Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Month: May, 2010

Don’t Play With Your Food. But Think About It, Do.

by lyzpfister

A scene from this year’s Easter fête:  all of us, except mom, standing over two racks of lamb, discussing raw meat’s lack of visual appeal.  Gross, disturbing, almost human-looking.  An actual carcass.  Mom was busy bleating in the background, “You killed my baby.  I’m going to come get youuuuuu….”  She refused to come any closer and did not participate in the subsequent lamb-eating, to be sure.  But the rest of us were fascinated by the lamb.  It was covered in filmy plasma from the fleshy strip of base up through the gangling, sawed-off ribs knocking against each other, and it gave off an earthy smell, like blood and dirt.  Horrible, raw, food for Hannibal.

The cooked lamb was benign.  Delicious to be sure, buttery soft and pink near the bone, tasting of rosemary and mustard on its crisp, fat-browned crust.  Less like dead baby lamb and more like dinner.  Perfect, delicious, dead, baby lamb.

What a contrast with the raw lamb, which made even a meat eater like me uncomfortable.  The feel against my fingers of placental slime, the bones’ raw clack, the way it looked like the ribs ripped out from a child’s back.  There’s nothing dangerous in ground beef or pork cutlets, nothing to fear from a link of sausage or a sliver of cold honey-glazed ham.  But a rack of lamb is visceral.  The other day, in my yoga class, as we folded into half-pigeon, the instructor said, “You’re opening one of the largest joints in your body.  You might feel a release of raw emotion.  Just breathe into it.”

How ridiculous, I thought.  A flow of emotion held captive in my hip?  And then I made a rack of lamb and realized that some stretches take us places we’d rather not go and unless we breathe, we’ll never understand where we were.

My first response to the gnawing discomfort was to play with my food.  Like the monster in Pan’s Labyrinth, I gripped each bloody rack with my fingers and manipulated the meat to wiggle my new, bony fingers in front of my face.  The shriek of horror from my mother almost made the experiment worth it, but it felt wrong.  Sacrilegious to the dead lamb to use its body that way.

I am not squeamish and I don’t have the emotional constitution of a vegetarian.  But I’m rarely confronted with food that makes me so uncomfortable.  A few other times:  frog legs on a cruise – the way I could make them hop across my plate, those legs suddenly unappetizing; escargot in Paris, a single grain of sand reminding me of a snail’s slow, slimy journey over earth; pig ears from a Brooklyn bodega, the unexpected way cartilage dented under teeth as if a real ear had been too deeply nibbled, a heady smear of gelatin on my tongue; scallops, always.

It could be texture or taste, though a scallop is not an ear is not a frog.  Besides, I don’t much like the taste of celery, but it never makes me squirm.  And I love the salty, melting softness of a snail, the tender, sweet meat from a frog.

Maybe some food is too real.  It is too much like a separate self, a thing that once had a soul.  Does a scallop have a soul?

I don’t think the quorum here is as simple as to eat or not eat meat.  And it’s not as simple as some meat is ok to eat and other meat isn’t.  (A small digression on cannibalism:  Who was it who decided we can eat cow, pig, duck, emu, and in some cultures even cat or dog or horse, but never other people.  Is it for health reasons – like, cows shouldn’t eat other cows because it leads to mad cow disease?  A historical aversion to the habits of conquered peoples and their frightening beliefs of soul consumption?  A desire to not be eaten oneself?  The conclusion, I think, is that not participating in cannibalism is really good for establishing a lowest moral common denominator.  If we start eating each other, we lose the most basic agreement between neighbors – whatever else I might do to you, I will not eat you.  I may shoot you, rob you, slander you, cheat you, or beat you, but I will never eat you.  When people eat people, all rules are thrown out the window.  Because if we can’t even agree not to eat ach other, what can we agree upon?  Then again, why is eating other people so taboo?  It must have something to do with souls.  My question:  does a scallop have a soul?)

I think part of the problem is that we never really think about our food – where it comes from, what it was, what it reminds us of that makes us uncomfortable.

Back to yoga’s lesson, back to breathing.  I put the lamb down and threaded kitchen string between each bone until a rough crown stood up on the plate.  I smelled the blood and herbs, the grass and flesh.  And like a mantra, I breathed, I am going to eat this lamb.  This delicious lamb. If it had a soul, I made my peace with it.  Preparing it not like just a slab of meat, but an animal whose death meant my dinner.  And my uneasiness faded as I stuffed a sauté of kale, pine nuts, and golden raisins into the crown’s empty center.  I’ve always treated vegetables with respect – they are magical to me in all their combinations of sweet, bitter, fresh, warm, or salty flavor punches.  I somehow missed the memo that meat deserves that respect as well.  Perhaps even more so than a vegetable, which will never look at you with big, brown eyes.  I grew up down the street from cows.  I know all about their big, brown, eyes, intelligent and condemning.  I still love beef.

