An earnest plea not to be a jerk about strangers’ eating habits

Yay cake!
Yay cake!

I read about food a lot, partly because it’s my job, and partly because, well, I love food. And I guess also because I like feeling like an expert on something, but that’s a whole other story. In any case, in the course of all this food reading, something’s been sticking in my craw: People are really mean about what other people eat.

Full disclosure: I’m a food snob, 100%.

That out of the way, I’ve been chewing (God forgive me for all the bad puns I’ve made and will make. Amen.) over why this bothers me, and I think I honed in on it. It comes from a place where we–media types, foodies, lifestyle gurus, dietary evangelists–have such a ridiculous surplus of food that we’ve mostly completely forgotten that that’s not the case for everyone. So we condemn people who buy GMO produce (thereby supporting Monsanto), ignoring that GMO crops have helped food-deprived regions of the world. We don’t understand why poor people are obese when dried beans are so cheap, so healthy, and so available in the Whole Foods bulk bins. Sometimes, we tell people that the reason they’re so, I don’t know, constipated and acne-ridden is because of gluten, or that, sheesh, don’t they know that if they cut out dairy or carbs, they’d lose 15 pounds and their feet would smell better?

I’m not saying we should stop investigating how our food is produced or how it affects our bodies, but I’m saying that maybe we should take some of the onus off of consumers, many of whom are literally just trying to eat. That whole sustenance thing.

Taking things a step further, I do wonder if the sudden uptick in food sensitivities is related to this onslaught of information and gentle scolding of how we can take better care of our bodies if only we ate organic lentils every day. For a lot of people, eating is a fraught event. For a lot of women, we not only have to eat well, we have to eat indulgently and sensually, all without gaining a pound. Identifying a problem food must feel like a way to keep things under control.

And the only reason I care, the only reason I’m writing this post, is because food brings me such happiness. It’s more than sustenance, it’s a celebration! (I did a little dance while eating flatbread tonight.) I just hate that so many people are excluded from this happy-fun-time feeling, either because they don’t have the same kind of access to the same variety that I do, nor, possibly, to the equipment to cook like I do, or because they’ve been so beaten down by the notion that what they’re eating is wrong, or that good food is something only for those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods.

I don’t have an answer. Maybe just be a little nicer? Hand out portions of freekeh-lentil-coconut milk casserole on street corners? Stand in front of Olive Garden giving people knobby, organic, farmers market carrots as they walk in? Probably just go eat your favorite food to remind yourself what it’s all about. Do a little dance even. I promise, though, making people feel like shit is not the way to shut down Monsanto.

 

Summer Eating

A few weekends ago, I was eating pickles, and A walked in and asked if I was doing my summer eating thing. The answer is yes. I don’t like to eat in the summer. I stick to foods such as cucumbers and popsicles—low-calorie, no cooking involved. It’s a balance, because these thing can get expensive. Pickles segue into olives, followed by hummus, then cheese. Individually, it’s a small splurge here and there on a nice, brainy-looking French cheese or a small olive bar expedition. But when one of those things only lasts a day, because it’s all I eat, yeah, pricey. So I’ve boiled it down to a list of budget-friendly essentials that can last for days (A’s diet—RED MEAT—not included):

  • Tomatoes
  • Canned black olives that you can eat off your fingers
  • Pickles
  • Avocado
  • A block of regular old grocery store mozarella
  • Pasta
  • Mushrooms
  • Cucumber
  • Plain yogurt
  • Frozen blueberries

This list can be mixed and matched into salad, pasta salad, warm pasta salad, whatever. The yogurt can become a creamy salad dressing, soup (when mixed up with the cucumber), or a base for the blueberries. Try the Layla Summer Eating Plan (TM). You’ll feel refreshed and summery, and so will your wallet!

