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Posts Tagged ‘knife’

I love talking about food, so consequently I love writing about food. Between tight deadlines and the odd lousy interview, it’s not all ice cream*. But I do think there’s a place for intelligent foodspeak. Granted, there’s plenty of frivolous (‘Fun with Cilantro!’) and half-baked** (‘I Went Vegan For a Week and Whined My Way Through It’) content out there, but dismissing the genre as a whole is just as frivolous and half-baked—the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So. Here’s why I write about food and why I think it’s relevant. In my case, it’s mostly about teaching. I love:

-Introducing or re-introducing people to the seasons. Years ago a co-worker told me she didn’t know watermelons grew in the summer. I can’t blame her; how could the average person know when they’re offered at Shop-Rite all year? But I’m still shaken by it. I write about food because I want to teach people when produce grows. And it’s not just because I’m an avid supporter of local agriculture, and because food will be cheaper, easier to come by, more nutritious, and tastier if purchased close to the source and in season. I want to teach them when it grows because it can help repair the disconnect between ourselves and the earth. Besides breathing, sleeping, and kvetching about politics, eating is at our fundamental core. Knowing where our food comes from can provide a deep sense of peace and balance…not to mention incentive to do right by the earth.

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Still available at farmers’ markets. Pull out the seeds, scoop the flesh into your blender, add lime juice and zest, and blitz. It’s a great thirst quencher—and has no added sugar.

Showing people that cooking isn’t beyond them. Most food shows are less about instruction than they are about entertainment, which means bravado and fancy knife work. They can be intimidating to first-time cooks or to those whose skills are rusty. I want people to know that our world’s most treasured recipes were likely made in a makeshift kitchen with crappy light, over a fire or smoky coal or wood stove, with dodgy equipment, and with leftovers. The common denominator, by a long shot, was a woman determined to feed her family. If she can do it—without All-Clad or track lighting—you can.

-Being able to share what I learn in the kitchen or in the field. I absolutely love trying new (in my case, that usually means vintage) recipes, tweaking, and tasting. And I love taking a walk and spotting something edible. It always feels like a present, and I giggle all the way home. I suppose in another life I’ll be into Christian Louboutin shoes, but this life granted me a thrill in wild discoveries. It’s a cheaper pastime, if nothing else. For what it’s worth, I hope you’re enjoying the ride with me.

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Wild peppermint, which I found down by my lake in Spring 2015.

L’shana tova tikatevu, chaverim. Hope it’s a sweet one.

 

*Ha! I slay me.

**Did it again. 😀

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Warm marshmallow frosting for Devil Dog cupcakes. Random. Not in the post. Whatever.

I’ve gotten the impression, after talking to people about food and and reading a lot about food (which is what I do in my spare time when I’m not eating), that many people avoid cooking for two reasons. It’s because they’re either lacking proper information, proper equipment, or both.

Here, then, a list. Above all, please keep in mind the helpful words of the late and much-lamented Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic. You’re not supposed to loathe cooking. My goal here is to make the kitchen more approachable. This stuff you can do.

1. Get over your fear of freezing. I was taught that freezing any food besides uncooked meat ruins it. Freezer burn was a yucky reality in days of yore, and everything else from the freezer had a weird taste. Pretty sure most of this was due to poor-quality storage containers. But today you can safely freeze almost anything as long as you make sure it’s a) completely cooled and b) use plastic freezer zip-close bags. Make sure the box says ‘freezer’ on it. Slice up your fresh babka or bagels, squeeze the air out of the bag, close it and chuck it in the freezer. In the morning, take a slice out of the bag and set it on a plate.* Then go blow-dry your hair and find your shoes. By the time you’ve done that, your breakfast will be ready to eat. It will taste the same as the day you baked or bought it.

2) Repurpose utensils. I use my kitchen scissors to snip scallions and pieces of bell pepper; I smush up apples into applesauce with a potato masher; I whisk with a fork. Don’t buy any utensil that has just one purpose (garlic press, ice cream cookie sandwich mold). You’ll use it once, then it will clog up your drawers. Go low tech and open up the format with how you use your utensils.

