly after, she made it her mission to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. For the next forty years, she lobbied any and all politicians she could, ultimately appealing to President Lincoln himself. In the summer of 1863, on the heels of the decisive battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he granted her wish. Thus it was that the last Thursday in November became a national holiday, celebrated in both North and South.

Some twenty years later, another writer provided the newly nationalized holiday with its colonial history. In her Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, Jane G. Austin sent the Thanksgiving feast back in time: straight back to that 1621 harvest holiday declared by William Bradford. All of sudden, the pilgrims and Indians sat down, not to a bountiful harvest celebration, but to a Thanksgiving meal of clam chowder, oysters, turkeys stuffed with beechnuts, venison pasties, not to mention all manner of roasts, vegetables, ales, and root beer.

Thus it was that the pilgrims’ harvest festival was transformed into a national day of Thanksgiving signed into law by President Lincoln in his desire to unite a war-torn country.

But still there’s the matter of the turkey. Why “Turkey Day” in particular?

Well, on the one hand, it’s symbolic. Native to America, the wild turkey was Benjamin Franklin’s choice for the national bird: "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character . . . The Truth [is that] the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.”

On the other hand, it’s affordable—at least as compared to a standing rib roast or beef tenderloin—as are stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. In this regard, TV chef Sandra Lee couldn’t be more in the spirit of Thanksgiving with her cost-cutting menu that promises a festive dinner for eight for no more than $45.00 (as she says, “that’s less than $6.00 a person!”).

Symbolic and affordable. It united our country and still does. Every immigrant group makes the turkey its own, stuffing it with basmati rice, jasmine rice, fried rice, sauerkraut, and even refried beans—foods those long ago pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians could never have imagined!

Does it bother me that Thanksgiving turns out to be as much literary creation as historical fact—and perhaps a little bit more? Not in the slightest. What would Christmas be, after all, without Charles Dickens and his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge?

 As I’ve often had reason to conclude, never underestimate the power of the pen!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Munchkins, Gherkins, Napkins, and . . . Pumpkins?

At this time of year, you can’t ignore them. They’re everywhere. There’s not a doorstep in my neighborhood that doesn’t boast at least one of them. They line the entrance to the supermarkets and the farm stand up the road may as well be Noah’s ark bobbing about in a vast expanse of autumnal orange.

Pumpkins, of course. The undisputed king of the season that begins at Halloween and extends straight through Thanksgiving. What other vegetable is so . . . well, so big? “The blue whales of the vegetable world”—that’s what John Ayto calls them in his The Diner’s Dictionary.

So here’s what I don’t get. Munchkins are little bites. Gherkins are little pickles. Napkins are little cloths. Manikins are little men. And pumpkins? Little . . . what? Who could ever have looked at a pumpkin and called it little?

My etymology dictionary tells me the word traces back to the Greek pepon, which meant melon—but that doesn’t really help me very much because as far as I’m concerned, pumpkins and melons have little in common except their size and the fact that they’re both filled with lots of seeds. In Latin it was a pepo, in Middle French a pompon, and in England for quite a long time it was a pompion, also spelled pumpion. Sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth century someone had the bright idea to add the –kin suffix which in virtually every other instance you can think of denotes either smallness or affection, as in “oh, my little lambkins” and “what a sweet little babykins.” But why would a vegetable known above all else for its sheer size have acquired such an endearingly diminutive suffix? As I said, I don’t get it. Apparently no one else does either because not a one of my reference books hazards so much as a guess. Hasn’t anyone else ever wondered how the pumpkin got its suffix?

Maybe it’s that it’s hard to take such an enormous vegetable seriously. For centuries people have been using it to mock pretensions of grandeur. The Roman writer Seneca referred to the deification of the Emperor Claudius as his “pumpkinification”—not all that different, when you think about it, from the pumpkinification of the pumpkin itself into Cinderella’s magic coach. And no one has ever relished being called a “pumpkin-head”: “They ain’t got two ideas to bless themselves with, the stupid punkin-headed consaited [sic] blockheads!” wrote the humorist Thomas Chandler Haliburton in the mid-nineteenth century.

All this said, I’ll confess to an affection for the oddly-named vegetable. It’s hard to think of another that can compete with that other gargantuan of the season: the ginormous turkey. Because my Thanksgiving table has a sizeable contingent of vegetarians, there’s always an entrée just for them and it almost always features the pumpkin. One year it was pumpkin-stuffed ravioli with a sage brown-butter sauce. Another time it was a Native American vegetable stew served in a hollowed-out pumpkin. But this year, I’ll once again make my daughter’s favorite: a Cheddar-Pumpkin Tart with a Whole-Wheat Parmesan Crust.   

