14 August 09

Food Should Not Make You Feel Guilty

I know I have an atypical approach to food when compared to the average American woman. I am better at understanding and accepting this difference than I was, and I owe a certain feminist book club gratitude for that. But a conversation that I had with two friends yesterday struck me as odd at the time, but it’s stuck with me so I felt the need to process it externally a bit.

I like food. A lot. Yes, I’m no longer the size 2 I was when I moved to Chicago. But I’m honestly okay with that. I wish some of the clothes I had from that time fit me still, but in general I don’t spend much time thinking about how whether what I’m eating is going to cause me to lose weight. And I realize that I’m very fortunate to not be diabetic, or have thyroid issues, or even have allergies to common items that are hard to avoid. Because this helps permit me the ability to think about what I want to eat and then to figure out how best to make that happen. I’m also lucky that I don’t have to count pennies to feed my small family. I’ve been there, and it makes you think about food differently.

Yesterday I went to Hot Doug’s restaurant for lunch. Hot Doug’s is a very casual restaurant that serves fancy sausages with fancy cheeses and fancy mustards and sauces. They also serve french fries cooked in duck fat two days a week. And they have tater tots and corn dogs. It’s not healthy, or remotely “good for you”. And you frequently have to wait at least 30 minutes in line before you get to sit at a table with your fancy fast-food lunch.

As we were waiting in line, we started talking about how we would balance our hotdog eating extravaganza later on. And until it was brought up, I hadn’t thought about it at all. Hot Doug’s is a treat. I can rarely go so I make it there 2 or 3 times a year. If it was closer and easier to get to, it may be different for me. But it’s distance and daytime-only hours automatically make a treat item. And because it is classified in my mind as a treat, I don’t think twice about going when I have the chance. I also don’t think about how I’m going to adjust my eating habits for the next few days to make up for having eaten a hot dog and tater tots dipped in cheese sauce.

But as I’m planning a meal, or choosing a dinner off a plate. I try to pick items so I have a balanced and varied diet and I try to listen to my cravings to see what I want. Fat content and calories rarely comes into play when I think about this. Wednesday, for example, I had 2 slices of bacon, 1 fried egg, and some leftover rice that I fried in the skillet with the bacon. Not a “healthy” breakfast, right? For lunch I needed to know how long to cook a hamburger in a skillet so I bought ground beef, made a patty, timed it and then ate it. So at dinner I look over a menu and realize that I’m craving something green, crunchy, fresh, and maybe even raw. So I had a salad with melon and goat cheese and it was great.

So when I was ready to choose my dog on Thursday, I wasn’t thinking about how I’d balance my hotdog later on. I was thinking about how I would enjoy my hotdog right then. Because I firmly think that eating food shouldn’t make you feel guilty. I don’t think that food and guilt should ever be a joined idea. Food is food, it nourishes our bodies, and hopefully our souls as well. When I eat a hotdog at Hot Doug’s, I enjoy every bite. I relish the combination of the well-thought out sauces and cheese combinations. I dream of eating everything on the menu. I get ideas for things to try later (like pork cutlets with a mustard/olive sauce based on the muffuletta mustard on a hotdog I ate). But, most importantly, I enjoy what I’m eating while I’m eating it.

Later in the evening, when dinner time rolled around and I was with my fellow craft mafia babes. I thought about what I’d eaten and what I was interested in. Semiramis has this great falafel wrap chock full of crunchy lettuce, tomatoes, tahini, and pickle spears. And yes the falafel was fried. But I decided that I wanted that anyway. If I’d been hungry enough, I would have ordered a side salad, but I still wasn’t very hungry.

Then today, after two days of eating fairly high-fat meals, and knowing that dinner would have some very cheesy mac’n‘cheese involved in it, I was going through the refrigerator and saw some leftover spinach that I’d sauteed. I decided to warm it up, but wanted something more to go with it. And, in a move that I rarely take, I decided to separate two eggs and mix just the egg whites into the spinach to bind it together. The yolks were cooked and will be served to my older kitty who really liked it and who needs to gain some weight. But I didn’t do this because I was supposed to, or because I felt guilty, but because it was what felt right.

