Of Tortillas and Self-Knowledge

Dreamstime tortilla press
So shiny!

 

My new stainless steel tortilla press was calling me.

Its siren song came day and night from the kitchen implement shelf – “Use me to make tortillas! Use me!”

It sounded suspiciously like the voice calling from my laptop (“Use me to write. Use me!”) and my stove (“Use me to create. Use me!”). I didn’t want to resist any of those calls. And yet I was. I hadn’t had a moment to pause in the week since the tortilla press had made a home with us, let alone to enjoy some kitchen experimentation. That’s not to say I couldn’t have fit in a desperate round of tortilla-making. But I couldn’t have fitted in enjoying it.

Mothers aren’t generally lauded for taking pleasure in their non-parenting pursuits. We are congratulated on our ability to multi-task, organise, and to get more done than seems physically possible in any given day. Yes, we are sporadically told to take care of ourselves. But ‘taking care of ourselves’ seems to mean having a glass of wine or the occasional bath. Enjoying an activity unrelated to motherhood over a prolonged period of time falls well outside the boundaries of socially accepted self-care.

Yet I have decided that this is what I want from my cooking. I have enough challenges in my life. What I need is languorous enjoyment of my leisure.

So what will my change in outlook look like on this blog?

The biggest change is that I’m switching to long-form writing. At the end of each month, I’ll publish a piece of narrative non-fiction about food culture and cooking. Throughout the month, I’ll post research petit fours about the topic that have given me joy along the way. Another new feature will be original recipes highlighting the most exciting possibilities related to that month’s topic. My weekly link round up will continue.

I’m also going to slow the pace of my exploration of food culture – meaning that my year at Leiths might become a decade. I want to delve into every aspect of aspics, and learn the subtle difference of sensation in dicing a carrot and a turnip. I want to wallow around in cooking and food culture, rather than rush through it on a self-imposed forced march.

Speaking of aspics, they will be the focus of my first long-form article coming out at the end of May. Please join me for a month of exotic, wobbling, Letihs-inspired jelly. It’s going to be glorious.

 

Readers, what are your secrets for finding the time to truly enjoy food in your day to day life?

On a First Name Basis

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This stock-photo model knows what I’m talking about.

 

I spend a lot of time with Stefano.

We often cook into the evenings, side by side. He makes me more adventurous, urging me to cook with new ingredients and techniques. Stefano has taught me everything I know about Italian cooking.

But I’m not sure if I should call him by his first name. Because despite how well I feel I know him, we’ve never met. Stefano Manfredi is the author of the bible of regional Italian cooking, Stefano Manfredi’s Italian Cooking. Should I call him Mr Manfredi? Just Manfredi, as is the academic convention for an author?

‘Manfredi’ just won’t do, though. Stefano and I have been through too much together to resort to such formality.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in feeling overly-familiar with cookbook authors. Recently I recieved an informal lesson in Jewish cooking from my friend C. As we rolled kibbeh, she told me different methods for making the dish that she had received from her mother and from ‘Claudia’. From C’s comments, I pictured Claudia as a perfectionist maiden aunt who had enough time to beat eggs before combining them with matzo meal. It turned out that she was in fact famed Jewish food historian Claudia Rodan (who is an egg-white beating perfectionist, but unfortunately not C’s maiden aunt).

Even the most tersely written cookbook is an incredibly intimate text. We learn about the life of the author from the headnote. We take advice from cookbook authors about something that is deeply personal – the food we prepare for our friends and family. At a physical level, we perform actions exactly the way the cookbook author has done before us. The relationship between cook and recipe writer involves emotional, mental and physical intimacy.

Hmm. Putting it like that, perhaps it isn’t seem so strange to use someone’s first name.

 

Readers, do you refer to your favorite food writers by their first name? How well do you feel you know them?

Weekly Reading #7

Every Sunday (or at least by the following Wednesday) I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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Biscuits as far as the eye can see. 
  • The folks over at The Conversation have some bad news for you. Everything You Eat is Made of Chemicals. The humorous introduction to food science explains how the word ‘chemical’ is misused in the popular discourse around food. It also includes a video of a man pouring multiple cans of Coke on a cast iron trivet. What’s not to love about that?
  • The Difference Between Potato Flour and Potato Starch, by Gluten Free Gigi, is an important read if you intend to use either ingredient. One makes your biscuits thrillingly crumbly, and the other makes them taste like potatoes. Yikes!
  • Finally, in honor of starving writers everywhere, here is 23 Recipes that Celebrate the Humble Bean by Serious Eats. Go bean it up, my friends.

