Monday, November 1, 2010

We've moved

OK, I haven't posted in months, but I've moved addresses over to here.  More on food, a little less on beer.  Oh and it's mostly vegan food now.  Please check it out....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Diet Food

I don’t do diets well. Frankly the problem is that I love food and I really don’t like not being able to eat whatever I want and as much as I want. The truth is I don’t eat a horrible diet. Honestly, I don’t. The real problem is I eat too much (and those pints of beer probably aren’t good for the waistline either). On a recent trip to the library, I noticed I had reserved a book on the Okinawa diet. The funny thing was I didn’t remember putting it on my reserve list. I had been expecting a copy of 100 Deep Fried Foods You Can Make at Home and Lard Every Day, but they conspicuously missing. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that my wife has my library card number and the login info for the library website.

The Okinawa Diet is based on some studies of the inhabitants of Okinawa who have longer than average life spans. Not surprisingly, their diets have a lot to do with it. I will avoid the details of the studies and the diet itself to concentrate on what I consider the more interesting point. Okinawa has traditionally been a poorer part of Japan. The traditional diet was filled with whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, some fish and very little meat. It doesn’t differ that dramatically from the diets of a lot of people in a lot of traditionally poorer areas. They ate very few expensive foods, like meat, which accounts for their healthy, long life spans. Take these same people and feed them a more affluent diet that’s higher in fat and animal products and they drop dead as fast as the rest of us.

Studies have been done on other populations with healthy diets with similar results. The Mediterranean diet has been touted as a very healthy one as well. It, too, is filled with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, some fish and very little meat. I read once of a study of the Greek diet in the early 1950’s that showed how healthy the typical Greek diet was. However, when they asked the participants of the study what they would change about their diet if they could, the largest response was that they would eat more meat. Traditional diets are healthier than modern ones, because traditionally, food was more expensive and the biggest problem has been getting enough calories every day.

The real problem with our modern diet is our affluence. In US, people spend a lower percentage of their income on food now than they did in 1970. Good food is still expensive, but calories are cheaper. We have reached a period in human history where food is so plentiful and cheap that a large percentage of us are becoming unhealthy from overeating as opposed to many of us being unhealthy from a lack of calories. I am not arguing that we have eradicated hunger, or that all of the cheap abundant food is good or good for us. But our affluence is in fact killing us.

I’m a perfect example of this. I eat too much because I can. But I do need to lose weight, both for health reasons and because I’d like to avoid being forced to buy a new wardrobe. I am using books like the one on the Okinawa diet for ideas, but the truth is I know how to lose weight. It’s easy, but the process is heinous. Eat more whole grains, more vegetables and fruits, cut down dramatically on meat and cheese, use less fat in cooking and get lots more exercise. And watch those portion sizes. There that’s easy. Now I just need to do it.

But the idea of going back to traditional diets where the unhealthy foods, like meat and other high fat foods, are used in lower quantities is likely the only way I’m going to be able to do this. So what am I cooking? Last night was pretty good. I’m not particularly adept at really authentic Asian food. I do some dishes, like traditional Thai curries, really well, but I’m not an expert in any particular Asian cuisine. But I do Pan-Asian (or faux Asian), where you can mix things from different traditions pretty well.

Last night was soba noodles with poached chicken breast and vegetables. Soba is a buckwheat noodle from Japan. If you go to a good Asian grocer you will see a variety of soba at different prices. Most of them are a combination of wheat and buckwheat flours. In general, the more expensive they are, the more buckwheat they contain. Buckwheat contains no glutens and the more buckwheat you use the more difficult the noodles are to make. Unfortunately most packages won’t give percentages. Experiment with different ones until you find one that has a good buckwheat taste and isn’t insanely priced.

Poaching is a great way to cook meat or fish because it doesn’t require added. You can poach the chicken in water or in a flavored broth. Obviously a flavored broth gives you better flavor. My favorite currently is a mix of water with soy (about 50/50) with several slices of ginger in it. The high salt content of the soy keeps the chicken moist. You don’t need to cover the chicken with the liquid to poach it, but it should be almost completely covered. Remember, poaching isn’t boiling. If you boil it, you’ll get stringy meat. You want the liquid to shimmer but not in a rolling boil. If you’re using chicken breast, you should be able to cook it in 10 minutes or less. Thighs may take a little longer and won’t overcook as easily.

When the chicken is cooked, take it out to cool and slice it into bite size pieces and add them to a large mixing bowl. You can use a variety of vegetables including grated carrots, julienned cabbage, and scallions, and don’t need to cook any of them. You can also add herbs like cilantro, Thai basil or mint. Last night I used shredded carrots, scallions, mint and cilantro. Cook the soba (they cook quickly so don’t overcook them), drain them and toss them with the chicken and vegetables.

