Monday, October 28, 2013

The Joy of Reading...about Cooking!

I’m currently reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation both for fun and to mine it for sociological sources on the role cooked food plays in our lives. I have been greatly enjoying it, and it has inspired me to experiment with lacto-fermentation, baking sourdough bread and other kitchen projects. So far it is fact filled and yet very readable, he has a knack for writing to an educated audience that is fairly well informed but still wants to learn new things. That style might also be part and parcel with the lack of class analysis so far, which indicates that he is writing for an audience that views cooking as a valid intellectual and political interest, not a necessary part of daily life (it is both). To be fair, he has confined himself to the West, and in the West food that we don’t need to cook is increasingly available at all price points.  It does become frustrating, however, to read cursory discourse about the role of second and third wave feminism in redefining women’s relationship to cooking, and even more prominently, the way capitalism has shaped modern cooking and eating habits, without a serious discussion of class woven throughout*.
Apart from my nitpicking of a scholarly and sociopolitical nature, Pollan contends that people chafe at the time demanded by cooking, see it as time wasted and better spent doing literally anything else.  Is this true? It has made me sad as I read.
Pollan ascribes this low-grade dread of the kitchen as a battle between the desire to do fun or productive things (tv, read, email, etc.) and the “drudgery” of preparing a meal from start to finish. He goes on for pages about how everyone in the history of mankind has hated cutting onions, which I think is monstrously unfair to the onion, without which food would be an bland mess exactly 98.3% of the time.  The other enemy of the desire to cook is time, or more precisely the lack of it. It is true that cooking different things every day is time consuming, and that many of the best cooking techniques take as much time as you can give, the more the better.  But why, oh why, should that be imagined as time wasted?
He makes the comparison to alchemy, and I couldn’t agree more with the analogous elements of transformation of materials, scientifically described rituals, dedication to the experimental process.
But cooking is like alchemy is another, less purely material, sense. Cooking is a labor of passionate hunger of the spirit as well as the body. Certainly most days I don’t find the sublime while prepping carrots. But every day I return to the process of creating the elixir of life with renewed fervor. Part of me must continue to cook, to engage the materials and expose them to the elements of water, fire and air, possibly without end, possibly until, as a marketing guy Pollan quotes predicts, the alternatives to cooking are too good and it becomes obsolete. I doubt that will ever happen though. The calling of alchemical discovery is too strong in some of us, even if our privilege allows us to employ alternatives.  
All that being said, I still haven’t convinced anyone that cooking isn’t a waste of time. I can’t think of what I could say that will apply universally. Instead, I can describe the pleasure I felt when I recently learned to dice an onion into regular little pieces. It was as if I was standing victorious on the field of battle. That same class I julienned a vegetable for the first time, and though I will probably never use the technique regularly, doing it then made me want to do a little dance of joy (not advised when holding eight inches of chef’s knife). Those moments arose out of what Pollan calls drudgery, a word that recalls the very antithesis of pleasure. Now every time I dice up an onion a feel an echo of that satisfaction murmuring through me, saying something like, “God you’re good, Homie.”
How is a thoroughly empowering moment spent reveling in developing skill a waste of time? If you had that feeling playing your instrument of choice, or a video game, or ball in the street, wouldn’t that be characterized as a perfectly normal positive? So why is it so hard for the people Pollan describes, himself included, to want to cook? It isn’t actually that hard when all the ritualistic mumbo jumbo is stripped away. Most cooking is popping things into a pot in this order: first veggies, then protein, then liquid. And then you just wait while a low fire does its thing. That is the basis of so many dishes across culinary cultures that it might be the basis of all cooking. Sauteeing, frying, poaching and certainly sous-vide and other high tech type stuff is completely secondary in my mind. Pollan also takes this approach, but he also validates this idea that cooking is hard and strenuous. It doesn’t need to be. Through the course of the book, he learns to take pleasure in the processes of cooking, but he never quite shakes the notion that this pleasure is hard won.
So far, he seems to be arguing that a combination of marketing, technology and wage labor has caused us to renounce cooking as a fact of life. Throughout the book he is attempting to overcome his 21st century resistance to the kitchen by learning from masters of various cooking approaches: barbeque, California cuisine, etc. I don’t have a complaint about that. In fact, I think it would be great if people let themselves reach back into their cultural and personal memories and remember the way cooking creates pleasure and community in their traditions. I also agree that capitalism has radically changed the way we approach food in the US, particularly through the commodification of ethnically coded products as exotic experiences.
In summary, I rebel against being told that something I love so much is just a chore that must be got through, even if most people do see it that way. Cooking, even the unglamorous slicing and dicing and blood and guts, just isn’t a chore. Not for me.

