ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

A Cook, Not a Foodie, with a Taste for Onions

Among friends, I've been called a foodie because I'm into food and love to cook and bake. But I don't think of myself that way -- I'm not really into following the top chefs, don't watch the food shows on television and am not on a perennial search for the latest hot restaurant. I do enjoy a good meal once in a while, but I'm very careful -- I've had too many experiences where you lay out a big chunk of change for a meal and then wonder what you've spent it on.

I just like food, simply made, that tastes good. So I rate a couple of ethnic places near DC, like Hong Kong Palace, as the most enjoyable places to eat (with the best value), along with a couple of fine dining places, like Palena. But mostly, I've found I like to cook at home. Ingredients can count for 90% of the result. Like the cucumber I picked from the garden yesterday, sliced up and sprinkled with a pinch of salt. Or the Copper River sockeye salmon I recently had the pleasure of eating up in Alaska, fresh out of the water. "With fish like this, the only thing you can do is screw it up," a chef said. Visiting a fisherman's house, we ate the fillets off the grill with a bit of seasoning and not much else. Perfection!

I've thought about this reading Michael Pollan's essay in the Times magazine, "Out of the Kitchen, onto the Couch," which points out that people have forgotten how to cook. Food has become largely about entertainment, rather than engagement. You watch, rather than participate. This doesn't apply to everyone, but it is the story for many. More and more people are buying prepared foods, eating sandwiches, not cooking.

How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

I take Pollan's point. As an avid bread maker, it's clear to me that most people have forgotten what real bread tastes like, if they've ever had it. But once they do, especially kids, there is an element of shock and awe. Now bread making is viewed as an arcane craft, but once people made bread regularly at home. It doesn't take a lot of time or work (the bread rises on its own). It's just intimidating.

I often tell people interested in baking that you have to make a few bad loaves to learn how to make good ones. In baking though, the bad ones are usually edible. So you eat them and try again. But that applies to anything worth doing. Make mistakes, eat the bad stuff -- if you can -- and do better next time. (Sometimes, mistakes can even turn out quite nicely as they did for Susan at Wild Yeast, when her baguettes became ciabatta). 

You can also make really great stuff easily (and cheaply). That was the point of my previous post on home-made ice tea for 6 cents a glass. Cucumbers with a dash of salt is another. And here's another dead easy recipe, onions with vinegar, from Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. It's especially good with fresh onions now in season at the farmers' market.

Bassal bel Khal (onions with vinegar)

2 sweet  onions, red or white
2-3 tablespoons vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon mint (optional)

Peel and cut onions in half. Slice thinly. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with the vinegar and salt. Stir. Cover and let sit for at least one hour. As Roden says, the onions "will become soft, lose much of their pungency and absorb the other flavors." I've made them with the mint and without. Both are good. This dish is especially good with grilled meat or fish or tofu.  (To avoid crying while cutting onions, cut them on a counter next to your stove and turn on the flame. It will burn the gasses that make you tear. Then turn off the flame!)

This isn't about being a foodie. It's about making good, simple, food. 
- Samuel Fromartz