Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Why and How I Eat

All right, so the explanation of the title of this post might seem obvious: I eat because if I didn’t, I would starve, and I do it by placing food in my mouth, chewing, and swallowing. As you may have guessed, this is not what I mean. I want to talk a little about why I eat what I do, as well as why and how I try to be aware of what I’m consuming and take pleasure in having it. I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion about the problems with the food industry in North America, or the problems with what and how people are eating in North America, because then this post would be much, much too long and I’m sure I would still have more to say on the subject. But I will say this: most of us are not thinking enough about what we’re eating, why we do, and whether or not we should. People are seeking convenience and economy, and dinner has become something we grab from a drive-through window and eat in the car, or throw in the microwave, and devour in front of the television. Meanwhile, the Big Food industry is destroying our planet and destroying our bodies. It is also abusing the animals that produce much of our food, and abusing the farmers who grow and raise our food. This state of affairs will not stand, but very little will change until there are some changes in policy when it comes to the sale and manufacturing of food (the subsidization of corn, for example, needs to end). It’s not all about policy, though, and the vast majority of us need to start making some changes to what we’re eating.

Where I’m getting my information: I’m constantly learning, and I learn from many different sources. I read a lot. I read food blogs and magazines on a daily basis, and I read food-related books regularly, many of which are about food ethics and sustainability. Right now, I’m about a quarter of the way through Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s fantastic. So far, I was more or less already aware of most of the stuff he’s talking about, but he goes into more depth than I’d seen before, so I’m learning a lot. I’m also in culinary school, so discussions with classmates and chefs about food ethics and sustainability is a common thing in my day-to-day life. The more I find out about this stuff, the more I want to learn, the more I want to change my own habits, and the more I want to inform others, and change the world. Honestly, get me started, and I could talk about this stuff all day, which I’m trying very hard not to do in this post.

What I’m eating: My diet, for lack of a better word, is constantly changing and evolving. Lately, it’s been changing more quickly than it had in the past, mainly because I’m learning more about food than ever before. This includes what I learn in culinary school, so culinary fundamentals, techniques, theory, and so on, as well as what I’m learning from the reading described above.

So what exactly are these changes? I’ve started to cut out processed food almost completely (and by processed food, I basically mean anything with more than three ingredients), buying mostly whole foods and making everything I can from scratch. Also, no more fast food. I’m eating a lot more organic foods, but not all. There are some limits to what I believe is worth the extra cost for organic, what I trust as what I believe organic means, rather than the USDA’s definition, but that merits a whole other discussion. I have started buying mostly organic dairy products, though. I’m trying to eat as locally as possible, and if that means no tomatoes in December, then so be it! The biggest change I’ve made is with my meat consumption: it’s gone way, way down. I used to eat meat about five to six days per week. Now, I eat it about two times per week. I’ve also changed the quality of meat I eat: I’m buying only organic and humanely-raised meat (I’m lucky enough to live near a Whole Foods and a PCC Natural Market that allow me to do this), and again, local as much as possible. Also, when I do eat meat, I make the portion sizes much smaller than I used to. The reduction of my meat consumption allows for an increase in fruits and vegetables (I’ve been loving the leafy greens lately), whole grains, and legumes.

These changes happened about as organically as they could: I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to start eating this way. I’ve learned little by little, so I’ve made changes little by little. I sought out more vegetarian recipes, and so I cooked more vegetarian meals. I barely even thought about how much less meat I was eating until after the change had been made. I started trying out different grains and legumes, and now many are regular staples in my pantry. I discovered that if I was eating less meat, I could afford to pay more for local, organic, and humane, and the more I read about it, the more I realized that this was a necessary change if I was going to continue to eat meat at all. I read more labels, and think more before tossing something into my shopping cart. It was easier than I expected to make these changes, and gradually, I know that even more changes will be made.

How I eat: I’m trying to take my time more when I eat. I’m also trying to think more before I put something into my mouth. I’m trying to think about how fortunate I am to have access and to be able to afford more than enough food to sustain me, and this affects the quantity and quality of what I do eat. I try to remind myself that the reason I am eating is to sustain myself, and that eating too much will, in one way or another, hurt me, and also probably hurt others. I also take pleasure in eating. This means taking my time with food, chewing well, and identifying the different flavors contained in it. I try to think about (without obsessing about) what harm or good the food I am eating is doing to my body, and I try to adjust my consumption accordingly. I come from a family where family dinner—all of us sitting around the table each night to eat, to talk, and to spend some time together—was a nightly occurrence. Dinner in front of the television was simply never an option, and I think that we have all benefitted from this, both nutritionally, and in our relationships with each other. Family dinner is actually an important topic to me, and something that I would like to talk more about another time, but I just wanted to mention here that it is something that I strongly believe in.

I feel like I could continue this diatribe for a lot longer, but I’ll end it here because I think I’ve at least given a good overview of my own personal food philosophy. One more thing though: the best way to learn about food, to think about food, and to understand food is to cook food, and that’s why I do it every day.

But enough about me, what are your food philosophies?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Falafel

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that falafel is one of those foods I used to associate with dreary, unimaginative food courts. Until recently, I had only ever experienced falafel from little Lebanese restaurants in sad shopping malls where I munched on the dry, fried balls of chickpeas that had probably been prepared hours earlier, and had since been losing moisture and flavor under a heat lamp. That said, it has always been a food I took pleasure in eating and that I ordered frequently enough. They were unlike anything I had tasted before.