*Let’s not even start on the way race and ethnicity recreate any conversation around food, from the perspectives of nutrition or gastronomy.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rabbit-Don't Worry, It Isn't Peter

I've developed a fool proof rabbit recipe that never fails to be delicious. Lucky for me, rabbit is almost always available in the market here at chicken prices, so I make it once every couple weeks. I know it is rarer and more expensive in the States, and I wonder how much that scarcity owes to American squeamishness rather than any lack of supply. Regardless, I love rabbit-its flavor is more complex than that of chicken without being gamey, and it takes all kinds of spices and cooking methods perfectly.

My recipe pairs rabbit with intensely aromatic herbs, crisp white wine, and a few hours over the fire to let the flavors develop. Here are the dirty details:

1 whole rabbit, cut in pieces (get your butcher to do it, and tell her you need neither head or innards)
1 bottle white wine (1 1/2 cup for rabbit, the rest for dinner)
1/2 large white onion, in chunks
1 large clove garlic, smashed but whole
1 sprig of rosemary
2 sprigs of thyme
4-5 dried juniper berries, slightly (gently!) smashed 
A generous sprinkle of whole or freshly cracked black pepper
A generous pinch of your favorite cooking salt, or to taste

On to the method:

In a pot or deep pan, heat up a generous drizzle of olive oil over medium high heat. Rinse and dry the rabbit pieces and then pop them in the hot pan to brown. Add the onion chunks after a couple minutes and let sizzle. When the browning side of the rabbit is nice and golden, flip the pieces over and add the garlic clove. Check your email, dance around the kitchen to some Al Green, sip on a glass of that white wine you opened for the rabbit. Browning takes longer than you think.
When everything is golden (I'd say give it ten minutes a side), add all the herbs, salt and pepper, then pour in a cup and a half of wine and a half cup of water.
Lower the heat to a simmer, stir, put the lid on the pot, and go read a book or snuggle with your partner.  Occasionally remember that there is something on the stove and stir it a bit. If the liquid has reduced too much, add a little more water or a little more wine. This phase will continue for approximately an hour and a half, until the meat has gone from being over cooked to falling off the little bones.
Serve with fresh bread, or saffron rice, or sauteed greens.

If you want to do a rag├╣, you have two options. The first is to ladle some of the rabbit sauce over pasta and toss them together. This is a perfect, light primo piatto to precede the main course. The second is to take the rabbit off the flame when it has reached the fork-tender stage and let it cool. Once cool, put all the pieces in a bowl and take all the meat off the bones, inevitably shredding it. Add the meat back to the pot and reheat gently, simmering for a few minutes to let it reintegrate with the sauce. Serve hot over pasta for a satisfying main dish.

Regardless of what you do with it, don't forget to bring the rest of the wine to table.

Speaking of the wine, I tend to use an Arneis from Roero, a crisp and mineral Piemontese white, but an aromatic white like a Gewurtztraminer, Muller-Thurgau or Sylvaner would work just as well to add to unctuousness to the rabbit rather than freshness like the Arneis. The key is to pick a bottle you want to drink with the meal, because you only use a cup or so in cooking!

I want to clarify what I intend with respect to the herbs. I have a rosemary bush, and therefore use fresh rosemary. If you don't have one, dried rosemary works just fine. Same with the thyme. I don't grow thyme, but I buy it fresh and then dry it at home in a cookie tray on top of my toaster oven. Just spread the fresh herbs out evenly and leave them. When you turn the toaster oven on it speeds the drying process, but they do well enough on their own as long as you don't live in tropical humidity. Here in Italy, fresh herbs are cheaper and easier to come by if you know where to go. I don't have a fancy garden or budget, so I buy herbs at the open market near Piazza Vittorio, where a big bunch of anything costs a euro (80 cents if I know the vendor). That way I avoid paying for the packaging of super market products and I get much more potent and fresh dried herbs. I dry sage, thyme, mint (though I just got a mint plant), bay leaves and oregano. You really can tell the difference.

As for the juniper, if you can't get it or can't afford it, don't use it. I did a little dance of happiness when I realized juniper is widely available here. A jar from the supermarket costs 2 euro, and it costs about 15 euro/kilo at the open market. You only need a couple berries to infuse a whole pot with flavor, so it lasts forever. However, I know how expensive it is in the US, so like I said, don't worry about it. I like the flavor it gives, but I am also a loving gin drinker. If you don't or can't use it, rosemary and thyme will definitely be enough. If you're stressed by leaving out an ingredient, substitute oregano for an extra mentholated kick, or smoky paprika to make it a darker dish (but in that case go with the Gewurtz)
The bottom line when it comes to the herbs is that you should use what you want and can, in any amount that you see fit. Think of this recipe as a guideline, not a commandment. It'll be tasty regardless.