Cheddar-Pumpkin Tart (makes one 9” tart)

For the crust:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
¼ cup grated fresh Parmesan
½ tsp salt
8 tbsp cold unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
¼ cup cold water

Mix the dry ingredients together in a food processor. Add the butter, cut into small pieces, and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse sand. Add the egg yolk and water, and pulse until the dough just comes together. Wrap the dough in wax paper and refrigerate until firm. Roll out between wax paper and place into a 9” tart pan with removable bottom; double over the outer edge to make a thicker outer crust. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Line with aluminum foil, fill with pie weights (or dried beans) and bake for 10 minutes at 400. Remove foil and weights, prick the bottom and sides with a fork and bake 10 minutes longer, until golden brown. Cool on wire rack.

For the filling:

2 tsp butter
1 tsp canola oil
1 medium onion or 2 leeks, thinly sliced
½ tsp salt
¾ cup pureed pumpkin (canned is better because drier)
2 eggs
½ cup cream
½ tsp dried thyme
¼ tsp white pepper
3 ½ ounces sharp Cheddar cheese (about 1 ½ cups)

Melt 1 tsp butter and the oil in large skillet over medium heat. Cook onion or leeks 10-12 minutes, until soft, stirring often. Sprinkle with salt and set aside.

Beat pumpkin and eggs together in medium bowl. Add the cream, a bit of salt, thyme, and pepper to taste.

Assemble the tart: scatter the cooked onion or leeks on the bottom of the cooled crust. Sprinkle the cheese over the onion. Pour the pumpkin mixture on top and spread over the cheese. Dot with remaining teaspoon of butter and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. (adapted from DeeDee Stovel’s Pumpkin: A Super Food for All 12 Months of the Year)

Note: Because Thanksgiving itself is a bit crazed around here, I make this tart a day or two ahead of time and keep it wrapped in foil in the refrigerator. Then, when the turkey comes out of the oven on the big day (it needs a bit to time to rest anyway), I just slip the tart into the oven to reheat.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!"

Perhaps it was the freakish snowstorm that blanketed the northeast last weekend that got me thinking about soup. Of course there are summer soups—and I like a good gazpacho as well as the next person—but somehow it’s when the weather turns wintry that visions of soup bowls dance through my head. Thus it was that Sunday afternoon saw me standing at my stove (very luckily I was not one of the thousands who lost power), stirring up a big pot of dried mushroom and barley soup (dried mushroom because I had no fresh ones on hand but remembered a few mason jars of dried porcinis and shitakes in the cabinet).

And as I stood there stirring away, I got to thinking. There are two types of people in the world, I decided, those who like soup for dinner and those who don’t. Compare the following two soup memories and you’ll see what I mean.

My brother-in-law, whom in almost every respect I like very much, asked me what I was having for dinner that night. “Soup,” I replied, to which he turned to my sister (his wife) and said, “Know what I’d do if you served soup for dinner?” “Yeah. Send out for pizza.”

Only a few days later, a friend of mine collapsed in a chair by my desk and told me of her domestic tragedy: someone who for obvious reasons later refused to identify him or herself arrived home, saw a pot of what looked to be a whitish-grayish liquid, and, believing him or herself to be lending a helping hand, poured the entire pot of what turned out to be a potato-leek soup down the drain, very considerately washing up afterwards. My friend was crushed. She’d made the soup, left it on the stove, gone out to the gym, knowing that a warm comforting supper would be waiting when she returned. The thought of that nourishing liquid vanishing down the drain reduced her to tears. The food of sustenance sustaining no one.

I’ll put my cards on the table: I’m solidly in the camp of those who regularly have soup for supper. In fact I’ll go so far as to make the claim that soup is the quintessential supper: the two words are related after all, both tracing back to the ancient sup, from which we get our sop (the piece of bread used to soak up the broth, the ancestor of our croutons), soup (as the broth or pottage came to be called), and our supper.