The Danger of Chef as Dietician

Dreamstime nutrition
In my (completely unqualified) opinion, if a food can be balanced on a dumbbell then it is healthy. Problem solved.

 

It should be relatively straightforward. Dieticians tell us what to eat. Chefs tell us how to eat it.

But nothing involving humans is ever simple.

In Australia at the moment, celebrity chef Pete Evans is currently enjoying a somewhat troubled moment in the sun. Evans rose to fame as one of the kindly judges of the hapless home-cooks on My Kitchen Rules. (He also keeps tight control of his image, so I can’t post it here, but if you’d like to gaze upon his preternaturally white smile you can do so here.) You wouldn’t think to look at him that he’d be able to generate much controversy, let alone howling hatred. But generate it he has.

Evans’ nickname is ‘Paleo Pete’ and, when he’s not consoling people whose soufflés have fallen on national TV, he is vigorously promoting the Paleo diet. The diet is based around excluding food groups with the aim of returning us to a pre-Industrial level of health. Evans has been accused of advocating food in place of prescribed medicine; recommending bone broth instead of infant formula; and generally speaking too authoritatively on the issue of nutrition for someone who is not, in fact, a dietician.

Though Paleo Pete is advocating a diet that is a bit more controversial than most, he is part of a proud lineage of chefs turned nutrition crusaders. The most prominent is of course Jamie Oliver, who has done battle with everyone from hamburger-clutching American parents, to new mothers who don’t realise just how easy breastfeeding is. In fact, chefs and food writers have been at it for centuries, with most Victorian-era cookbooks including a section on ‘Invalid Cookery’.

It’s made me wonder just who has the right to publically give nutrition advice.

These questions have arisen because, in my challenge to learn every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible, I’m currently up to the section on nutrition.

Leith’s states that it is the cook’s responsibility to know the basics of nutrition, in order to provide a nutritionally-balanced meal to the people they serve. This duty is the same regardless of whether they’re cooking for family, friends, or a corporate buffet of 200 at the Hilton.

Cooks – either of the home or Hilton variety – need to know that a lactating woman requires more calories, a diabetic should have less carbohydrate, and that no one in the world needs a savoury dish that contains a whole carton of double cream. But should they ever publically advocate these positions, and in doing so represent themselves as an expert in human nutrition to a credulous public?

It’s clearly not practical to make every food professional take a vow of secrecy upon learning any health information. However, cooks and food writers (including bloggers like myself) need to take precautions when talking about nutrition.

  • First off, we need to make sure we actually know what we’re talking about. That means finding out what the scientific consensus is, rather than going with our ‘gut feeling’.
  • Secondly, we need to ensure that our training or expertise is clear. In case you’re wondering, I score a ‘0’ on both counts.
  • Finally, we need to link back to sources written by actual dieticians.

As a consumer, if the blogger or chef you’re reading isn’t informed and transparent, then consider if you should listen when they tell you to cut out dairy.

Weekly Reading #6

Every Sunday (Or Monday. Probably Monday) I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

biscuits2
Somehow, even though I didn’t have enough time to write a blog post yesterday, I did manage to make these biscuits. And eat all of them.
  • Food History Research Tips is the perfect starting point for any food history research project. The guide is hosted on the Food History timeline, and I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the main part of the site unless you have nothing to do for the rest of the week. It’s seriously addictive history.
  • The Kitchn answers the question: How Much Would You Pay a Professional to Babysit your Sourdough Starter? Reading this article, all I could think of was the scene in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential where Adam the drug-addled baking savant rings his boss and yells at him, “Feed the bitch…feed the bitch or she’ll die!”
  • Opression Food is a video featuring Chef Sean Sherman (‘The Sioux Chef’). In response to the ‘food deserts’ wreaking havoc on many Native American communities, Chef Sherman advocates a return to pre-colonial foodstuffs as an act of political resistance. Fascinating stuff if you like your dinner with a side of politics.
  •  One for the gamers: some hero at Serious Eats has made the cake from Portal. Apparently It’s Delicious, No Lie.

 

Attack of the Rhombus Ravioli

Dreamstime Apocalypse
An artist’s impression of my kitchen at 6PM last night

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve taken too much on.

