Monthly Archives: January 2004

The Politics of Food

About as apolitical as a subject can get: What did you have for dinner?

Wrong!

What you had for dinner is helping to determine not only your future health in basic direct and indirect ways but also the future economy of your country and the world and the environment that we all live in. You may have noticed a new icon to the left above my rather meager list of links. It is a link to a site called the Meatrix. Be warned – you won’t enjoy it as much if you don’t have the ability to watch Flash movies. This one site is a first step in education but there are many more.

I first got interested in these issues when I was only 14 years old. I was reading ‘Small Is Beautiful,” by E. F. Schumacher and had been helping my Dad grow vegetables in his organic allotment garden. I had also recently read parts of ‘Silent Spring’ and suddenly all these ideas crystallized in my head. It was one of the days I think back to as a day I started to grow up (some would be surprised that the process has started…)

I went on to read another book that is in contrast almost unknown and certainly out of print. More my kind of book, too, a recipe book called ‘Future Food’ by Colin Tudge. While far less political, this book makes the assumption that in the future in order to feed everyone we will have to eat far less meat. Not no meat, but far less meat. Some other assumptions are also made and the book then sets out to provide a global collection of recipes that anticipate our food needs in the future, mostly based on recipes from the past. The level of long term thought in what is essentially just a cookbook really impressed me as a teenager. Still does. I keep the book on the important cookbook shelf at home even though I almost never use it.

To turn this all to more practical use, I will discuss our dinner tonight. The main part is an old standby, mentioned before and cooked often at our house. We call it garlic pasta. Others might call it orzo con aglio et olio. Basically pasta with olive oil, garlic chili flakes and salt. Then a bunch of yellow chard supplied by the unsurpassed and truly wonderful Terra Firma Farms as part of our weekly box of organic produce. Finally some Tilapia (a kind of fish) sauteed in olive oil and then coated in a sauce made of lemon juice and a little Chinese black bean and garlic sauce. What is political in this meal? Well, first the choice of fish rather than meat – my daughter remains true to her vegetarian plus fish principles and fish is more sustainable than meat. That brings us to political point part two. Tilapia is a freshwater fish that is very easy and sustainably farmed throughout South America and China. It is also tasty and cheap. To drive the political points home. Unlike most people in America we did not eat a prepackaged meal. We minimized the mass-produced agribusiness part of our meal as much as possible (pasta from a large Italian conglomerate could be improved upon).

I urge you all to think about these issues and act on them. You will be a better person for it. Healthier, wealthier (good eating saves money), more considered, more considerate and you will have made a small step toward change.

Sushi

Sushi takes me back – a long way back. I think I was 22, living in London and I got taken to one of the first sushi places in London – This was 1985 maybe. My memory of it is very, very hazy, but I’m pretty sure it was fairly bad sushi and thinking back it was probably only the vast quantities of beer AND sake that saved us from a nasty episode. (As an aside, drinking alcohol with sushi does in fact help protect you from getting sick – very slightly from bacterial infections from sushi that isn’t truly fresh – and quite a lot from the potentially nastier parasitical infections).

Anyway, I was in my usual try anything mode. I habitually try the strangest thing on the menu at any place I haven’t eaten before, so raw fish certainly wasn’t going to faze me.

And that was where my interest began. It wasn’t hard to see even then that sushi couldn’t be all that hard to make and since at the time I wasn’t eating meat – just fish – it fit really well. So I got a couple of books and a few important items at the oriental store in Covent Garden and started making some. It was easy enough that I soon started making it for other people and I have even held sushi making parties where the supplies are all to hand and people can make their own.

I far prefer maki – the roll sushis. You can combine a couple of tastes easily. They are easy to stretch out to more people. They include the nori that to me is a key part of sushi. And they are easy.

The only hard part of sushi is the rice. The more effort you put in to do it properly, the more you’ll get back in terms of good sushi.

The supplies you absolutely MUST have are: a large wooden bowl, a wooden spoon and a bamboo mat for rolling. These are exactly the same as a common kind of bamboo place setting mat and consist of lots of very thin bamboo pieces next to each other held together with twined strings toward each end and looking a bit like a log raft made out of lots of very long toothpicks.

I particularly like smoked salmon and cucumber sushi, so that’s what I’ll write about.

Smoked Salmon and Cucumber Maki Sushi

You need to get real japanese style rice – either from Japan or from California. Hinode is a decent kind, but use what you can get. Wash the rice at least three times, maybe four, scrubbing it carefully together and then rinsing it thoroughly each time. You should use three cups of rice for four or five people. The rice will be wet, so you use less water – three and a half cups for the three cups of rice. I wash the rice directly in a rice cooker bowl and cook it in the rice cooker. Once you’ve washed it and added the water, add three tablespoons of sake or mirin (rice wine) and cook as normal in the rice cooker. Purists will cook the rice with dashi (shaved bonito tuna flakes) and kombu (a piece of kelp) but they are a lot harder to get than the rest of the ingredients so you can skip them.

