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Post-Election: Food and, well, everything else we value

Not a good week. At all. Even Garrison Keillor is jumping in and warning the Rust Belt states that they’ve made an extreme mistake that will keep them down (and they’re probably not listening or aware that he’s even left NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion”) and prevent them from enjoying anything but more Hamburger Helper and Mac ‘n’ Cheese in all its fabulously innovative variations for the next ten years or so.

And how do I explain this development to my daughter, who came home from a high school election night event as ashen-faced as we all were?

Certainly mac ‘n’ cheese, posed in this case along with brussels sprout gratin and leek casserole as fabulous Thanksgiving options (and so transportable!), was at the top of the New York Times food article server to show alongside all the disaster inch-high election result headlines and the not-quite-mea-culpas for having called it wrong for months. I’ve never encountered something so unappetizing in my life–at this point, MnC looks much too much like a certain infamous hair don’t. And despite blog after blog and cookbook after cookbook extolling the midwestern ecstasies of MnCs in every possible not-gonna-happen-because-you-can’t-get-roquefort-or-chervil-in-Middle-America, I find myself in revolt.

Heartened by yesterday’s thousands of young protesters taking to the streets, but in revolt nonetheless because street protests aren’t going to be enough to solve this mess.

So yes, I’m going to be alarmist for a few minutes here. Maybe more if I get on a roll. Every prospect for a decent, diverse, civil and prosperous society is about to be thrown under the bus by Congress and the president in two months, if the bloviators have their way. Mac ‘n’ cheese is the least of it, the most trivial and trivializing point. I’m not trying to be elitist here–more like, why favor what is essentially a flavorless stodgy heart attack on a plate and then whine about high drug prices?

But the anti-trade rants that seem to have won over the red states are a damn good place to start. I’d just like to point a few items out to people who already have a limited selection of food at their local supermarkets because they live in small towns across the country (and that includes plenty of us in California as well).

What the hell are us cooks, foodies or no, wherever we live, going to do? We have two months to stock up on actual spices that didn’t come in a tiny, uptight, never-to-be-used tin box or jar as part of a wedding set from however many years ago. Because most spices come from…overseas. That’s right. Or Mexico.

Thanksgiving, utterly whitebread and middle-American as it so often seems, requires spices. Pumpkin pie is not the same with “pumpkin pie spice” artifices developed in chemistry labs in New Jersey. It needs cloves. And ginger. And cinnamon. And nutmeg or cardamom or both. Also mace, if you can get it. Sweet potato pudding requires crushed pineapple. Which comes from Mexico or worse, in the eyes of our next president, Hawaii.

The last time we were on an hysterical close-the-borders binge, in one of the Bush eras, cloves started to run over $50 a pound. Because they come from places like Iran. For those of you who don’t know, cloves come from a clove tree–hard to find in the gardening catalogs and apparently somewhat tricky to grow in most of the US. Cinnamon, the most “American” of spices, is the bark of one of several trees, either “true cinnamon” or cassia, grown in Vietnam, some places in Latin America, Sri Lanka, etc…

Peppercorns–India, mostly. Limes, Mexico again. Where will all the Margaritas go? Also many varieties of hot peppers.

And don’t forget the two great American drugs–coffee and chocolate. Both imports from countries the newly elected right-wingers would like to ban altogether. African countries. Arab countries. Latin America. Indonesia which is, yes, primarily Muslim.

Recreational marijuana, which almost anyone can grow in the US, pales in comparison and everybody knows it.

More disconcerting to me for most of the year, sesame seeds. Tehina requires them. All Arab and most Israeli and some Caucasus/Persian food requires them (all those amazing cookbooks the past couple of years and this fall season–Zahav, Samarkand, Persepolis, Balaboosta, you name it). Also Chinese food. And Korean. Bagels wouldn’t be the same without them. Sesame seeds are grown primarily in Ethiopia and are traded through a variety of countries on Trump’s bloviating rant list.

There’s more. Cookware–China. Almost all of it at this point, with the exception of Lodge cast iron frying pans and whatever Shinola decides to produce in the way of an orange-and-tan hipster le Creuset wannabe with detachable split calf handle covers or whatever. Wonder how well Shinola’s gonna be selling in Brooklyn now, or whether discerning New Yorkers will cut them a break and realize Detroit voted blue, it was all the surrounding Michigan counties that clutched up.

