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

Kids Pushing Food Policy; Weight Policy; Annals of Meat; Wal-Mart Defines "Sustainability;" Pizzaiolis

In the WaPo, Jane Black weighs in with a thoughtful piece on the White House garden, pointing out, "It's about kids." Then Ezra Klein has a piece on policy measures to tackle obesity, though I don't buy his facile dismissal of a tax (a more thoughtful take by Tom Laskawy here); the bigger problem with a food tax is that it would be regressive. But dare I say, is the WaPo food section looking up these days?

Tom Philpott on Grist mulls meat contamination, but don't eat lunch while you read this piece.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Will be met with a symbolic organic milk dump Thursday in Wisconsin to protest falling prices and lost livelihoods.

Marc Gunther over at Slate's The Big Money had the biggest scoop of the week on Wal-Mart's new "sustainability index." The company will become a de facto regulator of sustainability, because its suppliers will have to adhere to the policy. The question is: Can one company - this company - get it right? 

New York magazine dissects the pizza boom in New York, following Frank Bruni's piece last week in the NY Times. Does this blanket coverage signal that pizza has peaked? Me thinks, but hopefully, DC will catch up with a few more ambitious pizzaioli before it's long gone (2Amys notwithstanding). 
- Samuel Fromartz

Fish, Beef and Crabs, but this isn't Lunch

Recent links:

New England fisherman vote to start a catch-share program as a way to rebuild dwindling stocks of groundfish, such as cod. It's a last ditch effort to save the fish -- and the fishermen.

The UK Guardian on French bluefin tuna fishermen, who believe their days are numbered. Related: bluefin tuna serving Nobu ignores a question about ethical fish sourcing (though I wish the article gave a direct quote).

Just in time for July 4th, Obama Foodorama, on the latest massive beef recall, "advises to avoid beef like it's the plague." Another option is to follow government advice and cook burgers until 160F (like a hockey puck?) or reduce risk by getting  hamburger from a butcher who grinds meat in the shop.

Ethicurean has a hopeful piece by a young farmer student who is studying agroecology in Germany and who worked on organic farms in Italy.

A soft shell crab salsa recipe from Mark Bittman's Bitten blog was a winner, though I substituted the slightly numbing szechuan pepper corns for the hot peppers. But are the crabs sustainable? Glad you asked. Blue claw crabs generally rank as a good alternative on sustainable seafood lists, but they also carry a toxicity warning. Don't eat them often but savor them when you do.

President Obama cooks South Asian cuisine, but I have yet to see any DC food blogs round up the ethnic take out joints he should visit to complement his burger photo-ops lunches. Come on Young & Hungry, get with it!
- Samuel Fromartz

In the News - Baguettes, Gardens, Fish

Susan over at Wild Yeast blog tried my baguette recipe and the results were stunning. Just take a look at the pictures to see her results. If you have a great loaf nearby and want a simple treat, dip a piece of bread in a good olive oil and sprinkle a few grains of fleur de sel on it. I gave this tip to my friend Roger, a former newspaper reporter now blogging for the California Olive Ranch.

In other links, Obama Foodorama has an astute analysis of the White House garden and Michelle Obama's mission to change the way the nation eats. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the Queen mother has planted an organic garden in a corner of Buckingham Palace. (Maybe that's why Michelle Obama was gently putting her arm around the Queen.) NYT also has a piece on rooftop gardening, which in part has been spurred by tax incentives.

Clare Leshin-Hoar stirs the pot in the WSJ, with a piece on how CSAs (community supported agriculture schemes) have come to the seafood world, with CSFs (community supported fish). Fish lovers in Boston can buy a share of the catch, though with this caveat: not everything is sustainable (cod, for instance).

In follow-up news, the campaign to stop Nobu from serving endangered bluefin tuna has not yet yielded results. Although partner Drew Nieporent told the New York Post, "At the end of the day, we are going to do the right thing," so far that has meant doing nothing. They are clearly betting this campaign will blow over and they will continue to serve bluefin tuna until it is literally gone.
- Samuel Fromartz

Dim the Lights -- Food on Film

The Organic Summit, an annual conference, is holding a competition for short films. There's a range of items, but I'm highlighting Deborah Garcia's "Soil: In Good Heart," which focuses on the place where all food begins. Who knew you could be so passionate about compost and dirt? I also liked "What's Organic About Organic," by Shelley Rogers and others too, highlighting kids and food, small farmers, even lobbying. Check them out.

Organic Film in the Works

A couple of years ago, an NYU grad student interviewed me on camera for a student project on organic food. Then I kept running into her at various organic events as the project has blossomed into a real film. And now the former student, Shelley Rogers, has won some impressive help for her project, What's Organic About? I am not endorsing it -- having not seen it -- but the preview clip is compelling and hints at some familiar fissures, such as local v. organic, big v. small.

If you're in the organic food industry, you'll recognize some of the figures, including the inimitable Marty Mesh of Florida Certified Organic, whose usual antics (opps, I mean statements) at National Organic Standards Board meetings are only matched by the inimitable Jim Pierce of Organic Valley (whose brief statements to the board should be collected and published as organic poems, haikus and parables. In the future, he should try limericks.) In any case, Marty's in the movie and I look forward to seeing more. Now without further adieu, a promo clip:

Workin' in the New Year

TerkelI got this great quote by Studs Terkel in a holiday email. He's the one-time radio interviewer, journalist and oral historian who was required reading when I first training to be a reporter. Something to think about for the new year.

Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread. For recognition as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying... We have a right to ask of work that it include meaning, recognition, astonishment, and life.” - Studs Terkel

Writing a story about a restaurant a few years ago, I asked Anthony Bourdain, the renegade chef and writer, "Restaurants always die. What's the secret to longevity?"

Bourdain replied: "The secret to longevity is to decide early on what one does well and then do it relentlessly, fanatically well, never wavering, never letting things slide, never allowing oneself to lose sight of one's original standards and intentions, and not falling victim to trends or unreasonable fears."

Advice that could be applied to far more than restaurants...