So the moral is not this: don’t eat something with a soul.  Because first of all, does a scallop have a soul?  And second, if a scallop has a soul, there’s nothing wrong with eating other people, assuming people have souls too – because is one soul better than another?  Maybe the moral is: love the food you eat, know that you live from other life (a carrot was also once alive), and thank it.  Ok, I know, let’s sing a round of Kumbayah and hold hands.  But really, I find myself often putting no more thought into my food than: this is delicious or this will taste good with that.  But our food deserves more.  Because just in case a scallop really does have a soul, I’d want that soul to be consumed feeling like it was, at least, loved.

When those tender, perfect, oven-kissed shanks were on my plate, I almost forgot about the pain, the need to breathe when the meat was raw and real in my hands.  So what is my moral dilemma, really?  Maybe some foods just make me uncomfortable.  I don’t know.  But the lamb – it was so good.

There was much less trauma involved in the asparagus tart, and that was pretty delicious too.

Broke Eating 101, a Blog Post for Cedric

by lyzpfister

Last night at work, I found myself talking about food.  Again.  This happens to me often, usually because I bring my own lunch and when someone asks me what it is, I can’t just say “pasta.”  I have to say, “bowtie pasta with a sauce of crushed tomatoes, garlic, olives, capers, and onion topped with grated Sicilian black pepper cheese.”  And then, invariably, we start talking about food, or I launch into some rhapsodous description of what I made for dinner last night.  And, invariably, it’s the same few people who walk in on me, talking about food, again, and say, “Lyz!  You’re always talking about food!”  I mean, maybe.  But I have other hobbies.  Really, I do.

But last night, after going on a foodie spiel, I was asked by a co-worker my advice on cooking cheaply and healthily for yourself.  He was taking notes.  No one had ever taken notes.  But, since there’s no better way to make yourself an expert than to just present yourself as one, I launched into an avalanche of advice.  Really, I’m no expert (I lied, I’m sorry, forgive me), but I think I do manage to make delicious food for very little money.  And so, in the interest of sharing, here are some basic tenets on my approach to cooking and how I manage to live on mostly nothing.

The Kitchen’s Golden Rule
Banish your fear.  Fear is your worst enemy in the kitchen.  You don’t need to measure things exactly, you don’t need to use parsley or caviar.  Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to not follow a recipe exactly.  If you don’t have an ingredient, substitute something else – it might sound strange, but it could be delicious.  (See: the other day, I was making a mango milkshake, but was out of yogurt and used sour cream instead and ohmygoditwasamazing.)

Start With the Basics
Some things are easier to make than others.  Some things are easier to experiment with than others.  If you’re just starting to cook on your own or you want as much variation with as little redundant grocery buying as possible, start with these four things:  grain-based salads, sandwiches, pastas, egg dishes.  More on this later.

Develop a Good Staple and Spice Collection
This is really the key to making delicious food.  Here are some things I always have on hand:
Olive oil – both extra virgin to use cold (especially for salad dressings) and regular for sautéing and drizzling over roasting vegetables
Vegetable oil – for frying and baking
Seasoned rice wine vinegar – goes into every dressing I ever make
Spicy whole grain mustard – same as above
Honey – I like a light-colored honey to sweeten dressings, curries, roasts
Balsamic vinegar – I use this less than rice wine vinegar, but a splash of this is nice in dressings
Sriracha – the best hot sauce in the world, it goes with everything
Soy sauce or Shoyu – great for stir frys, dressings, sautéing vegetables
Mayonnaise – I’m not really big on mayonnaise as a thing itself, but I do use it in cooking as a binder for sandwich fillings or in dressings
Olives – not really a condiment, but I always have some on hand to chop up
Capers – same as with olives; they add such a great, briny flavor to pastas and salads
Peanut butter – the poor man’s power food; you can spread it on bread and use it in sauces for pastas and salad dressings
Brown Sugar – A great sweetener for curries, to make caramelized onions, and in tomato-based sauces
Butter – I mean, a little melted butter, some onions, an egg…
Salt and pepper – duh
Dried herbs – oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil
Spices – curry powder, berbere, turmeric, crushed red pepper flakes

Non-Perishable Foodstuffs I Usually Have
Think of these as your canvas and vegetables and meat as paint.  There are so many different types of grains out there that can be way more interesting than just rice and pasta, though those are good too.
Rice – there are so many different types of rice; I prefer white rice for hot dishes and brown rice for salads
Pasta – again, so many types; I like to have a few varieties on hand
Bulgur – delicious hot or cold, beautiful nutty taste
Couscous – also good hot or cold, soaks up the flavor of whatever you put on it
Quinoa – a lot like bulgur, different texture
Grits – great for breakfast, with melted cheese, hot sauce, or buried under eggs
Flour – super basic, great for thickening sauces and baking, of course
Breadstuff – this can include sliced bread, tortillas, or pitas (I know this is perishable, technically, but it fits better in this category…)