Braisin’ Behavior

On the aforementioned trip to Italy’s Piedmont region, one dish we were served on a few occasions was a steak braised in red wine. It was tender and delicious, so I attempted it at home. And I attempted it. And I attempted it. Now part of the issue is that they were using much better beef than I purchase for $1.99 a pound at Associated. But also, it’s delicious. It makes the meat tender and flavorful. I’ve been playing around with reducing the sauce (I only know how to reduce liquids by accident) and using butter, trying shallots vs. onions, adding a little chili. But in the end, my experimentations have confirmed two things I already knew—garlic and wine make everything delicious, and butter only enhances said deliciousness. I also plan to do more braising. Maybe duck. When I’m ready to spend more than $1.99/pound.

Ugh Failure

I’m not observing the High Holy Days—I know, I know—but I did think yesterday would be an appropriate time to cook my first brisket. In my memory, it was a frequent feature of Friday night dinner (we didn’t call it shabbos, as my father’s a devout atheist) at my grandparents’ house. There always seemed to be a lot of fuss, technique, timing and luck involved in a good brisket. But after making grating potatoes and onions by hand to make a mean batch of latkes for Chanukkah last year, I was feeling frankly a little cocky. Just throw the thing in the slow cooker, right?

I rolled out of bed and went to the slightly fancy grocery store (not to be confused with the cheap grocery store or the gross grocery store, my other two local options), was disappointed by the lack of fresh butchery, grabbed a vacuum-sealed corned beef brisket and went on my way.

Did you catch that? Because I didn’t. It was corned beef brisket.

I sliced potatoes to line the bottom of the slowcooker, diced up some onions, put a little seasoning on the meat, added some red wine and beef stock, and set it on low heat for eight hours. When I got home about seven and a half hours later, it was still alarmingly pink, so I turned up the heat. My mom and grandmother happened to call, and I bragged that I was making brisket. “Did you use Lipton’s French onion soup mix?” my mom asked. Nope. “I use ketchup,” my grandmother said. None of that either.

Even full-cooked, it’s bright pink. It’s also stringy and very salty, but it’s edible. A told me it was good, and he’s not one to lie. So I guess not a total failure. But briskets (of the noncorned variety) be warned: I’ll be back. With a vengeance.

Home Skillets

A few days ago, a cookbook called Recipes from Historic New England landed on my desk. (If I’m being totally honest, it was sent to a coworker, and when I saw it, I yelled, “But I’m from historic New England,” so he gave it to me.) I doubt I’ll follow any of the recipes in it, but I kind of want to save it forever and show it to my futurechildren as a relic. It’s just exactly what it should be, with scrolly typefaces and little anecdotes about the historic hotels and restaurants the recipes come from.

Beyond that, it looks good. There are so many ingredients I love—ginger, maple, rum, cream and obviously seafood—many of which I didn’t particularly associate with New England. And there are so many warm, mushy foods. I feel like I can open to any page, and even if I don’t want to make the exact dish featured, it will inspire me to make something similar. Good timing—I don’t have much to do this weekend, and Sunday is supposed to be rainy. I think I’ll try my hand at  Blantyre sticky toffee pudding (once I get through the red velvet birthday cake A got me).

One last thing: Hilariously, there’s critical praise from Alex and Jean Trebek on the back cover. “Taste the essence of New England!” they urge (in my mind, in unison, while wearing matching Fair Isle sweaters).

In Your Dreams

When I was a kid, there were always all these urban legends about dreaming—eating a marshmallow and waking up to find holes in your pillow, or that the feeling of falling while your drifting off could kill you (seriously). One such myth was that you couldn’t actually eat in a dream. That’s a lie. I eat in my dreams all the time.

What’s weird is when it’s a food I’ve never eaten before. Last night, for example, I dreamt I was back in our old country house in St. Donat, Quebec, eating blueberry pizza. It was especially strange because I have such strong food associations with that place (Whippets, croissants, chicken from some place I can’t remember the name of, plums and bubblegum ice cream). But there I was, in my dream, eating some cheap, greasy pizza that had blueberry sauce instead of tomato sauce.

Let me tell you, it was delicious.

I real life, I’d go for a nice triple cream or mild goat cheese, and something slightly more delicate than pizza dough, but I think I might be onto something. Just another reason I really should be sleeping more.

Spicy!

