Apr 5, 2013
“O Que Nao Mata Engorda”
The Portuguese language, whether that spoken in Portugal or the slightly different version spoken in Brazil, is replete with sayings. One of my favorites is the one above, which translates to “that which does not kill you will fatten you.” It came to mind when speaking with Linda Kusel, director of CKC about the menu for St. Patrick’s day, discussed in the previous blog. Linda was wondering if corned beef—that is, beef preserved through brining and the addition of nitrates, falls within our “Cooking For Life” healthy foods philosophy.
For sure preserved meats have been under largely unfavorable scrutiny for some time. Salt is a concern for many, smoking is linked to carcinogens, and nitrates, the salt that makes processed meat red (instead of gray,) are viewed as inherently bad. And yet without preservation through one or all of these methods it’s almost certain that mankind would not have survived. Who does not remember the opening chapters of “Little House on the Prairie” which describes the Ingalls family busily preparing hams and other cuts of meat for the long Winter, not to mention the pickling of vegetables (also out of favor these days), the making of preserves, canning, etc.
The fact is, before refrigeration there was preservation, and salt was the key component in that enterprise. For over 100 years Portuguese fishermen would fish the Grand Banks for cod, which would be salted in the holds of the schooners and thus preserved for months. Once salted and dried it would remain edible almost indefinitely and remains the center of the national dish of Portugal, “bacalao”. Of course it is not eaten in its dried, salted state: it is rinsed in many changes of water over two or so days and reconstituted. The dried slabs of “bacalao” which look like wood when you buy them plump up and most, but not all, the salt is washed away. “Bacalao” is also very popular in Italy (“baccala”), Spain, and in Scandinavian countries where it is known as “stokafissa”.
So what about the corned beef? It’s usually quite lean (that’s good), and is served with lots of vegetables (also good). It’s a bit high in salt but not more than many other foods we don’t worry about and we can control total salt intake by not adding any more than is already there. I don’t know for a fact but I’m willing to bet that an average bag of movie popcorn has more salt that the biggest corned beef or pastrami sandwich from Manny’s in downtown Chicago. And when one adds that “erzats” (fake) butter topping the popcorn has to go right to the top of the list of foods not good for you.
The point is, most of us don’t go to the movies all that often and so we don’t eat that many bags of salty, fat-laden popcorn. In like manner, few of us make a steady diet of corned beef or other preserved meats. In my opinion once in awhile it’s ok, in fact it’s more than ok. It’s great.
PS: The same logic has to apply to that food that so many people would put on their list of favorites: bacon. I remember a memorable episode of the wonderful BBC English cooking program, “The Two Fat Ladies” that was all about bacon. These two large, chain-smoking, and motorcycle -riding hostesses ended up at the end of the episode at a small stand that sold English bacon sandwiches. They were chatting with the counter person and asked her how she kept herself from eating the wonderful bacon sandwiches all day long working at the stand. The young attendant replied that she didn’t eat bacon at all since she was a vegetarian. The final comment delivered in a wonderful British accent from one of the Fat Ladies to the other as they were leaving the bacon stand was, “You know, Clarissa, more vegetarians relapse because of bacon than for any other reason.” Somehow I just know that’s true.
“O que nao mata engorda” indeed.
Mar 18, 2013
Feb 24, 2013
What should the Cardinals eat during the conclave?
In our last blog we talked about the pappardele with cavolo nero (black cabbage), ceci (chickpeas) and Percorino Romano. It was to be accompanied—and was, rather grandly I might add—by a chicken Saltimbocca (“jump in your mouth”). The junior chefs pounded the chicken breasts thin, carefully tooth picked a slice of prosciutto and a fresh sage leaf to each piece, dredged them in seasoned flour, and helped me sauté them to a nice, brown turn. We then deglazed the pans with Marsala-- away from the stove of course to avoid any risk of flame--and let the juices and Marsala reduce and burn off all the alcohol. What was left in the pans was an intensely flavored sauce that we poured over the saltimboccas. In a one-to-ten world of one being awful and ten being the best we were fielding questions about the permissibility of awarding 100, 1000, or even a million yes points for this meal.
All in all, a very satisfying class.
The success of the saltimboccas got me thinking about the upcoming conclave at the Vatican during which all 110 or so cardinals under the age of 75 will be electing the next supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, i.e., the next Pope. I was musing whether the meal our junior chefs made would be appropriate for a conclave lunch or dinner, and decided that it would not. Why not? Simply because in spite of it being a healthful, low fat, high fiber, high vitamin meal, it was so delicious as to be perhaps too indulgent for a conclave, where perhaps austerity at the table is necessary for clarity in discernment and judgment.