It’s not at all uncommon to find me on a Sunday afternoon stirring up a pot of soup. I have no ethnic or national loyalty in this regard and am equally happy with Cuban black bean soup with sherry and lime; North African lentil soup spiced with cumin, coriander, turmeric, and ginger; Greek avgolemono, that puckeringly lemony chicken soup fortified with eggs and rice; Ezogelin Çorbasi, a Turkish red lentil and bulgur soup flavored with Aleppo pepper, paprika, and mint; Thai tom yam redolent of chili paste, limes, and cilantro; French onion soup laced with a splash of cognac; Hungarian mushroom-barley soup served with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill; Italian minestrone simmered with the rinds of parmesan cheese I freeze just for the occasion;  or a good old traditional Jewish chicken soup with matzo balls. As I stand there peering into my United Nations-of-a-soup kettle, I can often be heard reciting lines to myself from the song of the Mock Turtle from Alice in Wonderland

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Beau - ootiful Soo - oop!
Soo - oop of the e - e - evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

On the other hand, you might just hear me humming the words of a Maurice Sendak poem that Carole King later put to music: “I told you once, I told you twice, all seasons of the year are nice for eating chicken soup with rice!”

To my mind, the soup kettle should rightly be called a soup cauldron for in it the vital essences of bones, legumes, vegetables, grains, herbs, and spices are slowly but surely extracted—as though alchemically—and transformed into something far greater than the sum of its parts. The odds and ends found in the vegetable drawers of the refrigerator and the shelves of the pantry are transmogrified into an elixir of life.

You might think of the old folktale called “Stone Soup” in this context. Some travelers (or, in some versions of the tale, soldiers) turn up in a none-too-hospitable village with nothing but their appetites and a big empty soup kettle. Desperate to fill their stomachs, they announce they will brew up a broth of nothing but water and stones, and the villagers are so intrigued that they are hoodwinked into donating a bit of this and a bit of that to “enhance,” as the travelers say, the flavor of the stones. What more perfect illustration of our belief in soup’s almost magical ability to extract more-than-something from less-than-nothing?  What more perfect illustration, as well, of soup’s ability to bring out the best in people?

You try it. Invite some friends over for supper. Serve them soup. Try the recipe for Moroccan Lentil Soup, from Annie Somerville’s wonderful Fields of Greens. See what happens. Who knows? You might even win over my brother-in-law.

Moroccan Lentil Soup (8-9 cups)

1 cup lentils
6 cups cold water
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
cayenne pepper
1 carrot, diced
1 celery rib, diced
1 small red or yellow pepper, deced
1 tsp cumin seed, toasted and ground
½ tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp turmeric
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
8 oz can tomatoes with juice, chopped
2 tbsp chopped cilantro

Place lentils in a soup pot with the cold water. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until just tender (but not mushy), about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in sauté pan and add the onions, ½ tsp salt, and a few pinches of cayenne. Cook over medium heat until soft, 7-8 minutes, then add the vegetables, another ½ tsp salt, and the spices. Cook for 5 minutes, then stir in the garlic & ginger, and cook for another few minutes. Add the vegetables and the tomatoes to the lentils. Cover & cook for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and cayenne. Garnish each serving with a sprinkle of cilantro.

Note: These are Annie Somerville’s quantities; I almost always double or triple the amounts of everything, figuring that leftover soup is like money in the bank. Besides, it freezes very well & there are few things more comforting to me than the knowledge that in my freezer lurk single-serving containers of home-made soup, just waiting for me to heat them up when I’ve got an evening to myself.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Milk: Why do we love to hate it—and hate to love it?

A short piece for today, this last day of October, and I’ll tell you from the outset that what you’re about to read has very little to do with Halloween. I figure there are already pumpkins enough out there; and besides, I have a great pumpkin recipe I’m going to share with you closer to Thanksgiving—and it’s not for pumpkin pie! But the fact that it's Halloween does me think about children. More specifically, it makes me think about children coming home with candy, way too much candy. As far as I'm concerned, the best thing to do with all that candy is wash it down with a great big glass of milk. Ice cold milk. Straight out of the fridge. What could be better? Well, according to many adults I know, almost anything.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a food that inspires as emotional a response as milk. Drinking a glass of the stuff, that is. Pouring it over a bowl of cereal is fine and adding some to your morning coffee is OK too, but gulping down a glass of it straight out of the fridge? A little iffy. And even if you do indulge in a glass at home now and then—generally with a late-night cookie, a slice of chocolate cake, a piece or two of Halloween candy, or, on the other hand, over a lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—do you order it when you’re dining out on poisson au beurre blanc or pasta puttanesca? My guess is no. Why not? Why is it considered right and proper to order wine or beer or soda or water or even (if you live in the Midwest) coffee with your dinner, but not milk?

