Category: cooking

How the Sabbath gave us the Crock-Pot

vegan cholent

Photo by Flickr user mollyjade, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Over the weekend, NPR ran a story from Deena Prichep on one of the original slow-cooked meals. As she describes,

Cholent is rooted in the Jewish Sabbath, which traditionally prohibits work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Under some interpretations, this includes prohibitions on even turning on the oven or stove. So for those who want to have a hot meal (and many feel a religious imperative to do so), the solution is to set up a stewed dish cooking low and slow on Friday, long before the sunset. Over a day of slow cooking, flavors infuse, beans soften, and tough cuts of meat become tender. By the time synagogue services are complete on Saturday afternoon, the rich, flavorful stew is ready to ladle out.

For the full audio and text versions of the report, including the details of how cholent inspired Irving Naxon to create what would become the Crock-Pot, head here.

Deftly deployed, salt can work magic

104/365 - Salt

Photo by Flickr user Dennis Wilkinson [djwtwo], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A few weeks ago, The Guardian posted a piece by Amy Fleming about some of the unlikely chemical (and even psychological) effects that a bit of salt can have as food is prepared, smelled, and tasted. For example, she considers how salt can neutralize bitterness:

The bitter-reducing ability of salt is a marvel. It is why coffee aficionados add an undetectable pinch to their grounds before brewing, says Barry Smith of London University’s Centre for the Study of the Senses…. But it is not easy to uncover the precise mechanics of this culinary godsend, what with it occurring on a molecular level. We do know that it is a physiological phenomenon, rather than cognitive. Even if there isn’t enough salt in our mouths for us to consciously taste it, the effect will still happen. And if you stimulate one side of the tongue with salt, and then put something bitter such as quinine on the other side, the salt will generally not suppress the bitterness. The two tastes have to be hitting the same receptors for it to work. Put very simply, we think that sodium ions turn down bitter responses in the receptors.

For more, including two distinct ways that salting can influence aroma, head here.

Women in the changing restaurant industry

April Bloomfield

Chef April Bloomfield. Photo by Flickr user Zagat Buzz, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Julia Moskin recently wrote a lengthy piece for The New York Times on advances women have been making in the restaurant industry. As she writes,

In culinary schools, women have long made up the majority in pastry courses, but are now entering general culinary programs at unprecedented rates. At the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute), the change has been striking: In 2012, nearly half the graduates of the culinary program were women — 202 of them, up from 41 in 1992. At Johnson & Wales University, the proportion of female graduates more than doubled over those two decades, and in 2012, men were the minority: 820 women and 818 men graduated that year. At the Culinary Institute of America, the percentage of female graduates rose to 36 percent in 2012 from 21 percent in 1992.

Many of these women have been drawn by an industry that seems newly glamorous, lively and creative. And smartly run restaurants are making new efforts to keep them by paying more attention to employees’ needs….

[For example,] at the nine branches of Momofuku in New York, employees who remain with the company for one year get free health insurance, paid vacations and maternity and paternity leave.

Sounds pretty good, no? Of course, as anyone who has worked in food service knows, it’s not all a rosy picture:

Still, in most restaurants, benefits are a pipe dream and pay is meager. Entry-level jobs, even for chefs with culinary degrees, can pay as little as $15 an hour, once 80-hour workweeks are factored in. Last week, the first in-depth study of business practices in the American restaurant industry confirmed that low pay and job insecurity have led to an exceedingly high turnover rate, compared with other businesses. This is costly for restaurateurs and chef-owners, who contend that they cannot afford to offer higher wages or benefits.

“Women are disproportionately affected by these problems that plague the industry as a whole,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an employee advocacy group….

Head here for the full piece, then check out my earlier post on Charlotte Druckman’s book, Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen,

Best of 2013: Cookbooks

It’s that purportedly “most wonderful time of the year,” when holiday sales pitches and year-end retrospectives abound. There’s still time to finish your Xmas shopping, so consider giving some of the best cookbooks of the past year. For suggestions, check out the lists from

Several books appear on more than one of these lists.

For example, vegetarians (and omnivores) might appreciate receiving the much-lauded Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. Lisa Campbell writes that it “combines the poetic gardening savvy of Nigel Slater’s Tender and Ripe with the history and botany of James Peterson’s Vegetables, Revised. This ambitious reference, beautifully photographed by Hamilton and Hirscheimer of Canal House, can help readers deepen their vegetable knowledge.”

For carnivores (and omnivores), consider Duck, Duck, Goose by Hank Shaw, which Carey Polis summarizes this way: “Shaw, the popular blogger behind Hunter Angler Gardener Cook is an avid hunter and cook. His second cookbook provides recipes for the expert waterfowl chef (duck sausages), and the beginner (duck fried rice). If anything, Shaw proves that dinner can be way more than boneless, skinless chicken breasts.”

Happy gifting and cooking!