The worst hit of all, probably, may be for print. As in, cookbooks. It’s well known that our next prez does not like to read much and may find print expendable (and he’s no fan of the free press either). Most American publishers print their hard copy books of all kinds in China and Singapore and ship them back to the US. So do many magazines and brochure and business card companies. DVDs and Blu-Ray. All that stuff–made in China.

Although I would welcome a return to American printing for major publishers, retail prices for everything would probably go up. A lot. And a lot of trees would be killed here unless we can get that elitist tree-hugging recycling thing going properly without sending all our paper waste to China for processing.

And, as I say again, coffee. And chocolate. If there’s a shortage or an embargo, serious chocolate may disappear in this country and be replaced by stuff about the quality of typical Halloween candy, most of which is brown without noticeable chocolate content.

Very depressing.

Well, screw all that. In fact, corkscrew it. (Wine may also end up harder to come by, because it comes from the Blue States–California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Virginia, Maryland…)

The two cookbooks most blogged about this fall are MnC-like in ways I hadn’t expected from either of their authors. Then again. probably both of their authors were looking for a more united state of the Union when the books came out.

Mario Batali has decided he’s the new Jane and Michael Stern and surveyed some regional American recipes he thinks are worth putting in a cookbook. There are, contrary to his Italian-focused cookbooks, almost no vegetables and an awful lot of bland-looking starch dishes. On a quick flip-through, none of it looks exceedingly delicious, to be honest with you.

Then there is the self-consciously infamous Anthony Bourdain doing his Hunter S. Thompson-as-foodie act with Appetites–this one’s also sort of American-ish, and focused on “dad food”. The prose veers back and forth between “still badass in his heart” and handy dad tips you never knew you needed because “it’s all about the little girl,” who’s age nine or so at this point. Things like how to fix a broken hollandaise sauce for Eggs Benedict and not to bother with risotto for birthday parties for nine-year-olds and their friends. A little surreal–what typical American dad really aims for hollandaise sauce, broken or un-?

To make up for the mawkish sentimentality, the photos are unnecessarily aggressive: a combat helmet filled with Korean Army Stew, rice noodles slopped over the side and onto the table (a Lucky Peach original motif). A cotton gi with bloodstains from his boasted-about workout routine. Bourdain, sitting on the seat of a toilet in a stylish and thankfully clean bathroom, and even more thankfully fully clothed and pants zipped, but eating a sausage and pepper sandwich on the pot.

Is it necessary? Is it ornamental? Is it even particularly entertaining? No. It’s overshare and trying a little too hard to stay provocative.

The real puzzler for most food journalists has been how he conned Eric Ripert, head of Le Bernardin in NYC and also the author of the well-received recent memoir 32 Yolks, into posing for the gonzo photographer with pale gravy dribbling down his universally-acclaimed-to-be-handsome chin, like a 6-month-old fed something he or she doesn’t care for. The expression on Ripert’s face tells it all–dismayed, dyspeptic, slightly helpless and trying to be a good sport in the face of his friend’s over-the-top enthusiasm and that of the photographer. It is not a solid advertisement for the supposed deliciousness of Bourdain’s biscuits and gravy recipe on the opposing page.

All of which…doesn’t give you a lot of hope for serious food prospects come January 20.

We have two months to make a point and also put up some reserves so our kitchens don’t devolve into flavorless beige wastelands of mediocrity.

How do you grow sesame seeds in your back yard again?

Rosh Hashanah DIY: Coming around again

Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jewish food goes through phases of trendiness in America, and it’s coming around again.

