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.
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.
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.
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:
- The American Craft Beer Cookbook with John Holl: Fri 10/18/2013 5:00pm, Great Dane Pub Downtown
- Farm Fresh and Fast with Fairshare CSA Coalition: Sat 10/19/2013 10:00am, Central Library’s Bubbler
- From Scratch: Inside the Food Network with Allen Salkin: Sun 10/20/2013 2:30pm, Central Library’s Community Room (NPR offers for a look at Salkin’s book if you want a preview)
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.”
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.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that folks put out summer reading lists as well, so I thought we’d consider some mid-year recommendations.
I’ve been aware of the latest brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen, but I didn’t work to follow it closely. I don’t pay much (any?) attention to cable-TV cooking personalities in the first place, and I wasn’t interested in spending time and energy on Deen in particular. But a friend (thanks, R!) recently shared a piece from HuffPost, an open letter to Deen from cultural historian Michael W. Twitty. In part, Twitty writes to Deen that
I want you to understand that I am probably more angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food. To be real, you using the word “nigger” a few times in the past does nothing to destroy my world. It may make me sigh for a few minutes in resentment and resignation, but I’m not shocked or wounded. No victim here. Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse, not your past epithets, are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people — or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo… a relic of our culture that whisps away. That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling than you saying “nigger,” in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy.
Regardless of whether or not you are interested in the current media feeding frenzy surrounding Deen, Twitty’s full post is really worth a read; check it out here.
J and I went on a bit of a pea binge recently, with the little green gems prominently featured in two of three dishes that we consumed over the course of several meals last week. (We didn’t set out to celebrate peas quite so fervently, but sometimes our meal planning can be a bit haphazard.)
I learned from an episode of Fresh Air awhile back that the chefs at America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated generally do as we do at our house, i.e., use frozen peas:
[Bridget] Lancaster says if you’re making pea soup, don’t bother with the fresh stuff — they’re a pain to peel, and they might not be in season.
“[Frozen peas] are actually picked at the most fresh point,” she says. “And somebody else has done all the work [of peeling] for you. And they’re great, especially if you’re using them as an ingredient in a stew. The key is to add them almost as an herb right at the end, and to let them sit in the soup or a risotto for just five minutes to warm them up.”
Other people—specifically, some French folk—are apparently not only willing to peel the pod from the pea, but actually peel the tiny little peas themselves! Elaine Sciolino’s recent “Letter from Paris” in The New York Times details her exploration of Provençal peas:
In France, January signals the arrival of endives, cardoons (artichoke thistles) and root vegetables like rutabaga, beets and topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes). March and April bring spring: petits pois [peas], asparagus and Gariguettes, the small, shiny, old-fashioned first strawberry of the year. The best tomatoes come in June, July and August.
In the L’Oustau garden, long rows of pea vines heavy with pods awaited picking. In the kitchen, the chef Sylvestre Wahid set a shallow, oblong, pea-filled wicker basket on a table and offered a tutorial.
I learned that the smaller the pea, the sweeter and more tender they are; that fat, stuffed pods can mean that the peas have become tough and mealy and past their prime; that one way to test the freshness of peas is to press down on a pod and gently move around the peas inside. (Fresh peas will squeak when they are rubbed together.)
[The chefs at L'Oustau de Baumanière] showed me how you can skin a pea. Never in my life did I think about skinning a pea, but it is a very sensual experience. You take a pea that has been plunged into boiling water then plunged into ice water, it comes out, and you take the pea between your thumb and your index finger, and you roll it around slowly and the skin pops out and the pea splits in half. You have this beautiful, skinless, naked pea. It’s not something that you want to do if you have guests coming in a half-hour, but if you are watching “Mad Men” or something, it’s the perfect time to sit there with a bowl and skin peas.
A number of the items on her list aren’t necessarily specific to vegetarian cooking, but #1 is: “Vegetarian meals are satisfying to the point that meat is superfluous.” As she writes,
I rediscovered how delicious, how satisfying all-veggie meals are and that we really don’t notice the lack of meat on the plate when we skip it. So many vegetarian dishes are flavorful and hearty, completely filling and interesting to the senses. Should we crave meat, sure, we can add a small portion of a locally raised chicken or something. But we haven’t once cared to add meat to the menu since I started cooking again. It feels great to return to a way of eating that I know is more sustainable, more healthy, and have it not feel like a deprivation.
And, for one more preview, here’s a bit of her explication of reason #3, “Making food pretty makes you feel more satisfied during and after a meal”:
Jan Chozen Bays, in her book Mindful Eating, writes of the seven hungers: eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, stomach hunger, cellular hunger, mind hunger and heart hunger. We eat for different reasons, and usually because we are feeling at least one of these hungers though we may not be hungry in the way we normally think we are, when our stomach is empty. Our bodies might be craving a certain nutrient, or our hearts might be craving a childhood comfort food. But in this culture of rushing and hurrying, what we often don’t realize is how many hungers we can satisfy by taking the time to make our food beautiful and enjoying that process and sight before we eat.
Find the full post here.
And, for a little inspiration, check out Heimbuch’s “12 Easy recipes for eating local and vegetarian in March.”
The Atlantic recently ran Scott Douglas’s interview with Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. The book examines many of the technologies throughout human history that have assisted in the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs and, in doing so, changed cultures and lives. Consider, for example, some of the dangers that cooking with fire has posed:
The big cauldron was heated over an indoor fire that, you write, was the center of the typical home. What happened after the hearth was replaced by a more removed kitchen?
One change is fewer accidental deaths from young children toddling into fires by mistake or women’s billowing skirts catching ablaze as they cooked. Women were particularly at risk from open hearths, on account of the terrible combination of billowing skirts, trailing sleeves, open flames, and bubbling cauldrons. With the emergence of enclosed brick chimneys and cast iron fire grates in the 17th century, many more women became professional cooks: At last they could cook with only a minimal risk of setting fire to themselves.
For more, check out reviews of the book. For example, Dawn Drzal asks in The New York Times,
“Which comes first, the stir-fry or the wok?” It may sound like a bad joke, but the answer holds the key to one of the world’s great cuisines. Bee Wilson’s supple, sometimes playful style in “Consider the Fork,” a history of the tools and techniques humans have invented to feed themselves, cleverly disguises her erudition in fields from archaeology and anthropology to food science. Only when you find yourself rattling off statistics at the dinner table will you realize how much information you’ve effortlessly absorbed….
So, which does come first, the stir-fry or the wok? Wilson’s answer is, “Neither.” To solve the riddle, we have to take a step back and contemplate cooking fuel: firewood was scarce, and with a wok you could cook more quickly after chopping food into bite-size morsels with a tou, or Chinese cleaver. Chopsticks were also part of this “symbiosis.”
[Wilson's] argument is clear and persuasive. Changes in food technology change what can be prepared as a meal, thus changing what is habitually eaten, and often spurring wider social changes. The first clay cooking pots, Wilson says, allowed the invention of soups, which meant that more humans could survive into adulthood even if they had lost all their teeth. Other developments analysed here, with a consistent scholarly grace, include the blunt table knife, the gas hob, and the refrigerator.
Buy the book at fine booksellers everywhere, or do as I just did and check out the print or electronic book from your local library. In the meantime, take a look at the lovely promotional video for the book that features Wilson giving a brief overview of her work.