And I think this is the disconnect that many other people have, and it’s what I can’t seem to understand. I eat what sounds good and I try to make sure that I’m eating more vegetables than cheese. I tend to eat more fish and more chicken than I do beef or pork. Pork is impossible to get in our neighborhood and I just rarely think about cooking beef. (It’s one of the hardest chapters of this cookbook to write, actually.) But since I tend to be anemic, I try to keep track of how often I eat it so I can keep track of how I’m feeling to know when I need to eat some. But during the summer, I’m more likely to crave spinach or greens, than I am beef. And I’m okay with that, because I’m listening to what my body is telling me I need.

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11 August 09

Deep-Frying isn't as bad for you as you may think

So during this cookbook adventure I’ve set myself onto, I’ve had to do a fair amount of cooking of dishes I’ve either been meaning to make but never have (hello! Sweetbreads!) and dishes I’ve made but wanted to make better. Fried chicken is one of the dishes I wanted to improve on. So after reading about 500 other recipes for fried chicken, I settled on some assumptions and gave it a go. And not only did I give it a general go, but I decided to fry up about 4 pounds of chicken legs, cause they’re my favorite. And really, it’s all about what I want, honestly.

So I set a huge Dutch oven over a medium to medium-high flame and then I poured 1 quart of oil into the pan. 1 quart of peanut oil. Yep! 8 cups of oil. Oh my gawd! Do you feel your arteries clogging as you read that? Well, they shouldn’t. And here is why. And I’d read it, but I figured it was kinda bogus. But I’d meant to test it and I never did, and well, here is what I learned.

Deep-frying doesnt’ cause foods to soak up oil. IF you do it right. IF you keep the oil above 325˚F (according to the food scientist people I found on The Internet) then your food will seal immediately and then not soak up the dreaded oil. And it’s true. Deep-frying, in the case of my fried chicken recipe, was lower in fat than if I’d pan-fried the chicken. How do I know?

Well, I poured one quart of oil into the Dutch oven. I fried 4 pounds of chicken legs. I then let the oil cool so I could pour it back into the bottle and either filter it for use again or discard it if I had to. And you know what? The bottle was full again. Well, almost full. TWO TABLESPOONS of oil disappeared while I was DEEP-FRYING 4 pounds of chicken. That’s less than 1/2 of a teaspoon of oil per serving. 1 teaspoon of oil is a serving according to the bottle of oil. And even if I was pan searing the chicken to bake in the oven, I would have likely used more oil than that.

So, the next time someone is all “ew” when you mention the word deep-frying, you can let them know (cause I told you! and I’m an expert!) that deep-frying isn’t bad for you. What you deep-fry may not be healthy, but the cooking method isn’t as bad for you as many people think. And, I couldn’t be happier about that. Cause, oh man, do I love a good piece of fried chicken now and then.

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13 July 09

So full

I’ve cooked so much food in the last month. So very much. And it’s been phenomenal. I can’t say that I’ve fallen in love with every dish I’ve made, but I’ve liked almost all of them enough to make them again. Which is huge for me because I rarely like cooking the same thing twice and when I find that I’m cooking the same dish over and over again, I realize I’m in a rut and need to break out of it. But there have been some particularly memorable things I’ve made.

And I’d love to show dishes of them all with you, but guess what? I’m horrible! horrible! horrible at remembering to take pictures of food after I’ve made it. It’s really amazing. I get excited as a dish is close to completion and I think of how to light it and then the dish is done and I taste it, and all thought about anything else simply vanish from my mind.

So I don’t have as many pictures as I would like to have, but I’m going to upload what I do have to a Flickr set and go find previous cast iron shots I’ve taken to add to it. I know I’ve taken a few more over the last 5 or so years I’ve had a Flickr account. Yikes! I’ve been online a long time.