You can use a variety of sauces. Last night’s was faux Southeast Asian so I made a sauce of fish sauce, sugar, green chile, garlic, ginger, and lime juice. Previously I did a sauce from soy, miso, mirin, and garlic. Add the sauce to the noodles and toss it again. You can garnish it after with toasted sesame seeds or chopped roasted peanuts.

Add a malty beer to balance the chile heat and you’ve got a good dinner with no added fat. Diet food I can actually eat.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Convenience Foods I Love

April 7

I've been meaning to write something about convenience foods for a while. Initially I thought it would be called "10 Convenience Foods I Can't Live Without" but when I started a numbered list, I had a hard time getting to ten. What exactly do I mean by convenience foods? I define it as food products that save you time and but still taste enough like the real thing that you can use them every day without ruining your food. Some of these may be things that other people don't consider convenience foods, since they're just frozen or canned items, but to me they're convenience foods. So here, in no particular order, are some convenience foods I love.

1. Canned low sodium chicken stock. Is it as good as real stock? No. Is real stock that hard to make? No, but although I do try to have homemade stock on hand at all times, I do run out. Canned chicken stock can be very good (far better than canned beef or vegetable broth, both of which I really dislike) and if you need real stock for something like paella or risotto, you can boil canned stock with some onion, celery and carrots for 20 minutes to dress it up and make it taste more like homemade. No it's still not the same, but in a pinch it's fine. It's better than foregoing a meal you're craving because it requires real stock.

2. Canned tomatoes. I couldn't cook without canned tomatoes. I use them for all kinds of things. In fact, if tomatoes aren't in season, I'm one of those people that thinks canned tomatoes are better than the hard pink tomatoes that most supermarkets carry. In fact, even some of the expensive hot house tomatoes aren't that good either. Don't get me wrong, nothing beats a real, ripe tomato, but given a choice of anemic plum tomatoes in the supermarket and canned, I'll choose canned every time. I use them for pasta sauce, for braises, and soups. No, you can't use them on sandwiches or in salads, but I make salsa from canned tomatoes and it's considerably better than jarred or so-called fresh salsas in the supermarket. The ugly truth about canned tomatoes is that the canners have so much buying power they actually get some of the best tomatoes from growers every year.

3. Frozen corn. OK, so maybe some people don't consider these types of things convenience foods, but I do. Corn is another vegetable with a short season. Frozen corn works well in a lot of things. I make corn salsas, corn and bean salads, pork, chile and corn soup and all kinds of other things with it. If you're using it for a salsa or salad, you can spread it on a sheet pan and toast it in a 300 degree oven to dry out the kernels and give it a little more texture and toothiness. Again, it's not a substitute for fresh corn, but it can do a lot more besides being a side dish. Stuck for a quick meal? You can make a soup from canned stock, fresh or dried chiles, pork or chicken and frozen corn in about 20 minutes. Finish it with some lime juice and cilantro, and optionally, some strips of fried corn tortillas.

4. Individually frozen cubes of chopped basil. I get these at Trader Joes, but I expect other stores have them as well. These are incredible. They come in a tray that looks like a mini ice tray, and the cubes of chopped basil are about 3/8 inch cubes. They also make the same thing with parsley and garlic, but those don't seems to have the same fresh flavor. You can use these in vinaigrettes, pasta sauces, to finish a pan sauce, etc. Far better than dried basil and with more convenience and less waste than real basil. Are they so good that I won't grow basil in the summer anymore? No, but they are incredibly good.

5. Frozen spinach. I hate it as a side dish because it's bland and insipid, but it works really well in Indian dishes like palak paneer or saag. When I was younger I came up with something I called Chicken Florentine that was a quick knock off of the American Italian food in small Italian restaurants in NY. Steam some frozen spinach and drain it. Place the spinach in a couple of piles on a sheet pan. Sauté a couple of chicken breasts in olive oil. When they're almost done, pull them from the pan and put them on top of the spinach. Put some grated mozzarella and parmesan on top. Pop it in the oven until the cheese melts and is bubbly. While the chicken is in the oven, add some shallots and garlic to the skillet. Deglaze it with white wine. Mount the sauce with a little butter and added some basil. Pull the chicken out of the oven, plate it, and spoon some of the pan sauce around the dish. Instant NY Italian American food. It's not real Chicken Florentine, but it's fast and easy and when someone asked me what it was when I cooked up a batch for some friends in the wine industry years ago, it was a fancy enough name that no one bitched. No it's not real Italian food, but it's not fresh spinach either, but it is really good.

