Sunday, April 27, 2008

Finally, a Taco

I love hypothetical food questions (“What packaged food do you secretly love but refuse to admit to in foodie company?” For me, it would be Pillsbury crescent rolls. Mmmm.) Yes, I realize that makes me a major league geek.

One my favorite hypothetical food questions is having to choose one national cuisine to eat or cook for the rest of my life. First off, I’d be really bummed to have to choose in reality because one of my favorite parts of eating is variety. Even after traveling in Italy for just a week, enjoying some of the most delicious food on the planet, I come home jonesing for Thai or sushi, something with a savory spice. But, say I did have to choose. That I was stranded on a desert island with only one restaurant on it. A restaurant that was programmed by aliens to only be able to produce food from one country. Or something like that.

The obvious choices are French and Italian, two of the most celebrated cuisines in the world. Both have a tremendous amount of regional variation, which would make my lifelong habit less of a chore. Choosing between those two would be difficult. Italian desserts are pretty sorry, but many French dishes lack the vibrancy of their Italian counterparts. On my island, in the end, Italian would have the edge. I’d just have to smuggle in some pastries.

But there is a dark-horse candidate in this hypothetical food question race – Mexican. Like French and Italian, Mexican food features vastly different cuisines in its regions. And, its culinary influences are legion, from the indigenous ingredients to Spanish flavors, French technique, and Dutch cheese. I know I’ve tasted only the tip of the Mexican culinary iceberg, but it is glorious – the intricate moles from Oaxaca, the fish tacos from Baja, chicken pibil from the Yucatan. I love the deep spice blends and fresh-tasting ingredients. I love how it can be complex or simple. Give me a creamy avocado, tangy lime, and herbaceous cilantro with a pinch of salt and I am in heaven.

For the last year I’ve been looking for a taco recipe that I could make my own, that would satisfy my deep taco urges, with flavors that I could tell didn’t come from an Old El Paso taco spice envelope. I have Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday, and I’ve made a few of its taco recipes. But none of them have ever hit the proverbial spot.

When I saw Mark Bittman’s column in the Times on Wednesday about eating tacos in the Yucatan I hoped, I prayed. Could this finally be the taco I’d been looking for? His article included recipes for tacos with poblano strips and potatoes, tacos with mushrooms, and tacos with cactus leaves. Since I prefer mushrooms in moderation and cactus leaves lack the rich flavor I’m looking for I gravitated immediately to the Taco Filling with Poblano Strips and Potatoes. Bittman helpfully suggests adding a half-pound of Mexican chorizo for a non-vegetarian option. Since I live with two serious carnivores I opted to add the meat.

This dish was not difficult or time-consuming. But it also was not easy or fast. It took me about an hour, and I was glad that I had roasted, steamed and peeled peppers in culinary school. Ultimately, it is a nicely challenging weekend meal that is completely worth the effort. The potato, chorizo, pepper filling was balanced and flavorful. Per Bittman, I toasted the tortillas in a skillet until they were blistered and crisp, but still pliant. A little salsa verde (store-bought) on top added the perfect acidic finish.

I will still try new taco recipes, but I can rest easy knowing that there is at least one winner in my repertoire. (You know, these things can keep me up at night.) As for what one food to eat on the desert island, I’m still thinking about that.

Friday, April 25, 2008

30 Minute Meals?

Since I have been thinking a lot about “fast” food recently, I was very interested in an article by Laura Shapiro published in Slate earlier in the week.

The Myth of the 30-Minute Meal focuses on Gordon Ramsay's new cookbook Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food (also referenced in my Fast, Easy, and Simple post below). For the first half of the article, Shapiro makes the ridiculously easy case that Ramsay's American publishers don't expect most people who buy the book to actually cook out of it. Now, that's frequently the case for restaurant-driven, haute cuisine cookbooks like Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook. But, what does it say about us as a cooking nation that we won’t even cook out of a book promising easy weeknight dinners? Do the publishers think that we moved past the point where even whipping together a 30-minute meal is too much?

Shapiro suggests that the publishers are probably on to something. For people who don’t know how to cook, she says, the “stopwatch cuisine” cookbooks are nearly as unrealistic as the books like Keller’s. If you don’t know how to cook, fresh, beautiful, healthy dishes like Ramsay’s are likely to be enjoyed only vicariously through the book’s full-color photos.