So some of the dishes I’ve been extra happy with:

  1. Fig and Balsamic Dessert Sauce (Oh! My! Gawd! Seriously so good that when I first tasted it I got lightheaded.)

  2. Cioppino (I have no idea how you could go wrong with an Italian tomato base filled with delicious seafood from The Fish Guy

  3. Coconut Milk Fried Chicken (There was no breading on this, but it was marinated for several hours in coconut milk and spices. And I gotta say it was far more flavorful than any buttermilk fried chicken I’ve ever had. This was a dish that I will be making again.

  4. Buttermilk Blue Cheese Biscuits (I really wish there had been leftovers with these, because it would have made a great ham sandwich and I can only imagine how good they would taste smothered in sausage gravy.

  5. Maryland Crab Cakes (The texture was phenomenal. The taste was perfect. But they didn’t hold together as well as I would have liked, so I guess I’ll be making them again. Darn!

  6. Jamaican Grilled Okra (Holy wow! These were fantastic on the grill. And yes I have a cast iron grill rack that I purchased from Cast Iron Cookware Shop.)

  7. Bacon-Wrapped Cheese Stuffed Jalapeños (o!m Perfection! and barely like cooking at all)
  8. Cornbread (Yeah, I know it’s a classic, must-have dish, eh? Well, I’ve tried several recipes and they’ve just not impressed me much. So, while doing some reading about baking, I began to wonder what would happen if I substituted buttermilk for whole milk. Well, I needed slightly more buttermilk than whole milk. But, I finally got the soft, tender, not dry center, with a crusty exterior.)

And there have been a few dishes I’ve made that didn’t impress me much, but that I know a few things I can do to make them better. For example:

  1. Boston Baked Beans (I used a pink South American bean that keeps it’s shape and doesn’t mush AND I didn’t add enough water to the pan. Fantastic flavor and seasonings, but not quite soft enough. I don’t want mushy beans, but I don’t want crunchy either.

  2. Dutch Apple Baby (I’ve had this a few times and each time I’ve thought that there wasn’t enough apple. So when I made it and it seemed like I had lots of apple when it went in the oven, when it came out there just wasn’t enough apple. Easy to fix.)

  3. Cheddar Cheese and Jalapeño Corn Sticks (Because they’re smaller, they need a different mixture so they don’t all turn to crust. I should have come up with the basic recipe before I came up with the alternate recipe.

  4. Fried Ravioli Appetizer (I should have put some grated parmesan in with the bread crumbs to provide a little salty to the crust. And I have to remember that things darken once they come out of the fryer. So I should take them out while they look slightly underdone. And it will also keep them from busting while they’re in the fryer. Which is fun to watch, but not fun to watch explode on the inside of your wrist. Thankfully, I’ve not got the urge to take pictures of all the ways I’ve burned myself.

  5. Spicy West African Yassa Chicken (This was tasty, but not nearly as spicy as the marinade seemed like it would be. So next time, more peppers. But the lime juice marinade did wonders on the stewing chicken I purchased. And I realized that I really don’t like cooking apart a stewing chicken. They’re HUGE!)

  6. Cajun Shrimp and Rice (The shrimp I picked up were amazing. Buttery, fatty, briney. But they were a bit tiny for this dish. And the spice mix I came up with was great, but I added more salt than I needed. I have a tendency to oversalt dishes because I love salt. But it was a touch too salty even for me.

Oh, and that is just what I made in the last week. Yes, really. I told you I’ve been cooking a lot. I meant it. Since I’ve been cooking, writing about food, reading cookbooks like they’re comic books I’ve not been doing any sewing. Which makes me sad. Cause I miss it. But thankfully creating food really does work the same creative muscle that sewing does.

Oh, and I’m hungry all the time. And I need to buy some new pants.

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06 June 09

Everything Cast Iron

CornishHenDinner
Pressed and Roasted Cornish Game Hen

I’ve been mulling over how and when to write about something that is consuming all of my free brain time and almost all of my non-work time. (And by work here, I mean day job work.) And I’ve been alternating between being freaked out by it and being jump up and down, butterflies in my stomach with the giddy, excited. It’s something that I’ve dreamt about doing, and thought about it, and joked about it, and now I’m really doing it.