The Judy Rodgers legacy

rediscovering zuni cafe cookbook

Photo by Flickr userTimothy Vollmer [tvol], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

I’m not in the habit of linking to obituaries (though I just did so in a post last week), nor am I generally one to focus on white-tablecloth restaurants. But, I think the recently deceased Judy Rodgers and her San Francisco restaurant, Zuni Cafe, are worth some attention. As Eric Asimov writes in The New York Times, Rodgers

helped transform the way Americans think of food through its devotion to local, seasonal ingredients meticulously prepared…. Ms. Rodgers’s cooking was noteworthy for its refined simplicity, hewed and tempered by an ardent perfectionism and a finely tuned palate. Not for her the sauce-painted plates and tweezer-bits of microgreens of the modern, high-end kitchen. Instead, at Zuni, a quirky, airy space on a triangular corner of Market Street, she presented dishes that were simultaneously rustic and urbane.

As Russ Parsons describes for The Los Angeles Times,

In an era when most chefs pride themselves on re-inventing their menus on a whim, Rodgers hewed to a strong central core of well-loved dishes. Perhaps the best loved of these is a simple roast chicken, cooked in a wood-fired oven. On the menu for decades, more than 350 a week are sold at Zuni.

This approach struck a chord in tradition-worshiping San Francisco. Though the Bay Area is full of restaurants to explore, Zuni Cafe was the place people called home, a place people went not to be amused, but to be comforted….

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “Serve dishes that weren’t just playful and amusing but were keepers. I like keepers.”

The NYT has a similarly emblematic quote from Rodgers: “the food you eat every day is the most important food. This is what we do at Zuni.”

Rodgers published an award-winning cookbook that featured her thoughtful, meticulous approach. (I’ve given it as a gift before; its best audience is folks who are really passionate about cooking and/or food.) For a consideration of the cookbook, check out this post from Eater National, which includes reflections of chefs from around the country, among them Madison’s own Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective:

I spent hours reading the essays in the Zuni Café Cookbook. It so influenced how I think about food. How when you work with simple ingredients, it takes incredible effort and thoughtfulness to fully realize the ingredients and processes. Her roast chicken recipe is something I think about every time I work with poultry….

For more, check out the links above.

A brief history of MSG


Photo by Flickr user Jason Burrows [PunkJr], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, I discovered a recent blog post at Smithsonian by Natasha Geiling on the food enhancer monosodium glutamate. She takes us back to the discovery/invention of MSG and considers how its use and our views of it have shifted over the last century here in the US. I especially appreciated her connecting MSG to contemporary foodies’ love of umami. As she writes,

Few letters have the power to stop conversation in its tracks more than MSG, one of the most infamous additives in the food industry. The three little letters carry so much negative weight that they’re often whispered sheepishly or, more often, decidedly preceded by the modifier “NO” that seems to make everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief when they go out to eat. Nobody wants MSG in their food—the protest goes—it causes headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and general malaise. It’s unhealthy and, maybe even worse, unsexy, used by lazy chefs as an excuse for flavor, not an enhancement.

On the other side of the spectrum lies umami: few foodie buzzwords pop off the lips with such entertaining ease. Enterprising young chefs like David Chang (of Momofuku fame) and Adam Fleischman, of the LA-based chain Umami Burger, have built their culinary careers on the basis of the fifth taste, revitalizing an interest in the meaty-depth of umami. It’s difficult to watch the Food Network or Travel Channel or any food-based program without hearing mention of the taste wunderkind, a host or chef cooing over the deep umami flavors of a Portobello mushroom. Where MSG is scary, umami is exciting.

What few people understand is that the hated MSG and the adored umami are chemically related: umami is tasted by the very receptors that MSG targets.

The full post is worth a read; check it out here.

Far out farro

farro salad with cranberries

Photo by Flickr user tracy benjamin, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to post about farro, one of those “ancient grains” lately gaining in popularity in the US. Fortunately, Laura B. Weiss of NPR recently provided just the article I was looking for. As she describes at the Kitchen Window blog,

I was ready to forget about farro. This was a couple of years ago when I first attempted to cook the savory grain that also boasts an ancient pedigree. I had sampled farro in restaurants where I had enjoyed it transformed into risottos and incorporated into salads. I had come to adore its nutty earthiness and satisfying chew.

But after spending well over an hour simmering a batch of this form of wheat, I wound up tossing the whole mess in the garbage. As it turned out, the type of farro I was using was the whole grain variety. It’s highest in fiber and nutrients like Vitamin B3 and zinc, but whole farro also requires overnight soaking — a step I had neglected to take. That meant that no matter how much time I put in front of the stove, I was likely to wind up with tooth-breaking tough kernels.

What’s a farro fan to do?

Eventually I learned about the semipearled variety — or semiperlato in Italy, where farro has been cultivated for centuries — in which some of the bran has been removed, allowing for speedier cooking. That’s when my love affair with farro took flight.

For the full post, which includes four delicious-looking recipes, head here.

A bit of food at the Wisconsin Book Festival

AmericanCraftBeerCookbook (533x600)The 2013 Wisconsin Book Festival gets underway tomorrow, and although it’s leaner than last year, there are still plenty of events to choose from. As Jeanne Kolker details for 77 Square,

If last year’s festival, with 140 events over five days, was a sweeping epic, consider this year’s fest more of an intricately plotted novella, with 50 events over four days.