6. Bags of pre washed mixed greens. I used to buy a lot of expensive mesclun greens, because there weren't a lot of alternatives for quick mixed greens salads (except buying four kinds of lettuce and doing it all yourself). Now there's not a supermarket in the country that doesn't have bags of mixed greens. Some are undeniably nasty and not fresh, but most are actually pretty good. If you go to a decent store with good turnover, you should be fine. These make entree salads a breeze. Have some left over steak? Slice it thin and drape it over greens that you've tossed with a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, ginger, garlic, chiles, and sugar. Sprinkle some chopped, toasted peanuts and some minced cilantro and mint and you have an instant faux-Southeast Asian salad. Have some left over roast chicken? Dice it and add it to the greens and toss it with a good vinaigrette. Top it with some olives and capers and you have an instant Mediterranean salad. Are bagged greens as good as real mesclun mix from baby greens that were picked this morning? No, but they're also not $8-10 a pound either.

7. Julienned sun dried tomatoes packed in oil. OK, nothing screams late 80's fine dining like sun dried tomatoes and I confess, at the time I used to buy them dried and them steam them myself and store them in flavored olive oil because I thought they were better than ones pre-packed in olive oil. Despite their ubiquitous overuse in the late 80's and early 90's, I still like sun dried tomatoes. They're a great alternative to fresh tomatoes in the winter. One pet peeve is dishes that use sundried and fresh tomatoes in one dish. Use one or the other, but don't muddy up a dish by using both. I buy them pre-julienned in jars packed in olive oil. Drain them and toss them in a pan with some garlic, olives and capers and toss it with pasta. You can make the sauce before the water even boils, much less before the pasta is cooked. You can also mash them up and use them as the base for a vinaigrette or in braises and stews where you want a rich tomato flavor.

8. Jarred pitted olives. I used to just buy olives from the "olive bar" in top end supermarkets. I still detest canned olives which I find to be flavorless and mushy, but pre-pitted jarred olives are actually pretty good and convenient. Some of the do have bad texture, but most are fine for salads and pastas and some are even good even to serve plain as a tapa or mezze. Yes, I still love the specialty $8 a pound olives you can get in high end supermarkets (like good black oil cured ones), but I love the $2.70 a jar pitted kalamatas at Trader Joes. Besides most of those $8 a pound olives came pre-packed in cans or buckets anyway.

I’m sure I’ll think of others. If I think of enough I’ll make a second list.

Monday, December 22, 2008

What to eat during a snow storm - Part 3

Spinach, Caramelized Onion, and Goat Cheese Pie

December 22

It continues to snow, which is really unusual for Portland. We got about another six inches last night on top of the ice which was on top of the previous six inches. Even the dogs think that the novelty is wearing thin.

The spinach pie turned out well. The crust uses olive oil instead of shortening and it uses considerably less oil than if you were using shortening, so it doesn’t produce as flaky a crust. The process is similar though in that you mix the flour and the oil first in order to coat the flour which keeps it from producing as many glutens. I use about a quarter or a third of a cup of oil to 2 cups of flour (which is more than enough for a normal sized pie). I add as much water as I need to get it to come together. I’m not sure exactly how much because I do it more by feel than by measurement.

For the filling I started by caramelizing four medium onions in olive oil. Once they were deep brown, I added some garlic, about a pound of spinach, a pinch of thyme and a tiny pinch of nutmeg (if you can taste it distinctly it’s too much). Once that’s all put together, you need to pull it off the heat and give it about 20-30 minutes to cool. Then add about 4-5 ounces of a soft fresh goat cheese (like chevre). You could add another kind of cheese, like feta, but I had goat cheese on hand so I used that.

I had rolled a bottom crust and put it in a pie pan, added the filling and then rolled the top crust. I put a couple of slits in the top and baked it for 25-30 minutes at 350 until it was browned. It does need a few minutes to cool before you cut and serve it. I served it with more pilsner because pilsner is crisp enough to cut through the richness of the goat cheese. It also has a hint of malt sweetness that works well with the sweetness form the onions. If I was having wine I’d go with an unoaked (or at least lightly oaked) sauvignon blanc. It can be tough to match wine to cheese (despite the fact that you always see cheese and wine served together), and a good friend doesn’t like to pair red wines with spinach dishes because the iron content of the spinach can affect the taste of the wine. But I’ve always been a fan of fresh goat cheeses and sauvignon blanc. But as always, it’s tough to beat a good pilsner with food.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What to eat during a snow storm - Part 2

December 21

The weather continues to be dreadful. We got ice on top of 6+ inches of snow and it’s back to snowing full bore again. Last night’s meal of small plates ended after two courses, because the plates weren’t as small as I had thought.