I imagine conclave meals being almost like spa meals: light, subtle, refined but not luxurious. Of course they can and perhaps must be delicious, but should never become a topic of conversation. After all, the cardinals are there for a more important purpose than eating, drinking, and conviviality.
If they asked me for a suggestion I would offer a recipe we’ll be doing one of these days: Steamed ginger fish served with egg-fried rice. It’s a Chinese recipe which seems appropriate to me since the growth of the Catholic Church is not in its birthplace of Europe but in the developing worlds of Asia, Africa, and South America. It might be a nice gesture to feature the foods of the places which represent the Catholic Church’s future, not its past.
In this recipe we use white fish filets such as cod, fresh ginger that’s finely shredded, orange and lemon zest, spring onions, fresh basil leaves, some light soy sauce and just a little oil. The cooking technique for the fish is one almost universally derided as boring and even yucky in a world addicted to the deep fryer: steaming. Correctly steamed fish is firm and flaky, and sustained by the strong flavors of the herbs and zests, has a flavor both assertive and delicate.
Egg-fried rice uses previously cooked and cooled long grain rice cooked quickly in a hot wok with scrambled eggs, salt and pepper, and perhaps some minced chives for garnish. It provides a bed for our steamed fish and is soothing and unobtrusive.
Of course we’ll have a vegetable—perhaps some stir-fried baby bok choi with browned garlic chips.
I am sure if the cardinals eat along the lines of the meal I propose they would sleep well, think well, pray well, and elect well.
For some reason I woke up thinking of Emile Zola’s (probable) masterpiece, the novel “Germinal”, about a strike at a coal mining facility in Northern France around 1860. In the novel the horrific working and living conditions of the miners are described in searing prose by Zola and it makes for vivid if painful reading—somewhat like the migrant camp scenes from Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, only much more affecting.
Then the Italian word “troppo” popped into my head. “Troppo” means “too much”, as in “troppo caldo”—too hot, “troppo forte”—too funny, “troppo stanco”—too tired, and so on. My mind superimposed the word “troppo” onto “Germinal” and made me think of Zola’s description of the Sunday dinner the protagonist family enjoyed each week. It was one small rabbit prepared in the most “extendable” manner possible to feed—most inadequately—around 10 family members. The description of the littlest children sucking on the bones is as fresh as the day I read the novel many years ago.
So what do my mental pilgrimages have to do with “Cooking for Life”? Just this: for the most part America’s relationship with pasta can be defined by the word “troppo”. Too much in every way: sauces, richness, portions, and calories—you name it.
And yet many Italians who fit wonderfully into the exquisite fashions for which Italy is rightly famous eat pasta almost every day. How do they do it?
Usually pasta in Italy is eaten as the “primo”—the first course. This course traditionally provides the bulk of the carbohydrates in the meal since the “secondo”—the second course, consists of protein and vegetables. “Primi” are not meant to fill you up; rather, they are meant to be part of the healthy and reasonable journey from hunger to satiety, and not beyond. Thus the portion of pasta “primo” is probably only half or even one-third what one would expect in most Italian restaurants in America. Second, most “primi” are not suffocated by the heavy sauces and cheeses we prefer here in America. One of my favorite “primi” is spaghetti with garlic, red pepper flakes and black pepper. It’s given a swirl of good olive oil and some grated cheese and that’s it. Others are dressed with vegetables and other light and healthful ingredients, such as the one we’ll prepare soon in class.
It’s tagliatelle with cavolo nero, chickpeas, and pecorino. “Cavolo nero” is a dark-hued cabbage that most closely resembles kale. It’s a classic winter vegetable in Italy and I suspect that since we won’t find it around here we’ll make the recipe delicious with kale. Chickpeas (“ceci” in Italian) are health-bombs, packed with protein but with little fat. Pecorino is a sharp goat cheese with a bright and aggressive flavor. Our aspiring chefs will blanch the kale, drain and shred it, sauté it with a little garlic, and then combine with the chickpeas and pecorino. A few turns of the pepper mill for some coarse black pepper and the dish will be done. They’ll get enough of this “primo” to address their need for carbohydrates but not so much that they won’t be looking forward to the next dish they will have made: “Saltimbocca di pollo alla Romana”. Literally, “chicken jump-in-your-mouth Roman style”. Description and observations to follow…
Feb 15, 2013
by Chef John Leonard
Last year my Christmas present from my wife was a week of retreat, renewal, contemplation, and above all, silence, at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky. This monastery’s most famous monk was Fr. Thomas Merton (known as Fr. Louis in the monastery), writer of, among other books, “The Seven Storey Mountain”, perhaps the definitive spiritual coming of age book.