When I was about twelve, in the mid-1970s, The Jewish Catalog by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld sparked a renaissance of enthusiasm among younger and non-Orthodox Jews for everything from Israeli dance to Hebrew calligraphy to tying the knots correctly on the corners of a prayer shawl (the early 1970s was not just the “me decade,” it was also the era of macrame). Siegel and the Strassfelds took a DIY approach to creating a full Jewish life outside the shtetl. They made it hip, interesting and fun to observe Shabbat, understand the holidays, gather friends to plant trees, bless the sun and the new moon, cast bread on the waters, pen your own Hebrew inscriptions, and make–and of course blow–your own shofar. The book quickly became a top bar and bat mitzvah gift and influenced not only the way our synagogues practiced and our religious schools taught children but how young adults, affiliated or not, felt about being Jewish in public. Everything became more hands-on and more celebratory.

What would a Jewish DIY catalog be without food? The diagrams for how to braid challah in three, four or six strand loaves were unprecedented. So were the cartoons, which leavened everything but the homemade matzah. Cartoon matzah balls flirted at the edge of the bowl before diving in, one of them tipping his kreplach hat. A man up to his armpits in a garbage can full of grapes asks if this is really the way zaydeh (Grandpa) made his Shabbos wine, and another explains ruefully to his girlfriend that he thought more yeast would make the challah lighter, not more aggressive, as it overflows the bowl and oozes toward his foot.

The Catalog also introduced a lot of people to their first taste of Israeli and Sephardi food–felafel and hummus recipes were included alongside the chicken soup and cholent, even though they were admittedly limited to ingredients most people could find in a suburban supermarket in the mid-’70s.

All in all, The Jewish Catalog set a very high bar and is still something of a classic.

By the mid-1990s, though, bagels were mainstream American food and very different from the real, crackle-crusted deal. Rye bread was soft and bland and delis were dying. Meanwhile, Sephardi and Mizrahi food were becoming more familiar and more popular in the US and UK. Prepared hummus started appearing in supermarket refrigerated cases along with spinach-artichoke party dips. Hummus from scratch started requiring dried chickpeas, not canned.

In the past few years, delis have been making a comeback–though mostly not kosher ones–and so has traditional Ashkenazi baking, though mostly via cookbooks. Kosher and otherwise Jewish cookbooks of every culinary stripe have been churning out of the big publishing houses, and Jewish authors are prominent in vegetarian and vegan cooking as well. We’re in the midst of another DIY Jewish renaissance–though more foodie- than observance-oriented.

The Gefilte Manifesto is one of the newest and possibly best of the books from a new generation of Jewish food artisans and restaurateurs, and it manages to capture some of the spirit of The Jewish Catalog.

Authors Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a pickle maker and fermentation enthusiast, and Liz Alpern, a former aide to Joan Nathan, own and operate the Gefilteria, a millenial-style craft food business based on their gefilte fish and accompaniments. It currently combines a line of frozen gefilte fish loaves and jarred condiments with direct sales at farmer’s markets and pop-up catered events in several cities around the country.

This book is the product of that collaboration, and it’s remarkable this year not least because its authors actually respect the traditional Ashkenazi foodways they’re representing. There’s no braggadocio (eep! hints of 3 pounds of bologna on white bread! sorry!) and no slavishness toward food glam, or what the Los Angeles Jewish Journal likes to call “foodie-ism.” They keep the recipes kosher and avoid the temptation (such as it is) to add tired treyf tropes like bacon or shrimp (although they do have some kimchi-infused recipes). Instead, they refresh the classics by making them fresh, with real ingredients and good technique.

Gefilte fish becomes an elegant terrine with herbs or smoked whitefish (the authors’ limited-distribution frozen signature gefilte loaf,  featuring a whitefish base and a pink salmon top layer, is also pictured in a picnic shot but not given a recipe in the book). Horseradish gets a citrusy twist, and pickles range from classic half-sour dills to cardamom-spiked pickled grapes. Soups–mushroom barley, borscht for those who like it (I unfortunately never have, except for the color), chicken, blueberry, and an unusual one–zurek, an unusual Polish soup based on rye sour starter. Kreplach–Jewish ravioli–join pieroshki and include both meat and vegetarian fillings.

Yoskowitz and Alpern update cholent, brisket, chicken and tsimmes. They show you how to cure your own corned beef and pastrami, work out gribenes and knishes, and offer a selection of desserts both traditional–rugelach–and not so traditional, as in beet-chocolate ice cream.