I started with mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with fresh rosemary, garlic and amontillado sherry. I had bought enough mushrooms for four but ended up cooking for two, so our first course was actually double sized. I paired it with a Sierra Nevada Celebration ale, which for those who don’t know it, is essentially an American IPA. I was thinking the piney flavors and aromas of the Cascade hops would pair nicely with piney-ness of the rosemary and it did work out pretty well. The spelt bread was good but not as crusty as I like but it was certainly loads better than the typical things that pass as baguettes or rustic breads at the average supermarket bakery (which is too often home to characterless “French” and “Italian” bread).

The second course was shrimp escasbeche. Escabeche is a family of Spanish dishes that are essentially pickled. They originate from the days before refrigeration where foods were cooked in olive oil and vinegar and then left to sit in it. The large amounts of vinegar and oil acted a preservative and allowed people to keep poultry and fish for longer periods. Today it’s still cooked because people enjoy the flavors. You can pretty much cook anything escabeche and then serve it hot, cold or room temperature. I start by heating olive oil gently and then adding onions and garlic and letting them cook down slowly and infuse the oil. Later I add some herbs (more rosemary in this case because it’s still sticking out above the snow) and then vinegar and a little white wine. Once this mixture comes together, add the main ingredient. I this case it was shrimp. Because they cook fairly quickly, I turn the heat off after I add them and pull the pan from the burner and let them finish cooking in the residual heat. If you’re cooking something more substantial, like chicken pieces, you can put the pot in the oven and leave it for 1-2 hours on a low heat.

To serve it, remove the main ingredient (the shrimp in my case), and then ladle some of the sauce into another pan and reduce it by about a third or half. Then pour the sauce over the shrimp and serve it with crusty bread. I actually had some homebrewed pilsner with this one. Not for any reason other than the fact that I love good pilsner and still think it’s one of the most food friendly beer. Although Spain is considered a wine drinking country, I prefer beer with foods cooked with a lot of vinegar since vinegar can make most wines taste thin and sharp. The malt sugar and the hop bitterness of pilsner actually stands up better (but a good lambic or acidic wit bier would be very nice as well).

Tonight I’m sticking to something simple: a spinach, caramelized onion and goat cheese pie. The crust is made form olive oil instead of shortening which gives it a distinctive taste. No idea what I’ll drink with it yet, but I’m sure I’ll find something.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What to eat during a snow storm - Part 1

December 20, 2008

Last week was supposed to be our annual snow storm here in Portland, but it turned out to only be the precursor for the real storm which is going on right now. They’re predicting 6-10 inches of snow in Portland before it switches over to freezing rain and finally rain sometime late tomorrow. Lovely.

We were supposed to have friends over for dinner tonight but they cancelled because of the weather. I sort of expected that to happen but figured I’d better buy the food just in case. Of course I hadn’t actually finalized a menu, and had figured on something sort of Spanish inspired and likely served as tapas or small plates. So I have mushrooms, shrimp, a pork tenderloin, potatoes, spinach, goat cheese, some red peppers and a package of Serrano ham courtesy of my brewing partner. I’ll likely spend the day cooking a variety of tapas. Nothing better than eating great food when there’s a blizzard outside.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any adequate bread so I made some bread earlier and it’s rising now. I make adequate, but not great, bread. It’s one thing I wish I did a lot better. One problem is I don’t do it enough. Oh, and I don’t really follow recipes. I have a basic recipe that I use that can work for anything from focaccia to pizza dough to actual bread. It's roughly three cups of flour, a teaspon of salt, a teaspoon or more of yeast, and 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups of water. I just kind of vary the types of flour and add more or less water depending on what I’m making. Sometimes I add olive oil as well (particularly if I'm making pizza dough). Today’s is 1/3 spelt and 2/3 white bread flour plus water, salt and yeast.

All I’ve decided so far is that I’ll start with sautéed mushrooms with olive oil, garlic, sherry, and rosemary (I'm using rosemary since the snow has pretty much buried and likely killed my parsley). But I can’t do that until the bread is baked because eating sautéed mushrooms without bread on the side just seems wrong.

At this point all I have are ideas for the other dishes: olive oil roasted potatoes with a spicy tomato and pepper sauce on the side (kind of like the sauce that’s used for potatoes brava), shrimp escabeche served at room temperature, chicken thighs wrapped in Serrano ham braised in a sherry and garlic sauce, spinach and goat cheese empanadillas.

