Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Roasted Potatoes

Roasted potatoes can be a Thanksgiving dish, which this year, they were. They are good with any roast, though. At some grocery stores "fingerling" potatoes have been available recently. Arny bought the ones for our Thanksgiving dinner at Costco. A week earlier, I bought some at Whole Foods in Ann Arbor. If the fingerling fad doesn't last, I'll go back to making them with smallish redskins or Yukon Golds.

I roasted the potatoes with olive oil, salt, and peeled garlic cloves in a 9 x 13 inch pan. In another pan, I roasted sweet potatoes (peeled and cut in thirds) with quartered onions and olive oil. I put just enough oil to coat each potato and a little water, and roast them in a single layer (though they can be touching each other).

The temperature can be anything from 350 to 425 degrees, though at higher temps you have to watch them more carefully. The time is flexible, too -- up to around an hour and a half at the lower temperature. And if you are in a hurry you can pre-cook them in a microwave. Just be sure that they are fork-tender.

In sum, you can roast these vegetables with whatever else is in the oven, or as we did, cook them prior to making the too-large turkey. They are good hot or at room temperature. A totally forgiving recipe!

To see what else we ate for Thanksgiving Dinner at Arny and Tracy's, see "Thanksgiving Day" on my story blog.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Our great fortune: an abundance of food

Perhaps thinking about food and its pleasures is in itself selfish, when so many people on our planet are not well fed. Hunger has been a constant experience throughout history, while delight in food may have appeared only with settled agriculture. Agriculture created surpluses, which allowed such delight. But periodically the crops failed, and the farmers suffered the same fate as their nomadic ancestors in similar circumstances.

In starting a food blog I want to think as well about how people have coped in the past when famine struck. Grain in the form of bread, porridge, or even beer was often the mainstay of the diet of people who lived on the land. Although farms produced diverse food, the most valued and tasty nourishment may have frequently fed only the privileged.

European peasants had long-standing practical methods for making some facsimile of bread during grain-harvest failures and other disasters: "When the dark days of famine came, the [Italian] peasants tried to make bread with an infinite variety of materials. In practice almost anything could be used to prepare a rude surrogate: darnel or tares, licorice, erba del vetro (a rough grass commonly sown in fallow fields, used as animal feed), roots, thistles, various leaves, scorzonera, hawthorn, etc." Other famine breads could be made from acorns, chestnut flour, grass, bran, and other less desirable foodstuffs such as pear-tree or apple-tree sawdust or animal fodder. Children in those days would sing: "The master gets the grain, the peasant gets the straw." (Camporesi, The Magic Harvest, pp. 23-4 and 95)

When their crops failed, English farmers may "have eaten the bark from trees and grass from the fields. . . . the French peasantry, in their extremity, ate unripe grain, roots, grass, and the intestines and blood of animals that had been slaughtered as food for the better-off." (Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 8)

In 1585-6, French peasants were "forced to eat acorns, wild roots, bracken, marc and grape seeds dried in the oven and ground into flour -- not to mention pine bark and the bark of other trees, walnut and almond shells, broken tiles and bricks mixed with a few handfuls of barley, oats or bran flour." They also ate "bread made from a mixture of couch grass and sheep's entrails." Even in good times, peasants would practice eating bark and other inedibles to ensure that they could still survive in case of famine. (Mennell, All Manner of Food, p. 26 and MacClancy, Consuming Culture, p. 44; the source for the "practice famine" is Eugen Weber)

One very famous famine drove roughly half the Irish nation to America about 150 years ago. The potato crop, sole nutrition of poor rural families, became infected and inedible. Irish farms produced a variety of other agricultural products, but these were not the right or the property of the poor, who died in shocking numbers. Hogs and grain were being sent to England, where politicians invoked a free market. Was not each individual responsible for his own welfare or his family's.

Are we better than that now?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Some books I want to read or cook from

Introduction to Mae's Food Blog

I have been interspersing posts about food with posts about other subjects. The result was somewhat confusing, I began to think.

Now this new blog is exclusively for food posts, and I have moved all my previous food posts to this blog. I have preserved all the dates, though a very small number of comments have disappeared.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Texas Red

The other night I made a big pot of Texas Red chili, which we've been eating one bowl at a time, garnished with various things like corn chips, salsa, chopped tomato, chopped avocado, a bit of cheese. The photo shows what's left in the refrigerator after we've eaten two meals worth.

Here's the background and the recipe, as my friend Erin requests.

As favors to those who came to their wedding, Alec and Ellen gave us little jars of chili powder and a recipe, which has evolved since I've been making it for us. I've made it in France, and also in Israel. Sometimes, Alec and Ellen bring us more chili powder, but have also shared the spice-blend recipe, which is included after the main recipe. I vary the spice mixture and the recipe a little every time I make chili, which I have reflected below. Alec and Ellen might not approve of the variations or of the garnishes!