While it cooks get the vinegar dressing ready. You can get pre-seasoned rice vinegar, but if you can’t, warm half a cup of rice vinegar with three tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of salt until they dissolve. Then let it cool while the rice finishes cooking.

Now comes the hard part. A fan helps if you have access to one. When the rice is cooked, empty it quickly into the wooden bowl. Carefully pour the seasoned vinegar over all the rice and start turning it over rapidly with the wooden spoon while fanning the rice or blowing on it or anything else you can think of to cool it rapidly while mixing in the vinegar. This coats the surface of the rice with the vinegar without letting it soak in and results in the correct shiny, sticky but not glutinous sushi rice. Keep doing this until the rice is tepid – it can take quite a lot of work.

Now for making the sushi – you can do this with guests around or do it ahead and present them with the perfect cut pieces of sushi.

Carefully lay out the smoked salmon cut into one third inch strips. Cut the ends of the cucumber and cut it into strips about the same size. You will need to have sheets of nori seaweed. These can be bought at high-end supermarkets and asian markets and are about 8 inches square. Technically you are supposed to lightly toast the sheets before you use them – this oddly makes them a much brighter green if you do it right – but I don’t always bother. If you want to do it, get a burner eye hot on your range (gas or electric) and using tongs pass the sheet back and forth over it far enough away that it won’t burn but close enough that it will get hot. It is done when it turns bright green.

Place a piece of nori on your rolling mat and cover the two thirds furthest from you with the thinnest layer of rice you can manage that doesn’t leave any gaps. Gently lay a strip of smoked salmon and cucumber down the center. It helps to rinse you hands between every ingredient when making sushi. Now roll the part of the sheet furthest from you carefully toward you, keeping the filling inside it and tucking it in as soon as possible. Then use the rolling mat to roll the part nearest you on top of the rest and carry on wrapping the rolling mat very tightly around the whole tube of sushi. Now squeeze it tightly, making the roll as firm as possible without breaking or splitting it. Hold it for a few seconds to help the seaweed seal from the moist rice.

Now trim the two ends – they are always looser than the rest. At this point just slice the roll into disks about half an inch thick. They will look and taste fabulous. Serve with japanese pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi – japanese horseradish.

A return to better ideas from the past…a distraction from present distractions

Saturday, unusually was a particularly productive day. I managed to get a lot of plastering and sanding done on the repairs to the kitchen walls resulting form putting in the new stove. I made buttermilk waffles (from How to Cook Everything which is linked on the currently reading list on the left). I wandered around the neglected back yard and picked a pound of arugula and half a pound of sorrel. Then I made Cream of Arugula, sorrel and spinach soup with smoked oysters. It may just be the best recipe I have ever come up with and I’ll give it below.

Then I decided it was time to get back to writing my mystery novel that I have mentioned from time to time so I got started again and am spending a couple of hours today (Sunday) on it as well. But enough of that – time to tell you about the soup…

Cream of Arugula, Sorrel, Spinach and Smoked Oyster Soup

You will need a good two pounds of greens for this as well as some garlic and onion, a pint of cream and two 4oz cans of smoked oysters. First, chop coarsely about four cloves of garlic. I actually used a single stalk of green garlic from our vegetable box. Start that sauteing on medium heat with two tablespoons of olive oil. Then carefully wash the greens (I used a pound of arugula, half a pound of fresh spinach and half a pound of sorrel). You may need to do this two or three times to get all the grit out. Then chop the greens moderately finely and start adding them about a quarter at a time until they sweat down to a smaller size. I also chopped up the green part of a bunch of spring onions and added them at this point. When all the greens are sweated down, add a quart of vegetable stock and bring it all to the boil and turn off. Add salt to taste at this point and then use a blender or some other method to puree almost all the liquid and greens (leave a little for texture). Now add the cream and carefully stir in. Add ground black pepper to taste. Then open the cans of smoked oysters, pour the liquid into the soup (if there is excess oil, pour that off first). Then chop the oysters into small pieces and stir them into the soup. Reheat at this point if necessary and serve. I made buttermilk biscuits to go with it and snipped chives onto the bowls of soup after serving.

This soup would probably be even better with even more kinds of greens, but arugula and sorrel really work very very well – you need something with a little kick to it as well as plainer greens like spinach or chard.

