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Archive for May, 2010

Our family talks about where our food comes from every single day.  Now that The Child is seven we have started in on the enlightened environmental sustainability speak… but when she was teeny-tiny we skipped over that and stuck to the basics.

What I mean specifically is setting down a pulled pork sandwich and announcing, “Mmm…  Pig.”  Or having a platter full of sausages become an impromptu quiz for a three-year old:

Us:    “What do beef and pork mean?”
Her:    “Cow and pig.”
Us:    “What’s in the bockwurst.”
Her:    “Baby cow.”
Us:    “Excellent!  Dig in.”

It got a lot of laughs from guests when she was wee, but it is a serious attempt to instill respect for what we are eating, how it gets to us, as well as the obvious basic identification about what it is.  I want The Child to know what she is eating and still have to try it.

This also applies to where it comes from on the animal.  Alton Brown does an excellent job of conveying this information on Good Eats in a manner even tiny kids can grasp.  Every time The Child asks for TV and I want to say no, but still desperately want to plug her in for my own sanity, I offer Good Eats off the DVR and sit down with her.  Frankly watching Alton break down a chicken using a dinosaur skeleton as a useful illustration is entertaining!  While The Child did not retain the details as a toddler, it fostered an environment for these discussions to become legitimate and regular dinner conversation.  And at a very young age, roasting a whole chicken became a lesson in anatomy, providing a launch point for discussions of dinosaurs and birds.  Adaptation and evolution.

No one should be thought too young for an anatomy lesson.  Most people purchase their meat cut and wrapped and ready to cook, and in the case of poultry, it is shrink-wrapped and presented such that it is not obvious to a little kid which end the head was on.  The Child was typically plunked in her Easy Diner as a baby, a safe distance from raw meat preparations, and became used to engaging in cooking interest even then.

Ever noticed how kids gravitate to drumsticks?  (Even big kids like drumsticks!)  Knowing a drumstick is a leg, and showing a kid how it goes together, is really just a fascinating puzzle.  But on a more basic level it reinforces that our dinner is muscle, bone, fat, and in the case of the humble chicken, the skin.  Put a dried out, boneless, skinless, chicken breast in front of a kid, and I cannot blame them for deciding they don’t like chicken anymore.  The more we learn about micro-nutrients inherent in every component of what we eat, the more important it is to leave that skin on, enjoy that wee bit of crispy fat, and discover the marrow in those bones.  Assuming appropriate portion control, the science of nutrition is indicating more and more that every little edible bit of an animal has a role to play in a truly balanced diet.  Akin to the micro-nutrients of leaving some of the bran intact on whole grains like farro or eating the peel on your apple.

Not every family is brimming with science geeks like our little threesome.  But just as food is science, food is also culture, and respect for food is foundational to respect of other cultures.  Religious food traditions are a common way of approaching food discussion with reverence.  Maybe your family likes to travel?  You don’t have to travel far to find varied food traditions.  Perhaps there are farmers, fishermen, or hunters in your extended family or social circle.  If history or literature is what excites you, bring that conversation to the table, especially about the foods they already love.  Just find comfortable, matter-of-fact ways to relate what you are eating to what it once was without “Ewww!” or “That’s gross!” being considered an appropriate reaction from anyone.

Kids cannot learn to respect their food unless they know what it is.  And frankly, that goes for adults too.  If your family has made the decision to consume animals, give your kids a little credit and be honest and straightforward about what is on their plate.  They just might surprise you.

Taking The Child (2 yrs old, orange pants) to The Oakland Zoo with friends in July 2005

When The Child was two years old we went to the brand spankin’ new Children’s Zoo at The Oakland Zoo.   The Oakland Zoo succeeds better than most zoos in teaching conservation and science while providing for the health, welfare, and habitats of their animals.  The Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo is no exception, and we were there in July 2005 when they opened.  They include farm animals amidst the exhibits there, and my two-year old sprinted up to the pig exhibit with a huge smile, sighed in awe, and said, “Mmmm… Bacon.”  Some folks within earshot cracked up.  And amidst the stress of keeping up with her that day I thought, “Okay, I’m doing something right.”