I’m writing a cookbook. I have a book deal. I’m going to be a published author. And maybe it will all sink in if I figure out how to say it in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m bragging. Cause that’s not how I feel. I feel intimidated. I feel like this book would be the book on the subject that any number of people buy or are given and it’s intimidating and scary to feel like I have to know enough to provide them with all the knowledge they need to cook using cast iron. Cause that is the focus of the book. 300+ recipes on what to cook using cast iron cookware.

I’m giddy, ecstatic, overwhelmed, and I should be writing recipes instead of blogging. Because I still have more than 3/4 of the book to write. And I know that this is the perfect cookbook for me to write. If anyone has read many of my columns at Gapers Block called One Good Meal, you’ll probably know that I write about a lot of cast iron cooking. I love, love, love it. I adore it. And I honestly don’t use much of anything else. I have my stockpot, a 1-quart saucepan, a 2-quart saucepan and 4 cast-iron skillets and a cast iron dutch-oven that I use on a regular basis. There are a few other pans in the cabinet, but I rarely use them.

When Andrew was still in school his mother purchased him a set of stainless cookware that came with a stockpot, 2 saucepans, a sautee skillet, and a deeper skillety thing. The stockpot and saucepans are beat up, dinged, scratched, stained, and look like they’ve been used everyday for the past 13-14 years. The skillets? They’re shiny and sit in the back of the cupboard. I’ve used each of them once. But I dont’ like them. They seem finicky to me, hard to use. They require me to use too much oil and food sticks to them. I don’t like the weight, or lack of weight, I don’t like the handles. In other words, I don’t like them because they aren’t cast iron.

A few months ago now, we were making dinner and Andrew pulled one of these skillets out of the cupboard and put it on the stove. I gently moved it to the side and started to warm up the cast iron skillets (that never actually get put away). Since he was actually doing the cooking that night, he gave me a stern look, pushed the cast iron skillet aside and put his shiny skillet back on the burner. “Why don’t you ever use these? They’re good skillets! We should use them more often.” I shrugged and changed the subject. But he’s right. They’re perfectly good skillets. And I’m sure they have many uses and would create tasty food. Andrew has used them to create tasty food. But, you know what? I probably won’t use them. I don’t need to.

A week or so after we had this conversation and I was actually giving some thought to trying to use a different skillet, I got an email asking me if I would consider writing a proposal for a cookbook about cooking with cast-iron cookware. The acquisitions editor answered my pile of questions, guided me gently, and I wrote something that obviously must have been satisfactory. Because I now have, in a very thin file-folder labeled “book contract” a book contract. It’s been signed by the right people, it spells out what I have to provide and how I have to provide it. And one of these days the fact that I’m writing a cookbook will sink in. Until then, I think I’ll be fluctuating between freaking out, giddy.

Oh my gawd! I have so much cooking and writing to do. So much! And everything I eat for the next several weeks will be put into a cookbook. A cookbook! With a cover, and a dedication page, and an index! And it will have my name on the cover. Oh my gawd!

So I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record to the people I’m grateful enough to know in person. And if you have any family tested recipes, questions about care, or confusion related to cast-iron cooking, send them my way. I think I’m going to need all the help I can get to pull this off.