Because milk is for babies. They’re the ones for whom it’s produced, after all—nature didn’t intend it to nourish adults, which is why most babies are weaned from their mothers’ breasts about the time they start cutting the teeth that allow them to enter the wonderful world of solid food. Why bother with milk when you’ve got so many more appetizing options? And then there’s the business of lactose intolerance. Mammals generally lose the ability to digest lactose at about the age of two, which is explanation enough of why so many adults gag at the thought of a glass of milk: quite literally, it makes them sick.

 But the more you think about the matter, the more you have to admit that there are a lot of adults who keep drinking milk long after they’ve been weaned from the breast (granted, the milk of other species). They don’t associate milk with infancy; they just like to drink it and they can do so with no ill effect to their digestive systems, no doubt because milk has comprised such a major part of their diet for so many millennia that their physiologies have adapted to it. Who are they? The people who call it milk—or Milch, melk, mjolk—as opposed to the people who call it lait, latte, leche, or lapte. Whereas the milk-drinkers love the stuff, the latte-drinkers find it disgusting. Interesting, huh? People who speak a northern European language like German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and, yes, even English drink it, and people who speak a Romance language like French, Italian, Spanish, or Romanian don’t. Who said there’s no connection between the sounds that come out of our mouths and the things that go into them?

How this lacto-linguistic divide came into being is a matter of historical record. When Julius Caesar first stepped foot on northern soil, his astonished comment about the natives was “they live on milk and meat.” We can only imagine how queasy he must have felt: there were actually people who drank milk? But being Roman, he didn’t call it milk; he called it lacte, the beverage that he associated with babies—and with people who were little more than babies, barbarians. No Roman citizen would touch the stuff (except, of course, to transform it into cheese)—and neither did anyone who spoke a language that evolved from Latin. Up north, however, where the stuff was called milk, they saw not a thing wrong with drinking the raw liquid—and so they did. As they do to this day.

But here’s the rub. Even those of us who call it milk and who drink it as adults nonetheless echo Caesar’s disbelief and disdain. Certainly we do in public. Which is why we’re far more likely to drink it in the privacy of our own homes—standing in front of the refrigerator in our pajamas in the middle of the night—than when we’re out and about in the public eye. Don’t believe me? Just try ordering a glass the next time you’re out for dinner and see for yourselves what your friends and relations have to say.

Now, back to Halloween. I wonder if I've got enough candy to hand out tonight. I wonder if I've got enough milk on hand to wash down whatever's left over.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Case of Pie v. Tart

Many years ago I read an article in The New Yorker called “The Great American Pie Expedition.” It was about a car trip that the writer, Sue Hubbell, had taken with her German Shepherd Tazzie. Together, they’d traveled the back roads of the country with one goal in mind: “to eat pie” (at least that was her goal; I don’t think Tazzie shared it). That’s it. She just really wanted to eat pie. And pie she ate: blueberry and raspberry in New England, Shaker lemon in Kentucky; banana and coconut in “the cream-pie belt” of Pennsylvania and Ohio—not to mention, of course, apple, cranberry, pecan, and pumpkin, as summer gave way to fall. Mention was made, as well, of sour-cream raisin and even a peanut-butter pie.

It was a beautiful essay, filled with fields of wild blue phlox and buttercups (with a dog in the car you have to stop often). I especially remember her quoting a man she met who claimed that “pie judgments are sexually dimorphic.” “Women judge a pie by its crust,” he told her, “men by its filling.” Brilliant, I thought to myself; and, based on my own experience, how true.

Today the article comes to mind for a different reason. I’ve been wondering about why it is that we Americans so love our pies—as opposed to tarts, that is, which in a way are quite similar, but which we tend to reserve for fancy occasions or for when we dine out. Our most patriotic holidays feature pies: can you imagine July 4th or Thanksgiving without them? There’s something utterly all-American about pie. The admen at Chevrolet knew what they were doing with their “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet” jingle. We’ve even created a day in their honor: did you know that January 23rd is National Pie Day?