Look – more free recipes

Well, not more really. I just archived everything and went through it and discovered that I had 47 recipes/guidelines embedded in this weblog rather than the 43 it says in the left hand navigation bar. So I updated it to 47, instantly giving you four more recipes…

Work is hectic right now so I am not getting much time to update this, but I’ll try to take time to go back through the recipes and see if I’ve missed anything I should have included.

True Grit

Over the weekend we all went to have brunch with some old friends who we haven’t seen in a very long time – Anthony and Carmen. They made a most excellent brunch and we caught up somewhat and saw their delightful new house. It was great to renew an old friendship and we have tentative plans to go see a movie. The girls had a good time too, as they always do with nice adults. There were a lot of other people going in and out, too, so it felt almost like a housewarming party (but not quite – we will have to save the bread and salt for another time).

Anyway, Anthony reminded me when I mentioned Tomatilla! to him that I used to make a very special grit dish – in fact I made grits so much we joked about opening a restaurant where all the dishes had grits in them…

It has been a long time, so I am going to hope I remember this right.

Mushroom Sesame Grits

You should use quick grits and these are just about the only kind you can buy at a supermarket anyway. Chop up about 8 ounces of mushrooms and heat a small pot to high with a bout a tablespoon of olive oil in it. As soon as the pot gets hot, put in the mushrooms and about a tablespoon of sesame seeds and then put a lid on the pot. Continue cooking for five minutes shaking the pot periodically. Then add about a tablespoon of soy sauce. Turn of the heat, shake one last time and let sit while you make the grits according to the package. You want grits for three people according to the package and then the above recipe will serve two.

From the cradle of civilization

A lot of thoughts have come together for this brief entry. My daughter is studying ancient civilizations in her social studies classes in middle school and was asking me to help find trade routes between Ur and the Indus Valley civilizations (Mahenjo-Daro). That is to say between Iran/Iraq along the Tigris and Euphrates and northern India. These are two of the areas known to have developed agriculture, literacy, bread-making and beer-making among many many other things.

Then I was reading a very interesting article from the Christian Science Monitor about Afghani bread being baked in a large tandoor buried under the bakery. And finally I had to cook dinner for a bunch of people Friday night and because of the bread I thought of some kind of Afghani type of food. I’ve made this kind of thing before, so I more or less winged it.

We had a Persian pilaf that I learned how to make (sort of – I can’t do it as well as her) from my sister-in-law who is Persian. It is made by lining the bottom and sides of the pot with potatoes coated in oil and adding onion and flavorings (I used decorticated cardamom and turmeric) and then gently cooking the rice as normal in this lined pot. I did it in the rice cooker and it all worked fine except that the potato didn’t come away in a neat shell like it is supposed to. But rice cooked this way is really exceptional. I also made one of my standard sauteed greens – this time spinach and collards with a little ginger, lemon juice and soy sauce. The main meal was an Afghani style kebab cooked as a sauce to go with rice rather than as whole kebabs served with a cilantro sauce.

Afghani style Ground Beef

Dice four medium potatoes up into one quarter inch cubes. Start them frying on high in about three tablespoons of olive oil. Add about a teaspoon each of cumin seeds and decorticated cardamom seeds (the black seeds inside cardamom pods). Dice an onion up the same size and add that. Turn the heat down a little and stir frequently. Now add two pounds of high quality lean ground beef and carefully stir and break it apart into fork-sized chunks as it browns. Add in a tablespoon each of ground cardamom and ground cumin and a teaspoon of ground turmeric. Keep stirring. Blend together six garlic cloves and a piece of ginger about two inches long (both peeled) and add a cup of red wine so you can pour it easily out of the blender. Once the meat is browned add the wine/garlic/ginger combo to the pan and stir it in thoroughly and turn the heat down even lower. Now add about two tablespoons of lemon juice and salt to taste.

It really was a meal fit for the cradle of civilization. I have heard people in the past sneer about the food and cooking of the middle east. They are just plain wrong. The problem really is that most middle eastern food in the US is just badly and cheaply made so that’s the way it tastes.

Celery and parsnips don’t mix

When you cook the way I do – look at what you have available and try to make something from it, sometimes drawing on recipes, sometimes not – then you find out that occasionally your bright ideas don’t pan out. The infamous sweet potato fish pie springs to mind. I actually followed a recipe for that one, but I should have known better. It was a little different yesterday. I wasn’t following a recipe, I just made it up out of whole cloth and the result was really pretty bad. The basic outlines went OK. I had planned to make polenta and some kind of nice sauce to go on it and to have baby zucchini fried with basil leaves and lemon on the side. The polenta was fine, the zucchini were excellent, but the sauce was another story. I looked in the fridge and we had parsnips, spring onions and celery that needed using. Instead of doing the sensible thing (parsnips as a side dish) and something like crispy celery, onion, sage and bacon on top, I made single sauce from parsnips, celery, spring onions, a little tomato and some canned peppers (plus a few other things to perk up the flavor). It was terrible. Never mix celery and parsnips.