So what of it? Since I haven’t used this book, it’s hard to comment directly, but I think Shapiro’s point is very made. Learning to cook is the best shortcut, the easiest way to really prepare good food fast. If I didn’t know how to make a pan sauce off the top of my head about a third of our weeknight meals would be pretty darn bland. If I didn’t know how to roast vegetables or make a vinaigrette, and had to fumble around for recipes, stopping every few minutes to reference something, dinner would rarely be ready in under a half hour.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No raw meat or poultry

What we all like to cook and what we don’t like to cook is very personal. For me, the idea of meat from a can makes me feel ill. Heather doesn’t like to handle raw meat or poultry. So here’s a weeknight meal idea for you, Heather: Kung Pao Tofu from Eating Well magazine. I’ve made this a couple of times over the past few weeks. It’s fast, simple, and satisfying – a perfect weeknight meal. For me, the beauty of the recipe is that you can sub in any vegetable (or protein for that matter) that you like. Yesterday I used broccoli, carrots, and scallions. The week before it was broccoli and peppers. Once I made rice to accompany it; last night Thai noodles. The recipe requires only two pans, and yesterday it took me 32 minutes from start to table. Plus, tofu is healthy! And affordable! The only mildly tricky part might be finding the oyster sauce, but it was in the Asian section of my middle-of-the-road grocery store, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find. Let me know if you try it.

Oh, and Rosa loves the dish. There's nothing more heart-warming than hearing a two-year old demand, "More tofu! More tofu!"

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fast, Easy, and Simple

In culinary school I began thinking about the differences between fast or quick, easy, and simple. These adjectives seem especially prevalent right now in a raft of recent cookbooks including The Art of Simple Food (Alice Waters), Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food, Nigella Express: 130 Recipes for Good Food, Fast; Quick Fix Meals: 200 Simple, Delicious Recipes to Make Mealtime Easy (Robin Miller); and virtually everything in the Rachael Ray oeuvre, if we're allowed to use a French word to describe anything about Rachael.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, of course. I’m reading Richard Olney’s classic Simple French Food first published in 1974. But, I do feel that we’re near the crest of a wave in which fast food equals good food. “In today’s busy world” (as I’ve seen countless magazine articles begin) no one can be expected to dedicate significant time to feeding themselves or their families. We can talk more about that notion later on. For now, I'll stick with fast, easy, and simple.

Before I go on, let’s decide what these words really mean, courtesy of

Fast/Quick: done in comparatively little time
Easy: not hard or difficult; requiring no great labor or effort
Simple: not elaborate or artificial; not complicated

There is definitely a place for fast, or quick, food in my repertoire. When I get home at 7 PM, kiss Rosa, change clothes, chat with Anyah and make it into the kitchen I only have about 30 minutes to put a meal on the table. And, no question, that is not easy. It takes a conscious effort – some thinking and planning – to make good food fast. And for me the good part is pretty important. Each meal is an event to look forward to in my day, an opportunity to eat something satisfying. I am truly loathe to squander any of those chances, even if I only have a half an hour to cook. So, I am all for books and recipes that help busy people put worthwhile meals together. Nigella and Gordon are probably on to something.

The big question for me is the difference, if any, between “easy” food and “simple” food. I definitely prefer the latter adjective (which probably confirms my status as an Obama-loving elitist). “Easy” sounds like we’re slacking – like what we’re doing, cooking in this case, isn’t worth any effort, that we just want to get it over with and feed ourselves already regardless of the result. Like we’re opening cans and jars and taking shortcuts. “Simple” is a much more elegant adjective, conjuring up visions (at least for me) of warm breezes, green plants, and sunny tables laden with plates of beautiful, fresh food. In a nutshell, “simple” is Italian; “easy” is American. How would you rather eat?

So, simple food. How would I define it? First off, simple is not always fast. Simple to me is the foccacia bread from the Rebar cookbook Dave’s cousin Laetitia gave us. Six ingredients (including water), no equipment beyond a two bowls, a spoon, and measuring cups, and 15 minutes of prep time. From start to finish, including rising and baking, the bread requires about three hours. So it’s not fast, but it is simple, and utterly delicious: a golden, crackly crust slicked with tangy olive oil and a pillow-y, tender interior. Email me if you want the recipe.

Simple often means relatively few ingredients, although I would still consider a dish with a blend of five spices simple.

I think “simple” refers to technique and means just what the definition says, “not elaborate”. No fancy, multi-stepped, equipment-laden preparation – just a reasonable amount of prep time (not necessarily total cooking time) and straightforward technique, like roasting or sauteeing.

In the end, what I would argue is that the most satisfying fast meals are “simple”, as opposed to “easy”. This is what I strive for, even on busy weeknights. So the trick is to find fast, simple dishes! The holy grail. I will do my best to share some ideas.

This recipe for Spring Chicken & Blue Cheese Salad from Eating Well magazine is probably not a weeknight meal, unless you make the chicken in advance. But it was a lovely, simple weekend meal, light and flavorful. Note that the chicken took a good hour in my oven, even at a slightly higher temperature. I might roast it at 400 for 40 minutes, but of course it depends on how thick your chicken breasts are. The Creamy Blue Cheese-Tarragon Dressing was rich tasting but virtuous thanks to the yogurt. When I make it again I will cut the amount of honey in half. It was a little too sweet for my taste.