Part time work, full time parenting, this food blog, and my challenge to master every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible. What was I thinking when I chose to do something with the word “challenge” in its name? My whole life as a working mother is a challenge!

In any case, the wheels are clearly starting to come off.

That’s because last night I not only failed to make ravioli – I failed to rescue anything resembling a meal from the fiery wreckage.

While the first of those things has been known to happen on occasion (ravioli are hard, people), the second is a bit more unusual. In fact, I pride myself on being a quick-thinking cook who can take something to the table each night. Even if that something doesn’t bear much of a resemblance on the original dish. I am the queen of Plan B.

But last night, I tore through plans A to D, and ended up collapsed in a heap somewhere around W.

The ravioli started to go wrong when I made the filling.  And yes, I’m aware that’s the first part of the recipe. As soon as I’d mixed the pumpkin, bread crumbs and egg together, I knew the proportions were out. The filling was obviously too wet. Did I stop to adjust? No, not I! I forged ahead, and in doing so sowed the seeds of my own doom.

The next set of alarm bells I chose to ignore began to clang when I was making the pasta dough. I could make pasta dough in my sleep, but apparently, not this Wednesday. I added too much flour to the dough, and thought “I’ll just use the leftover flour when I’m rolling  it out”. Instead, I spent a long time trying to force the dough to take the excess flour. So now I had a wet filling and preternaturally stiff pasta.

Of course I decided to try my new ravioli wheel. This unwise experiment naturally ended with rhombus-shaped ravioli that refused to stick together and oozed filling.

Instead of calling it quits, I decided to try making larger ravioli. And then I decided to try making tortellini. And then I decided to fry the oozing ravioli rhombuses, because hadn’t I seen fried ravioli on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares once?

At this point, I can almost hear you yelling, “Why doesn’t she just stop?” We’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, I need to tell you that I burnt the fried ravioli. While they were on the stove I wandered off to help MJ locate her lost phone. I returned to a scene out of a public-service announcement. Smoke billowed from the pan, and the singed-pumpkin tang of failure hung in the air.

So I wiped out the pan, and put on another batch of fried ravioli.

Ten minutes later, MJ and Zool sat down to eat dinner. On each of their plates was four fried ravioli and some of my mother’s green tomato relish. Possibly sensing that now was not the time to play food critic, MJ made positive noises and ate the snack-sized meal without complaint.

I was left with two questions. What were we actually going to eat for dinner? and, Why had I kept going with the dish when, deep down, I knew it wasn’t going to work?

The first problem was solved by an emergency dash to the supermarket, to procure what Michael Pollan would call “a food-like substance”.

The second question was a bit trickier. It’s the sort of question that easily spawns others. Why did I keep marching grimly down the path to ravioli failure? Why did I ignore so many red flags that the dish was a dud? Why did I decide to make ravioli from scratch on a weeknight? I could go on.

There are many reasons I kept cooking the ravioli. A fear of wastefulness; a desire to find refuge in cooking a consumingly complex dish; the brain-frying exhaustion of being a working mother. But I think the main reason is that I am stubborn. And that’s a good thing. Stubborn is the flip-side of determined, and determined the reason I’m writing this blog post at 11PM afer a long, long day, while my toddler snores softly next to me.

I might be going a bit nuts, but if my default setting is to push through, then I think I’ll make it through everything. Even this crazy self-imposed challenge.

 

Have you ever persevered with a meal long past the point of common sense? Did you end up congratulating yourself for your determination, or cursing your stubbornness?

Weekly Reading #5

Every Sunday I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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‘Happy Easter’, from Zool’s Easter chickens

The Easter Edition

  • Easter in Norway from Thanks for the Food is exactly what is says on the tin. I am part Norwegian, but have had a lot of trouble reconnecting with the culture that died out in my family with my grandparents’ generation. Slice-of-life articles like this are great if you’re trying to immerse yourself in the Norwegian way of life. So break out the Easter chickens, and have a happy Norwegian Easter.
  • The BBC News Magazine asks How Did Hot Cross Buns Become Two a Penny? in their short history of commercially available buns. The comments are well worth a look too.
  • If all of this good cheer is leaving you feeling positively Medieval, head over to read Medieval Easter Traditions by a Medievalist Errant. Rolling (possibly rotten) eggs, free feasts, and tying people up in bed – if that doesn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will.