Pot-Bellied Pig at The Oakland Zoo's Children's Zoo. One man's pet is another man's food.

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We actually had a *gasp* vegetarian meal.  Even when meat is not the star around here, it is typically incorporated as unctuous stock, or at the very least acts as garnish to soups or salads or sandwiches…  but without really thinking about it, I made a vegetarian meal.

First there was the broth.  Vegetable stock is a misnomer.  Without connective tissue, it is broth and not stock.  But as I figured out recently, there is no need for vegetable broth to be without flavor.  Mine turned out downright spicy!  Fennel tops, bendy celery, an old and cracked carrot, a handful of peppercorns, some salvaged cloves of sprouting garlic right in their paper skins, and some thick slices of unpeeled ginger.  And because there is no need for bones to release their collagen or for connective tissue to break down, it only took about an hour.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Fennel is new to me.  More accurately, home-cooked fennel bulb that tastes good is new to me.  I have watched it prepared a zillion times on the tube, often running right out to get some and try it myself.  I have roasted and sauteed and slawwed.  And every time it overwhelms with anise flavor in a truly unpleasant way.  I would be scared off for another year or so, convinced it was not meant to be.

To add insult to injury, I know I like it.  Anytime I order fennel soup in a nice restaurant it is tempered and smooth and gorgeous.  I grew up loving fennel seed in Italian Sausages and bread.  Decades ago in Southern California I made a hobby of learning to cook Indian food, and discovered an entirely different direction for fennel seed.  The feathery bits of leaves are great tossed into a green salad, or with eggs or fish in the place of dill.  Every part of the fennel plant is edible, even the pollen, but successfully cooking the damn bulb eludes me!

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is interesting botanically because it is considered the sole species in it’s genus, although one cultivar stands out as being sweeter with a slightly larger bulb (Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum).  Plants able to adapt to various habitats without evolving into different subspecies have to be tenacious.  This tough perennial has naturalized throughout the world, propagating easily by seed.  In climates similar to it’s Mediterranean origin it is an invasive species contributing to habitat destruction.

Introduced by humans to California, it has made itself at home across much of the state.  On Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands it has overrun native habitat, much like the introduced and devastating feral pigs which thrive on a diet of naturalized fennel.  Ironically it has also provided cover and shelter to native Island Foxes, a species recently hunted into threatened status by the Golden Eagle.  The Golden Eagle moved to the islands after humans completely displaced the Bald Eagle with DDT.  Ah the web we weave, or unweave as the case may be.  Recently Bald Eagles have been successfully reintroduced.

Fennel’s intricate history with humans far pre-dates California settlement and goes beyond just food.  It reads like a missing chapter from The Botany of Desire, what I find to be Michael Pollan’s most enjoyable work.  It is a book of essays about four plants which have benefited and changed due to the desires of mankind and how they in turn changed us.  Fennel was an important plant medicinally and mythologically in Ancient Greece, and the Romans carried it throughout their realm as well.  Used in Europe as one of the three herbs to make absinthe, the others being anise and grande wormwood, the rituals and lore surrounding absinthe production and consumption further the plant’s mystique.

Mystique to me is just science I don’t yet understand.  And the science which makes fennel special is really cool.  That overwhelming flavor comes from anethole, an unsaturated ether which measures 13 times sweeter than sugar.  And because anethole is less soluble in water than ethanol, it makes anise-flavored liquors milky and opaque when mixed with water.  This Ouzo Effect is a case of science spawning culture and ritual.  In this case resulting in artwork, specialized glasses, spoons, and antiques.  The collector in me swoons!  The legacy of it being hallucinogenic is entirely false, however the hypothesis is that cheaply made absinthe in the 19th century had toxic additives and color enhancements which fueled the lore.  (Humans adding toxic additives and chemicals to increase profits and thereby sell a dangerous product to an unwitting and less affluent demographic?  Imagine that!)