DIY pantry items like homemade sour cream and farmer cheese, spicy mustard, wine vinegar and “everything” butter join fresh salads and breads and several varieties of pickled herring or trout. Drinks include beet kvass–there’s a general direction toward fermentation, one of Yoskowitz’s specialties–and flavored syrups for nostalgia sodas along the lines of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray and Cream sodas.

The book isn’t comprehensive but exploratory. Yoskowitz and Alpern trade cooking and tasting notes, childhood and family memories, and their experiences discovering and recreating Ashkenazi foods they didn’t necessarily grow up with. Along the way they adapt recipes and refer readers to a number of other Jewish cookbooks and authors whose ideas and food they’ve liked.

The results are attractive, modern, humorous and appetizing. Except perhaps for the shot of the two of them grating horseradish–and wearing safety goggles and kerchiefs soaked in vinegar or, as Alpern puts it, “classic protest gear.” Altogether, a Jewish Catalog-worthy production.

Yoskowitz and Alpern are touring the country this fall to promote The Gefilte Manifesto. Locally they’re staging a couple of tasting events across Los Angeles in early November and will appear at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair.

 

 

“The Dorito Effect”: Fervor over Flavor

So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She  also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)

Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.

Kroger Superbowl recipe booklet

I’ll spare you the inside pages, but the closest to nutritious was Kroger’s own recipe for double-coated baked cauliflower “hot wings”–ingredients: a head of cauliflower, a little flour and water, garlic powder, Kroger’s store-brand hot sauce, and some melted butter to doll up the cauliflower florets before dipping in…ranch dressing. 

Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.

It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.

He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…

Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.

Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.

Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.

Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers. Continue reading

Lackluster “Secrets” from the Eating Lab

I’ve just read Dr. Traci Mann’s popular book, Secrets from the Eating Lab, which came out in April (and is hence a “new book” at my library at the moment…). I had some real hopes for this book on dieting, obesity, and the psychology of eating. Mann has some fame in behavioral psychology, and her lab at the University of Minnesota is influential. Plus she just wrote an op-ed that Oprah Winfrey’s investment in WeightWatchers is a smart business move because diet failure, which leads to repeat customers, is a built-in and stated profit strategy for the company. Mann points out it’s the same logic that runs casinos. Big revelation? probably not, but still a good point and illustrative of the circular logic in popular American diet culture.

So about Secrets from the Eating Lab. The tone of the book is personable and it’s a quick read–a couple of hours will cover it. But…it’s not really a very good book and it makes Mann look a little like the huge parade of airheaded “pundits” who show up on Fox News and Good Morning America and Dr. Oz to talk about emotional eating right before presenting a plate of “healthy treats” that turn out to be brownies.

OK, it wasn’t quite that brainless. I even liked a lot of what Mann had to say about how to live an integrated life and not obsess over weight. But the book is a very good example of why someone who’s reasonably expert in one facet of diet research may not be the right person to interpret other areas for the public.

The behavioral studies are interesting and entertaining. Although the findings are not altogether news anymore, the lab setups she and her team used to demonstrate them are fun to read about. A sample of the psych experiment findings, which are the strongest part of Mann’s book:

  • The eating style of your companions is likely to influence you pretty strongly when you eat as a group. Her lab tested this in an entertaining series of experiments.
  • “Determination and willpower” is more wishful thinking than a successful diet strategy for a lot of people, and structuring your environment is more effective.
  • Keeping a bowl of treats even more than arm’s length away from you reduces your likelihood of grazing, and if you actually have to get up and walk to get more, you probably won’t.
  • People eat more when distracted with screentime or eating while driving or whatever than when focusing on their food.
  • Smaller plates lead to greater satisfaction with less food.
  • Offering vegetables at the school cafeteria before serving the rest of lunch, and without competition from french fries, gains a much higher rate of takers than when there are other foods available.
  • Announcing foods as “healthy” is a turn-off.
  • Most intriguingly, “comfort food” is no more effective than any other food, or even no food, for recovery after an emotional shock.

All of these findings mesh with common sense, and few of her recommendations are implemented as regularly as one would like in daily life at school or work. But the behavioral studies from her lab are only a small part of the book, one or two chapters in the middle. Where Mann runs into trouble is nearly everywhere else. Put bluntly, she’s way out of her depth in the larger world of academic obesity research, and neither she nor most of her readers or even, crucially, her book editor seem to know it.