Perishable Foodstuffs I Usually Always Have, Too
You can use these things for EVERYTHING, so I try to always have some on hand.
Onions – use sliced, sautéed onions in pretty much everything
Garlic – ditto for garlic, a little bit goes a long way; also great in salad dressings
Potatoes – roasted, sautéed, mashed, and always filling
Parsley – people underestimate the power of garnishes, but there’s so much flavor in parsley and it brightens up any carb-heavy dish
Cilantro – you either love or hate cilantro, but if you love it, use it in salads, tacos, sandwiches, anything cold
Eggs – so versatile, more on these later
Cheese – I usually have a few types of cheese on hand; always a block of parmesan, and then I rotate between brie, feta, goat, blue, and cheddar
Cabbage – hot or cold, stir fry or slaw, another versatile food that lasts forever
Greens – a bunch of greens is so cheap and lasts for over two weeks

Grain-Based Salads
If you’re broke, you need to eat cheap, but you don’t need to sacrifice taste or health for something that’s going to fill you up.  The key is grain-based salads.  It’s simple: choose a grain (like rice, bulgur or quinoa) and cook it, chop up some veggies (carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumber, beets, jalapenos, cilantro, canned corn, red or green pepper, whatever), make a dressing (olive oil, rice wine vinegar, honey, mustard, salt, pepper, fresh herbs), and mix it all together.  Grains are super cheap and a little bit goes a long way, since it’s very filling.  So having a salad made with a grain base is great because you don’t need a lot of veggies to make a really great meal.  Use this principle to make pasta salads as well.

There is nothing you can’t put between two slices of bread.  Forget sliced deli meat, yellow cheese, and mayo.  So boring.  Think:  crumbled blue cheese or feta, bacon, lettuce, homemade slaw, pequillo peppers, avocado, egg, mushroom – basically any leftovers you have in your fridge, throw it on bread.

You can even take some of your leftover grain-based salad, put it on a pita and then make a little cabbage and carrot slaw – and bam, you have a wrap.  Waste nothing.  Put it in a sandwich.

What you can’t put in a pasta sauce… Think of pasta sauce as a way to use up leftovers.  Nubs of carrots, canned tomatoes, olives, capers, peppers, onions, eggplant, egg – just sauté veggies until soft, cook pasta, toss together.  Shave some parmesan on top.

Egg Dishes
Kind of the workhorse of broke cooking.  You can put anything in eggs (trend, anyone?).  A frittata can include: potatoes, onions, broccoli, greens, leftover pasta, parsley, tomatoes, chicken – or whatever else you happen to find.  Just soften everything in a skillet and then crack two eggs into the pan.

Some Final Thoughts
There’s more.  There’s always more.  But this is a great place to start if you’re new to cooking for yourself – or if you’re new to not having any money.  Especially if you’re new to not having any money and needing to cook for yourself.  Remember, just don’t be afraid to do anything and it’ll all turn out ok.

A New Thing
I’d like to ask your input, your advice.  We’re all about as expert as each other.  What can’t you cook without?  What do you always have on hand?  Ready: respond.

Good News for Your Sweet Tooth

by lyzpfister

Lately, I just can’t seem to get enough sugar.  I want pudding, bread with peanut butter and honey, chocolate granola, jam and butter, cheesecake, and Nutella on anything.  (Speaking of Nutella, anyone manage to catch its most recent commercial, where a doting mother/consumer is touting it as a … health product?)  The problem is this:  I rarely crave sweet foods, and I happen to never crave them at the grocery store, so I never have sweet foods on hand to munch on when those cravings strike.

The other day, the pain was particularly bad, and not only bad, it was specific.  I wanted pie.  I wanted pie bad.

Anette and I had just finished making a delightful lunch out of nothing (as usual), and I mentioned my craving.  She said, “I have some frozen blueberries,” and in a flash I realized I could make pie.  Or I could make something almost like pie.

I want to share this recipe with you because it was so ridiculously easy.  We whipped it together in about ten minutes and then just sat back and relaxed while pie magic happened in the oven.  So if you, too, find yourself pie-less, you can change the facts of your life with things you probably have somewhere.

Blueberry (or whatever) “Pie”

There’s this amazing pie crust recipe which calls for 2 cups flour, 2/3 cups vegetable oil, and 1/3 cups milk.  I used this recipe and scaled it down to fit a small half-sized pie dish.  Knead the ingredients together until a glossy, not sticky ball of dough forms.  Press it into a pie dish.  In another bowl, mix your pie filling and put it in the dish.  We used frozen blueberries, frozen strawberries, sugar, cinnamon, and honey.  But other things you could make into pie in a pinch:  apple slices, raisins, jams, dried fruits, dates, nuts, Nutella (er… maybe).  Then, make a quick crumble crust by blending together butter, flour, brown sugar, and rolled oats with your fingers.  Crumble the crumble over your pie filling and bake in a 450 F oven for, um, 45 minutes?  Until it’s done.  You’ll know.  It’ll be bubbly and gooey and smell like heaven.