Ellen and Alec's "Texas Red" Chili
2 to 3 lb. lean beef cubes: trim off fat if necessary
2 chopped onions
3 cloves chopped garlic
Several fresh chopped chilies (such as jalapenos) or 1 can Old El Paso chopped chili peppers
1 to 4 tablespoons of chili spice (recipe follows — blend of spice is essential)
8 oz tomato sauce and 8 oz water
1 lb can of tomatoes, cut in pieces

Brown onion and garlic. Add fresh peppers (if using fresh). Remove from pan. Add beef and brown. Drain excess fat. Return meat to pan. (Add canned peppers.) Add spice, then tomato sauce, water, and tomatoes. Simmer several hours on top of stove or in 275 degree oven, until meat is soft.

One heresy is to add a can of corn, a can of black beans, and/or a can of red beans towards the end of cooking. I'm not enough of a heretic to make the beans or corn dominate the chili. That would be a different recipe.

Chili Spice Blend

In a mortar or spice grinder blend 1 crumbled bay leaf with 1 tablespoon of each of the following spices: Whole Cumin, Dried Oregano, Chili Powder. Optionally add 1 tablespoon each of onion flakes, parsley flakes, and dried basil. Add at least 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, dried hot pepper, or hot pepper flakes.

Note: If you are going to use the mixture right away, you can smash the fresh garlic in the mortar with the other spices. This dish should be made fairly hot, but you control the heat by how many fresh chilies, how hot they are, and how much cayenne pepper or even habanero peppers you put in the spice blend. You can make your chili hotter or milder by changing the balance of hot pepper to other kinds, and by knowing the heat of the spices you use. If you like it VERY mild, use Hungarian hot paprika instead of cayenne. It has a similar flavor but is less intense.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Food Reading

I have recently read one book and one article on food that seem interestingly related. The book is:
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp

The article is:

The rise of food television.
by Bill Buford

Here is the key sentence, quoted by Buford. The former president of the Food Network explains its success: “Television values. That’s all. We introduced television values and started running the business like a normal network.”

Buford expands: Giada De Laurentiis, Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay and the other giants all produce shows that conform to these values. Former favorites Mario Batali and Sarah Moulton no longer shape up: they are just too interested in... food. "The two essential premises of '30 Minute Meals' —no one knows how to cook and everyone is in a hurry—now inform most instructional cooking shows."

And he concludes: "Forty-five years after the publication of 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking,' food television is finally and definitively not Julia Child. ... Never in our history as a species have we been so ignorant about our food. And it is revealing about our culture that, in the face of such widespread ignorance about a human being’s most essential function—the ability to feed itself—there is now a network broadcasting into ninety million American homes, entertaining people with shows about making coleslaw."

Kamp's United States of Arugula is a bit more wide-ranging, as one would expect. He begins by tracing American interest in gourmet food, with his focus on famous food writers and personalities, especially James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and a few others. The early chapters of the book make a good case that these and a number of restauranteurs in New York inspired a high level of interest among Americans all over the country. Half gossip, half pop culture -- his early chapters portray a really interesting set of events and trends up until around 1985.

Marketing trends, which he also covers, make fascinating reading. He describes establishments such as Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca, Celestial Seasonings, Whole Foods, even mentioning Zingerman's here in Ann Arbor (Zing's rates only a single reference not even appearing the index). He moves on with Alice Waters and many chefs that trained in Chez Panisse, including Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe.

Unfortunately after about 1985, he loses focus. Getting interested in feuds and rivalries, details of restaurant openings and decor, and a few very local venues, he forgets about what might have been happening outside a few big cities. Immense detail on Wolfgang Puck and the LA scene, a summary of Las Vegas as a showplace and money maker for high fliers, and depressing details about the decline of Craig Claiborne regrettably don't keep up the interesting pace and zoomed-in analysis of the earlier chapters.

And at the end: weakness. The brief discussion of the Food Network seems pretty pathetic compared to Buford's New Yorker article. He seems afraid to delve into Ruth Reichl and her accomplishments and influence -- though he frequently quotes her when he needs her data. His lame references to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and to Alice Waters' activism don't show even a faint grasp of the big issues of how food is raised or what concerned people are trying to do about it.

While I enjoyed much of The US of Arugula -- especially the early gossipy chapters, where his good-natured portrayals of flamboyant personalities were often really successful -- in the long run, I felt as if he promised a lot more than he delivered. Is America a "gourmet nation" ? Does he really tell us the answer to that question? Has he really looked at anywhere but New York, Berkeley, and Los Angeles? Does he really know what we are eating? No, no, no, and no.