Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Huddled Masses

I forgot who, though it was probably Michael Pollen, said we should go for foods our ancestors ate when they were dirt poor and struggling. They got the most vitamins and nutrients out of the least dollar amount spent on food possible, and it was likely to be real food because food science wasn't as pseudo-omniscient as it is now.

My ancestors? Cabbage. Lots of cabbage. My grandfather would go out during the winter in Poland, chip the ice off the top of the barrel of sauerkraut that was sitting outside, and scoop some out for dinner every night. When you think about it, cabbage has a good amount of fiber, and according to Wikipedia, it has a bunch of other good things in it, too. You know that bitter taste cabbage has? Like broccoli, radishes, kale, mustard, Brussels sprouts, etc.? It's from glucosinolates. Interestingly enough, this compound, when ingested in huge amounts can interfere with iodine uptake in the thyroid, thus leading to goiter. HOWEVER, in smaller amounts, they offer some protection against cancer. Here's the article. Very interesting, not least of all because of the way you're supposed to get a nice sized dose to get the benefits, but eating too much of it all the time can be toxic. Speaks volumes about that whole "balanced diet" thing, no?

Instead of making a barrel of saurkraut which wouldn't last in Maryland, anyway, I opted for sweet and sour cabbage with red cabbage. Red cabbage, along with being tasty and pretty, can be used as a pH indicator. It'll retain its red color in acids, and it'll turn blue in bases. (Acid = vinegar, lemon juice; base = soap, bleach. Not many foods are basic. Milk might be ever-so-slightly basic, but I'm not sure.) Anyway, get a head of red cabbage. Cut it into quarters, cut out the "core" (really just a bit of stem at the bottom), and cut it into pieces that fit through the slice tube on a food processor. Slice it. You can put it through the shredder, but cabbage will fall apart on its own if you just put it through the slicer. Chop up one onion and one apple. Get the apple and onion sauteeing until golden brown. Then dump in the cabbage, 1/2 c cider vinegar (I'm a huge fan of Trader Joe's unfiltered variety, but whatever you've got is going to work), 1/2 c sugar, and 1/2 tsp celery seed. Stir it up. I didn't have celery seed, so I threw in a bit of fennel and caraway seeds, and while those don't taste anything like celery seed, the dish tastes good anyway. So you cook the whole thing down stirring periodically until the liquid is almost gone. Salt and pepper to taste, and there's your sweet and sour cabbage.

The other thing I made was lentil burgers. Cook a package of lentils according to directions. This means boil them in salted water until they're soft. (But first give them a rinse and go through them a bit, because every so often you'll find a stone and no one wants to break their teeth.) When they're done boiling, drain them. In a pan, sautee one chopped onion, one chopped carrot, and a couple ribs of celery. When they're almost done (soft, brown), throw in some minced garlic. The garlic will only need a little while to get soft. I put my lentils in a gallon ziplock, added my sauteed veg, and tossed it to mix. That's the base. From there, the world is your burrito. The basics = lentil + veg + egg+ breadcrumbs. From this, you can make anything you want.

I had some leftover chipotle tomato sauce (sautee 2-3 cloves chopped garlic till they start to go brown, dump in one large can of whole tomatoes, juice and all, break up tomatoes as they simmer - a splatter guard is really super useful here - and continue to cook - be careful of burning - until nearly all the liquid is evaporated. Carefully dump tomatoes and garlic into food processor, add ~2 chipotles en adobo from the can depending upon your heat preference, cover, and carefully food process. This sauce is awesome on lamb, burgers, crackers, chicken, eggs, bread, cheese, and spoons. As in licked off them.). ANYWAY. We had some leftover. So, I took a bunch of the lentil mix, put it in a bowl, cracked an egg in, dumped some breadcrumbs in and a bit of the sauce, added a dusting of ground sage and thyme, salted to taste, and mushed everything into a burger-shaping consistancy.

*The egg is binder, and the breadcrums absorb some moisture, so those are the structural elements of the burgers.* Therefore, if your mush is falling apart in chunks, you need more moisture either from sauce or egg, and if it's too gloppy and molten, add more breadcrumbs. It may take a little practice, but don't get discouraged. They're typically softer than their meat counterparts, so don't shoot for hamburger consitancy. That's just not the nature of the beast.

So heat some oil in a pan, and fry away! They tasted really good with the sweet and sour cabbage. Very filling, too. Lentils are small, but woah nelly, they will fill you up. I could see those burgers also tasting good on a bun with more of the tomato chipotle sauce and some fresh tomato slices, onion, and some avocado, radish slices, and cucumber, and maybe some feta or queso fresco.

And you could add some cumin to the lentil mush.

Or you could add some fresh cilantro and parsley, some cumin and coriander for a riff on felafel.

Or some curry powder, fresh grated ginger, and cilantro.

...Seriously, maybe I should write a book and call it something like '101 Ways to Cook the Lentil.'

