Saturday, December 26, 2009

Culinary presents

I always get a few presents related to my cooking hobby. Here are the ones from this year:

1. A pastry brush, as a stocking stuffer. Neat! I've been needing one of those! My roommate and I have been using a tiny paint brush since we moved in to our first apartment three years ago, and, well, it's pretty inefficient.

2. Food Path: Cuisine Along the Grand Trunk Road from Kabul to Kolkata by Pushpesh Pant and Huma Mohsin. This is a really beautiful book with huge full-color photos and a lot of cultural and historical information along with the recipes. I'm looking forward to trying them out. A lot of them are meat-based, but they'll make for good exercises in substitution and adaptation.

3. A pressure cooker! Mom found one for 15 bucks at a yard sale, never used. I've been wanting one of these for a while. Raghavan Iyer swears by 'em and I am really looking forward to being able to cook unsoaked chickpeas in 48 minutes. Seriously! This modern world we live in! (Grandma was telling me they first came into vogue when she started out as a housewife, and whenever the ladies got together there was always a story about whose beans ended up on the ceiling. Heehee! It looks like there are enough safeties on this device that you'd have to do something pretty foolish to get yourself blown up, though.)

Other non-food highlights include the Monty Python's Flying Circus Collector's Edition, from Mom, and a subscription to the New Yorker, from my brother. Favorite presents I gave this year included a 15-year-old bottle of Laphroaig scotch for my dad (that was a joint purchase from me and Brian), hand-made portraits of a few of my friends' pets, a Yiddish alef-beyz book I've been working on for a few months for a friend who loves languages, and copies of my NaNoWriMo novel for the grandmas. (It is an economic year for handmade presents.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

French fight obesity with good food

The French are fighting their obesity teaching obesity patients how to cook.

Patients are told that it's okay to sit down to a three-course meal with family and friends, just not to snack and eat processed, packaged foods.

Although fighting obesity with good cooking may seem counterintuitive to some, I think they are approaching this problem very well. If you look at how obesity is spread out in America, you see that the areas with the worst problems are also the areas with the lowest incomes. Cheap food is the worst for us, but if you've grown up getting fed nothing but cheap food by your parents, you think that's all there is out there. (Cf. that poor Wal-Mart clerk who didn't know whether limes were a fruit or a vegetable...) If some of these poor malnourished people (and it is very possible to be obese and malnourished, as David Cross once pointed out) could learn to enjoy cooking and preparing great meals, they would spend more time thinking about, preparing, and savoring food, and less time eating mindlessly.

Now, you can argue that some people don't have enough money to cook well, but I think the idea that it takes a lot of money to have a cooking hobby is a flawed one. If you play your cards right you SAVE money by making your own food. I'm a poor college student and I often have next to nothing left of my paycheck after rent and electric bills, but I know how to go to Aldi, spend about twelve bucks and go away with more than I can carry, and get really good meals out of it. Most ingredients are not expensive, and many of those that are can be used sparingly or left out entirely. Anyone can cook! And I'm glad the French realize that.

Besides, anyone who's been to the Mediterranean can see that enjoying good home-cooked food doesn't make you fat...the Mallorquins were all rail thin, but my host parents overwhelmed me with food every night, and I didn't even have to endure their epic 2-hour 3-course lunches because I was in class. (Now, I DID gain a little weight in Mallorca, but I blame ensaimadas and chocolate a la taza for that!)

One thing, though -- if we follow this example in the US we have got to remember that Europe has something else we don't, which is public transit combined with a virtually big-box-free economy. Part of cooking dinner in Mallorca was walking to the market every day, getting your groceries, and walking back. You also walked from home to the metro (or bus stop), from the metro to work, work to the metro, the metro back home for lunch. Then back to the metro and back to work. And then back home for dinner. There's a lot more walking in everyday life. And I think trusting in public transit, plus trusting in our own two legs, could make all the difference for us...and our waistlines.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Gnocchi di patate

An Italian classic, these savory little potato dumplings are one of my all-time favorite things to eat. This is a perfect recipe for those long winter nights when you are feeling cold, hungry, and extra indulgent. I dare you to try not to eat way too many. Serve it with a nice crispy green salad so you don't feel TOO bad afterwards!

I first learned this recipe from Liz Clark, a chef from my home county, when I took one of her cooking classes in middle school. I've been making it and adapting it ever since.

Gnocchi di patate


2 medium or 3 small potatoes
1 or 2 eggs
1-2 cups all-purpose flour (you can also try cake flour for a lighter-textured dumpling)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg (more or less depending on personal tastes -- I love the stuff myself)
About 1 cup of shredded parmesan cheese (none of that stuff in the green can, as Lynne Rossetto Kasper would say)
Olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Start heating up some water in a medium-sized saucepan and bring it to a boil. Wash and peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks. Place them in the boiling water and cook until easily pierced with a fork. Drain and mash. Put them into a large mixing bowl and let them cool down until they're lukewarm.

Add the salt and nutmeg to the mashed potatoes and mix. Then add one egg and begin gradually adding the flour, mixing it with a fork. Add the other egg, then more flour. Keep adding flour until the dough is elastic but not too sticky. How much flour you'll need all depends on the size of the potatoes and the eggs, so you'll just have to eyeball it.

Begin bringing a saucepan of water to a simmer. While it's heating up, dust a work surface lightly with flour and begin rolling balls of dough into roughly 3/4 inch diameter "snakes" with your hands. Ideally this will be easy, but if your dough is a little crumbly, don't worry -- you got a little too much flour in it, but just be gentle when you're rolling it out and it will still taste delicious in the end. (In the event it's too crumbly to work with you can add a little milk.)

Cut the dough snakes into one inch long segments with a knife, then carefully pick up each dumpling with your fingers and very gently roll it across the back of a fork to create a ridged pattern. (An extra dusting of flour can help if it's too sticky.)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a casserole dish by greasing it with some olive oil. Then, once the water is simmering but not boiling, drop the dumplings in batches of eight or ten into the hot water. The nice thing about dumplings is they'll tell you when they're done cooking: remove them from the water with a slotted spoon when they float to the top, and put them in the casserole dish. Repeat until you've got as many in the dish as you want. (Extra dumplings can keep in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for several months.) Then drizzle the dumplings with the melted butter and top them with the shredded parmesan cheese. Bake in the oven, uncovered, until the cheese is golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes and serve.

Additional thoughts:

*If you're worried about all the fat I guess you could leave out the melted butter and use less cheese. It'll still be good...just not as good.

*If you don't have time to bake them, they are quite good just tossed in a bowl with olive oil and parmesan right after they come out of the water. The baking brings out an extremely delicious flavor in the parmesan and adds an appealing crunch.

*I made a recipe for Hungarian "Shlishkes" from Gil Marks' Olive Trees and Honey, and the process was almost identical, except paprika was added instead of nutmeg. I liked the flavor and color so much that now I always do both.