None of this is to say that we Americans are alone in our love of pies. Almost every cuisine you can think of has some sort of filled dough concoction. Obviously they’re popular the world over. It’s generally thought that the ancestor of European (and, hence, American) pies was born in ancient Greece and Rome where they used to enclose meat in a pastry made of flour and oil. It’s also thought that the Latin word torta, “a round loaf of bread,” came to refer to these pastries as the Romans set out to conquer the world, taking their pastry with them. Up north, olive oil was replaced by more readily available butter or lard, resulting in pastry dough that could be rolled out or molded. Thus was born both the “tortes” and “tartes” of France and, centuries later, of England: a happy marriage of a Roman name and northern fat, whether butter or lard. Some of the earliest English recipe compilations we have include a variety of “tartes” and “tartletes,” which back then were usually filled with bits of meat. Odd as it may sound, it was probably those bits of meat that gave us our distinctive English word pie, from the last syllable of magpie, the bird famous for stealing bits and pieces of things to construct its nest. To this day pies can still contain meat—just think of shepherd’s pie, steak-and-kidney pie, or the chicken pot pies that we tend to prefer on this side of the Atlantic—although it was the fruity ones that really took off after the Pilgrims brought their pies to America. It was here that dessert pies came into their own, allowing Sue Hubbell, a few hundred years later, to feast on the likes of Shaker Lemon Pie, Nantucket Cranberry Pie, Chocolate Meringue Pie, Shoofly Pie, Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie, and so many more.

What I conclude from this brief excursus through the history of pie is this: although most people bake something like them, only English speakers call them pies. So why is it, I wonder, that we adapted the French tarte, whereas they never cozied up to our pie? Why is it that they bake tartes, but not pies, whereas we English speakers bake both? And is the biggest difference between them based on ingredients and technique or, as I have a hunch, does it reflect instead our very different attitudes toward the two?

Culinary historians distinguish between pies and tarts as between two distinctly different confections: pies have flaky crusts, whereas tarts have crumbly ones; pies are baked in sloping-sided pans; tarts in pans with removable bottoms; pies have more filling and, often, a top crust, whereas tarts are always open-faced. All true, but I think that to the layman’s eye, the biggest difference is that one’s fancy and one’s not. If I were to tell you I’d just baked an apple tart, you’d think I was out to impress you. If I were to invite you over for a slice of apple pie, you’d be more likely to conjure up visions of a red checked tablecloth in a warm and fuzzy kitchen. Face it: a tarte aux pommes sounds more elegant than an apple pie, even though your guests might think you a bit snooty if you were to serve a tarte aux pommes next Thanksgiving.

There’s always an exception that proves the rule. Just consider the “Pop-Tart.” On the other hand, the Kellogg Company might have known precisely what they were up to. Nothing like a bit of French to add some panache.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Chutney

An unexpectedly quiet evening. A bumper crop of apples from a visit to an orchard earlier in the week. A bag of cranberries in the freezer since last Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but to me, a spare hour or two plus apples and cranberries equals chutney. Yes, I know that might not be your very first thought, but you see I’d already treated my family to an apple-cranberry crisp the evening before—which they devoured in record time—and I figured I’d vary things up with something savory. The beauty of chutney is that, apart from its starring fruit or vegetable, it’s made out of ingredients you tend to have on hand, it doesn’t take all that long to whip together, and people are unduly impressed when you serve up (or better yet, present them with a gift of) what they imagine must have taken the better part of a weekend to produce.

Within ten minutes, I’d peeled and chopped up my apples and had them happily simmering away on the stove with the cranberries (straight out of the freezer), some brown sugar and raisins for sweetness, some onion, ginger, and vinegar for tang, and a sprinkle of curry powder for a little warmth. Twenty minutes later, the various bits and pieces had magically transformed themselves into a ruby-colored, exotically-scented sludge of a paste that I let cool before spooning into jars which I then stashed in the nether regions of my refrigerator where no one ever looks. And there my chutney will remain, quietly mellowing and maturing until Thanksgiving rolls around, when its jewel-toned piquancy will shimmer all the more alluringly alongside the turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy—each and every one delicious, but not, as far as appearance is concerned, particularly attractive.

When I was a girl, the only chutney I knew was Major Grey’s Mango, which my mother always had a jar of on the door of the refrigerator. I don’t remember any of us ever actually eating it, though; she used to serve it with cheese and minced scallions as a fancy hors-d’oeuvre when company came over. It was when I went off to college in New York City that I discovered the wonderful world of spicy chutneys. I used to take the subway down to St. Mark’s Place and meander my way into one of any number of inexpensive Indian restaurants where you could dine like a rajah or rani for about $10.00 a person (admittedly, this was quite a few years ago). The moment you sat down, you were given a plate of crispy pappadum and a trio of chutneys, invariably including a spicy green one (whether coriander, chili, or mint), a tangy brownish-purple tamarind one, and burnished-red minced onion in cayenne.