But then, I'm not sure I'd make it to 101. Maybe I should shoot for something more obtainable, like 19.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I love chickpeas.  Primarily, I love them in hummus.  You have no idea how happy it made me when the 1 or 2-year old (truth is I have no idea how old she is) daughter of some friends of mine from Taiwan was licking hummus off of bread at a party Danny and I had.  And she had to be forced to eat the bread.  Clearly, a woman after my own heart.   See, I view starches - bread, pasta, rice - as simply vehicles on which one can eat more sauce, veggies, or meat in polite company.  This attitude usually leaves Danny appalled, but what can I say?  Since I was a little kid, eating starches was a way to get my parents to give me more of what I really wanted.  

Except mashed potatoes.  I love mashed potatoes.  I especially love mashed potatoes prepared the Eastern European Jewish way, with rendered chicken fat and the crispy chicken rinds (called gribenes).  First you render the fat out of the skin by putting chicken skins in a pot with a splash of water to keep them from sticking, and you slowly cook them down over very low heat.  You're left with fat and the gribenes.  So, you take the chicken fat, and you use it to sautee onions and garlic really slowly until they're caramelized and beautiful.  Then you dump this into your mashed potatoes with salt and pepper.  Because Jews who keep kosher don't mix milk and meat, you use the chicken fat to achieve the desired mashed potato consistency.  It's funny how the French capitalized on the usage of duck fat and that's all haute cuisine, but this is dirty peasant food.  Really, it's all the same.  I think my ancestors managed to not die immediately of heart conditions because this was all they had.  A lot of Jewish soul food that comes out of Eastern Europe is heavier than a cartoon anvil, but that's to do with the climate and level of poverty/starvation.  Ever hear of kishke?  Yeah, didn't think so.  It's cow intestine stuffed with flour, spices, and lots of grease, although now I believe they go for collagen casings.  We never had it growing up, but I hear it's quite tasty.  :)

But chickpeas.  I titled this post "chickpeas," not "mashed potatoes with chicken fat."  I love them out of a can, drained, with a squeeze of lemon, salt, and pepper on them.  They're a tasty addition to salads (regular, 3-bean, anything marinated), too.  And soups.  Tonight I was feeling particularly lazy, so I stopped in at Trader Joe's to get some milk, bread, etc. but opted for some take-out Indian food for dinner at the joint below TJ's, Saveur India.  I got channa massala and a roti.  I asked them to make my channa hot, and I was expecting to get hit in the face (and stomach... and intestine... and... well, yeah) but it was not as hot as I expected.  It was pleasantly painful and masterfully spiced.  The chickpeas were creamy and melted in my mouth, and the roti was partly crisp from the oven but still chewy and nutty from the whole wheat.  It was such a nice surprise to find very well-thought out Indian food not lacking in flavor in this neck of the woods.  I wasn't planning on eating it all, but I had to.  I couldn't NOT eat it.  It was too spicy and tangy and awesome.  So I ate it all.  Now that I'm done, I'm sad there isn't any more of it, but maybe that's a good thing...

...How is it that all Indian people aren't ridiculously fat?  

Tomatoes, Tomatoes, Tomatoes

I have one third of the last giant Brandywine tomato from the massive quantity of various tomato varieties I took home the last time I visited my parents.  It's sitting in the fridge wrapped in plastic.  I plan on devouring it tomorrow morning for breakfast on a slice of whole wheat rye toast with some swiss cheese and a glass of milk.  

Along with the Brandywines, my mom grew smallish red tomatoes with tiger orangey stripes, yellow plum tomatoes, ghostly white orbs, sweet 1 million cherry tomatoes, and some minute yellow cherry tomato variety I'd never seen.  Naturally, my dad and bro were reaching their fresh tomato limit, so as a year-round supermarket tomato hostage, I was thrilled to relieve them of some of their tomato-eating duties.  There's nothing like real veggies.

Here's the deal.  People don't eat veggies because they taste like crap most of the time.  Varieties that make it to the supermarkets are bred for size, packability, and duration of perceived freshness.  Flavor doesn't factor into it.  Everyone's so removed from the land these days, they don't know what produce should taste like anymore, so they go to the stores every week, pick out firm tomatoes, and feed them to their families.  Firm tomatoes?  Real ones are soft, with juices ready to burst out and spray the guy or gal next to you should you bite into one. 

Can you imagine throwing a supermarket tomato from now at a bad act back in the day?  You'd kill him!  Think of how dated those caricatures of tomatoes going 'splat' are.  It's so sad and pathetic.  According Michael Pollan (who is the modern god of food policy as far as I'm concerned), one of the reasons produce prices are so high is because the government subsidizes corn farming.  If the government took away the corn subsidies, the farmers would immediately be up to their ears in debt, and because of the demand, HAVE to grow real fruit and veggies.  So I say down with the government subsidies.  


Because I want delicious, sweet, tangy, juicy tomatoes with intensely tomatoey skin that goes pop when I bite into them.  And I want broccoli with biceps, gustatorially speaking.  And cucumbers that taste like cucumbers!  Why are we so obsessed with making corn chips taste like fucking fake cheese or BBQ sauce and so detached from what the real deal tastes like?  

Hell, I'm not even going the nutrition route.  I'm going full out pure hedonism here.  What the hell, people.