The main themes of Secrets from the Eating Lab are 1. that diets don’t work, 2. obesity is not the deadly killer everyone assumes it is, and 3. therefore you should stop obsessing and be healthy in other ways, for example by exercising to relieve stress.

These claims are stated as blanket facts rather than opinions she wants to explore, even when she bolsters them with studies. Outside of her own lab’s experimental framework she makes fundamental and glaring mistatements and assumptions of fact that can easily be disproven. The result is not markedly better than what you might expect from a modestly competent high school debate team’s background prep for the season topics, “Do Diets Work?” and “Does Obesity Kill?”

In the “diets don’t work” chapter, Mann scours the literature for a largeish number of diet studies in which subjects attempted to lose weight, then winnows the 300 or so studies down to about 26 that meet her criteria of a randomized controlled study with reasonable participant recruitment and retention. Although some studies demonstrated short-term weight loss or differential success between two test diets over the course of weeks, months or a year, longer followup revealed no net loss and a large degree of regained weight among participants, and most of the studies had a lot of dropouts before completion. Moreover, most were less than carefully conducted and relied on self-reported weight and diet recall from the subjects rather than weigh-ins and so on.

Well, fair enough. But she doesn’t look at more recent and stringent work, as a nutrition researcher would be expected to. And she doesn’t really explore what the behavioral environments of the experiments might have contributed–something she might have been able to lend better insight into. Continue reading

Another Greek salad

Greek cabbage saladWhen we think of Greek salads here in the US, it’s mostly horiatiki (a version of which is my current favorite lunch)–chopped tomato, cucumber, maybe peppers, some onion, feta and olives. Lahano salata, a shredded cabbage salad with lemon and olives, is less familiar and served, according to cookbook author Rena Salaman in The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food, (Aquamarine/Anness Publishing, NYC ©2001), as a winter side dish–because you always have cabbage available, and lemons are a winter crop in the Mediterranean (and southern California). All you need to add are garlic, parsley, olives and olive oil and you’ve got it. Actually, that really sounds like a perfect summer thing to me.

I picked up a green cabbage today at my local greengrocer’s because it was there, it was cheap, I already had a red cabbage at home for other stuff, and besides, you can’t just hang around your local greengrocer’s picking up seven or eight pounds of fabulously ripe Fresno tomatoes all on their lonesome every couple of days. People will suspect you of becoming a tomatoholic. You need to branch out. And besides, I’d already made a tomato-cucumber-pepper salad pretty much every day for the past two weeks for lunch (as noted above). Not that I’m bored with it, but it gives me permission to do something else for dinner.

This Greek slivered cabbage salad is something I’d had in the back of my mind for half a year or so since paging through Salaman’s cookbook and its gorgeous food photos. But since it’s summertime, limiting the herbs to parsley seems like a missed opportunity when there are so many fresh herbs going wild in my fridge.

Dill, basil, mint, scallions–my current favorite mix for the lunch salad would probably also be good with shredded green cabbage. So I did a variation using those and foisted it on my unsuspecting nearest and dearest, who were both in need of something lighter than usual for supper. It went pretty well and we all agreed it would be a good filler for the salad part of a felafel pita.

I mixed this salad up about an hour before serving and stuck it in the fridge. I realized belatedly that the abundant lemon juice in the dressing would probably start wilting the cabbage, and it did slightly. It would have retained more crunch if I’d mixed it right as we were about to eat, but we still liked it and it wasn’t actually limp, just a little softened. I didn’t think the leftovers would hold up more than a day in the fridge but they did okay and didn’t wilt further overnight–perhaps because I poured off the excess liquid before storing the salad in a snaplock container.

One thing I like about cabbages is that they go a long way. You can take a quarter, wrap and refrigerate the rest and it should stay good for a couple of weeks. You might have to shave off any dried-out cut surfaces the next time (certainly for red cabbage, which also discolors a little at the dried surfaces) but the rest should stay pretty fresh.