But yet I’ve been hesitant all these years to try absinthe.  I have never cared for licorice before, and have always turned down anise-flavored food and drink.  Really…  all this talk about making sure The Child tries new things, and here I am having never tried it before?  Note to self:  I ought set a good example and rectify this deficiency soon!  If for no other reason than the chemistry is so darn nifty.  But I digress…

"Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva

Fennel has a glorious history.  It has unique flavors and chemistry which have infiltrated centuries of human history.  It’s done pretty well for itself.  So at the very least I should learn to cook it!  In my previous attempts, I was clearly missing something.

…try, try again.

A friend recently offered a tip.  Steam it a bit.  Instead of just sauteing, hit it with a cooking liquid of some kind, slap the cover on, and let it go all translucent.  So I did just that.  I used the spicy vegetable broth I had made the day before.  And after giving it 15 minutes, took the cover off and tasted.

It was a bit soupy yet, and terribly white and bland looking, but it tasted really, really good!  I left the cover off and simmered most of the soupiness away.  At this point it I intended to let it caramelize a bit while figuring out what the heck to serve it with.  In the 15 minutes it took the quinoa to cook, the mush had reduced to more of a mash.  A colorless and ucky looking, but incredibly tasty, mash.  A little sprinkle of frozen chopped spinach (frozen peas would have also worked) and it had some color.  Sort of.  Who cares…  fennel finally tasted awesome and The Child had seconds!  She in fact chose to mix it in with her quinoa and eat them together.

This is exactly the kind of side dish that works well for an infant or toddler.  It is already nearly baby food as it is, but give it an extra whirl in the blender if necessary.  I remember sitting down with The Child to feed her dinner while we ate, and she was always thrilled when we offered her a taste of something off our plates.  Sometimes she wanted more of what we had, and sometimes she would return to the baby food options we had started with.  It instilled the family habit of The Child trying anything offered really early, but it never could have happened without us all sitting down for dinner together.

So how do you like your fennel?  All this chemistry talk makes me curious if using alcohol as a cooking liquid with fennel changes it’s flavor profile.  Maybe there is a chemical trick to various vinaigrettes which make raw salads more palatable?  I have many more experiments ahead.  Tell me your favorites, and share some recipes in the comments so I can try preparing it again and again!

Spicy Vegetable Broth

Stalks & leaves from 2 fennel bulbs
Leftover celery and carrots past their prime
Garlic cloves, given a quick smash but left whole and in their papers
2-3” piece of ginger, unpeeled and sliced
6-10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Put everything in a pot with cold water and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about an hour.  After it cools enough to handle, strain and store accordingly.

Fennel & Onion Mash

(This can hardly be called a recipe when I was haphazardly winging it on this one.   But *something* worked… I just don’t know what.  An extra puree at the end would make this the best baby food ever!)

2 fennel bulbs, sliced thin
1 large sweet onion, sliced in half end-to-end, then sliced into half circles
Olive oil
Cooking liquid (broth, stock, water, wine, etc.)
Seasonings of Choice (I used just salt & pepper)
Colored add-in of choice (I used half a handful of chopped, frozen spinach.  Peas, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh herbs would also work.  Or a drizzle of pan sauce or gravy…  Yum.)

Saute in a saucepan with olive oil and seasonings until just starting to brown on the bottom of the pan.  Add enough cooking liquid to nearly cover veg and then cover pot and turn down temperature so it slowly simmers away.  Let it simmer covered for 10-15 minutes, occasionally giving it a stir.  (For a quick soup, carefully transfer mixture to the food processor with it’s liquid at this stage.)  After the cover is removed let it simmer to your preferred consistency.  For the mash I let it slowly bubble while pulling together the rest of dinner.  It took mine about a half an hour.  Stir occasionally to keep mash from sticking to the sides of the pan.  Turn off the heat and sprinkle in chopped frozen spinach and serve warm.

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My recent post about nutrition myths inspired one of the best blog post titles ever…  I Bought a Vat of Oil.  It says it all, doesn’t it?  I am looking forward to reading about how it turned out for Maya and her mom.  It took us a few practice rounds to figure out the timing.