“We wanted to streamline it so that people could get from one event to the next, come together and talk about what they saw,” said Conor Moran, the director of the Book Festival. Moran was hired earlier this year by the Madison Public Library Foundation to run the festival when it was handed over from the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Kolker’s piece serves as a nice introduction to the festival, so check it out here, along with an overview of festival highlights from Stephanie Bedford.

Find the full schedule online, and if you’re in the Madison area, perhaps including one or more of the following events on your weekend schedule:

Felisa Rogers on the foods we inherit

Photo from Roger Wollstadt via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Felisa Rogers published a series of articles in Salon under the umbrella heading, “Heirlooms.” In the essays, she takes us into the kitchens of women and men sharing recipes and stories of the extended families from which they come. Rogers explores the community-building and meaning-making involved when we carry with us foods and recipes from our forebears that then get passed on to the generations that follow. Her essays savor the complicated ways that our rich family histories can sometimes become intertwined with our food memories and our culinary traditions. As a nice touch, each article concludes with a recipe.

The opening piece explores “an 82-year-old Mennonite turned Berkeley artist” and a German-by-way-of-Ukraine-and-Kansas recipe for flinsen, a thin crepe-like pancake. Rogers’s own family gets examined in the second installment, which focuses on her mother-in-law’s recipe for nut butter balls, known elsewhere as Russian teacakes. Another feature includes one of my favorite quotes, probably because it echoes a simple lesson I learned from my mom about family traditions (“Things change”); the piece focuses on a family’s longstanding annual homemade doughnut party:

When I ask Jan her secret for surviving the long hours and the tumult of a large family, she says that her tongue is calloused from biting it, but then admits that her son-in-law probably feels the same way. This year they argued over the doughnut party. Lou wanted to serve cocktails and other types of fried food such as deep-fried cheese curds and calamari. Jan was resistant to modifying her family tradition. Now she concedes that Lou’s idea wasn’t so bad. “Isn’t that how traditions always are? Don’t they always change? For me the nucleus of the doughnuts is the family. And what that family looks like and when it happens … that’s where all the change happens.”

The fourth entry in the series, about an Irish family that expanded to include Italian Aunt Rosie in 1914 when tension between those ethnicities was particularly fierce, features my other favorite quote as Rogers helps to cook up a batch of Aunt Rosie’s chicken parm:

Despite making a huge mess in the kitchen, Tom is not a haphazard cook. He takes his time as he slices each chicken breast into cutlets, and then dips the meat in eggs and bread crumbs. He’s a more precise cook than I am — his every motion betrays the typical New York obsession with exact culinary tradition. When I suggest we could use a preexisting bag of panko to coat the chicken filets for the Parmesan, he looks horrified. “No,” he says decisively. “We need the cheap stuff.”

I enjoyed reading and recommend all of the essays. Rogers has an engaging style that’s both curious and reflective. That said, occasionally she seems to romanticize the past, while at other times she can come off as jarringly critical of modern locavores who advocate a return to the sort of saner, more sustainable food system that she so admires from days gone by. In the following quote, from this an essay about an octogenarian who grew up on a small farm in northwest Wisconsin, she manages to do both:

Today’s effete foodie would salivate at the food that graced Carol’s childhood table: pork chops from local pigs, garden-fresh parsnips and salad greens, homemade bread and fresh butter. Her life story reminds me of an important fact: We haven’t been this way for long. Living people, indeed relatively spry living people, remember a time when the industrial food chain was not a matter of course. A time when you knew where your food came from, a time when the command to “eat local” would have seemed laughable, a time when farm to table was not a political statement but common sense. I doubt Carol has heard of Michael Pollan, and she would be unlikely to agree with his points in the manner that he presents them. But her life reflects an attitude about food that is not so out of pace with his supposedly liberal values: She takes delight in vegetables; she sees the value of gardening; she’s not above enjoying a glass of wine with dinner; she eschews boxed food in favor of baking and cooking from scratch.

Even here though, I still appreciate the writing and how it makes this effete foodie think.


The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on March 27, 2012. Rogers herself made the following comment on that post: “Thanks for reading and for your kind words and thoughtful analysis. I really do have respect for you effete foodies, you know! If anything, I’m making fun of myself as well.”

How cooking made us human

Listening to the Radiolab episode on “Guts,” I was reminded of Richard Wrangham’s great book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. (Both discuss William Beaumont’s research into human digestion with his patient Alexis St. Martin in the early 19th century.)

As described by Dwight Garner in his review of the book for The New York Times, Wrangham’s thesis is simple, novel, and compelling:

Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food…. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.

The book isn’t without it’s flaws, but it’s well worth a read. If you want to get a flavor of it, check out Garner’s review, Christine Kenneally’s review at Slate, and especially Wrangham’s appearance on NPR’s Science Friday.


The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on June 18, 2012.

Photo by BlakJakDavy via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)