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13 August 08

Anthony Bourdain and the duck fat fries

Last Friday I left from getting a rocking cool haircut (thanks, Reverend Billy!) and realized I was hungry. I had a lot of food at home and decided that instead of continuing on downtown to use a gift card and exchange a cd, I would just go home, eat, and then venture to a mall to use my gift card instead. On my way driving home, I missed my street and ended up on California. The traffic was horrible and I could feel one of those “I’m so hungry I’m getting grumpy” moods come on. And then I saw Hot Doug’s. Yeah the line was around the corner, yeah I would probably eat sooner if I just went home and made food than I would if I ate out, and no, I didn’t need to be spending money on food. But, there were duck fat fries, and it had been a year since I’d had them, and, and And, well, I bet you know I got in line. I waited in line for almost an hour and was looking forward to trying The New Chicago Dog. I placed my order and was delighted to get a seat at the bar in the corner by the windows so I would have great light for taking the pictures for writing about at Gapers Block. I set up my shot, took it, had a sip of my Mr. Pibb, and took a bite of my long-awaited hot dog, sausage sandwich, encased meat. I liked the first bite, so I took another. And just as a piece of paneer (Indian cheese made from fresh milk) fell in my lap, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I would mind surrenduring my seat.
“We’re doing a filming here soon, and we’d like to use this corner. I feel bad asking you, and I’d be happy to pay for your lunch. Do you mind? You could just move over about two seats, or I’ll help you move to a larger table.”
Since I am generally an accommodating person, I didn’t really mind moving. So as I started to move my belongings, I asked her who she was filming with.
“It’s a Travel Channel show called No Reservations. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
“Oh, of course. I love that show. But Mr. Bourdain isn’t really here is he?”
“Yeah. He’s waiting in line.”
“What? Seriously? I mean, really? Here? In Chicago? I, uh, I, uh, I kinda have a crush on him. I mean, everyone I know has a crush on him.”
She looked mildly puzzled, “Really?”
And then its kind of a blur because I remember thinking a whole lot of “Oh My God!” and “Tony’s going to sit right beside me. I’m so glad I just got my hair done. I wonder what he’s going to order. I wonder if he’ll eat the duck fat fries. Will he drink Coke? Oh My God!”
I honestly think the only thing that saved me from hyperventilating was that the assistant said “You may end up in a background shot.” Knowing that my googly fan-girl face would get totally blocked and could ruin his shot kept me in check.

And then he walked behind me, his elbow just lightly brushing my shoulder (he’s pretty tall) and I did my best to focus on my fries and pretend to read my book. And he sat down, and he arranged his tray and the food on his tray.
“Tony, can you hold on a minute. We’re getting the other camera set up.”
“I’m so f**king hungry.”
And without thinking, I turned to him and said “It’s not fair that they make you wait to eat.”
“I know.”
“Okay, Tony. When you’re ready.”
Tony talked to himself, he ate his Chicago Hot Dog and his Foie Gras Dog and some of his duck fat fries, he finished his soda, he posed for the cameras while eating. He wiped his lips on napkins. He seemed to enjoy his food.
“Tony, can you pick up a few more fries? You don’t have to eat them.”
And with that, the filming seemed finished. And, well, I talked to him again. And at the end of what can hardly be called a conversation, I asked to take his picture. He agreed, and I took a shot that was out of focus and another shot that was delightfully in focus. And he smiled, nodded, and then he left the restaurant (probably to go smoke) and I swooned and chatted with one of the women working with him. She thanked me for being such a good sport.

I remember watching A Cook’s Tour on The Food Network years ago. I liked where he went, I liked his guests, I liked the food he ate. But he seemed so angry and bitter. And then when No Reservations came out, I began reading more that he wrote and what was written about him and came to realize some of the frustrations he had when working with The Food Network. And Naz and Jen swore it was a great show, so I turned to Tivo and decided I’d watch and see what I thought. And, he still seemed cynical and snide and a bit snarky. But my opinion of him changed while I was watching an episode he filmed in Asia. I can’t remember the country or the episode. Tony and his crew were invited to eat with a family and it seemed like it was a slightly unexpected invitiation, and they definitely seemed like an offense would be considered if the invitation was refused. But the family obviously had modest means. But Tony sat on the floor, talking with his tour friend, and talking through the cooking steps of the matriarch as she prepared food over an open fire. He seemed doubtful that the contents of a large pot would be tasty. But as soon as the chef handed him a small bowl and bowed to him, he smiled at her genuinely, took the bowl, did a head nod in return. He ate a bite and he seemed genuinely to be happy with the bowl’s contents, and he smiled. As soon as he smiled the woman and other family members both on and off camera began to laugh and cheer and bowls, plates, dishes were passed and jovial laughter were joined by Anthony’s voiceover talking about how grateful he was for their hospitality and saying how food made from experience and love will always trump food made in a corporate kitchen.