Basically when the food hits the oil, the water molecules inside start to boil and push their way out of the food.  This creates a vapor barrier for the oil.  But if the frying goes too long, you run out of steam.  Then the chemistry flips, and the food becomes an instant oil sponge.  This is why healthy frying can really only happen at home, or at a good restaurant under the watchful eye of a careful chef.  Most franchise restaurants pre-fry food before shipping it to locations, they don’t change the oil often enough, and they don’t monitor oil temperature.  Yuck.

"As certain as my heart is ticking, I'm certain no living chicken Has ever so clearly commanded a living cook before With an utterance so clear and shocking that even I could not ignore. Quoth the chicken, Fry some more."

We were turned on to frying after watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats.  If you have not seen AB’s show by now, it is pure genius of television production, witty writing, food science, and of course Good Eats.  The episode which really talks the beginner through how to deep fry safely is Fry Hard, wherein he demonstrates Fish & Chips.  Fry Hard II is a now classic episode all about pan-fried chicken.  But we found Alton’s hush puppy recipe was the best way to practice getting the timing just right with deep frying.  Not to mention they are a fabulously tasty little experiment!  It is really his corn dog recipe from The Man Show episode, but taking a disher to the leftover batter and frying it leads to scrumptious results.

The Food Network folks irritatingly only publish Good Eats as tiny thematic collections rather than by season.  I would have purchased many seasons worth by now, and have recently gone looking for particular episodes to buy.  Only to give up out of frustration.  They are not available on Amazon, so third party sellers have jacked up the prices as if they were out of print.  They are instead available on the Food Network Website, and I provide links below, but neither Food Network nor Amazon provide a clear indication of which episodes are included in which volume.  Not until researching this post did I find a fan website providing a cheat sheet to keep track of which episode is in which volume, I have realized I am too irritated with Food Network for wasting my time to give them any hard earned cash.  Besides, my DVR now cycles through old episodes quite regularly, and Food Network has missed the boat.  *stepping off disgruntled soapbox now*

Fish & Chips on Fry Hard on Volume 14

This is the episode which runs through what deep frying is all about, from selecting equipment, to oil, to technique.  It is available on YouTube in two parts with some quality issues, but would be worth seeking out as a real reference.

Fried Chicken on Fry Hard II on Volume 3

While the clip on the Food Network recipe page and on hulu are both fabulously instructional, the opening bit of witty writing is well worth appreciating again and again.  Thanks again to the fan site for providing a transcript!  Quoth the chicken, “Fry some more!”  In addition, this episode uses an excellent comparison to a wooden dinosaur skeleton to relay the best way to break down a bird, as well as explanations for why cast iron is just so darn awesome.

Corn Dogs on The Man Show on Volume 7

Here Food Network has provided some useful information.  On the recipe page is a video clip from the show detailing how he makes corn dogs, and the episode page indicates it should re-air on June 17th and 18th.  Set your DVRs people!

Getting back on topic…  Why do these recipes appeal to kids?  And why is it okay to consider them part of a healthy meal?

Fried food appeals to kids because it tastes good.  It’s not called GB&D (golden brown and delicious) for nothing.  It will recalibrate what a corn dog or fish stick or french fry really should taste like.  It contributed to The Child being a three-year old who wouldn’t eat fast food.  Sure, she would beg her grandparents to take her so she could get the latest toy, but during the annual power outage when I brought home Burger King for dinner, she chose to nibble and go to bed hungry.

Most kids have heard of corn dogs and are willing to try them.   This recipe even made jalapeño peppers less scary.  And healthy frying subsequently made zucchini and eggplant and sweet potatoes accessible ingredients The Child looked forward to as well.  But the fat content you say?!?!?  Remember that vapor barrier.  In his Fish & Chips preparation, AB makes enough food to feed four people.  Measuring the oil before and after frying, only 1.5 Tbsp of oil were unaccounted for, either having drained away or remained on the Fish & Chips.  One Tbsp of any fat = 100 calories.  Split four ways and rounding up, that’s 38 calories from oil per person.  Once you factor in portion control and pair it with a variety of sides, my layperson’s opinion is that correctly fried food can easily be part of a healthy meal.