At some point while I was eating my way through the gallons of chutney I consumed during my hundreds of visits to St. Marks Place, it dawned on me that the chutneys in Indian restaurants had very little in common with the Major Grey’s Mango in my mother’s refrigerator. At some point later, when I had a fully functioning kitchen of my own and had developed a fondness for producing jams, pickles, and chutneys, it occurred to me that my obviously Americanized apple and cranberry chutney was different still (they don’t have cranberries in India, after all!). What have they got in common other than the fact that they all consist of chopped up bits of fruits, herbs, and vegetables—which, by the way, is what the word sort-of means: it’s from the Hindi chatni— and ultimately from the Sanskrit catni—which means, simply, “to crush.”

It was Julie Sahni, author of Classic Indian Cooking, who finally set me straight. There are three types of popular relishes—or chutneys—she explains in her Classic Indian Cooking: chopped vegetable relishes (like the cayenne-sprinkled onion one); fresh herb pastes (like the chili, coriander and mint ones), and preserved relishes made by cooking cut-up pulpy fruits like apples, pears, tamarind, or mangoes, with sugar, vinegar and spices (like my mother’s Major Grey Chutney and the apple-cranberry one I cooked up the other night).

Then I happened to read David Burton’s wonderful The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India, which begins with a telling exchange of parting gifts, so to speak. Although British rule over India officially ended in 1947, the subcontinent held onto quite a number of specifically English institutions, including the parliamentary, legal, and railway systems, not to mention the language itself. What was not kept, unsurprisingly, was English food. On the other hand, when the English departed, after some hundreds of years in India they took very little with them. A few words perhaps—like bungalow, dinghy, jodhpur, jungle, pajamas, and shampoo. Mostly what they took was the food. Whether or not there really was an officer in the Bengal Lancers named Major Grey is a subject of much contention, but no one can deny the enduring popularity of the chutney that bears his name. It’s even inspired a little ditty:

All things chickeney and mutt’ny
Taste better far when served with chutney.
This is the mystery eternal:
Why didn’t Major Grey make colo-nel?

If the Brits got away with it, I figure, why can’t I? And so I give to you my recipe for an entirely inauthentic but very delicious American chutney. Make it today. Before you know it, it’ll be Thanksgiving.

Apple-Cranberry Chutney

3 cups whole cranberries (fresh or frozen)
4-5 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
½ cup raisins (light or dark)
¼ cup minced fresh ginger
1 cup chopped onion
¼ cup vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but other fruit ones would be nice too)
pinch curry powder
grated zest of 1 lemon

Mix everything up in a large pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and let simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture is thickened. Let cool, spoon into jars, and refrigerate. Of course you can eat this right away, but it’s a lot better if you wait a few weeks. This is also great, by the way, with pears instead of (or even in addition to) the apples.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In Honor of Columbus Day

If you’ve ever seen Frank Capra’s 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life, you’ll remember the scene when George Bailey, desperate to escape his creditors, wishes that he’d never been born. Miraculously his wish is granted and he’s given the profoundly unsettling opportunity to see what his hometown would be like had he never existed. To his shock and disbelief, nothing is as it should be. The most familiar sights had become strange. 

I realize that most people associate this movie with Christmas when it’s all but impossible to avoid, but to me it’s got just as much to say to us about the holiday we’re celebrating today, Columbus Day. There’s a great analogy buried in there just waiting to be brought to light: as George Bailey was bewildered by his familiar-yet-strange hometown, so too would we be confused by the familiar-yet-strange state of the world’s food had Columbus never sailed the ocean blue.
Just think about it. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, red, green and chili peppers, kidney and lima beans, corn, tapioca, vanilla, chocolate, peanuts, pecans, cashews, and the pièce de resistance of the Thanksgiving groaning board, the turkey—to name only a few (and that’s not including such other New World foods as the avocado, pineapple, mango, guava, papaya, grapefruit, jicama, Brazil and macadamia nuts, quinoa, wild rice, and quinine). Each and every one of these was “discovered” only after Columbus crossed the Atlantic, ostensibly in search of the East Indies. Logically, then, before 1492, the food the rest of the world ate must have looked and tasted very different.

For a moment, then, imagine yourself in George Bailey’s shoes, except instead of Bedford Falls, your hometown is our contemporary Global Village. Your guardian angel has just granted you a vision of the world at table had King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella never decided to fund Columbus’s voyage. (Of course someone else might have sailed across the ocean—it’s not called “The Age of Exploration” for nothing—but let’s suspend our disbelief for the sake of the analogy).