Lahano Salata (Greek Green Cabbage Salad, Summer-style)

(Adapted from Rena Salaman’s The Greek Cook: Simple Seasonal Food; ingredient amounts are “use your best judgment”)–for 3-4 people as a side dish or pita filling as a bed for other stuff like felafel or kebabs. If you use a whole head of cabbage as in Salaman’s original recipe, increase everything by about 4-fold or to taste.)

  • 1/4 head of a washed green cabbage (the two outer leaves peeled and discarded, the rest rinsed under the tap)
  • small handful of herbs–a sprig or two each of dill, basil, and mint; parsley is okay too–finely chopped
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 3-4 pitted Greek-style olives (kalamata, Alfonso, Gaeta…), slivered
  • juice of a lemon or to taste–half a very large lemon was pretty lemony for just a quarter of a cabbage. For a medium or small lemon, taste and add a 3rd half if you think it needs more
  • 1-2 T olive oil

Shred the cabbage finely with a sharp knife and chop into manageable lengths unless you like the shreds long (Rena Salaman’s book had a pretty photo with very long straight shreds, almost like angel hair pasta. She mentions that the cabbages in Greece are different from standard American or northern European ones, so that may be part of it. Ours are curlier when shredded). Add the herbs, scallions and olive slivers, squeeze on the lemon and drizzle on the olive oil, then toss with two forks until everything’s well mixed. You can let the salad soften a little in the fridge for half an hour or so, or you can serve it straight up while it’s still a bit crunchy–it’s good either way.

Persian Posh and Jewish Soul: Two Veg-Friendly Cookbooks for Spring

"The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian" (aka "Veggiestan" in the UK) by Sally Butcher, cover photo from amazon.co.uk "Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh" by Janna Gur. Cover photo from amazon.com

 

Passover week didn’t exactly go the way I’d hoped, with loads of new vegetable dishes to play with and experiments in microwave gastronomy that would wow the most cynical reader…

After the optimistic start with the chocolate almond torte and the microwave shakshouka for one, I suddenly caught a bug–my husband caught it first, suffered a day or so, got better and then kindly passed it to me, and I ended up sick for the better part of the week. We all agree we got it from a kid he was sitting next to at seder. Now that our kid’s a teenager, we’re no longer used to it. Clearly we’ve gone soft.

So I was–shall we say–less than enthusiastic about cooking the last week or so, and ended up with lots of ideas that stayed in my head while I stayed in bed, attempting to keep up on tea, rice, poached eggs and applesauce. And feeling really embarrassed that every time I opened the fridge and saw all the beautiful vegetables I’d bought for the week, I peered at them suspiciously–how much trouble would they cause me? Was it really a crappy virus or was it maybe secretly food poisoning, even though everyone else was able to eat? Maybe tomorrow–and closed the fridge door again and groaned. It took a couple of extra days to start looking at vegetables with any enthusiasm at all.

This, I thought, is what most of the country thinks about fresh vegetables if a dolled-up superstar chef isn’t holding one on the cover of a glossy magazine (or even if he is). Maybe with a little less queasiness or dizziness than I experienced, but with that lurking suspicion that vegetables have dirt on them, that you have to wash them off and then cut them up and do something to them, that they’re not sterile and wrapped in plastic for your protection, and that it’s all too much bother. What a lousy, paranoid way to live.

So anyway, now that I’m better the vegetables are looking good again, and the (four or five) leftover matzah boxes have been relegated to a top shelf for sometime when I’m not sick of them and want to experiment a bit for next year.

Two bright and sun-filled new (or newish, anyway) cookbooks that make lavish and hearty use of vegetables were languishing on my desk for the entire week of Passover (and two weeks before that, when I was too busy to do more than look at them wistfully). Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan is a collection of pan-Middle Eastern vegetarian recipes that centers on her husband’s family Persian cuisine and their experience as the proprietors of a Persian specialty grocery in London. Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh is Israeli food writer/editor Janna Gur’s second major English-language cookbook, and it focuses on Jewish “grandma” food from all the cultures Israel is home to.