Still Learning

We recently had a Good Eats inspired weekend frying extravaganza ourselves.  Saturday was our second success making AB’s fried catfish.  After watching his recent episode outlining the sustainability of US farmed catfish, as well as advice on how to purchase it (still frozen and vacuum sealed to thaw at home), we felt brave enough to try the unfamiliar.  Our only tweak of the recipe is to slice the fish into smaller pieces for a higher crust to fish ratio.  This gorgeous plate of GB&D combined with some beautiful weather spawning an impromptu block party.  Nothing like sharing with half a dozen people to ensure the best portion control around.

Fried catfish and hush puppies to share with the neighborhood

Sunday I left for an afternoon appointment, and came home to a fabulous surprise.  Daddy Daughter Doughnut Day™.  They had braved making doughnuts together.  Maple-Bacon Glazed Apple Doughnuts.  While doughnuts are obviously not health food,  the experience of making them with her dad only comes around once in a while.  They both took a huge sense of accomplishment away from the venture as well (the dough is super sticky and presented challenges), but The Child helped roll and cut out over four dozen doughnuts, and The Spouse managed to keep his plans under wraps until the literally jaw-dropping reveal.

Never-ending doughnuts... Next time, a single batch.

We had friends over, we all gathered round the kitchen counter eating our dessert first, and The Child had an epic sugar crash later.  And it was so worth it.  The time, effort, and learning which went into them made it all the more fun to enjoy her hard work with others.  And given said time and effort, these will not become a regular addition to our diet.  Plus, it’s important that The Child see the benefits of eating well most of the time.  Once in a special while it’s okay to have 3 doughnuts and spoil your appetite!

Yes, we all hope our kids eat healthy all the time.  But that’s not realistic.  So I define eating well for The Child as trying anything and everything without being rude.  She needs to eat variety, and learn portion control.  That may be very different than eating healthy, as is the case with a bacon-maple glazed apple doughnut.  But that being said, frying at home as a cooking method ought not be vilified.  And when the target food is a healthy one, healthy frying is not an oxymoron.

Maple and Bacon-Glazed Apple Doughnuts

Prepare 3 strips of bacon, dice, and reserve rendered fat.
Finely chop one apple, and saute in bacon fat.
Add sauteed apple and half the diced bacon to AB’s Yeast Doughnut dough.

Glaze:
Heat 1/2 cup maple syrup with 2 cups icing sugar.
Add a bit of apple juice until it is the correct consistency and add the remaining diced bacon.

Yeast Doughnuts
Recipe courtesy Alton Brown, 2004

Prep Time:25 min
Inactive Prep Time:1 hr 50 min
Cook Time:12 min
Serves:20 to 25 doughnuts

Ingredients

•    1 1/2 cups milk
•    2 1/2 ounces vegetable shortening, approximately 1/3 cup
•    2 packages instant yeast
•    1/3 cup warm water (95 to 105 degrees F)
•    2 eggs, beaten
•    1/4 cup sugar
•    1 1/2 teaspoons salt
•    1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
•    23 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting surface
•    Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying (1 to 1/2 gallons, depending on fryer)

Directions

Place the milk in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat just until warm enough to melt the shortening. Place the shortening in a bowl and pour warmed milk over. Set aside.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let dissolve for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, pour the yeast mixture into the large bowl of a stand mixer and add the milk and shortening mixture, first making sure the milk and shortening mixture has cooled to lukewarm. Add the eggs, sugar, salt, nutmeg, and half of the flour. Using the paddle attachment, combine the ingredients on low speed until flour is incorporated and then turn the speed up to medium and beat until well combined. Add the remaining flour, combining on low speed at first, and then increase the speed to medium and beat well. Change to the dough hook attachment of the mixer and beat on medium speed until the dough pulls away from the bowl and becomes smooth, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to 3/8-inch thick. Cut out dough using a 2 1/2-inch doughnut cutter or pastry ring and using a 7/8-inch ring for the center whole. Set on floured baking sheet, cover lightly with a tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oil in a deep fryer or Dutch oven to 365 degrees F. Gently place the doughnuts into the oil, 3 to 4 at a time. Cook for 1 minute per side. Transfer to a cooling rack placed in baking pan. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to glazing, if desired.

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