There’d still be pasta and pizza in Italy, but they’d lack their familiar blanket of tomato sauce. There’d still be polenta as well—not to mention mămăligă, the national dish of Romania—but they’d be made out of such grains as millet or chestnut flour as they had been for centuries before cornmeal eclipsed everything else. The countries of the Vodka Belt would still be drinking their favorite spirit, but it wouldn’t be distilled from potatoes or corn. There’d be no peanuts in Indonesian satays, no chili peppers in Indian curries, no paprika in Hungarian paprikash, and no vanilla beans in Madagascar. There’d be no butternut squash in the tagines of Morocco, no haricot verts to be blanched and tossed in butter and French tarragon, no cashews in Szechuan stir-fries, and, since there’d be no quinine, there’d be no gin and tonics at all. Nor would there be chocolate mousse, Belgian chocolate, Black Forest cake, or Sachertorte. In fact, there’d be no chocolate whatsoever. That’s right: absolutely no chocolate.

Every schoolchild knows that Columbus “discovered America” and proved to the world the earth was round (although in truth people had known this for centuries already). Why aren’t they taught what, to my mind, was his far more momentous contribution to world history: the introduction of such a wealth of new foods to the rest of the world? 

In honor of the day named after him, then, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the Global Village to celebrate with a meal comprised of nothing but New World ingredients? It could begin with a butternut squash soup and slices of molasses cornbread. A roast turkey could follow, accompanied by mashed potatoes, string beans, and cranberry sauce. For dessert, a trio of pies—sweet potato, pumpkin, and pecan—and, of course, something decadently chocolate.

Oh wait, that’s Thanksgiving, the holiday commemorating the Pilgrims having survived their first year in the New World.

Let’s try again. How about instead of an all-American meal, we celebrate Columbus Day with a truly global meal, a meal that represents the marriage of Old and New? How about starting with that wonderful Italian tomato and bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, which simply couldn’t be without the tomatoes indigenous to Peru? How about a nice and spicy Vindaloo, that fiery specialty of the Goan region of India, colonized by the Portuguese who’d brought with them the chili peppers they’d discovered in Mexico—the chili peppers that were to forever transform the cuisine of the subcontinent. On the other hand, who could object to a Mafé, one of the most popular dishes of sub-Saharan Africa, in which chunks of whatever meat you like (chicken, lamb, beef, or even fish) are stewed in a sauce that features a trinity of New World ingredients: tomatoes, peanuts, and chili peppers?
For dessert, it’s got to be chocolate. My personal vote goes for a Sachertorte, that unforgettable Viennese confection invented by Franz Sacher in the early nineteenth century: layers of dense not-too-sweet chocolate cake are sandwiched together with apricot jam and then coated with dark chocolate. Traditionally served with whipped cream, it would be an unforgettable ending to our truly global meal. Those of you with more of a sweet tooth than I’ve got would have no cause to complain when served a scoop or two of Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream dripping with a Belgian chocolate sauce.

NB: Anyone who knows anything Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the New World knows that I’ve completely omitted discussion of one of the most important new foods of all: cane sugar grown on the plantations in Cuba and Hispaniola. The subject is a fascinating and enormous one that an old friend of mine has been urging me to write about. Jon, I promise: one day soon!

Monday, October 3, 2011

An Armchair Foodie

Some of you may know that when I’m not thinking or writing about food (am I ever not thinking or writing about food?), I teach classes on literature. Call it my oral obsession if you must, but to my mind food and words go together like bread and butter, ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly—well, you get the picture. Obsessed with food words as I clearly am, then, who can be surprised that I’d be especially happy whenever the book I happen to be teaching talks about food? From the Bible (whose very first story involves fruit) to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (whose central scene is a dinner party featuring that marvel of French cuisine, a boeuf en daube), the books that are dearest to my heart are the ones that have food in them.

Just the other day, though, I was made painfully aware of the fact that not everyone gets as hungry as I do, whether physically or imaginatively, at the merest mention of food in literature. Of course I knew this already (I’ve been teaching for a lot of years), but somehow this time I was called up especially short.