And that’s when I began viewing his snark and cynicism differently. It’s not his goal to push snobby cuisine, its his goal to get recognition of how food affects a culture, the people who share it, and the people who prepare it. In his world, the lowly dishwasher from Mexico who lacks a green card is just as important to food culture as a grandmother who has made the same rice pilaf for 50 years as an Iron Chef. And once I made that realization, I went from being a viewer of his show, to being a fan of him and the outlook that he’s spreading.

I love food. I don’t spend as much time experimenting with dishes as I wish I did, my knife skills still suck, and I have never made a quiche. But I like food and I firmly believe that making food for people is a great way to show people that you love them. And, you know what, I think Tony does, too. And, the experience of seeing him sit at one of my favorite places in Chicago and enjoy a basic Chicago-style hot dog, that is unpretentious and scorned by many foodies, just as much as he enjoyed a sausage made from duck with a foie gras topping really made my head swim. Ingredients created with care and attention are important, but food made by people who care is equally important. And a lowly Chicago hot dog with its neon-green relish and yellow mustard is no less tasty, if made knowingly, than a handmade duck sausage.

And, I think, its the knowingly part that drives him on, looking for more experiences, people, and dishes. It’s the respect and understanding and true awe that he expresses to a soba noodle maker who has spent all of his adult life making one type of noodle over and over, and will spend the rest of his life making that same noodle. Because its the care, the desire for perfection, the drive to be proud of what you create, the need to see that details are captured correctly that seems to attract him. And me to him, apparently.

Thank you, Tony. For your patience at Hot Doug’s while I and many others snapped pictures of you while you ate. For your ability to understand the underlying political issues of food and how they affect the culture and the people who contain them. And for showing me places and adventures around the world that I’ll likely never get to experience myself. And thank you for occasionally closing your eyes when you eat. I know exactly how that feels. When I see you do it, I get sympathy twitches in my esophagus. Oh, and that little eyebrow tick you get on occasion when something is really good? Yeah, I get that, too.

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14 March 08

Oooh! Cooking school at home

About a year ago, I bought a lifetime membership to Rouxbe, an online instructional cooking video site. I made their cookies and a few sauces and other dishes, but I’ve found myself liking their “drill-downs” or video snippets where they show off techniques and trickes. To my delight, I got an email a while ago saying that they’d team up with a culinary school to start offering an online cooking school and it would be free to anyone with their Premium membership. And since that is what I have, I get to go to cooking school for free, in my own kitchen, using my tools, at my pace. I’m very excited about this. It’s due to start in June. I’ll keep you posted as to how it goes.

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15 January 08

Alinea

Dear Mr. Achatz,
You have 23 chances to make me cry. No pressure or anything, but thought I should warn you.

Thanks,
Cinnamon “The Cryer” Cooper

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09 February 07

Jasmine IngenuiTEA


Jasmine IngenuiTEA, originally uploaded by cinnachick.

I really, really like tea. I don’t drink enough of it. I’d read once that drinking tea causes people to get kidney stones, and since both of my parents were prone, and since I hate pain and going to the doctor I cut back on drinking tea for a long time. Then I found out that by cutting sugar out of the tea and drinking a variety of teas cut out the kidney problem.

So when Amy gave me a gift certificate for some tea, and when I came across the IngenuiTEA, I fell in love. Loose leaf teas are fabulous, but the method I had for making them at work was messy and a pain and I just didn’t like it but I hadn’t seen anything I wanted to replace it with. But this device is great. I put in my tea, add water to the type, let it sit for the time that is listed on the tea tins. And then, to get the tea into my mug, all I do is sit it on top and the water runs out, through the plastic filter and into my mug. I can then dump the tea leaves out, or I can keep it in for another cuppa later, maybe with a pinch of something else added.

See I can easily blend flavors to make new teas. Jasmine with a pinch of earl grey for the second pot is delish! If you want to get more info, see a video demo of how it works, or maybe even buy your own, go to Adagio.com.

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