Both books run something along the lines of Yotam Ottolenghi’s approach to food–appealing, vegetable-filled, exotic, and fun to cook and eat. But the food is generally simpler and homier, more traditional and with fewer trendy/haute touches or UK-specific ingredients like salsify or seabeans that you just can’t find most places in the US. Butcher and Gur each have a foot in both professional and home cooking, which may make the difference. The recipes here are not chefly so much as cookable. Eminently cookable, and they make me want to run right out and try so many things (especially if I can stuff any of the steps into the microwave) that I’m just going to have to get them both and give back my overdue library copies.

The authors share an approach to traditional and modern Middle Eastern food that is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, ecumenical and–I’m not sure how to say it exactly, but  neighborly comes close. Reading these books is like hanging out in the farmer’s market and the kitchen with a friend who knows how to make all the dishes your grandmother might have made but never showed you.

Veggiestan is the original 2011 UK title of Butcher’s mid-sized cookbook, now out in trade paperback,  but the publishers thought that title would be too controversial for the US (land of “freedom Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Rapid Red Cabbage

microwave sweet and sour braised red cabbage

When I was almost twelve, the year of All the President’s Men (go rent or borrow it from the library if you’ve never seen it), a classmate of mine came back from the weekend raving about a new restaurant his parents had taken him to.

Now, almost no one in my 7th grade math class, particularly not boys, either knew about or talked much about food above the pizza and burger level.

My friend’s family had spent the previous year in Italy–you could tell whenever he grumbled about real soccer with strategy vs. the weak substitute they were teaching us in PE that he was sorry they’d come back. Clearly it wasn’t the only thing he missed–this was the first “real” restaurant he’d been to in the US, and it was way out in the countryside.

The Bavarian Chef (which after 40 years is still open in Madison, VA, and now in Fredericksburg as well, I’m happy to see), had a menu like no other in the area: fondue, a magic word I’d never heard before and which my friend had trouble describing. One fondue with Emmenthal-type cheese for cubes of toasted bread, the other with a red sauce (tomato? redcurrant?) for spicy meatballs. Veal or maybe chicken Cordon Bleu (their current menu still has veal). The side dishes were distinctive as well, particularly the sweet and sour red cabbage…it was gourmet. European gourmet, the real kind, and possibly the first upscale restaurant in our part of Virginia.

In any case, my friend was enthusiastic enough about this place that (and I don’t remember this bit at all) I came home and said something to my parents, who were friends with his parents. The next thing you know, my folks schlepped me and my younger brother and sister out of town–half an hour’s drive and  into the next county–to try it out for my birthday. And my friend was right about all of it.

The cheese fondue was a completely new experience and a lot of fun. So was a glowing magenta side dish of sweet-and-sour red cabbage–it would have been fun for the color alone. Although that has not held true for me and beets, so maybe I shouldn’t say so. But luckily it, unlike beets, was  delicious. And so different from anything else I’d ever eaten that it impressed me even more than the chicken (or veal) with the ham and cheese in the middle, and I can’t remember anything at all about dessert.

Sweet and sour red cabbage, when you think about it, is completely contrary to American standard tastes, even those of 40 years ago when people still ate vegetables and cooked most dinners at home. If you had to describe it to someone at school–what would you even say? The ingredients–and the flavors–are pretty simple individually but surprising together: red cabbage, vinegar, sugar, cloves, salt, maybe black pepper. Maybe a bit of apple or onion in some versions. How could that go together? But it does, and I’ve loved it ever since.

And yet I never ever make it at home, because it takes up to 2 hours of simmering on the stovetop, depending on the recipe you have. The one time I made it, back in my 20s, when I was trying to recreate the experience, the whole apartment smelled really, really sulfurous. It reeked. Even though the cabbage did come out ok.

Too bad I didn’t even own a microwave until my mid-30s. But I’ve been rethinking it since last week, when I saw a picture of it in a Mario Batali cookbook from about 10 years ago. The combination of a German-style dish in an Italian cookbook reminded me of the whole prealgebra food debate and my friend’s unprecedented idea that good food was worth traveling for.

But you don’t have to travel far for this dish, and you certainly don’t have to spend 2-3 hours on it. There’s got to be a way, I decided (as usual). How hard could it be to microwave it?

Well,  it worked almost perfectly, at least as a test case: Continue reading

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