3) Buy three good-quality knives and give away the rest. This is huge. I’m convinced that a lot of people who think they’re no good at cooking or get frustrated just at the thought of it aren’t using decent equipment. Knives are first on that list. You need a paring knife (to cut small stuff that you can’t snip with your scissors), a chef’s knife (to chop big stuff, herbs, or chicken) and a serrated knife (for slicing bread, tomatoes, and chopping chocolate or nuts). Knives should be somewhat heavy and the handle should not be made out of crap plastic. Be sure that the metal of the knife extends right down through the handle for good balance. If your knife is flimsy, you’ll be fighting with it to chop, it’s going to break by Thursday, and what’s more, it’s dangerous.

4) Unless you’re serving a cake to company and are excessively precise, ignore recipes that tell you to both butter and flour the pan. Wow. Okay, that one’s done.

5) If you’re a novice cook and want to have people over, go with simple, straightforward recipes. Novices tend to make pheasant under glass and petit fours with spun sugar, usually with nose-dive results. They want to impress their friends. Their friends, on the other hand, want to eat. Ask around for recipes that are tried and true, pace yourself, and read the recipe all the way through before starting so you know what ingredients and utensils you need. Make brownies for dessert.

What did I leave out?

*If you’re lucky enough to have a radiator, put the plate on it. I have a cookie sheet on top of my kitchen radiator for just this purpose. Me efficient.

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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Almost a year ago I got into an accident which broke my collarbone, put my dominant arm into a sling, and forced me to give up cooking anything that was too physically demanding. All last fall and winter I was surprised at how much I missed cutting up apples and slicing into fresh pumpkins to make pies and cakes, and at how deprived I felt of those lovely flavors. I know, I could buy other people’s creations, and I did. It wasn’t the same. I wanted to taste my own recipes. And what surprised me most was that I actually craved the process of making them, the actual work, just as much as the tastes.

I met a new friend recently who put it perfectly: She said making things yourself makes you feel like more of a person.  And to put an even finer point on it, I think it’s the labor-intensive stuff that does the job the best. After my accident I lost the ability to do lot of what made me feel like a person. I like the physicality of cutting into a cheese pumpkin. I like feeling—through the resistance of a chef’s knife—the difference between a crisp Empire apple and a soft Macintosh. I was amazed at how much the work I put into baking flavors the pie.

My shoulder and arm have been strengthened in the past year by physical therapy and theatre therapy (in other words, crewing shows, mostly recently one that required me to lift antique gramophones that weigh as much as a Chevy Impala), and I have been swooning with excitement at the thought of working with fall fruits again. So a couple of days ago I got started with the above. It’s a hot sandwich that I made with apples and a sharp Jack cheese.

Take an apple. Wash it well, cut it in half, core it, and cut half into thin slices. Eat the other half while you work. Grate or slice up some of your favorite cheese.* Take out two slices of your favorite bread and put them side by side on a plate. Heat up a pat of butter in a wide skillet** over medium heat and swirl it around. Put half of the cheese on one bread slice. Top with apple slices. Put the rest of the cheese on top of them. Put the other bread slice on top.

Using a spatula and your hand to balance, lower your thing of beauty into the skillet. Let it sit there for about 30 seconds. Then slide the spatula carefully underneath it, put your hand on top of it, and invert. Give yourself points if nothing falls out. Gobble up whatever does fall out. Let the sandwich sit on the heat for another 30 seconds, then slide it onto a plate, cut and keep eating.

For gooier fun, make a panini*** using the low tech method: Find a brick, wrap it in parchment paper, and plop it on top of your sandwich while it’s cooking. It’s way, way cheaper than one of those fancy-schmancy presses from Williams-Sonoma, you don’t have to clean it, and it can live in your oven. Pressing the sandwich flattens it a bit and melds the apples and cheese together into a most appealing crunchy/oozy combo.

This is the simplest of sandwiches. It celebrates one of the season’s iconic flavors, and in my case, regaining the ability to cook the way I love.

Can’t wait to work with pumpkin next.

Standing by.

*The sweeter the apple, the sharper the cheese it can take. It’s like a spirited debate between friends. Go for an aged cheddar or something along those lines.

**Don’t get cocky (like me) and use a little saucepan and burn your ring finger and pinky while flipping the sandwich (like me).

***This is actually the plural of the famous pressed sandwich. Panino is the singular. Whatever.

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