I had assigned my students to read a short story in which a young Indian-American couple isn’t getting along too well (it’s the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, for those of you who are interested). “Name at least one of the dinners Shukumar makes for his wife Shoba,” I asked on the quiz I handed round at the start of the class. The answers were very revealing—and I don’t mean that they revealed whether or not the students had done the assigned reading. “Er . . . something that involves meat of some kind?” one student tentatively wrote. “I’m not sure. I didn’t see much point to it,” another admitted. I was completely taken aback. I’d thought it was a give-away question. How could they not remember that it was the fragrantly spiced lamb stew called rogan josh the husband cooked for his wife one night or shrimp in coconut milk (shrimp malai) another? Every time I read Lahiri’s stories, I either cook an Indian dinner or go out for one as soon as possible. How could they remain so indifferent?

They’re not foodies, that’s why. And it’s not that they’re college students who live in dorms, eat in dining halls, and haven’t yet had the time (or money) to turn into foodies. Because here’s another response and it’s also from a student: “Spiced lamb stew with rice and lentils; Indian shrimp in coconut milk.” Perfect recall. “I love to eat,” he whispered to me as he turned his quiz in, completed in record time; “I love it when books describe food.”

Obviously, there are two types of readers in the world and the distinction has nothing to do with age: foodie-readers and non-foodie-readers. When foodie-readers unexpectedly happen upon a description of food in a story or a novel, their eyes lose focus and their mouths start to water. Plot and character fade into the background, entirely unable to hold their own against such as passages as “a glass of bright pink yogurt with rose syrup, breaded mincemeat with raisins, a bowl of semolina halvah” and “April 2, cauliflower with fennel; January 14, chicken with almonds and sultanas.” Non-foodie-readers, on the other hand—the ones who, in the words of one such student, simply “eat to live”—skim over such passages impatiently, assuming them to be as irrelevant to the meat of the story as those insufferably intricate descriptions of landscapes are to nineteenth-century novels. Who really attends to such details after all? Fluff and nonsense—that’s all they are.

Well, here I am to say that I, for one, do attend to those details. I treasure such passages and remember them more clearly than I do almost anything else as years go by. I may forget the names of the characters and even the entire plot, but I’ll never forget if food appeared in the book. I remember a novel in which an unconventional and dissatisfied wife gives away the silly little bon-bons her husband imagines to be a properly feminine gift, preferring to eat such fortifyingly masculine foods as roasted chicken, broiled fish, cheese, and—heaven forfend!—beer. I remember another novel in which a hungry young Jewish immigrant woman resentfully watches her mother ladle out meager portions of Friday night’s chicken soup, carefully reserving all the glistening fat for the husband and father, the provider of the family, who, ironically, doesn’t provide a cent.

I’ve got hundreds of such memories, but my point is clear. To a certain kind of reader—the foodie-reader—food plays as central a role as characters, plot, setting, and all those other aspects of fiction you learned about in back in high school. When a young husband takes the time to cook traditional dinners for his wife who would just as soon have a bowl of corn flakes, you know the marriage hasn’t got a chance. When a woman forgoes bon-bons for beer, you know she’s rebelling against what a patriarchal society tells her she ought to like—and to be. When a young girl’s self-realization comes via the chicken fat in her Sabbath soup, you know that her resentment against her society’s values is about to boil over.

Why, though, do some students hungrily attend to such details while others skim indifferently on? Why do some understand that food, in literature as in life, conveys meaning while others see it as no more than a source of necessary vitamins and minerals? Who knows why some people are born foodies and others aren’t—and why, consequently, some grow up into foodie-readers and others don’t?

I used to think family background was responsible. Those whose memories of love, warmth, and belonging are intricately associated with food are more likely to appreciate that food is about so much more than nutrition. Those who grew up in houses where Monday meant pizza, Tuesday boxed macaroni & cheese, Wednesday hot dogs & baked beans, on the other hand, are less likely to associate food with joy—or sorrow or love or any other emotion for that matter. But this easy cause-and-effect may not be true. I know people who grew up in families where dinners were bland forgettable affairs to be gotten through as quickly and silently as possible, and who nonetheless grew up into incurable foodies, and I know others who come from dyed-in-the-wool foodie backgrounds yet somehow managed to remain immune to the pleasures of all things gustatory.

When all is said and done, I don’t think we’ll ever know why some people live to eat whereas others eat to live, but of one thing I’m entirely sure. If you don’t smell the spices in the rogan josh, or the wine and herbs in the boeuf en daube, or the slow-simmered chicken in the Sabbath soup—even if the aromas emanate from no more than words on a page—then you’re not a foodie-reader and you have not the slightest hope of understanding what the author (or should I say, foodie-writer?) was trying to express.