I’ve tackled one of my chicken ideas—the chili peppers. I added some cider vinegar, some salt and a touch of butter, because, well butter is delicious—and so was my chicken! If I were to do it over again—which I probably will, because I still have chili peppers—I’d use the slow cooker to get more chili flavor, and stick them in the broiler for a second to crisp the skin.

I have a large package of drumsticks to work through next, and I’m thinking it’s time for the Italian dressing and beer recipe. I’ll try to change it up a bit, just to keep you all interested.

Recipe Fatigue

I eat a lot of chicken—skin on, on the bone. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t go wrong with chicken, and I’m eternally grateful to Nanny for the big packages of it she brings us. The thing is, I get bored of eating it the same way. A is pretty picky and generally likes it with adobo, sazon, salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder and onions. I always add paprika to his line up, and I’ve tried a few other things (lemon juice, orange zest was a hit, bay leaves were good, the butter and brown sugar glaze with whole garlic cloves tasted good to me but was dismissed as showing off by my beloved). In the interest of not eating the same chicken three or four nights a week, I’m documenting a list here of new things to try to spice up my chicken:

  • Beer, Italian dressing and black olives. This was some Betty Crocker (or somesuch) recipe I found and modified in college. I love cooking with beer, and I love black olives, so it worked out pretty well.
  • Tapenade and pesto. They’ve been sitting in my fridge and would form a delicious, thick paste that would certainly add some variety. If I could score some truffle oil, it might make a nice addition…
  • Cornflake breaded. I haven’t perfected this yet, but it’s my favorite form of nonpanko breading.
  • Chilis! My grocery store that isn’t good for much does have a good variety of dried chilis. I’m thinking with blue cheese, as a low-fat buffalo wings alternative.
  • Sage butter. I have sage, and I have butter, so why not?
  • Pumpkin. I make pumpkin lasagna a few times a year, varying the recipe slightly every time. It’s always delicious and impresses whoever I’m cooking for. So what if I were to dump all the ingredients except the ravioli into the slowcooker with some chicken, and have the ravioli as a side? I think I’m onto something, folks.

Of course, now that I’ve written this, I have to do all these things and write about them. If anyone has any tried-and-true chicken recipes, let me know.

Chickenlicious

After reading The Kitchn’s post about Jamie Oliver’s chicken in milk and then eating some curried chicken, I wanted to try my hand at adding some currylike flavors to the chicken in milk. I love coconut curries but find them a little too rich, so I thought the milk would give some creaminess without being overpowering. And I was right! It was delicious. I’m not one for recipes, so measurements are approximate, but here goes:

3 pieces quartered chicken, on the bone with skin (I suggest cutting them to separate drumstick from breast for a total of 6 pieces)

1.5 cups 2% or whole milk

10 cloves garlic, peeled but not chopped

4 bay leaves

2 tbsp. salt

1 tbsp. Adobo con pimienta (in my house, chicken is never cooked without adobo)

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

2 tsp. paprika

2 tsp. garlic powder

2 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. coriander

If you have a slowcooker, throw everything in all together as one does in a slowcooker. I did it on high for three hours, but low for five would work just as well. A fun tip: I made rice as a side and mashed up the garlic cloves with the rice. I think the recipe would also taste good with bell peppers, but A won’t eat those, so someone else will have to let me know.

Fiber

I’ve had an advance copy of The Full Plate Diet on my desk for a few weeks now (along with what appears to be the coolest origami book ever made), and it has some interesting parts—mainly a food rating section in the back that shows which prepared foods are ok and which to stay away from. But here’s the thing: The whole point of the book is to tell you fiber is good. That’s the new thing, fiber.

Don’t get me wrong, fiber is good stuff. My grandma used to extol its virtues every chance she got (in my head, I still hear the word in her New York accent, “foibuh”). But isn’t that common sense? Do we really need books and diet plans and a whole industry built around the fact that fiber is good for you? At least Dr. Atkins had a novel (ok, nutso) approach to dieting.

I’m ranting, I know. But I wish that some of those resources that are going toward promoting fiber would be redirected to making fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable and readily available. Maybe they could subsidize farmers markets, brand them and stuff. Just something for all you diet-industrial complex honchos who are reading this to think about. You know, food for thought (hardy har).