Drinking a lovely home made lambic right now but I’ll need to decide what to drink with everything else later. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cooks vs Chefs and Craft vs Art

It seems that in many people’s minds, there’s little difference between and cook and a chef. The phrase chef is bandied about pretty routinely and many home cooks and amateurs don’t think twice before calling themselves a chef. This is wrong, and a little insulting to the people who have put in the time and effort to rise to the level of Chef.

“Chef” is a title that’s earned. It’s French for chief and traditionally a Chef heads up a kitchen brigade. The fact that brigade has a military meaning wasn’t coincidental and it’s not lost on a Chef. Most kitchens are run very similar to the military. There’s hierarchy and the classical kitchen demands absolute discipline from its workers. Although the Kitchen Brigade goes back several centuries, credit for its modern organization goes to August Escoffier, who simplified and codified haute French cuisine in the early 20th century. (If you’ve read Escoffier’s books and looked at his recipes, you may flinch at the idea that he simplified cooking since there’s nothing simple in his cooking.)

Auguste Escoffier, doubtlessly thinking of new ways to put fear into his Brigade

At the top of the kitchen is the Chef de Cuisine, who runs the kitchen. He creates the menu and oversees all personnel. The Chef de Cuisine may not even cook anymore and may be strictly in an administrative role. He has the last say on every matter. What he says is the Law in the kitchen. Disobeying him results in thrown shoes, shouting matches, humiliation of subordinates, immediate firing and other un-pleasantries.

Below him is the Sous Chef, who is essentially second in command. He gets his orders direct form the Chef de Cuisine, and fills in for the Chef de Cuisine when he’s absent form the kitchen. Below the Sous Chef are the Chef de Parties. There is one Chef de Partie for each station or section in the kitchen: Saucier (sauces and sauté station); Rotisseur (roast station) which may contain sub sections for grill and fry cooks; Poisonnier (fish station); Entremetier (entrée station), which may contain separate stations for soups and vegetables); Garde Manger (cold station which includes hors d’oeuvres, salads, terrines and other
Charcuterie); Patissier (pastry/dessert station); and Boucher (butcher).

Under each Chef de Partie on each station, there are numerous Cuisiniers (cooks) and Commis (junior cooks) as well as apprentices. Historically, you started as an apprentice, worked up to a Commis, then a Cuisinier, and with luck you made it to Chef de Partie. You also would work through different stations in order to learn the basics of the kitchen as a whole.

With many years of work and effort you may become a Sous Chef and with even more you may become a Chef de Cuisine. Working to this level took years. Even becoming a Chef de Partie in a good kitchen took years of work and dedication. It was something that was earned and being called Chef by your cooks and commis was a sign of respect for the time, effort and level of mastery you had attained.

So don’t throw the word chef around like it doesn’t matter. If you cook at home, you’re a cook, not a chef. There are no home chefs. We’re all just cooks, no matter how talented we are (or think we are). Give these real Chefs their due; they’ve earned it.

With the rise of celebrity chefs in this country, there’s another trend that’s developed that I find a little bothersome. It seems that all fine cooking, and winemaking and beer making is starting to be called an art and not a craft. Generally this isn’t being done by Chefs themselves, but by their admirers.

But cooking (and brewing for that matter) is a craft. Look at the whole Brigade system and the way that people advance. It’s years of dedication, and there’s an awful lot of repetition along the way. Bakers learn to make baguettes by making them day after day and year after year. A commi learns to make brown stock and demi glace and makes it every day for years. Cooks learn to make a dish correctly by making it day after day under the eye of a chef who makes sure it’s consistent every day.

There are creative elements, but those are mostly enjoyed by the people designing the dishes and not always by the cooks who make them. Cooks turn out the food that they’re told to make. And good cooks do it well and consistently. That alone makes it a craft and not an art.

The same thing goes for brewing and winemaking. Most brewers have to brew the same recipe and have it come out the same each time, because customers demand consistency. There are skills in cooking and brewing, and you need quite a lot of knowledge to do them well. But let’s remember that it’s a craft.

That’s why the only way to become a better cook is to cook more often. Make the same thing over and over until you know how to make it. Why do Italian grandmothers make the Sunday ragu so well? Because they’ve done it every week for 50 years, which means they’ve made it 2600 times. If you did it that often you’d be good at it too. (If you worked as a professional cook and did it five times a week, it would still take you 10 years to get that much experience.) You would know what worked best. So stop reading this and get cooking. Your food will only get better.