Well, I have since had better falafel at better restaurants, and I can now better appreciate what falafel has the potential to be: a simple, unassuming combination of ingredients to produce a unique and delectable treat. After tasting superior falafel, and seeing a particularly inspiring episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay in which he heads off against the maker of the so-called best falafel in NYC, I decided, of course, that I would have to try making falafel for myself.For those of you poor souls who don’t know what falafel is, and have never tasted it, allow me to enlighten you: falafel is basically a mixture of mashed chickpeas with various herbs, spices, and baking powder for volume, rolled into a ball, and deep fried. The origin of this tasty treat is up for debate: several countries in the Middle East claim it as their own, including Egypt and Israel. Regardless of who created it, falafel is popular in many places today, and for good reason: it’s delicious.
I had wanted to make my own falafel for a while when a recipe for it popped up in my February issue of Bon App├ętit. I took it as a sign, and decided to give the recipe a shot, at least as a starting point for my own version.
The recipe is as simple and straightforward as you can imagine: basically, mash the ingredients together, form into balls, roll around in some flour, and fry. I fried mine in about a half inch of canola oil in my cast iron skillet on the stovetop, and they came out quite beautifully. Served on couscous with hummus and pita bread, they made a very tasty vegetarian meal. Unlike the heat lamp-petrified falafel I had had in the past, this falafel was hot with a crisp outside, and a fluffy, moist interior. It tasted fresh and delicious.
They weren’t perfect, though. My cooking method was fine: I liked how they came out texture-wise. Where I found they were lacking a little was in flavor. They needed more. The next time I make this, I think I’ll use more parsley and cumin, and I would also add some mint and coriander.

If you haven’t had falafel before, I would recommend that you try it at a restaurant (even a restaurant in a food court) so that you can get an idea of what falafel should taste like. I think that this is one of those dishes where it is really necessary to know what you’re going for before you try it yourself. Then, find the recipe here, make it at home and perfect your own scrumptious falafel, worthy of so much more than their food court popularity.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Simple Recipe

If it seems like it has been a little longer than usual since my last post, that’s because it has. You can blame a certain important international sporting event that has been going on for the past two weeks in my home country that has made me a captive to my television set. Life is back to normal now, though, and I want to share a dish with you that I made, incidentally, on the night of the opening ceremonies of said international sporting event. First, a little about the recipe’s source.Mark Bittman has been a favorite food writer of mine for quite some time. I follow his blog and I am a big fan of his book Food Matters. Bittman has also published an impressive number of cookbooks, many of which I have browsed and used. This particular recipe came from a book of his called Kitchen Express. It contains 404 recipes, organized by season. What makes this book unique is how the recipes are written: you won’t see lists of ingredients, precise instructions, or exact measurements anywhere. Each “recipe” is a short paragraph, giving general guidelines on what to do and how much of each ingredient to use. For example, here’s the recipe for “West Indian Pork Kebabs”:

Heat the broiler. In a bowl, combine some minced garlic, about a half teaspoon of ground allspice, a pinch of nutmeg, some fresh thyme leaves, a chopped small onion, and the juice of a lime. Toss this mixture with about a pound of pork shoulder cut into one-inch cubes. Thread the pork onto skewers and broil for about six minutes or until cooked through, turning to brown all sides evenly.
-Bittman, Mark. Kitchen Express. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. p 99.

Some cooks may not like this style, may even object to it, in fact, on the basis that these little paragraphs don’t constitute recipes. However, I happen to like it quite a lot. These are not recipes to be meticulously followed, never wavering from the directions given in black and white. These recipes are guidelines as, really, all recipes are. But by presenting his recipes in this format, Bittman seems to be encouraging his readers to experiment, to use these recipes as inspiration, rather than gospel.I put this concept to good practice when I made “Linguine with Butter, Parmesan, and Sage”, a simple classic of pasta tossed with sage-infused browned butter, a little pasta cooking water, and a bunch of freshly grated parmesan. I made a few simple changes: I used garlic and basil pasta from Trader Joe’s, and I added cubed, roasted butternut squash to the mix.The dish came out well, though I would make a few slight changes the next time I make it. I would definitely use plain linguine rather than the garlic and basil infused variety I tried this time. The flavor of the pasta took away from the delicate, nuttiness of the browned butter and the aromatic sage. Also, I would add less cooking liquid at the end than I did this time. I managed to actually water the whole thing down more than I’d like, so I’d be more careful with that the next time. All in all, though, a tasty, simple pasta dish to curl up with in front of an exciting television event. (Hint: the Oscars are on Sunday!)
I like that Bittman challenges his readers to play with his recipes by presenting them in such a basic, stripped down way. When directions are more precisely given, it is more intimidating to waver from them. So while some cooks may feel thrown into the deep by a book like this one, I hope that they will take a chance on it and use it as an opportunity to be creative, and use a recipe as inspiration for a masterpiece of their own.In honor of Bittman, I will attempt to describe my version of his recipe as clearly and efficiently as he does.

Linguine with Butter, Parmesan, and Sage
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.

Peel, seed, and cut a medium butternut squash into ½” cubes. Toss with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper, and roast in a 400 F oven until browned, 25-30 minutes. Cook linguine in salted, boiling water until al dente and reserving a couple ladles of the cooking liquid. Meanwhile, melt three tablespoons of butter, then add a few handfuls of sage leaves over medium-high heat. Cook until the sage leaves shrivel and the butter has begun to brown. Add the cooked pasta to the pan along with a third of a cup of the reserved liquid. Toss and cook about a minute longer, adding more cooking liquid if the pan gets dry. Toss in the roasted squash and a few handfuls of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.