I’ll give you the outline of the zucchini, though – they were good.

Fried Basil and Baby Zucchini

I used a pound of baby zucchini (three to four inches long each) and a big bunch of basil. I got a couple of tablespoons of olive oil really hot in a non-stick pan and added about half the basil and let it begin to crisp up. Then I carefully layered on top the zucchini so that they all were lying flat in the pan and I let it cook for about five minutes on medium high. Then I carefully stirred them all to get more of the other side of the zucchini into contact with the pan, added a lemon’s worth of juice and about a teaspoon of salt, the rest of the basil went on top. I let it cook for three minutes more and turned the heat off and covered the pan and let it sit for five minutes. It would probably have been even better if all the basil had gone in at first and then I had actively stirred the pan for the eight minutes of direct cooking.

The polenta got its second legs this morning when I made fried polenta and eggs for breakfast and there is still more left for another breakfast or lunch for everyone.

Messing about with style sheets

Anyone who dropped by in the past five hours or so (afternoon to early evening PST) would have seen a dizzying array of strange and broken designs for this site as I experimented away with simultaneously moving to a three column format, adding Google adwords, updating the header and adding in images, as well as experimenting with FTP to my host. I’m not yet 100% happy and will probably reduce the image size a bit and try to come up with a way to use the wasted space to the left and right on the header. But overall it should be a bit better.

Kind of Cuban beans

Unfortunately the food has nothing to do with any parallel in my life. It would be nice to be down in Cuba with the warm winter sun and the slower pace of life and the decaying grandeur of it all. Instead I’m in a Silicon Valley winter with rain and cold and wet, cold, aggressive people making life miserable. The beans took all that away for an hour or so.

I say kind of cuban because, well, they have almost nothing to do with Cuba except that there are some Cuban flavors, some Cuban attitude and because I felt like it. They were accompanied by a vegetable stew using carrots, turnips, onions, turnip green stems, garlic, lemon juice, cilantro, a little hot pepper, brown sugar and salt, served on top of basmati rice. The stew wasn’t a big success, but the beans were.

Cuban Mustard Beans

I used canned beans because this was a weeknight and I was in a hurry, but also because canned beans are perfectly OK in the right place. So…

heat up a couple of tablespoons of oil in a pot. Drop in about an eighth of a teaspoon of chili flakes. Stir in the tops of a small bunch of greens (I used turnip tops but mustard greens would be particularly good). Once they are wilted, add about two chopped cloves of garlic and let them cook for a minute. Then add the beans. I used one can of black beans and one of Jackson Wonder (a kind of broad bean). Now stir in a teaspoon of ground cumin and about a tablespoon of lemon juice. Add salt to taste and let it all get hot. Then serve.

House projects and vegetarians

What do they have in common? The bane of my existence? I hate both of them? Well no. Actually they have nothing in common. I like vegetarians and was one for nine years until I fell off the bandwagon. What happened is that they both impinged on my life this past week very heavily.

I have spent most of the weekend staining grapestake for the remainder of the wooden part of our fence. The last metal parts arrived as well, so we are ready to have it all put up. Much of the wooden one is up already and when the grapestake is stained we will be able to put up the last of it.

We also had an emergency. The swimming pool started to drain and I finally tracked the leak down to the return pipe from the pump to the pool, but the crack in the pipe was under our concrete pathway – fortunately not very far under. So I got to jackhammer it out, dig down to the pipe, cut out the offending section and redo the pipe. Then refill the pool. Fortunately all went well. So that was the house project part of it (or some of the house project part – there were a few other projects as well…

Also, Grace decided to become a vegetarian. So I am reducing the meat in our cooking and increasing the vegetables – not a bad idea anyway. We have managed pretty well so far. The highlight as far as I was concerned (but Grace didn’t like it) was a cauliflower and spinach in mustard cheese sauce – sort of like a Mornay.

Creamy cauliflower and spinach

First, cut up the cauliflower into small florets and boil until only just cooked. You can do the same with the leaves as well if still attached. Then transfer to a pot with a little olive oil and gently cook with chopped spinach until both are soft and hot.

Make a simple roux with olive oil and flour and make it into a basic white sauce with milk. Put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a pot and heat it on medium high. Stir in about three tablespoons of flour very thoroughly and carefully so it is completely mixed and continue to heat for about a minute but do not let it brown. Then slowly add two and a half cups of milk stirring vigorously to make a thick and creamy sauce. Stir in a cup of grated cheddar cheese and two tablespoons of strong mustard and keep heating until the cheese just melts. Then pour the sauce over the vegetables and combine and salt to taste.