A hallmark of the Trappist order is the rule of silence. Other than prayer, chanting, and singing the Sacred Office according to the Liturgy of the Hours, talking is kept to a bare minimum. When I visited the monastery with my mother two years ago I felt sorry for the monk standing in front of the “Silence, please!” sign as my mother asked him question after question, finally forcing him to break his silence.
I haven’t been to my retreat yet but I look forward to it. I have read that modern people at retreats cut off from cell-phones, i-pads, televisions, and the like go through withdrawal, some of them becoming distinctly uncomfortable with silence that forces them spiritually inward. Perhaps they aren’t comfortable with what they discover about themselves.
My personal theory is that we live in a world where not enough is deferred, and in particular, pleasures. When it comes to food that means we don’t eat seasonally anymore since someone, somewhere is growing now what we can only grow in the Summer, and through the magic-carpet effect of refrigerated container ships and in some cases cargo jets we can eat whatever, whenever. When we go to the supermarket we see the cornucopia—“the horn of plenty”—of produce that rightly belongs to other seasons. We eat indifferent tomatoes now, instead of waiting for the ambrosial ones of late summer. Even in my house there are strawberries in the refrigerator and I am convinced that when I open the door they somehow glare at me with an accusatory, “we shouldn’t be here now” look. The right tomatoes to eat now are the wonderful ones that were made into sauce in early Autumn; and the right strawberries to eat now are the ones that were transformed by the wonderful alchemy of water, sugar, and airtight jars into strawberry preserves.
This notion of eating seasonally and deferring culinary pleasures is age-old and rooted in (former) necessity, but I maintain it has merit. I think of this also because the Lenten season is upon us and for many it is a season of deferring what one enjoys, partly to concentrate on spiritual self-renewal, but with the happy effect of finding anew after 40 days the pleasures of that which was foregone. I note in conclusion to this section that in Italian Mardi Gras i.e., “Fat Tuesday”, is known as “Carnevale”, which in Latin means “removal of meat”, thereby indicating that which will be set aside for the Lenten period.
In keeping with eating seasonally, at some point in the next few weeks we will be making a classic French peasant soup called a “garbure”. There are many versions of garbure but all include root vegetables, dried beans, and just small amounts of meat for flavoring. The Jewish equivalent to garbure would be a cholent, the rich and satisfying stews prepared before the Sabbath, consigned to the local baker on the Sabbath eve, and left to cook overnight in his oven to be picked up after the Sabbath services for the family meal.
Of course before we do the garbure and go into a lean season we must recognize Mardi Gras. Perhaps a jambalaya will fit the bill, and a molten chocolate cake for good measure. Before we defer the pleasures we might as well enjoy them.
Jan 27, 2013
The culinary excesses of the Holiday season hopefully now but a distant memory, the issue still remains: what’s good and good for you to eat during these dark and cold months of Winter?
One obvious answer: Cabbage.
A member of the cruciferous family of vegetables, cabbage, in all its forms, is a nutritional miracle, with so many health benefits that the list seems almost unbelievable: cholesterol reduction, cold prevention (lots of vitamin C), regulation of the digestive tract, and, oh yes, let’s not forget, cancer prevention, and much more.
Those of Irish descent remember cabbage in colcannon or boxty; the Northern Europeans among us remember cabbage soup, stuffed cabbage, or cabbage rolls. Those of Chinese descent remember stir fry cabbage.
Cabbage is such a ubiquitous Winter food that even during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution in China when many starved the government would mound cabbage on street corners in all the major cities and citizens could help themselves.
I remember back in the middle ‘80’s when I “commuted” from Bangkok to New York every six weeks on Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, that cabbage was the staple at every meal. For sure the smell wasn’t pleasant but that was mitigated by the fact that along with the cabbage came the endless small glasses of ice-cold vodka. Nobody complained.
Kids, however, do complain about the smell of cabbage, especially when it’s boiled or pickled, such as in sauerkraut. The solution is to cook it (or not) differently. There are wonderful recipes for Asian- style slaws with cabbage, carrot, and green onion all dressed in a sesame-soy dressing. Kids love that. Or how about stir fried with chicken and other vegetables such as bean sprouts, pea pods, and served over brown rice. Stuffed cabbage has always been one of my favorites. Because the leaves are blanched ahead of time the smell is gone. Whether stuffed whole or in rolls (rouladen in German), stuffed cabbage is wonderfully satisfying and your aspiring chefs can help you assemble the dish.
We’re going to include cabbage in our Winter Cooking for Life program over the next few weeks. Be on the lookout for the recipes your chefs bring home and ask them what they think of cabbage…..now.
Aug 31, 2012
Creative Kids Corner has just launched it's new identity! Check us out!